3-3.5 of 5 stars. Star Wars: The Perfect Weapon is a tale about Bazine Netal, a character who made an appearance in a quick scene in Maz's Castle from3-3.5 of 5 stars. Star Wars: The Perfect Weapon is a tale about Bazine Netal, a character who made an appearance in a quick scene in Maz's Castle from The Force Awakens. She was the creepy black-lipsticked female informant who we first saw sharing a couch with that huge Dowutin alien. This short story provides a bit of background for her, with a focus around one of her past missions. On the whole a fun and fast read, but in the end, probably one that you can take or leave. It's not vital to the overall scheme of things in any way, and if you replace the names and places it could probably even work just fine as a non-Star Wars-y story. Unless you like to speculate...in which case you can have a bit of fun with the last few lines of the book. ...more
This was my first book by Keri Arthur, and I was completely unprepared for how good it was. I don’t even know why I was caught so flat-footed! After all, I know friends who have been fans of the author’s for years and they all absolutely adore her work, which is what convinced me to give City of Light a try in the first place. I’ve been curious about her books for a long time, and this being the first book of a new series seemed like the perfect place to start, so I went in with pretty high expectations. It ended up exceeding all of them.
Of course, I was skeptical at first, especially right after I opened the book and was almost immediately overwhelmed by a huge solid wave of info-dumps. To be fair, I understood the reasons for this, especially after I finished the book. There’s a tremendous amount of world building and a lot of amazing wonders and mysteries to discover, but the fun can’t start until after we’ve all taken the crash course, so to speak. After the story gets moving though, things really heat up.
This series opener introduces us to Tiger, a genetically hybrid soldier known as a “déchet”—a word that translates to “waste product” and speaks volumes about their makers’ attitudes towards their creations. But all that happened more than a hundred years ago, during the war between this world and the one beyond the veil. Those alive now live a precarious existence in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with humans and shifters alike occupying highly-secured cities lit perpetually with artificial light meant to keep all the monsters like demons, wraiths and vampires out.
Tig is the last of her kind, after the shifters eradicated all déchet at the end of the war. She lives in the remnants of a military bunker filled with the ghosts of her people, whose energies she can sense and interact with. For the past century she has been in hiding, until one day she rescues a little girl on the outskirts of Central City and learns of a disturbing string of child abductions. Wraith-like beings are snatching kids in broad daylight—which should be impossible—and after what happened to her people, Tig has sworn never to stand by and let another child be harmed again.
I admit it’s a lot to take in, and I was initially confused given the staggering amount of information I had to process about Tig’s world. I almost thought City of Light might have been a spinoff from another series, and had to double-check to make sure this wasn’t the case. The world building is simply phenomenal, with a very robust and established feel, blending sci-fi futuristic elements with magic and other aspects from the fantasy genre. Even creatures like wraiths and vampires feel very different from the kind I usually read about in urban fantasy.
And for some reason, I went into City of Light expecting it to be a full-blown paranormal romance, probably since most of Keri Arthur’s other books have that tag. I was wrong, but I was also far from being disappointed. With Tig being a déchet created specifically for espionage and seduction, I admit was prepared for nothing but romance and sexual tension, but in the end the heavier emphasis was on the mystery of the abducted children rather than Tig’s relationships. On the whole, this book read more like a well-crafted UF with some PNR elements and a couple of smoking hot sex scenes thrown in, and it was a balance that struck the perfect note.
I also loved Tig as a protagonist. Her kind was created by humans to be a mix of animal, shifter, and vampire—the ultimate weapon. But after the war, the déchet were completely killed off, and even after all these years, Tig still remembers the day when the military bunker she was in was gassed with poisons. Everyone else inside was killed, including the young déchet in the nursery. Tig herself barely managed to survive thanks to her genetically modified DNA, but two of the children, Bear and Cat, died horribly in her arms. Today, their ghosts are her loyal companions, playfully following Tig wherever she goes, but the story of their tragic deaths haunted me and shattered my heart to pieces. It made me see why Tig is so protective of her little ones, and why she would go so far to help the kidnapped shifter children. I also gained a deeper appreciation for her strength and resolve, knowing the terrible things she witnessed back during the war. And finally, being able to connect with Tig made the ending more poignant, because it underscored the sacrifice behind Tig’s decision. Ultimately, nothing can ever come between her and her responsibility to those she has sworn to protect.
All told, City of Light is exciting and well-written, its story containing a remarkable mix of intrigue and action punctuated with sizzling melt-your-mind love scenes. The book’s main character is a sympathetic and lion-hearted (or rather should I say, tiger-hearted?) heroine you just can’t help but root for. Now I am waiting on pins and needles for the sequel to see what she’ll do next! I simply couldn’t have been more pleased at how this experience with my first Keri Arthur novel turned out. If I loved it, I have no doubt her fans will as well....more
2015 was a great year for YA fiction, with lots of new ideas and debut authors breaking onto the scene. When S. Harrison’s Infinity Lost popped up on my radar late in the fall, I thought it sounded like an interesting book to check out.
The story takes place in the near future, following the life of a girl named Infinity “Finn” Blackstone. Her father, CEO of Blackstone Technologies, is one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, but while his company’s world-changing services and products are nearly ubiquitous, Richard Blackstone himself remains a highly reclusive figure. Not even Finn has ever met him. Raised by her father’s staff, all she knows about the man is what others have told her and what she sees on the news.
Finn is seventeen when she and her classmates from boarding school are taken on a field trip to visit the Blackstone headquarters. Elated, Finn believes this could finally be her chance to meet her father and confront him with all her questions. Lately, she has been having strange dreams, even though a part of her knows they are more than that. The visions feel like memories, but how can that be when she cannot remember actually experiencing them herself? Finn is determined to find some answers, and she believes Richard Blackstone is the key.
Beyond that, I really can’t say more; suffice to say, the plot takes a surprising number of turns and ends up in a place I never saw coming, and if I give away anything else I would be hovering dangerously close to spoiler territory. What I can say is that Infinity Lost was a really quick read due to its relatively modest page count, which along with being jam-packed with action and tight storytelling made this one a really fast-pace and entertaining read. I also thoroughly enjoyed the future setting which featured some innovative tech, some of which were pretty farfetched but nonetheless very cool. The book also stood out to me because of its departure from certain YA norms, such as downplaying any romance (at least in this first book) though quite honestly, the plot moves along so quickly that there’s hardly any room for unnecessary drama.
That said, while a lot of things in Infinity Lost worked for me, there were a few issues that tripped me up as well. First, you should know that technically, the “real story” doesn’t start until late in the novel, because the first half contains almost nothing but random and sometimes confusing flashbacks. Finn has these dream-memories, and the time jumps can get very jarring and tiresome after a while. Second, I’m a bit disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of the wider world, though this is mainly due to the limitations of looking through Finn’s eyes in the first-person. She’s being kept in the dark, and so by extension, we are as well.
Third—though this is not a problem for me personally, I still figured I should mention it—reading this book was a little like watching a movie that starts off PG-13, but then ends with a full-blown R rating. The final chapters are a veritable bloodbath, with heads popping off, bodies being blown into red mist, etc. all brutally described in vivid and graphic detail. I’ve read a lot worse of course, but I was still shocked at the lack of warning; the beginning held absolutely no clue that this book would end in such over-the-top, indiscriminate violence. If that kind of content turns you off, I would approach this with caution.
But my biggest issue was the cliffhanger. In this day and age of seemingly nothing but YA trilogies and series, I grudgingly accept the need for them, but at the very least I think each book should still contain the resolution to its main conflict. I don’t like it when a book ends abruptly in the middle of a scene; it’s clumsy and awkward and I end up with more questions than answers, which is not a good feeling. Unfortunately, this was the case here. There were too many loose ends, and the book did not in any way feel complete.
Even in the face of all these issues though, I liked the book well enough that I would be open to continuing the series, if nothing else to find out what happens to Finn. Infinity Lost felt very much like a long intro, and I feel confident that the meat of the story will be in the sequel Infinity Rises, out January 5, 2016....more
Nature is scary. Books that remind us of this fact are always enlightening, and that’s what I loved about Invasive Species. When your story involves science and ecological elements—and especially when your focus is on nasty, icky bugs—even a novel in the Suspense/Thriller category can easily read like a Horror.
From the book’s description alone though, it was hard to tell what it would be about. All we know is that an unknown breed of predator has emerged, and humans are its favorite prey. This new enemy is faster, stronger, and far deadlier than anything we’ve seen before. Right away, my brain started working on constructing this hypothetical creature, and I couldn’t help it—films like Predator, Alien, and other movies featuring science fiction’s most terrifying killing machines immediately sprang to mind. After all, we’ve seen these types of plots so many times before; it’s difficult to imagine that a threat of this nature could be anything other than a malevolent, extraterrestrial monster.
Turns out, I was totally wrong. The “monsters” in Invasive Species turn out to be wasps. Sure, they may be wasps on steroids, having evolved to be become larger, smarter, and more poisonous than the norm. But still…just wasps. Does it make this book any less scary, though? Nope. Actually, it just made me feel even more creeped out and unsettled. If you’ve ever been stung by a wasp, you know what I’m talking about. Wasps are pure evil.
Certainly, if you’re an entomophobe, you’re going to have a really tough time with this book. While it’s a science fiction story that also gets a bit far-fetched here and there, the premise has just enough science in it to make you squirm. Our protagonist Trey Gilliard is a modern explorer of sorts, literally taking the road less traveled. His life’s work is all about heading into the least known regions of the planet. There are still areas on earth relatively untouched by humanity, and some of these are in the deep jungles of Africa. You don’t have to suspend reality too much to believe that a new species could evolve separate in such a place, unknown to the rest of the world. It’s here where Trey first encounters his first “thief”, a new kind of parasitoid wasp. The locals call them that because of the way they steal your mind, your body, and your life. They’re also referred to as “slavemakers” because of the way adult wasps can attach their stingers to hosts and take over their bodies.
The thieves are deadlier than regular wasps for many reasons, but first and foremost it is because they have developed an intricate hive mind, allowing them to communicate long distances and also to recognize and “remember” those who have done them harm. Primates are also their preferred host, including human beings. They breed by injecting their larvae into the abdomens of their unsuspecting prey, and neurotoxins in their venom also scramble and befuddle their victims’ minds, making them unaware that they are pregnant with a baby wasp until it is too late. That’s some messed up, creepy stuff.
The thieves are also great at survival. Deforestation and hunting practices have diminished their natural habitat and available hosts, but instead of dying out, they’ve become even more opportunistic, hitching rides on cars, boats, and planes in order to spread to the rest of the world. In the United States where it’s an election year, their presence eventually sparks a political storm.
Remember my review earlier this year of Bat out of Hell, a so-called “eco-thriller”? That one didn’t work out so well for me. And well, after reading Invasive Species, I realized this is how I wished that book had turned out! Invasive Species is a far better book because author Joseph Wallace did the right thing and focused on the disaster at multiple levels. He focused on the individual victims. He also focused on the threat of the thieves themselves. He emphasized the way these insect invaders fueled the fear and panic, ratcheting up the suspense to a fever pitch. The book is also a frightening reminder of just how fragile we are when science and technology fails us, and how quickly a civilization can come apart at the seams without the proper infrastructure and resources to maintain it.
I won’t spoil the ending, because you’ll just have to read this for yourself to see how the conflict resolves. However, I will say Invasive Species finishes on a bittersweet, melancholy note. After the roller coaster ride this story gave me, I thought it was ominously appropriate. For a book I knew next to nothing about when I first started it, I ended up really enjoying myself. Gripping, suspenseful, and delightfully chilling, this is a novel that will really get under your skin! A fine blend of drama and action for fans of sci-fi thrillers and horror. The follow-up titled Slavemakers is actually on the horizon, due out later this winter, and I’m looking forward to picking it up now more than ever....more
This has been an amazing year for YA fiction, and to be honest my bar has been raised so high I’m surprised anything can still blow me away at this late stage in 2015. Still, I knew I had a good feeling about Ryan Graudin’s Wolf by Wolf, an alternate history novel set in a world where the Axis powers rule the world. Enter the Resistance’s only hope, a teenage girl who needs to win a motorcycle race from Berlin to Tokyo in order to assassinate Hitler.
At the risk of sounding frivolous in light of the novel’s dark themes, I still remember the first time I heard about this book. For a few astonished minutes, I sat and stared at the publisher’s description thinking, Are you kidding me? This sounds like the most awesome premise ever.
It is 1956, eleven years after Yael first escaped from the Nazi death camp where she was subjected to horrific human experimentation. Side effects from those experiments left her with an uncanny ability to skinshift—with just one thought, she can take on the appearance of someone else. This has made her central to the Resistance’s plans. Yael’s mission: to win the Axis Tour, the annual intercontinental motorcycle race, by impersonating Adele Wolfe, the only female to have ever entered. As last year’s winner, Adele was granted an audience with the highly reclusive Adolf Hitler at the Victor’s Ball. But this year when she wins and dances with Hitler again, it will be Yael behind Adele’s face instead, ready with a blade to sink between his ribs.
That’s if everything goes as planned, of course. Yael has spent the last year training, learning how to race motorcycles, and studying all the footage and files on Adele Wolfe that the Resistance can get their hands on. But then the unexpected happens. Felix Wolfe, Adele’s twin brother, joins the race last minute, putting the whole plan at risk. Then there’s Luka, another past victor who is determined to win his second Axis Tour. Apparently, Luka and Adele had a romantic history, but it was in none of the files Yael studied and she knows nothing about the relationship. The race is hard enough with the cutthroat competition and more than twenty thousand kilometers of harsh road to the finish line, but now Yael will have to carry out her deception in the presence of the two people who knew Adele best. The odds are long, but Yael has to win—the world is depending on her success so that the Resistance can launch the next phase of their operation.
As intrigued as I was by the story, at first I had my doubts that Ryan Graudin could pull it off, since a good book is more than just a great premise. However, I needn’t have worried. The blurb pitches Wolf by Wolf as Code Name Verity meets Inglourious Basterds, but I’d say throw in a little bit of Survivor and The Amazing Race too. We get the gist of the plot in the first fifty pages, but the rest of the book—the race itself—is the masterpiece, checkpoint after checkpoint of dangerous adventure and exciting alliances and rivalries. I’m so impressed with how much action is packed into what could have been pages of tedium over the course of this long journey, but the story turned out to be as twisty as the road to Tokyo, full of unexpected surprises and memorable experiences.
This book would have been a quick read had real life not gotten so busy lately, and believe you me I had a difficult time putting it down when all I wanted to do was to curl up with it for a few undisturbed hours, learning all of Yael’s secrets. She’s such a complex character, having survived so much horror. Flashbacks from her past are woven into the narrative of the race, revealing how she and her mother were sent to the concentration camp, how Yael eventually escaped, and how she ended up with the Resistance. We learn how Yael was shaped by the important people in her life. After all the years and all the identities, Yael has forgotten her real face, but she will never forget her loved ones and how their lives made a difference in hers.
Also, while we don’t get to see much of the real Adele Wolfe, the girl Yael is tasked to impersonate is an intriguing question mark in her own way. There are many gaps in Yael’s knowledge about the other girl, a fact made painfully obvious whenever Felix or Luka bring up past events that she has no knowledge of. We’re piecing things together along with Yael, trying to pick out clues from snatches of conversation. Wolf by Wolf is full of action, but it’s also one giant intriguing puzzle, and I loved how the adventurous and suspenseful elements came together.
I was really surprised to discover halfway through reading Wolf by Wolf that there will be a sequel (which clued me in to a not-so-tidy ending) but after finishing the book you can bet I’ll be reading the next one too. Ryan Graudin created something phenomenally unique and amazing here; so many things could have worked out poorly but the end result turned out to be almost flawless. I can’t wait to see what other surprises the author has in store....more
And to think, I almost gave this one a pass when I was compiling a list of books I wanted to read from the new Star Wars canon. What a mistake that would have been. Yes, this is categorized as Young Adult, but to be sure, this is not the kind of Star Wars YA from the old EU when the stories tended to lean more towards middle-grade audiences and few children’s series stood out strongly enough to make an impression. Lost Stars, in a word, was awesome. I have been reading Star Was novels for years and have read many of them during that time, but this has got to be one of the best I’ve ever read.
The book tells the tale of two childhood friends who became lovers before ending up on opposite sides of the galactic war. Ciena and Thane grew up on the same planet just after annexation by the Imperials, but one was born in the more rural valley while the other came from an affluent second-waver family. However, the two met and bonded over a shared love for piloting and a dream to one day fly for the Empire. They entered the Imperial academy together, excited to be with each other as they made that dream come true. But as the war waged on, their fates diverged as one grew disillusioned with the Empire and joined the Rebel Alliance, while the other remained in Imperial service and rose through its ranks to become a high-ranking officer.
The beauty of this book is in its simplicity. At the heart of it is a love story, so you might not enjoy it as much if YA Romance isn’t your cup of tea. At the same time though, it is surprisingly free of the tropes that usually clog up this genre, and I didn’t feel as if the plot was made more complicated by any needless drama. Instead, all the good stuff comes through, themes like: honor versus duty, love and grief, opportunities lost and things left unsaid. Ciena and Thane are the loves of each other’s lives, but they were raised in very different homes, with very different values. Because of that, there will always be a part in each of them that can and never will be reconciled.
And you know what else is great? How deeply and intimately Lost Stars is tied to the original trilogy. You get to relive the major events of each movie from a whole different perspective. No doubt about it, while reading this book I felt like I was 100% in the Star Wars universe. And yet, the story also retains its own uniqueness. You ever think to yourself, surely, the Empire can’t be one homogenous body working in unison towards the same goal? Of course there had to be different factions, as well as good people in the Imperial forces who couldn’t stand by and do nothing while their side committed all sorts of atrocities. This book does a really good job showing this, and in a way it humanizes the Empire by portraying the protagonists as average everyday people.
Like anyone, both Ciena and Thane have close family and friends. They each have their own personal hopes and dreams. They experience desire and longing. My heart ached for the two of them and I wanted so badly for things to work out for them in the end. Move over Anakin and Padme and Episode II, because this is romance done right. Heck, this is “Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens” done right.
“Look through my eyes…look through my eyes.” *Happy sigh*...more
While I enjoy time travel books as much as the next reader, I still recall my doubts when I was first pitched this book: What if I don’t know that much about World War I? How much history do I need to know in order to follow the plot? Will I still be able to enjoy this story?
Looking back at those questions now, I have to laugh. Really, I needn’t have worried about a thing. Even though history is at the center of this plot and WWI is the inciting incident that sparks the fuse, Time and Time Again turned out to be about so much more. With shades of Stephen King’s 11/22/63, this novel is a suspenseful and heartfelt adventure through time and alternate realities. In truth, it focuses more on the repercussions of changing history and what it means for the main character—as well as for the whole world and the generations after him.
In a not too distant future from now, Hugh Stanton is an ex-soldier and a washed up celebrity who has lost everything. The army wants nothing to do with him, and his once popular survival webcast had to be shut down after ratings fell. His wife and children are dead, killed in a hit-and-run accident in which they never found the culprits. With nothing left to lose, he agrees to take on an insane mission from a group of Cambridge scholars who call themselves the Order of Chronos.
If you had one chance to change history and make the world right, when and where would you go and what would you do? This was the question posed to Stanton by his old history professor Sally McClusky, the Master of Trinity College herself. For all of them, the answer was simple—June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo, to prevent the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand thus removing the catalyst for World War I.
The reasoning behind their choice is both surprising and not surprising, but you’ll have to read this book for yourself to find out why. Suffice to say though, it made for a good premise. It’s no wonder that there are all sorts of “What If?” speculations surrounding this date, considering the string of extraordinary coincidences that led directly to the Archduke’s death (if you haven’t heard the story about the sandwich that changed the world, definitely look that one up!) If just one thing had changed that day, could the Great War have been averted? And how might the world look like afterwards?
And here, Ben Elton had my full attention. As I said before, I enjoy stories about time travel, and my favorite books are always those that make me see things in a whole new light. Time and Time Again definitely deserves a place in this category. I love time travel theories that pull together history and science fiction, and Elton achieves this in style, postulating that Sir Isaac Newton had found a way to travel back in time and even tied this event to the great mathematician’s nervous breakdown during the period of 1692-1693. However, the best thing about this book is all the twists and turns, especially when it comes to a couple of big revelations near the end. Obviously I can’t go into them in any detail, but what I can say is that with so many poignant and unforgettable moments, Time and Time Again is one truly special book.
Ben Elton also knows how to keep a reader’s attention. I went into this book thinking it would be similar to a historical drama, but I was surprised to find an exciting mix of mystery, suspense, and even some romance and light humor. This isn’t a story that relies on a single element or one aspect of its premise to make its point, and again, this was what made me think of King’s 11/22/63. If you enjoy multi-faceted time travel stories, Time and Time Again is worth checking out—even if you aren’t particularly well-versed in the history of World War I. I myself have never been too interested in the topic, yet I found myself unable to resist the author’s vivid descriptions of early 20th century Europe, and it was doubly interesting to experience this world through the eyes of a character as fascinating as Hugh Stanton.
But above all, I loved how this book made me think. Going back to the original question Sally McClusky posed to Hugh Stanton: If you could make one change in history to make the world better, what would it be? Perhaps our protagonist should have answered the question with another one: Would you even want to? Not that the idea itself isn’t tempting, but who makes history anyway? Can a single person really make a difference, or are we all just like particles in Brownian motion, creating history with each and every random collision? Maybe it’s naïve to believe we can change the future by altering the past, deciding who lives and who dies. Maybe it is hubris and lack of understanding that ultimately causes Stanton to make all his mistakes, leading him to his own little quandary.
In case it’s not obvious by now, I had a great time with this book. This is the first time I’ve ever read Ben Elton, and I’m very impressed with his extensive knowledge of the time period as well as the brilliant way he structured and paced this story. I thought I’d seen it all when it comes to time travel plots, and never have I been so glad to be proven wrong. Time and Time Again swept me up in its richness and intrigue, taking me to places I never expected. I know this one is going to stay with me for a long time. Definitely one of the most captivating time travel novels I’ve ever read....more
Today, legions of Whovians are welcoming the Doctor back for another new season of BBC’s science fiction television program Doctor Who. And then there’s yours truly, probably one of the last three people on this earth who hasn’t watched the show yet. I won’t even be able to speak on the matter of how well the books capture the spirit of the series, because I just don’t know. As such, you might be wondering why I’m reading them. To that, I point you to my love of science fiction and fondness for media tie-ins of all kinds.
This is a category of fiction that has come a long way. Media tie-ins and novelizations of movies or television shows have long gotten a bad rap for hardly ever being able to live up to the original source material, but in the last few years I have noticed a definite rise in the quality of stories and writing in this area. Tie-ins aren’t strictly for hardcore fans anymore; many of the books now can stand on their own with lots to offer in terms of plot and characters, providing general audiences with a good reading experience or the perfect jumping-on point for those curious about a media property – folks just like me. I’m definitely interested in the Doctor Who series; a lot of my friends adore this show and I want to find out more. And of course I would never say no to checking out a book.
After much internal deliberation and conflict, I decided to start with Doctor Who: Royal Blood, a story about a falling kingdom, invading armies, and let’s face it, any mention of a “Grail Quest” and you can pretty much guarantee I’m on board. This book begins with the Twelfth Doctor and Clara arriving on an unnamed planet, where they are quickly ushered into the city-state of Varuz to meet its Duke Aurelian and his wife, Lady Guena. All is not well in their kingdom. Their palace is crumbling, the nobles have wondrous electric gadgets but they barely have the power or knowledge (“What, shoot death rays? I shouldn’t think so!”) to work them, and a rival Duke on the other side of the mountains is even now preparing to launch an attack.
Taking him for a holy man, Aurelian asks The Doctor for his blessing in the coming war and refuses to surrender. Meanwhile, everyone else wants to avoid conflict, seizing upon an opportunity to negotiate with the mysterious stranger who shows up at the castle, presumably the ambassador of Conrad, the rival Duke. Aurelian does not take this well when he finds out, throwing poor Clara and the ambassador out of his city which leaves the Doctor behind to hold the fort, so to speak, along with Guena and Bernhardt, Varuz’s most trusted knight. But even that may not be enough though, when a company of thirty warriors shows up, led by a captain claiming to be the great Sir Lancelot. He also claims that he is from Ravenna, and on behalf of his King Arthur, they are on a mission to seek out the most holy of treasures.
For such a slim volume – presumably to appeal to all Doctor Who fans, young and old – I was actually very impressed with the richness of the writing and story. A quick look at Una McCormack’s author page shows that she’s written many other Doctor Who books as well as a few Star Trek titles. She’s clearly no stranger to writing a good tie-in and it shows in her smart pacing of the plot. The story’s construction is solid, has great flow, and is easy to read. I had a moment of confusion early on when I encountered a point-of-view change, where the narrative inexplicably switched from being first-person to third-person (told in Bernhardt and then Clara’s POV, respectively) and it continues on in this fashion for the rest of the novel. It’s a very bizarre decision, one that I wasn’t sure about initially, but it ended up working surprisingly well. It’s worth noting too that even though the Doctor is the series and book’s titular character, his role in this feels more like a supporting character rather than the main protagonist. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but it’s also quite intriguing.
On that note, while we are speaking of bucking expectations I most certainly also found Royal Blood to go against the trend of tie-in books being poorly cobbled together or coming across very “bare-bones.” This book reads like a sci-fi adventure for young adults, with an ambitious plot written into a small package, but is no less enjoyable because of it. I had my doubts before picking it up but I actually ended up liking it a lot. If it was fun for me, I imagine it would be even better for fans of the show, though going in blind likely benefited in some ways as well, since I had no preconceived notions of how a Doctor Who novel should “feel” like. Still, based on the things I’ve heard, I imagine the tone of style of it to be similar to an episode of the show – fast-paced and adventurous, with a good dose of humor.
In the end, it was probably a good thing that I started with Royal Blood. Released on the same day along with Deep Time by Trevor Baxendale and Big Bang Generation by Gary Russel, it seems Royal Blood is the introductory volume of the three books that make up a series called The Glamour Chronicles, following the Doctor on his adventures across time and space in search for The Glamour, “the most desirable—and dangerous—artifact in the universe.” Whovian or not, the trilogy could be worth a look if that sounds interesting to you. This was my first Doctor Who novel but it most likely won’t be my last, especially if the other two books in the series prove just as easy–and fun–to get into.
When Tor.com first announced their line-up of novellas for 2015, Binti was probably one of the top three I was most excited about. Now I have to wonder if I went overboard and hyped myself up too much, because it turned out that I did not fall in love with this book like I had hoped I would. Now don’t get me wrong, because I enjoyed Binti. It’s a sweet little novella that captivated me and left me wanting more. Still, why it left me wanting more is the key matter I want to discuss in my review.
At its heart, Binti is a very human story about self-discovery and self-acceptance. It follows the eponymous protagonist, a young woman who is leaving home for the very first time. Her people the Himba are a very private society with a deep respect for tradition and culture, preferring to keep to themselves. Binti, however, has bigger plans. She applies for Oomza University and is accepted, becoming the first ever Himba to be offered a place at the school. Binti’s family and friends laughed at her, ridiculed her, cried and begged her not to go, but Binti would not be dissuaded. She secretly books passage for a space flight that would take her to the university, where she would embark on a journey to higher learning.
On the way, however, her ship is attacked by members of an alien race called the Meduse. The Meduse hate humans, and they also hate the University for committing a grave crime against their chief. Binti is forced to watch in horror as all the new friends she made are ruthlessly slaughtered. Somehow, Binti herself manages to escape the massacre. She doesn’t know why she was spared, though she suspects the answer to that question and her only chance to survive might be found within her. She must stay alive until help can be reached, and to do that, she will have to open herself to an unlikely ally.
As a protagonist, Binti is delightfully complex, being a heroine who straddles two worlds. Unlike the other members of her family, Binti has the desire to travel beyond the stars, and the moment she found out about Oomza University, it became her dream to one day study there. That said, she also has deep ties to the Himba, adhering to their many customs, like using the clay of her land on her skin and hair as part of a cleansing ritual, or following in her father’s footsteps to study and develop technology. Leaving home is never easy, and I admired Binti’s courage to face down the new and the unknown, even when she is met with ignorance from other travelers who have never encountered a Himba before and treat her differently—at best, like an oddity; at worst, like a savage.
What’s interesting is that Binti’s own experience with the Meduse teaches her something about the way people view the world, revealing how one can become prejudiced when faced with prejudice against themselves. The theme of the story is about acceptance, of embracing your own identity and being proud of who you are, but also learning to respect others and sympathize with different points of view.
If that sounds like a very straightforward message, that’s because it is. It’s a beautiful message, one I really liked, but at times I felt it was presented a bit too cleanly. And while I have nothing but good things to say about the world building and the establishment of the premise, when it came to the narrative itself, I felt the plot lacked substance. It’s fine, perhaps, if you view this as Binti’s personal journey. But as much as I enjoy a story with a message, I also prefer it when the latter is balanced with the former to make the experience more meaningful and convincing. I was fully engaged for most of this book, but felt the resolution was too rushed and roughly sketched, like the story just couldn’t wait to make its point.
Like I said, I wanted more—mainly more meat on the bones of this story, and to a lesser extent, more emphasis given to Binti’s own skills and intelligence, because I also felt the ending was weak due to the heavy reliance on factors outside the protagonist’s sphere of control. Still, all in all I am glad I read this novella. It was a thought-provoking tale, and I’m blown away by Nnedi Okorafor’s talent for world building. I think it’s high time I picked up one of her novels because I think a fuller story would work better for me....more
Disappointingly, A Borrowed Man turned out to be less than I expected. I was initially drawn to the book because of the vague hints at a futuristic dystopian setting, but it was undoubtedly the description of the protagonist that sealed the deal. E.A. Smithe is a clone, created for the sole purpose of being an educational resource and made available on loan to all patrons of the public library where he sits displayed from a third-tier shelf. It’s an interesting premise, and paired with a mystery plot, this book should have scored a hit with me. However, having great ideas for a story is one thing, but I suppose carrying them out is another.
First though, a bit more about Smithe. As a library “reclone”, our protagonist is seen as more of a tool than a human being, just a piece of property with no legal rights. When you think about libraries today, they are vast storehouses of knowledge where literary works are preserved for eternity, and anyone with a library card can borrow the great works of authors long since dead. However, in Smithe’s world, they’ve gone even further than that. Actual authors and artists from the recent past have been cloned, their brains filled with information from the last saved scans of the original individuals before their deaths. So now not only can you borrow books and other media from the library, you can even choose to borrow their creators, whether you want to take them off the shelf for a consultation or lead them to the checkout counter to bring them home.
The real E.A. Smithe, the man who the main character was cloned from, was a pretty well-known mystery writer in his day. At the beginning of this story, a wealthy woman named Colette Coldbrook borrows his reclone, hoping to find out more about a book he wrote called “Murder on Mars”, a physical copy of which was in the possession Collette’s late father. Collette is convinced that the book contains important secrets and may be the key to the mystery of her murdered brother.
I have to say, despite my issues with A Borrowed Man, the ideas in it are fascinating. Smithe lives in an outwardly perfect world where civilization has been replaced by another system entirely, and most of humanity’s problems have been eradicated with the population down to a sustainable billion or so. However, dig deeper and you’ll discover that those problems aren’t really gone—just carefully hidden or swept aside like they don’t exist. Then there’s the situation with reclones. As library property, we’ve already established that Smithe isn’t considered a real person, but it gets even darker and more disturbing than that. Like other library resources that get too old or outdated, reclones are disposed of when they demand for them dwindles or when they aren’t borrowed anymore. Those who outlive their usefulness are drugged and then thrown unceremoniously into an incinerator.
But ideas only got this story so far. The plot started well enough before going downhill very early on; the narrative had me but then it lost me, which is perhaps the most frustrating feeling of all when a great mystery doesn’t meet its potential. I didn’t feel that the story was well developed, with frequent derailments by trivial matters that added nothing to the mystery. These overcomplicated devices only made things feel more tedious, along with a protagonist who was uninspiring, irritating, and repetitive. I wasn’t entirely ambivalent about the ending and how things would play out, but neither did I feel all that invested in solving the mystery.
Audiobook comments: I’ve enjoyed many audiobook narrated by Kevin T. Collins in the past, and I think he’s great. However, I felt he was the completely wrong choice to read this book. Collins is amazing in high-energy roles, which is the exact opposite of how I would describe the protagonist E.A. Smithe, who came across as fussy and somewhat prim and old-fashioned compared to those around him (which actually makes sense since his memories and mannerisms belonged to a man from an earlier time). I also pictured Smithe to be older man. Collins’ voice sounds much younger, marking him well suited for the Young Adult audiobooks I’ve listened to that were performed by him, but for A Borrowed Man, perhaps not so much.
Overall, I didn’t feel this novel lived up to its potential. As a noir mystery, the story fell short, but I did find a lot of the sci-fi aspects interesting and wished they had been better developed....more
A month and a half has gone by since I read and reviewed The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata, and I have to admit I’m still reeling from the ending. Everything in that story from its climax onwards was nothing short of an insanely red hot face-melting explosion of whiplash-inducing action and frenzy. That’s the kind of experience that stays with you for a long time, but nonetheless I felt more than ready to take on its sequel.
Our protagonist Lieutenant James Shelley is back in the battle for justice, but first he and his soldiers must answer for their own actions taken in the unauthorized mission known as First Light. As the country struggles to rebuild its infrastructure and communications systems in the wake of an all-out nuclear terrorist attack, everyone in the team known as the Apocalypse Squad find themselves facing court-martials.
Meanwhile, out in the cloud still lurks the rogue AI program known as “The Red”. Given time, it can get anywhere and access anything linked to the network, including the neural implants in soldiers’ brains – soldiers like Shelley, who has long questioned the motives of the Red. It has already hacked into his head and lead him here; what more does it have planned for him and his team?
When I first learned of the title for this book, I thought it would be referring to the story and the characters’ experiences in a more symbolic sense. Turns out, it was quite literal as well. There are a couple courtroom trials in the spotlight here, and we begin with Apocalypse Squad’s. The public is torn on the actions Shelley and his team took at the end of the first book, and there’s a period of suspense where we are left wondering whether they’ll find the support they need from the government or be thrown under the bus. If you enjoy tense courtroom dramas, you will also enjoy this intro.
Because this is a spoiler-free review, I won’t be revealing what happens. Still, if you’ve read the first book or even my review of First Light, you’ve probably already guessed that the men and women of Apocalypse Squad remain fiercely loyal to Shelley and to each other. This is a series where there’s never a shortage when it comes to the examples of camaraderie between soldiers and kinds of lives they lead. In both this novel and its predecessor, I find there are lots of powerful themes imbedded in the story. Like, what it might mean for a soldier who sees the army as his or her family, support system, and their whole life. What might happen if they suddenly lose contact with that world. It also briefly explores the subject of PTSD, how soldiers with it deal with what they’ve seen while serving in the line of duty, and why some find it difficult to adjust to life after the military.
Compared to the first book though, the plot of this one felt a little more scattered and choppy. I know I said that I felt prepared to tackle the sequel, but now I have to wonder: Was I? The ending of the First Light really blew me away. It was hard to fathom anything else that could surpass it or even match it. I was right, in a way; the ending of The Trials was pretty intense, but it didn’t quite beat the first installment when it came to shock factor and emotional impact.
Another thing that I didn’t notice in First Light but bothered me here was the main character. It’s no secret that Shelley is impulsive and likes to be in charge (it’s emphasized multiple times in this book, mentioned by other characters and even admitted by the protagonist) but in portraying him in this light, I think the author may have done her job a little too well. So many times, I found myself fed up with Shelley and his attitude. He was insufferable when he was getting in Jaynie Vasquez’s face, while she was his commanding officer, even as he acknowledged that he was not in the best position to lead. I also didn’t like the fact he became romantically involved with Delphi so quickly, despite what she meant to him. I realize Shelley’s skullnet can dampen painful emotions and stabilize them to an extent – but I still hadn’t gotten over what happened at the end of the first book, and seeing Shelley blithely moving on made me like him a bit less. This is something that goes beyond simple urges and impulses.
Audiobook comments: The feelings I had about the audiobook version of First Light applies here too. Kevin T. Collins is a good narrator, very enthusiastic and full of energy which is important for a fast-paced, highly charged series like The Red. There were a couple slips where he uses the wrong voice for a character who is speaking, but overall his performance was very satisfactory.
Final thoughts: The Trials was a great sequel, but doesn’t supplant First Light as my favorite book of the series so far – certainly not for the lack of trying though! I’m looking forward to the third book, Going Dark, which will be out later this fall. I’ll most likely listen to the audiobook too, because I’ve been really enjoying these books in this format. Sure gets the blood pumping....more
Burning Midnight is Will McIntosh’s first Young Adult novel, and even though it didn’t hit me emotionally as hard as his adult books Defenders or Love Minus Eighty (which is one of my favorite books ever!) I nonetheless found it incredibly entertaining and addictive. It even disrupted my nightly ritual of reading to calm my mind before bed, because all this book did was make me even more wide awake with my blood pumped up and heart pounding.
I also loved the unique concept behind Midnight Burning. Imagine going to sleep one day and waking up the next to find that everything has changed, thanks to the sudden appearance of strange, colorful marble-sized spheres all over the world. You can find them anywhere there is human activity, but they are always hidden well–inside storm drains, fountains, crawlspaces, discarded bottles, etc. And when you put a matched set of the same color to your temples (in a process called “burning” the spheres) they can permanently enhance your features and abilities. Burning a pair of Chocolate browns can make you stronger, for example, and Cranberries can make you better looking. Aquamarines will grant you quick healing, Vermillions allow you to sleep less (that’s one I could TOTALLY use), and Ruby reds give you perfect teeth…basically, there are dozens upon dozens of sphere colors and their effects.
Of course, some colors are rarer than others, and there’s a lot more demand for the desirable traits. As a result, a whole industry has sprung up around the spheres. Some businessmen made a fortune dealing in spheres, like the shady industry mogul Alex Holliday, but also on the other side of the spectrum are those like our protagonist David “Sully” Sullivan, a high school student who buys and sells them out of a modest little stall at the local flea market on weekends. Desperate for money after his mom loses his job, Sully decides to join forces with Hunter, a girl with a natural talent for finding spheres. Together, they hope to strike it rich soon with one big find, and then one day, they get lucky—really lucky. Sully and Hunter find a Gold, a color that no one has ever seen before, so it’s a mystery what a pair of them will even do. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s possibly the rarest sphere in the world, and when Holliday catches wind of it, Sully knows the evil billionaire will do anything in his power to possess it.
In the acknowledgements, I found out Burning Midnight was actually expanded from a short story by Will McIntosh called “Midnight Blue”, and it would be really interesting to see how that might have influenced the structure of the plot, since I noticed a distinct shift between the first half of the novel and its second half. The pivotal point, of course, was when Sully and Hunter find the Gold—which happens almost exactly halfway through the book. Before this, the story was definitely slower, focusing more on the world building and developing the characters and their relationships. On the other hand, the second half was where all the action was! In truth, this turned out really well, with the more gradual pacing in the beginning acting as a nice long fuse to work up to the explosive ending. I was practically burning with anticipation (sorry, pun unavoidable) to find out the mystery behind the spheres and how everything would play out.
I have to say, the answers were surprising. I won’t spoil the end, but it’s safe to say I didn’t see the twist coming at all. Throughout the entire book is this disconcerting feeling that the spheres are too good to be true, and McIntosh even encourages the suspicion by including a character who wisely suggests that there’s “no free lunch”. Things in the book did wrap up a little too quickly and neatly for my tastes, but my mind is still blown by the revelations which I can only describe as pretty unexpected and far out there.
Ultimately, it was really refreshing to get away from magic and dive into something strange, weird and mysterious like the spheres. One has to wonder if the story was in any way inspired by collectible card games or other hobbies that involve hunting for rare items (assigning a value to spheres based on its rarity, listing/buying spheres on eBay, hitting up sphere dealers for the best price to complete a set, etc.…all these activities inevitably reminded me of my days of scouring hobby store displays to find those rare cards I needed to build my Magic deck.) Whichever way you look at it though, the story was tons of fun and the originality alone makes this book worth checking out.
Overall, Midnight Burning was a very quick and enjoyable read, with one of the coolest concepts I’ve ever seen. I devoured it in about two sittings, after I finally gave up on trying to go to sleep and admitted to myself I’d so much rather be reading this book. Will McIntosh is one of my favorite authors and I’ll read any book he writes, and I am thrilled that he made such a great debut into YA fiction....more
Cyberpunk and I don’t always make the best bedfellows, but when I read the description to Crashing Heaven I just knew I had to check it out. Published in the UK, I’d initially decided to either get it shipped from overseas or wait patiently to see if it’ll eventually get a release date this side of the Atlantic. To my happy surprise though, I later discovered on the publisher website that it was actually available in the US in audio format. I very excitedly requested a review copy.
What I got was exactly what the description promised, a novel that hits relentlessly hard, fast and without mercy. I could sense the influence of William Gibson and classic cyberpunk in its bleak narrative about a future of an abandoned Earth, AI wars, and people living in augmented reality. After spending years in prison, protagonist Jack Forster is a soldier who returns home with two things: a reputation as a traitor for surrendering to the Totality, and a virtual puppet named Hugo Fist tethered to his mind. Designed as a weapon to fight the enemy, Fist is a combat-AI which would eventually expire and take Jack’s personality and effectively his life with it.
All Jack wants to do is to clear his name, but upon his return to Station, he discovers that while he was away, two of his old friends have met with suspicious deaths. One of them is a former lover, spurring Jack to get to the bottom of this mystery and find those responsible before his time runs out.
The story can be a bit confusing, though to be fair, I have a history of being frustrated with cyberpunk. While Crashing Heaven may be a much easier read than a lot of other books in the genre, I still found many of its ideas abstract and hard to follow, such as trying to imagine Fist as a puppet that mostly exists inside Jack’s head but which can also be “pulled” out to manifest in a form similar to that of a ventriloquist dummy. The writing is also rough in places and not always sufficient when it comes to giving descriptions, which added to my difficulty.
However, I was also impressed by a lot of ideas in this book. Using Fist as an example again, it’s hard to reconcile the fact that such an innocuous-looking puppet can also be such a deadly weapon, with one hell of a potty-mouth on him to boot. The world is a rich tableau of both wonder and bleakness, where myth mixes with virtual reality. Mysterious entities worshipped as gods walk among the populace and grant favor to the faithful. The dead can return in “Fetches”, bodies housing the memories of the departed so that the living can spend more time with those who have passed on. Almost every aspect of the world-building is multi-faceted and gave me a lot to think about.
Still, probably my favorite part about the book is the relationship between Jack and Fist, the complex dynamic between them and the way it evolves as the story progresses. Forever linked together, the nature of their interactions range from the humorous to the grotesque. You can never predict what Fist might say or do next, which might be exasperating for Jack but it works great for a reader watching these exchanges play out. They inject a fait bit of lightness to this otherwise gritty and despairing story.
Narrator Thomas Judd can also be credited for making the Jack-and-Fist alliance the highlight of this audiobook. His performance was overall decent but nothing too remarkable – except for one thing: his Fist voice. It was perfect. It also helped a lot, considering how much of the book is made up of Jack and Fist going back and forth in conversation.
Apart from a few flaws, Crashing Heaven was a good book. The writing may be awkward at times and the plot is convoluted in places, but the entertainment value in the story makes up for that. Furthermore, dedicated fans of cyberpunk will probably like this even more than I did, so if you love the genre, definitely consider checking out Al Robertson’s unique debut....more
From Star Wars: X-Wing to Star Wars: The Old Republic, high-profile Star Wars video games have been inspiring their own novel tie-ins for many years. In the spring of 2015, gamers and readers everywhere were delighted to learn that the highly anticipated Star Wars Battlefront will be getting the same treatment.
This book, titled Battlefront: Twilight Company, tells the story of the eponymous Rebel Alliance army unit also known as the Sixty-First Mobile Infantry. Recruited from all over the galaxy, the men and women of this ragtag outfit have very little in common, save for one thing – a fervent desire to fight the Empire. In the wake of the Alliance’s first major victory at the Battle of Yavin, the rebels are pressing their advantage, making the push into Imperial territory. However, the enemy has increased its presence on the Mid Rim worlds, ready to stamp out even the tiniest spark of resistance before it can spread, and Twilight Company has little choice but to fall back.
The central character of this novel is Sergeant Hazram Namir. While other units have perished, Twilight Company has always survived by rallying around their charismatic commander Captain Micha “Howl” Evon, whom Namir dislikes but grudgingly respects. However, after the capture of Imperial governor Everi Chalis, Namir seriously begins to doubt Howl’s decision to offer the prisoner protection in return for what she knows about the Empire’s tactics. Namir does not trust the former governor, and worse yet, her capture seems to have drawn some unwanted attention from some of the Emperor’s closest agents, including quite possibly Darth Vader himself.
In many ways, Battlefront: Twilight Company is in keeping with the tone and style of several other recent book releases in the new Star Wars canon. We’re moving away from the big players and main events of the universe to delve deeper into both sides of the Galactic Civil War. This book can be considered a “boots on the ground” look at life as a soldier in the Rebel Alliance, with Twilight Company illustrating the examples of the types of men and women who join the rebellion. It also shows the Alliance in stark contrast to the rigidly hierarchical and highly ordered Empire. Still, there is a method to the madness; many scenes show how the rebel army solves its problems in irregular albeit very effective ways.
In Sergeant Namir, we have the familiar stereotype of the jaded, hardened soldier. Unlike a lot of stories featuring this kind of character though, Namir never really changes his views or experiences any big epiphany, not even by the end of the book. But even if he fails to endear himself to the reader, it’s still a refreshing change to see a rebel fighter in a Star Wars novel who isn’t a hundred percent dedicated to the cause. For Namir, every war is the same. All he wants to do is survive and protect Twilight Company, which is why unlike a lot of his comrades, Namir does not blindly accept orders from Howl or his other superior officers if he feels they are threat to his people. There’s something to admire about that.
That said, there are other aspects of the book which I felt were weaker. Many of the battle scenes felt overly drawn out or contrived, probably a hat tip to the Star Wars Battlefront game more than anything. On the one hand, exceptionally detailed descriptions of the fighting gave a very good sense of what was going on. But often, these action scenes also lacked a certain spirit or cogency. As a result, I constantly found myself thinking, “This is something I’d much rather be playing than reading.”
Then, there’s the structure of the narrative. We jump around in time quite a bit, with frequent flashbacks to Namir’s earlier life. There are also the handful of chapters scattered throughout the book following the perspectives of characters other than Namir or the soldiers of Twilight Company. These characters, including the story’s main villain, don’t really get the chance to become fully developed. I hate to say it, but in many respects, they feel very much like video game characters, NPCs who are conveniently slotted in for a cutscene or two.
Issues aside, however, this was still a pretty solid debut for first-time novelist but longtime comics, games, and short stories writer Alexander Freed. I’ve read dozens of Star Wars titles including all the adult novels in the new canon so far, and Battlefront: Twilight Company is well above average. It’s not for everyone, but I would definitely recommend it for diehard fans of Star Wars and Star Wars Battlefront enthusiasts. If nothing else, reading this book has gotten me even more excited for the release of the game, so that’s one major goal achieved!...more
At first, I was hesitant about listening to an anthology in audio format, but it actually turned out working really well! I really enjoyed how multiplAt first, I was hesitant about listening to an anthology in audio format, but it actually turned out working really well! I really enjoyed how multiple narrators were involved in this project, and for the most part the actors and actresses were all well-matched to the stories they read. All the narrators delivered impressive performances, considering how not every story here was written in a conventional style, or at least in one that would easily translate to audio.
The stories themselves, though, were another matter. Press Start to Play was a good anthology, but I admit I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. I’ve always been picky with short stories, but I really thought my interest in the topic of video games would help me with this one, but in the end this was just a very average collection, with most stories falling in the mediocre to good range. More disappointing is the presence of a few stories that only had a tenuous link to the subject, and even a couple that I felt had no place in an anthology that should be a celebration of video games. That said, there were a handful of exceptional ones that I felt really stood out. For a more in-depth analysis and my feelings for each story, see below:
“God Mode” by Daniel H. Wilson – 2.5 of 5 stars The protagonist of this story is an American studying abroad in Australia. He starts dating a fellow American student named Sarah, who one day suddenly fall and hits her head, and all of a sudden the stars in the sky start disappearing. I think the ending was meant to be more heartfelt and profound, but the delivery really fell flat. Quite frankly, I was disappointed by such a mediocre opener for this anthology, and even now I can barely remember that many details from this first story.
“NPC” by Charles Yu – 2 of 5 stars The title of this story gives us all the clues we need as to what it’s about. What happens when an NPC experiences an epiphany and isn’t sure if he wants to be something more? This was an interesting premise, but sadly neither the story nor the character was fleshed out nearly enough to be interesting.
“Respawn” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka – 3 of 5 stars A regular guy discovers when he is killed that his consciousness has “jumped” into the body of his killer. This story reminded me a little bit of Claire North’s Touch. It was a cool concept, and I would have liked to see it carried further, but whether it really belongs in a video game themed anthology is debatable.
“Desert Walk” by S. R. Mastrantone – 4 of 5 stars This was a nifty little ghost story, which started out one way and ended in a way I totally did not see coming. When I started this anthology, I expected to get a lot of different kinds of stories, but I admit I didn’t expect anything with a horror element. This one was pretty awesome and creepy.
“Rat Catcher’s Yellows” by Charlie Jane Anders – 3 of 5 stars One of the best things about this anthology was getting a chance to read work from authors I’ve been curious about for a long time. I enjoyed this story, at least in the beginning. It’s a quirky and interesting take on a social game and a subset of its players with a unique disease that causes dementia. I was a little disappointed by the ending, though. I’d thought there would be more and was surprised when the next story started up.
“1UP” by Holly Black – 3.5 of 5 stars This was another story by an author I’ve wanted to check out for a while! Three teens go to the funeral one of their online gaming friends, and find a text-based game that he wrote on his computer. It turns out to be a clue to solve his apparent murder. Again, I loved the premise but this definitely would have worked better as a full-length novel. What a great YA mystery it would have made!
“Survival Horror” by Seanan McGuire – 2 of 5 stars I suspected and later confirmed that this story is based on the world of McGuire’s InCryptid series, which I confess I know absolutely nothing about. No wonder I felt so confused. To be honest, I hate finding these types of stories in anthologies like this, because as hard as the author tries to catch you up with the world and who’s who in it, it just doesn’t feel the same. If you are familiar with InCryptic you might find yourself enjoying this one, but personally I felt no connection to any of these characters and couldn’t make myself care what happened to them.
“Real” by Django Wexler – 3.5 of 5 stars I’m a big fan of the author, so I was pretty excited to read this. Our mysterious protagonist tries to track down the creator of a game that lets its players feel involved by using social media to discover demons and hidden runes. The idea gave me ARG vibes. A very cool story with an interesting twist ending.
“Outliers” by Nicole Feldringer – 2.5 of 5 stars I think I would have liked this one more if I had understood it. Unfortunately, I found it a bit too technical. The main character is a woman who is obsessed with a game that tracks weather patterns for the government, and was even willing to skip her brother’s wedding to play it, which really didn’t help me sympathize with her.
“End Game” by Chris Avellone – 3.5 of 5 stars I thought this was fun! A very interesting execution using the idea behind text-based games, but unfortunately, all the suspense eventually built up to…a fizzle. This is one of the biggest issues I find with the stories in this anthology; so few of them have real or satisfying endings.
“Save Me PLZ” by David Barr Kirtley – 4 of 5 stars A sweet little story that starts with a young woman named Meg getting in to her car to find her ex-boyfriend, Devon. The real world and the virtual world collide as she is tasked to embark on a quest to rescue him. This was one of my favorite stories in the anthology.
“The Relive Box” by T.C.Boyle – 3.5 of 5 stars A bittersweet story about a character obsessed with using a device called a Relive Box to keep experiencing the joys and heartbreaks of his past, meanwhile ignoring his daughter and his work in his very real present and future. I like its sad message about why we might want to relive old memories instead of going out to seize the day, creating new ones. It ended rather abruptly, which was my only criticism.
“Roguelike” by Marc Laidlaw – 4 of 5 stars Repetitive and simple, but oh so hilarious! Again, it makes use of the text-based game format to tell a little tale about a very persistent resistance and the fates of all their doomed agents. The story reads like an elaborate joke, but I loved the punchline. I found it very enjoyable in spite of myself.
“All of the People in Your Party Have Died” by Robin Wasserman – 3.5 of 5 stars A darkly comedic tale about The Oregon Trail as a game of life lessons to prepare you for the death of all the people you know and love to tragic accidents, and just bad shit in general. The character in this story discovers the game and becomes obsessed with it after the game starts doing strange things. I really liked where it was going, but then everything started unraveled towards the end. Definitely didn’t like the second half as much as I did the first.
“Recoil” By Micky Neilson – 4 of 5 stars This was one of the more complete and coherent stories in this collection, and the author created a very suspenseful atmosphere to boot. Jimmy is our protagonist, staying late at the office to test a new game, and suddenly finds himself in a hostage situation. This story also had a twist ending, but this one I actually liked. Another of my favorites in this anthology.
“Anda’s Game” by Cory Doctorow – 3 of 5 stars Anda joins a band of elite girl gamers and kicks ass in the virtual world, but in real life she is an average and unassuming schoolgirl. Her online teammates are everything to her, but then something happens that might jeopardize all her newfound happiness. An interesting story about taking a stand for what you believe in, but not one that really stood out for me.
“Coma Kings” by Jessica Barber – 3 of 5 stars A touching but depressing story about two sisters who bond in game, but one is in a coma so she has to play via an implant in her brain. For the protagonist, this is the only way she can have any interaction with her sister. I enjoyed the premise and thought this story showed great promise, but I wish the ending had been stronger and more meaningful.
“Stats” by Marguerite K. Bennett – 3 of 5 stars Don’t you just hate it when your stats get nerfed? The character Joey in this story is not a very nice person, so I didn’t feel too bad for him when his body started changing. I love the attitude behind this story, and it was okay in its execution.
“Please Continue” by Chris Kluwe – 1 of 5 stars My least favorite story yet, and frankly it annoyed the hell out of me. Essentially it was a warning not to let gaming take over your life, but it came across really preachy and pretentious. The message is good, but why go about it in such a clichéd and uninteresting way? And oh, yet another unfunny application of the old “arrow to the knee” joke. How awkward. By the end, this didn’t even read like a story, more like a lecture from some nagging parent. It didn’t feel like a good fit for this anthology.
“Creation Screen” by Rhianna Pratchett – 3 of 5 stars Speaking of stories that have messages about becoming too obsessed with gaming, here’s another one. However, it was much more creative and elegant than “Please Continue”, and the beginning actually amused me a great deal. I happen to be one of those finicky MMO players who take an inordinate amount of time trying to get my character “just right.”
“The Fresh Prince of Gamma World” by Austin Grossman – 3 of 5 stars A gamer gets transported to an alternate world which has experienced a nuclear apocalypse. It’s a pretty interesting story, though once again, it didn’t fully engage me or stand out. I enjoyed the premise and setting, and perhaps I felt a greater affinity for it since Gamma World takes place in a post-apocalyptic Boston and I happen to be neck-deep in Fallout 4 right now.
“Gamer’s End” by Yoon Ha Lee – 3 of 5 stars The title of this story should tell you something about what it is about, i.e. the use of war games for training. Nothing much I can say about this one, other than it was okay but didn’t blow me away either, and nothing about it really stood out.
“The Clockwork Solider” by Ken Liu – 4 of 5 stars Alex is a female bounty hunter who captures a runaway named Ryder to bring back to his family. This is the first time in this anthology where I actually felt something more than ambivalence for the characters in a story. It’s another one that uses text-based gaming for its premise, but I found it philosophically deeper and a lot more thought-provoking than all the other stories in here.
“Killswitch” by Catherynne M. Valente – 3 of 5 stars In this story, Killswitch is a game that starts off like any other first-person adventure game. But it doesn’t end that way. I liked what this story had to say about games versus real life, about having one shot, one chance to experience a moment before it becomes a memory. I appreciated its poignant message, but for some reason I had a very hard time staying focused throughout. Maybe it’s just the style in which this story was written, but I found it really hard to connect to the prose.
“Twarrior” by Andy Weir – 3 of 5 stars This is a real short one, and feels more like snippet or an introduction to a bigger story, but hey, it got a few laughs out of me and that counts for a lot in my books. Andy Weir is one funny guy.
“Select Character” by Hugh Howey – 4 of 5 stars Play as thou wilt—a message I strongly support. Maybe that’s why I liked this one so much. It’s a very enjoyable story showing how different people approach games, and reminds me a lot of the conversations I’ve had with others about different gameplay styles. Only one thing matters: that you play the way you want and have fun doing it. Also, be open to other gaming styles. Sometimes when you play only one way, you might even miss things that you’d never have known until you talk to someone else who has a whole other perspective. What a great story to end the anthology....more
For a long time I’ve wanted to read something by Karen Lord, so I was excited when I was given the opportunity to review the audiobook of The Galaxy Game. This latest novel by Lord sounded very promising, featuring a compelling blurb that teases a fascinating premise and hints at some action. Thus I admit I went into it with high expectations, but regretfully came out of the experience feeling rather underwhelmed.
I also feel that I should state that The Galaxy Game is a sequel, which I did not realize until I was about half way through the book. It probably would have eased some of the initial confusion, but I still don’t believe it’s entirely necessary to have read the first book The Best of all Possible Worlds before reading this because I was able to piece together a bit of what happened and follow the main story without too many problems. Plus, while it’s true I might have gotten more out of the story if I’d read book one, doing so still probably wouldn’t have negated some of my issues with this novel’s structure or stylistic choices.
In the book we’re introduced to Rafi Delarua, a teenager who is all but imprisoned in a place called the Lyceum which is a school for young people with psi powers. In a society that deeply mistrusts psionically gifted individuals, Rafi has to endure the education and various treatments designed to control those like him. It doesn’t help either that his father’s unethical use of his powers has left Rafi and his family a legacy of disgrace.
Rafi knows it would have been different if he had lived on the planet of Punartam, where psi abilities would be seen as the norm. So the first chance he gets, he escapes the Lyceum and makes his way there. Punartam also happens to be the home of wallrunning – his favorite sport. With the help of his friend, Rafi manages to find a way to not only play but also to train with the best players. Coming here didn’t mean the end of all his problems, however. There are new deals taking place, changes happening in the dynamics between civilizations in the galaxy. Learning how to integrate into a new society is challenging enough, but now Rafi finds out he will also have a role to play in the coming political storm.
It actually sounds more dramatic than it is. While I wouldn’t call this book dull, it did feel like a considerable amount of time was given to explanations of societal themes and classifications. Like I said, if I had read The Best of All Possible Worlds I might not have felt so lost, but regardless, I don’t typically mind putting in time to familiarize myself with a story’s setting. I didn’t even have a problem with the instances where I had to listen to a few sections of the audiobook over again to ensure I understood the significance of certain details. Lord has actually created a very unique and robust world here, which I really enjoyed. No, my struggles with this book had less to do with the deluge of information at the beginning (though it did make for a rough start) and more to do with the bizarre switches in narrative voice and points-of-view, as well as jumps in the plot.
In some ways, listening to the audiobook alleviated this problem. Narrator Robin Miles’ voice work is really impressive here, especially when it comes to her talent with accents. The result is that it didn’t matter how many times we switched POVs, Miles’ use of different voices made it immediately clear to me which character we were supposed to be following, saving me the time to figure it out. The convoluted plot, however, was another matter. This isn’t a light tale to begin with, and the exposition further weighs things down. The story also takes its time to get going, so some soldiering on is required to get to get to the part where it begins to find its stride, which is quite a bit to ask of readers (or listeners, in this case).
One final thing: I wish there had been more wallrunning. What we get in here does not make the sport sound as exciting as it should, also perhaps because it is so difficult to visualize what the players are doing. Rather than getting me pumped up, the action scenes instead made me feel bewildered and out of my depth.
All told, The Galaxy Game was not what I expected. In spite of a fascinating world, I wish there had been more substance to the characters and plot. Narrator Robin Miles did an excellent job, but even her fabulous performance could not resolve the flaws I found that were inherent to the story. However, I think I would have struggled even more with this book if I had read it in its print form. If I had known ahead of time that this was a sequel, I probably would have started with The Best of All Possible Worlds as my first Karen Lord book, and not least because it is book number one – it also appears that the consensus from those who have read both books is that The Galaxy Game was not as strong as its predecessor. When I read that one I will most likely seek out the audio version as well, especially since Robin Miles is also the narrator, and I expect the experience will be more positive....more
If ever you hear someone say women can’t write military science fiction, please do me a favor and smack them over the head with this book. First Light is the excellent, smart, and action-packed introduction to The Red series, originally indie-published but re-released again recently by a major publisher along with an audiobook – because it is JUST. THAT. GOOD.
Seriously, it doesn’t get more edge-of-your-seat than this near-future thriller, which seamlessly blends advanced technology and military action with political drama. In First Light, readers get to meet protagonist Lieutenant James Shelley in an explosive introduction. Stationed in a remote military outpost deep in the Sahel, Shelley and his team work round-the-clock to enforce the peace and gather intelligence in the area, aided by a cyber-framework that keeps them all wirelessly linked. But that was all before the devastating airstrike.
Shelley barely makes it out alive, saved by the mysterious power of precognition that he possesses, a phenomenon not even the top military scientists can explain. The attack, however, had cost him both his legs, forcing Shelley to agree to an experimental cybernetics program involving synthetic legs and a permanent monitoring “skullcap” implanted in his head. Very Robocop-ish stuff. While recovering, Shelley is hit with another whammy: all throughout his assignment in Sub-Saharan Africa, he and his team had been recorded for a reality TV show. The lines begin to blur for Shelley as tough questions come to the surface. What is real and what is artificial? Who or what is this voice in his head, and is it as benign as it wants him to think? Hidden forces are steering humanity towards an unknown agenda, and for whatever reason, Shelley is at the center of this storm.
There’s so much happening in this first volume, sometimes it gets hard to tease apart the threads. The story’s first act transports readers to its not-too-distant future, describing the soldiers and their state-of-the-art military tech which includes everything from combat armor to surveillance drones. Shelley and his team are hooked into the central intelligence network at all times, physiologically and mentally monitored and even altered by their gear. A process even kicks in for soldiers on the same squad which makes them regard each other as close as siblings, encouraging familial bonds of loyalty while at the same time removing distractions which might be caused by any sexual desire.
But the technology is also far from perfect. It is not uncommon for soldiers like Shelley to become “emo-junkies”, becoming overly dependent on the processes of the skullcaps they wear. You can never be sure whether or not the emotions you feel are really yours, or if they are being controlled or altered by the skullnet. This question of “what’s real vs. what’s not” is a recurring theme that pops up throughout the novel, in many different contexts. War is also introduced as something prevalent and inevitable, a powerful driving force behind the economy. Soldiers are treated like property in this world where reality TV shows can be made of their lives without them even knowing about it, while rich CEOs of big defense contractors play games of political chance using the world as their game board.
This is actually a major premise in the second half of the novel, broadening the scope of the story to tackle conflicts with more significant and far-reaching consequences. The sequence of events that make up the climax and the ending of this book had to be one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had with an audiobook. My heart was pounding the whole time as I listened, and you probably couldn’t have convinced me to take off my headphones even if the house was on fire.
I only have a minor gripe specific to the audiobook, and it is related to the narrator. Kevin T. Collins’ performance was good, and I love his enthusiasm. But this also means he sometimes overacts, his voice bordering on frantic. Good for when we’re in those tense scenes, but very distracting when we’re not.
Nevertheless, this book has my full recommendation, especially for fans of military science fiction. It’s certainly the best of this genre that I’ve read in a good long while. First Light is engaging, intelligent, and full of thrills. It’s been getting all kinds of attention lately, and now I understand why....more
This was a great book. And the only reason I’m not rating it higher is because I’ve read better from Paolo Bacigalupi. If I had read this a few years ago, I think I would have enjoyed it unconditionally, but of course that’s not what happened. Instead, I read The Water Knife earlier this year and loved it, and as I usually do when I read an amazing new book by an author I’ve never read before, I went and picked up a bunch of Bacigalupi’s older titles. I decided to read The Windup Girl first, his multiple-award winning debut that shot him to stardom, and figured too that it was the perfect choice to review for Backlist Burndown.
The book takes place in 23rd century Thailand in a world ravaged by increasing temperatures and rising sea levels. Frequent disasters, both natural and manmade, cause widespread devastation to crops and human populations. Humanity is now dependent on biotechnology for food production, and megacorporations control the market using their own genetically modified seeds, which have all but replaced the natural order. The capital city of Bangkok only survives due to technology, and would be underwater if not for the levees that hold back the flood.
The story features multiple POVs. Major characters include Anderson Lake, a Calorie Man for the megacorp AgriGen, a sort of economic hitman sent to work undercover at a factory in Thailand. It is a front for his real mission, to search Bangkok’s street markets for produce thought to be extinct in order to discover the location of the Thai seedbank. Anderson leaves the running of the factory to his manager, Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee who was a businessman in his former life in Malaysia before being exiled from the country. Seng plots against Anderson, embezzling from the company while planning to steal secret designs and documents from his boss.
Then there’s Emiko, a “Windup Girl”. She is a genetically engineered being, and not human in the strictest sense, due to all the different modifications to her DNA. Windups are made to be docile slaves, programmed to obey. Abandoned by her Japanese master, Emiko lives a dangerous life in Thailand, because she would be destroyed if caught. She is forced to put up with sexual abuse and humiliation at the club where she works, in exchange for a measure of protection against the Thai government. She dreams of a day when she can finally buy her freedom and leave this place forever for a refuge in the north.
What I found interesting are the many similarities The Water Knife had to The Windup Girl. Bacigalupi seems to fancy writing dystopian science fiction about humans screwing up the future of the world. Both stories feature a shortage of vital resources, their supplies controlled by megacorporations or corrupt authorities. Both books even have a corporate hitman/mercenary-type character in a main role. So, perhaps comparisons between my experiences with his latest novel versus my experience with his first novel were going to be inevitable.
First, there’s the realistic premise, an important factor that makes all the difference. For me, dystopian novels tend to be more impactful when they take the form of cautionary tales or commentary on current issues, given how much easier it is to imagine them really happening. I also spent a part of my childhood in Bangkok, so reading this story also had a strong effect on me in more ways than one.
There are some unpleasant and difficult themes to deal with as well. Bacigalupi’s novels are certainly not happy stories. Characters in The Windup Girl live in a grim and very brutal world, and many are subject to discrimination, violence and other kinds of abuse. Emiko, the book’s titular character is especially subjected to the worst kind of treatment – rejected, beaten, raped, tortured, hated – all because of what she is and what she represents. Created to be nothing more than a toy for the wealthy, Emiko is helpless to control her situation or even her own actions because of her genetic modifications.
As well-written as this was, the author has certainly come a long way since his debut novel. The Windup Girl is a fascinating and engaging tale. Compared to The Water Knife though, it’s not nearly as well-plotted or polished. I sensed that Bacigalupi’s storytelling was still outpaced by his imagination at this point, in part due to the uneven pacing as well as the unexpected turn of events in the last quarter of the book. I can’t say I’m too fond of the last 100 or so pages; what should have been a ramp up to a killer conclusion instead had me fighting to keep my interest, but for all that, I still thought this was a great read....more
I loved Ian Tregillis’ The Mechanical, and I’m pleased to report the sequel does not disappoint. Although I still have to give edge to the first book—mainly because the impact it had on me was so profound and unexpected—The Rising takes up the baton and carries on running at full throttle, ramping up the action while still keeping the themes of historical fantasy and existential philosophy at the forefront.
The Alchemy Wars series is part fantasy, part alternate history and part steampunk, bringing together magic and mechanical men before a backdrop set in the early 1900s. France and the Netherlands are at war, with the Dutch having the upper hand thanks to the might of their clockwork automaton army. The Rising picks up where The Mechanical left off, with former spymaster Berenice exiled in disgrace and Jax the rogue Clakker on the run from his mechanical brethren who are still enslaved to their Dutch masters. Meanwhile, Captain Hugo Longchamp has taken over the defenses of Marseilles-in-the-West, France’s stronghold in the new world.
Most of the story in this second volume is told through the perspectives of these three characters, following the development of the conflict on multiple fronts. The war takes center stage, with the Dutch army of mechanicals preparing a full on assault. Berenice is an escaped prisoner fleeing from enemy lands while attempting to uncover the secrets of the alchemical sigils that power the Clakker geasa. Longchamp’s chapters throw readers in the thick of things, following his efforts to protect the French king and to recruit more men and women to the cause. However, it is Jax with the most bizarre quest of all, as he makes his way deeper into the northern wilderness and stumbles upon Neverland, the fabled community of rogue mechanicals ruled by their leader Queen Mab.
The Rising distinguishes itself from its predecessor by being more fast-paced and action-oriented. The intrigue and violence comes at you nonstop, and in fact, almost all of Longchamp’s sections are characterized by heavy, protracted battle sequences. I’m all for action, don’t get me wrong—but ironically I can’t help but feel that this was what made this sequel comparatively less compelling than The Mechanical, which was more subdued but also deeper and more cerebral. Still, I loved The Rising because of its strengths in different areas; I for one greatly enjoyed how this novel takes us on a detour down a wilder and more explosive path.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t get any of the heartfelt philosophical questions and existential discourse, because we do—and that’s most apparent when you look at the transformation in Jax’s character as he examines his own identity and purpose. The more I read, the more I’m starting to think of The Alchemy Wars as being Jax’s series, even though he is only one of many key players. From the moment he achieved release from his geas, his journey has been an exploration into the meaning of free will and its significance for moral responsibility. Discovering Neverland in this book is another turning point for his character, and this eye-opening experience subsequently leads to many far-reaching consequences.
Finally, we have Berenice, who is a classic Tregillis protagonist. By that, I mean she is fascinating, complicated, and wonderfully flawed. And like a lot of Tregillis characters, she has also been put through the wringer. Berenice’s motivations have been shaped by an extremely painful and traumatic experience from the first book, and the guilt from that event drives her still. So when the dark side of her personality emerges, it’s hard not to sympathize even if you disagree with her methods. Though her investigations into horologist secrets may ultimately help Clakkers gain their freedom, never doubt for a moment that this is a lady with violence on her mind and vengeance in her heart. Complex characters like her are what makes Ian Tregillis’ books such fun to read.
Additional thoughts on the audiobook: I opted to try the audio edition of The Rising because of the positive reviews I saw for The Mechanical audiobook. This is the first time I’ve ever listened to an audiobook read by narrator Chris Kayser, and for the most part I think he delivered a good performance, other than a few words he kept mispronouncing (I’ve never heard someone say “chimera” like that). I also found it jarring that he would say almost all the French names and other French words in the correct accent and pronunciation, with one major exception—Longchamp (I’m from Canada, I can’t help but notice these things). It’s probably an intentional choice, and in truth it was more amusing than annoying; overall it didn’t impact my enjoyment of the book, but it was distracting enough that I’m torn as to whether or not I want to continue with the audio for the next installment. I’m just being picky though, and I’m sure it’ll be fine for others.
In short, I can’t find too many faults with this book. Tregillis bides his time in this second act, bringing things slowly to a boil, yet action scenes are heavier and more frequent, and if that’s what you prefer then you might find you’ll enjoy The Rising even more than The Mechanical! The ending’s cliffhanger was expected, but no less powerful and effective in making me yearn for the next in the series. The Alchemy Wars is not to be missed....more
In this day and age where one can’t even walk into a bookstore’s sci-fi section without a few dozen dystopian titles getting thrown in your face, I have to say Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife really impacted me in a big way. It put me in mind of an eccentric high school teacher I once had, who was a little obsessed with doomsday scenarios. He used to be fond of saying that if the civilizations were to crumble or if the whole world were to go to war, it wouldn’t be over things like a pandemic or nuclear war. No, it would be for water – fresh, drinkable water without which none of us can survive.
Indeed, Bacigalupi paints a rather bleak, hellish picture of a place where water is scarce and more valuable than gold, a resource for which people are willing to kill and destroy. Drought has ravaged the American Southwest, changing the physical and political landscape. States like Nevada and Arizona clash viciously over shares of the Colorado River while bigwig California looks on, and states like Texas and New Mexico have long since given up the ghost. Las Vegas employs mercenaries like Angel Velasquez as “Water Knives”, hired to “cut” water for the Southern Nevada Water Authority and its boss, Catherine Case. This ensures continued survival for her lush arcology developments in the hot desert, where the rich luxuriate in cushy comfort while elsewhere cities like Phoenix dry up and stagnate for lack of water.
This book follows Angel as he travels to Phoenix to investigate rumors of a new water source for his boss. The story is told through two other perspectives, including a journalist named Lucy Monroe, as well as a young Texan refugee named Maria Villarosa. Desperate and destitute folk like Maria are struggling to make a living in the city while dreaming of one day having enough money to escape north. Lucy, on the other hand, could have left any time she pleased, but years of living in Phoenix has led her to adopt it as her home, and you get a sense that she’d do what she can to try to help the city. When it appears that California is finally making its move to monopolize the river, Angel, Lucy and Maria end up coming together in a precarious alliance to stop a conspiracy and secure a future for the people of Phoenix.
There are many unsettling themes in this book, and not least of all because the scarcity of potable water is a reality for many people in the world. Talk of droughts in California and in the American Southwest in the news today makes The Water Knife seem less like science fiction and more like a commentary on current issues. If seeing pictures of the immaculate green lawns and freshly filled-pools of the rich and famous during a drought make your blood boil, then this book will take that fury to a whole new level. It’s really hard to read about this divided America where characters like Maria were driven out of Texas after their water got shut off, only to be treated like interlopers when they have no choice but to migrate to Arizona. Girls like Maria’s friend Sarah turn to prostitution as a last resort, servicing those wealthy corporate types for whom a single shower may use up more water than a poor person in Phoenix might see in an entire week. Then to rub salt in the wound, the girls’ money gets taken away by the local gangsters, never allowing anyone a fair shot to work themselves out of this nightmarish situation. There’s a lot in this book that’s hard to take.
It’s also heavy on graphic violence, descriptions of torture both during and after the act, and generally features many scenes of groups of people doing terrible, unspeakable things to other groups of people. If you are squeamish about such things, you should probably go in prepared to read some pretty sick stuff. To the book’s credit, while there’s certainly no shortage of examples in here when it comes humanity’s lowest moments, there are nonetheless many instances of characters stepping up to show an extraordinary amount of bravery and compassion. Despite being categorized as a sci-fi thriller, The Water Knife is also a very human story, where characters are intimately touched by plot events as well as the lives of other people.
The book isn’t exactly a light read, even in the audiobook format I listened to, with its heavy themes and also some parts which are quite drawn out with descriptions. But for all their lengthiness, I think I have these sections to thank for making the world of The Water Knife one of the most detailed and fleshed out dystopians I’ve read. Southwestern America has reverted back to a kind of wildness, a melting pot of disparate rhythms and cultures where Red Cross aid workers, rich Chinese businessmen, underworld crooks, poverty-stricken refugees, sensationalist media journalists, religious evangelists, and dangerous mercenaries all commingled together in a dying city. This also makes the audiobook of The Water Knife worth experiencing, as narrator Almarie Guerra delivers a performance filled with a great variety of accents and voices, and it’s one of the best I’ve ever heard.
This is the first book by Paolo Bacigalupi I’ve ever read, but if this is the kind of originality and well-rounded quality I can expect from his writing, it certainly won’t be the last. I really enjoyed The Water Knife, and I look forward to checking out the author’s previous work as well as his future books.
I was actually first introduced to Departure as an audio title (given how often I browse for interesting new titles to listen to, it was pretty hard to miss how often it popped up on the popular science fiction and fantasy audiobook lists). What I didn’t know, was that the book itself was originally self-published. The news of its success must have caught on though, because I just learned recently too that HarperCollins has bought it and will be re-releasing it later this year. Runaway hits like that often have a way of catching my attention, so my curiosity probably got the better of me when I decided to check this one out.
The story begins with the crash of a passenger plane on route to London from New York. Flight 305 ends up somewhere in the English countryside, its fuselage split in two. In spite of this, there are actually quite a few survivors, most of them from first class because their half of the plane went into the trees while the tail section went into a nearby lake. As the survivors treat the wounded and fight to save as many lives as they can, they soon realize that they have crashed into a very different world. Rescue might be a long time coming. If ever.
There’s not much more I say about the story without spoiling it, but suffice to say, the Lost vibes are strong with this one. If you enjoy mind-bending sci-fi thrillers with a slight touch of creepy mystery, you should give this one a look. On the other hand, if you were looking forward to more of a survival adventure, you’ll probably want to alter your expectations like I did. As someone with a fear of flying, I was really nervous and bracing myself for a heart-pounding intro, but what I ended up getting was barely a notch above suspenseful. After the first quarter of this book, the emphasis also rapidly shifts to the bigger conspiracy.
The focus mainly falls on five passengers: Harper Lane writes biographies for a living, but her real dream is to writer her own series of adventure novels one day; Nick Stone is an American businessman, on his way to a meeting with The Gibraltar Project to discuss the building of a dam in the Mediterranean; Sabrina Schröder is a German medical scientist, making her the best choice to care for the wounded crash victims even though most of her experience was in a lab; Yul Tan, a Chinese-American computer scientist, has just developed a quantum internet capable of transmitting more data farther and faster than anything seen before; Grayson Shaw, son of a billionaire philanthropist, is struggling with alcohol problems after finding out some news about his father.
Unbeknownst to any of them, these five characters are all connected in some way and may hold the clues to the reason why their plane crashed, not to mention an answer to where they’ve ended up. The details are gradually revealed as the events unravel, and it was a captivating journey to discover the truth – even in spite of the many confusing moments along the way. To be honest, this book ventured a little too far into hard sci-fi territory for me to feel truly comfortable, and even though I was able to follow the plot just fine, a lot of the themes that came up later in the book are just not topics I find interesting. Be that as it may, I didn’t actually dislike this book; I found most of the story very enjoyable in fact, and even liked how it ended (as opposed to how I felt about Lost!) but it’s difficult to ignore the technology aspects that I personally couldn’t get into.
As for my thoughts that are specific to the audio version, I’m always happy listening to multi-narrator books and I thought both Nicola Barber and Scott Aiello delivered excellent performances. They portrayed Harper and Nick respectively, and voiced their own characters’ dialogue even when they were in the other character’s perspectives, giving this audiobook a quasi full-cast feel without it actually being a full-cast production. With their natural performances, the two narrators also made a lot of the dialogue sound a lot less awkward than the way it probably looked on paper.
In truth, I don’t think I would have fared as well reading the print version of this, given the propensity for my eyes to glaze over when they come upon pages of technobabble, especially when they have to do with subjects like the quantum theories of time travel. My brain has a better time when this stuff is read to me, so I was quite happy with my decision to listen to Departure in audio format. This is a book I might have enjoyed more if it had been the survival adventure I expected, but all told it’s a pretty solid book with a story that will no doubt appeal more to sci-fi thriller fans who also enjoy some conspiracy with their mystery....more
Karina Sumner-Smith’s genre defying Towers trilogy draws to a close with Towers Fall, a series-ender that successfully lives up to the potential promised by the first two books. I remember being impressed when I first read Radiant, surprised that it was the author’s novel debut. I went on to read Defiant and was again blown away by the story’s premise and world building, and it feels deeply satisfying now to have come this far with our protagonists Xhea and Shai.
Things really started heating up in the second book, but now they are at a boiling point. The people of Lower City thought they would be given time to rebuild after the recent catastrophic events, but instead they are handed an ultimatum: Those on the ground will have three days to leave their homes, or the Central Spire will destroy them all.
Xhea and her ghostly companion Shai find themselves in the middle of the conflict again, attempting to rally the people to fight back and defend their homes. Through their experiences together, both have learned much about their special connection and respective magical abilities, but will it be enough? The Lower City has been revealed to be something more than anyone realized, and the Spire will stop at nothing to harness its magical energies. Now the girls will have to find out why, because the secrets of the towers may hold the key to stopping the oncoming destruction.
Once again we follow the structure introduced in book two, with chapters alternating back and forth between Xhea and Shai’s POVs. This is good for balancing the perspectives, especially since Shai’s role has grown to become just as important as Xhea’s after the first book. However, the book also follows this alternating pattern very rigidly, a stylistic choice that also has its downsides. For example, sometimes we’re forced to follow up with a character even when they aren’t doing much on the page to further the story. In these sections they were left there just to spin their wheels, and like the previous book, I felt more often that Shai’s chapters were weaker and had less direction when compared to Xhea’s. We lose some momentum in the middle of the book because of this.
Still, the bond between the two girls remains strong, which is great because their friendship is clearly the theme that defines this whole trilogy. This is in stark contrast to a lot of Young Adult novels these days that mainly focus on the emotional perils of romance. There’s also not enough YA fiction out there with strong female friendships; so many YA novels I read this year featured the female protagonist surrounded by only male friends, and if there is the presence of another prominent female character, often they aren’t the protagonist’s equal or they ultimately become her main rival. It’s very refreshing to see a series like this come along, showing how things can be done differently.
At this point, there’s also really nothing more I can say about the world building, other than it rocks. I’m still having a hard time deciding whether to categorize this series as science fiction or fantasy; after all, the towering skyscrapers and post-apocalyptic dystopian vibes make me lean towards the former, while the heavy emphasis on magic makes me think the latter. But at the end of the day, who cares? This trilogy has elements from a lot of different genres, and even includes ghosts and “walkers” that act very much like zombies. The important thing is finding balance, and I think the author achieved that marvelously.
My only complaint about this book is that the plot doesn’t feel as tight compared to the first and second novels—possibly related to the alternating POV issues I mentioned above. The pacing suffered slightly in the middle where certain chapters dragged on unnecessarily, and there just seemed to be more filler in this one, which made the story run a tad too long for my tastes. But other than that, I can think of little else that detracted from the experience.
All told, Towers Fall finished off the trilogy nicely, wrapping things up with a powerful and thought-provoking ending. If you’re ever in the mood to check out a truly unique series, be sure to give this these books a look....more