Upright Women Wanted – Standing Tall

Upright Women Wanted By Sarah Gailey starts off strong with its main character, Esther, stowed away in a librarian’s book wagon. She’s a runaway in a future dystopian American southwest. Esther is running away from a marriage arranged by her father. The man she was set to marry, was originally going to marry her best friend, and secret love, Beatriz. Beatriz had been found with resistance propaganda, otherwise known as “unapproved materials”, and summarily executed. The old West is back again, but this time with even more small-town tyranny aided by an oppressive military focused on keeping order and restoring “traditional family values.” All the while, a group of upstanding women of reputation, the Librarians, distributes resistance literature under the guise of providing “traditional” education town to town in their roving wagons. 

There is something special contained within Upright Women Wanted, but it doesn’t quite reach its full potential. Gailey has certainly built an immersive world, filled with details that make it feel alive. The casual way stereotypical western movie-speak has infiltrated daily conversation is fun and feels very natural. Gailey leaves no stone unturned as they litter the novella with descriptions that feel old-timey, but with a modern sense of vigor. Every bit of the world-building feels purposeful, and while I wanted more, I can understand the decision to keep some aspects of the world vague. For instance, how this future came to be doesn’t really feel as important as in other dystopias, which felt refreshing. Overall it feels more tangible, as if it just sort of happened while no one was looking, because the oppressive aspects of that culture exist today. 

The characters are a big selling point to me beyond the western trappings. They leap off the page with a dynamism and loudness I was not expecting in a novella. The people that Esther encounters fully understand the world that they live in, and have chosen a life that allows them to skirt the edges. They have to, as they are all queer, unable to live the life they want, for otherwise they’d be hanged by the society that requires heterosexuality. Gailey is not subtle about this either, and it’s bracing. I loved learning about their struggles, but I really loved how they have not succumbed to their fears and taken the fight head-on. There is a lushness to their lives that stands in stark contrast to the open and empty desert around them. Cye, a librarian in training, in particular stands out as they have to lead a dual life since they are non-binary. They consistently remind Esther to refer to them as “she” within towns so as not to give them away. That it was something that their entire well being hinged upon struck me deeply. 

While there is not a lot of time to get deep within the novella, Gailey has added a richness to a straight forward story. It both makes me want more of this world, and satisfied with the story already told. If Gailey never goes back to this world, Esther and Cye along with the other women on their journey have taught me there is always a way to fight for your future, whether it’s in plain view or in the cracks that appear in civilization. 

Upright Women Wanted: 7.5/10

-Alex

Fortuna – It Favors the Bold, Also the Bad (But in a Good Way)

41gnfzpyv8l._sx331_bo1204203200_I know it’s not exactly the best way to get excited about a book, but I was immediately attracted to Fortuna, by Kristyn Merbeth, when the eighties synthwave cover was revealed. When Orbit threw in a blurb likening the work to that of Becky Chambers, I was done for. No need to complete the chokehold with a synopsis about a family of space smugglers, but it was there anyway. Fortuna is a great book with a rollicking character-focused story that succeeds in emotional depth but reaches a little too far when it comes to large-scale destruction.

Fortuna is a nice mix of action and character driven narrative. It follows the Kaiser family, a small group of smugglers raised and managed by Auriga Kaiser, the biological mother of the crew. The main characters are Corvus, the eldest brother, and Scorpia, the second oldest. Upon hearing that Corvus is returning to the Fortuna(the name of the ship) after finishing his third year of service within the Titan planetary military, Scorpia hatches her latest plan to make her mother proud so she can take the captain’s reigns and continue the Kaiser legacy. However, Scorpia is not as competent as her confidence suggests, and the system itself has other plans that muddy the Kaiser’s ability to maintain their smuggling business. Amidst the family drama, resources become tight and rumors of war circulate as the planets begin to become more isolationist.

I want to start off by highlighting Merbeth’s exceptional writing ability. The chapters alternate between Corvus and Scorpia, both sides written in a first-person perspective. I normally have issues with first person, because I generally do not like how things are described from that perspective, but Merbeth really knocked it out of the park here. Not only do the two characters feel distinct as people, but it comes through in how they describe the people around them, or the environments they are in. Scorpia comes off as a confident, whip-smart, smooth operator who acknowledges she might drink too much and often looks at people in a buddy-buddy way. Often her descriptions feel as if they are pulled out of hat. Corvus, on the other hand, is reserved, disciplined and all too aware of himself. He constantly feels distanced from those around him, regardless of how close they are. His distance is often self imposed, exemplified by the directness with which he speaks to himself and those around him. It was very distinct and kept me pulled along through the whole ride.

In a similar vein, the characters are fairly deep even though some are built on recognizable foundations. Fortuna shines because of its characters and their relationships with each other. The Kaiser family feels alive, and they have a deep history with each other. They have been through a lot and it shows. Corvus’ return feels monumental, even though it’s subdued and carries a lot of baggage. Merbeth does an excellent job of revealing the experiences and motivations of characters in such a way that their interactions feel natural and uncontrived. I think a lot of people might feel beaten over the head with Scorpia’s flaws, but I think Merbeth nailed it. Scorpia is inconsistent, juvenile, and brash but wants to do what is best for her family and will go to whatever length she feels is necessary to keep them safe and happy. Her alcoholism runs deep, and it takes her a while to deal with it, while the rest around her see it day in and day out. Her flaws, as deep and heartbreaking as they were, were made endearing by her better qualities. Merbeth straddled the line of unbearable and loveable with Scorpia, and it made the book more engaging.

While the intense character drama drove the narrative, I felt that the plot was a little inconsistent. I enjoyed the smuggling and the politics between the different worlds. I also enjoyed that the smugglers were the connections in some sense between the worlds as they all slowly began to close their borders. My biggest issue with the plot was its sense of scale. The amount of destruction that occurs alongside the family drama felt unreal and made some of the arguments the Kaisers had a little garish and cartoonish. Pair that with the fact that a lot of it happened off-screen (for reasons that are apparent within the story that I want to avoid spoilers) also diminished the attachment. Merbeth did a good job in terms of set up and in explaining why the different members of the family would be affected by the events in the way that they were, but the events just felt too big. The planets, while fairly fleshed out, did not have a sense of scale. With the family drama in the forefront, it was hard to appreciate the threat, and just how much of an effect it had, and how the Kaisers were involved. I enjoyed the story and plotting of events in general, but I felt that some of the consequences were too big for a small family of smugglers.

In the end, I had a blast with Fortuna. It was a good ride with a lot of heart, and heavy family drama that felt well built within a well-realized world. The characters were likeable in the long run and felt distinct despite their rough beginnings. The book had its inconsistencies, but like its characters, the better qualities shone all the brighter because of it. I am definitely looking forward to the next book in the series. If you are looking for a small-scale drama among the stars with heavy consequences, then Fortuna by Kristyn Merbeth is for you.

Rating: Fortuna – 8.0/10
-Alex

The Sacred Throne – I’m Putting It On A Pedestal, Try And Stop Me

I’m not usually the guy on here to write about fantasy, though I do love it. If you went through my history, you’d see I tend to talk more about science fiction. But once in awhile, some fantasy books come along that I have to talk about. As you can probably guess from the title, The Sacred Throne trilogy by Myke Cole is one such set of books. This story is an ambitious grimdark fantasy that succeeds on multiple levels through Cole’s loyalty to his characters and immersive worldbuilding. While I would like to hype it up more before diving in, the review is quite a long one, so we should just get started.

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The Sacred Throne trilogy is made up of the books The Armored Saint (previously reviewed by Andrew here), The Queen of Crows, and finally, the soon to be released The Killing Light. The story is centered on Heloise, whose life is thrown into turmoil when the Order arrives in search of a sorcerer. The Order is a group of religious fanatics who serve a Godlike Emperor. Their job is to make sure that demons do not take hold within the mortal realm, which happens when someone uses magic to any degree. The Order’s methods for keeping their world demon free would make the Spanish Inquisition squeal with glee. Heloise’s life starts to break down as she refuses to take part in an Order-commanded Knitting, a village-wide witch hunt, effectively refusing the Emperor’s decree. When the Order demands retribution for Heloise and her father’s actions, the town rallies around them in a small revolt. Heloise joins the fight and dons the Palatine armor, an armor reserved for those chosen by the Emperor himself, and helps to temporarily defeat the Order.

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The Queen of Crows takes place immediately following the events of the first book. Heloise is recovering from her wounds from the battle with the Order to find out that the Palatine armor (think of it as a steampunk mechanical suit) she had been wearing was left behind in order to save her life. Heloise and her village are taken in by the Travelling people (known to the villagers as the Kipti, or homeless), who promise to safeguard them within their roving caravan. The surviving brothers of the Order are regrouping while the village determines what to do next. The obvious choice is to invade another small village, recruit them to their cause, and prepare to be besieged by a larger army. I want to avoid too much plot detail, because Cole did such an amazing job with the pacing by slowly upping the ante with each battle and each book. There is a deliberate and realistic escalation with each conflict that hooked me everytime. A grimness infiltrated every aspect of the story, and created an atmosphere that filled each calm before the storm with dread. I’m not usually one for pop culture references, but the trilogy felt like the Battle for Helm’s Deep stacked on itself three times.

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To be a little more honest, I’ll say that the plot itself is a pretty standard “rebel against the current status quo” affair. Highlighting it, to me, doesn’t necessarily do the book a disservice, but I will say it’s not what hooked me into this trilogy. I’ll always be on board with “war against the crown” stories, but it takes a little pizzazz to make it feel new and fulfilling. That said, I think Cole did something special with The Sacred Throne. He built a fairly realized world within a short amount of time. He filled it with characters that felt so natural to their setting, it felt like reading a myth about a historical event. The brutality on display is stark and unforgiving, but Cole does a very good job not revelling in it. It’s a fact of life, and the characters who take it to the extremes see it as a duty, not a luxury, but it’s also inexcusable to people within the story. So I wanted to do a more thorough dive into what Cole does so uniquely within The Sacred Throne. I’ve tried to remain as spoiler-free as I can, but be aware that the events of The Armored Saint and The Queen of Crows will be discussed.

The setting feels like the foundation for the rest of what I want to dig into. Cole has built a small but expanding world that is bleak as hell, but incredibly compelling. The drudgery of medieval life is apparent from the first page of The Armored Saint. He makes the dreadful mundanity feel real, as if everyone has their purpose ordained and that’s all they have to live for, especially amongst the peasants. On top of all that, though, Cole built a hierarchical society that feels suited to the world he has created. The power of the Emperor infests every interaction between his subjects and the Order. The language Cole uses throughout the series to define the different relationships between characters and how they view the world is meticulous and deliberate, heightening the divide between the people that populate the land. There is a maliciousness to the ideology that feels apparent from the beginning, wherein the people respect the power and good deeds of their godlike Emperor, but hate the Order, known as the Emperor’s right hand, for taking liberties to enforce his Writ. They rely on their interpretations of the Emperor’s words to bear the burden of the Order’s boot heel on their back, creating an inescapable cycle of violence. This is not only seen in the narrative but reinforced by sections of the Writ, and the journals of Samson Factor, Heloise’s father, that preface each chapter.

Where the setting really begins to pull weight, though, is when the rebellion begins. I cannot stress enough how much I love Cole’s portrayal of a peasant revolt. It feels unplanned, frightening, and as though it could collapse at any moment. Everything I listed before worms its way into how Heloise, and the people who follow her, battle against the Order. There is a subtle and distinct way the townspeople and Heloise differ in their perspectives. Heloise knows, and does not hesitate to mention, that they are actively fighting against the Order, regardless of how the Emperor may be influencing them. However, there are a lot of townsfolk– her father included– who believe that the Emperor’s light shines upon them, and if they can just prove that by fighting the Order, things could go back to the way they used to be. They continue to fight, but only because their faith is placed in the very man whose laws have sentenced them to death. This is evident in the townsfolk’s language surrounding their fight, about how they revere Heloise as an instrument of the Emperor, and how the Order is a perversion of the Writ. This is not a rebellion to most of them, but a testament to their Emperor’s commands and their need to serve him to the fullest.

The rebellion gets even more interesting as it becomes more of a coalition between Heloise’s village, the Travelling People, and eventually the army of the Red Lords. The ragtag rebellion slowly becomes a Revolution, with the different parties vying for a similar goal, but not the same one. Cole manages to make the bickering of these different parties not only realistic, but interesting and conflicted. There is an incredible sense of urgency; decisions have to be made on the fly, and some people may suffer for it. Issues were left unresolved at points because they did not have the time, or even the ability, to solve them. What I enjoyed so much about these councils and interactions is the characters’ individual and community biases were front and center. The language hinted at what individuals thought of each other based on the groups they were from, and how they could use each other to achieve their goals. The Revolution’s success was a ticking clock, but the parties involved could not relieve all their internal tensions prior to the big battle. However, there was a give and take, along with a slow and very unsteady recognition of each other’s humanity and purpose. It was a succinct snapshot of what an unplanned revolution might look like, amongst people who do not have the terminology to understand their needs, let alone the time.

I’ve refrained from talking about Heloise through most of the piece up until this point because to be honest, she feels set apart from everything I have discussed. She starts with an innate distaste for the Order that is stronger than the ambient mistrust her village shares. She is more openly defiant in front of them, and the Writ seems to hold no sway over her. She does not seem to harbor negative feelings towards the Emperor, but neither does she praise him in the ways her father and the others do. She talks about her deeds as things she has done, or actions the armor allows her to take, instead of as divine acts from the Emperor himself. I say all this because it feels a little dissonant, until you realize she does not belong in this world. There is no vocabulary in the book that describes it, but simply put, Heloise is a lesbian, something the Writ forbids. Thankfully, Cole is not subtle about it, but neither is he indulgent in ways other authors might be. It’s simply a part of her; it feels important to her but also incredibly dangerous to let others know her secret. It’s integral to her worldview in that even if she were able to get the Order off the village’s back and the status quo restored, her existence would be still be dreadful, so she fights with everything she can.

Heloise has a similar, if more complex, relationship with her village as well as with the rebellion. In some ways, she helps to foster the rebellion with her open acts of defiance, but she does not force the village into it. They hide her family from the Order of their own volition. Only when she emerges from the tinker’s shop inside the Palatine armor does the village begin to subconsciously alienate her. Her community instantly and reverently otherizes her as soon as she is able to use the armor. The way they talk about her is different, no matter how many times she tries to downplay her role. How they listen to her also changes, as her opinion becomes the will of the Emperor in their eyes. She becomes a symbol out of the desperation that she and her fellow villagers all feel. Meanwhile, her encounters with the Travelling People and eventually the Red Lords are vastly different from each other. They allow her to feel a sense of responsibility and all the good and bad that comes with it. In return, she engages with the communities on their own terms, learns their world views, and attempts to reconcile differences between them in order to maintain the alliance. Her otherness becomes a larger part of who she is, allowing her to navigate the space between.

Within that navigation, Heloise starts to grow and become an adult. Her relationship with herself is easily one of the more rewarding aspects of the book, as Cole really dives into introspection. Given that the books are on the shorter side, I imagine it’s pretty tough to fit in small moments for Heloise to think about who she is. Cole puts a lot of effort into relaying how Heloise really feels about everything around her, making these moments seamless with the rest of the story. The interactions she has with nearly every character feel important and have a heightened quality to them. Her inner voice is incredibly apparent, especially when dealing with her father and other villagers who consistently place her on a pedestal. Over time, this inner voice becomes more resonant with how she talks out loud, forming a more coherent whole. It feels like Heloise is literally reaching out through the armor she wears, testing people’s reactions to her ever more radical feelings. This is nicely paired with the fact that the armor does not protect her from everything. She is consistently wounded, and sometimes even maimed operating the machine in battle. As I said previously, Cole does not delight in this mayhem, making Heloise’s injuries feel doubly important as if to say, you cannot hide from the world no matter how powerful your armor. Over the course of the three books, Heloise takes this lesson to heart, and it’s incredibly heart wrenching.

I had never read any of Myke Cole’s work before, and before reading this Andrew told me “Cole never does anything by halves.” I have to say, I have never heard more succinct or accurate description of an author, and The Sacred Throne highlights it brilliantly. Everything in the series feels honed to precision from the setting, to the character work, to the themes. It’s clear that a lot of work and love went into these books, and it doesn’t feel like a miracle that it paid off. Even weeks after reading them, I can’t stop thinking about them. My mind feels like a crow picking at a beautiful bounty of a corpse, always finding fresh little morsels to satiate my curiosity. So if you would, please come take part of this feast and enjoy all that The Sacred Throne has to offer.

Ratings:
The Armored Saint – 7.5/10
The Queen of Crows – 8.5/10
The Killing Light – 9.0/10
-Alex

Sisters of the Vast Black – We’re Nuns, We’re Nuns in Space!

I’ve never been a religious person by any stretch of the imagination. Our family only went to church on Christmas, and that was about it. As a result, finding myself excited about the prospect of the Catholic Church in space was a weird experience for me. Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather scratched an itch I didn’t know I had (ARC provided by the publisher through NetGalley). Rather wrote an engaging novel about a small group of nuns learning the meaning of their faith in a galaxy reluctant to embrace the larger Catholic Church.

Sisters of the Vast Black takes place on a living ship, Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, and follows the sisters of the Order of Saint Rita as they travel to a new colony in distress. Along the way, they deal with adapting earthly church doctrine to spacefaring life in big ways and small. The Catholic Church, defeated years ago along with Earth in a war for control of the space born colonies, is resurgent and willing to test its new sense of power and reach. The sisters of the Order begin to feel the influence from the Church themselves, causing them to question their faith. Individuals’ secrets are brought into the light as pressure starts to mount and their loyalty to each other and the church is tested. 

The story itself meandered a little for the first half of the book. It didn’t feel like it had a lot of direction, and the narrative often takes a backseat to the worldbuilding. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but since it is a novella I was a little worried about where the story was going to end up. Fortunately, Rather pulls it in for a tighter second half. She uses everything she explored in the first half to hone in on the characters’ individual stories as they grapple with the tightening control from the Church and reignition of war. Any concerns I had about losing the thread were washed away in the succinct but open ending that focused on individual faith in the shadow of the Catholic Church. 

The narrative’s success depended on the characters themselves. Rather takes the time to develop the characters by giving them a weight that makes them relatable. I found myself enmeshed in their lives with the day-to-day of maintaining the ship instead of waiting for something to rock the boat so to speak. The daily repetitive tasks and the small conversations about church doctrine and coming changes helped to build the identity of the characters quickly without throwing a quick succession of  events at the reader. The hushed ways they whispered to each other about their lives, or rumors they have heard built a sense of community among them that set them apart from the world they inhabited. It was a really nice touch that made me care about who they were as people instead of just pieces to move the story along. 

The real star of the book, for me, was the setting. The world Rather created was subtle yet incredibly enticing. Not only did the church feel important to the characters, it felt like a living presence within the solar system. There was a history that felt raw and immediate, like an open wound that had not been properly tended. Rather wrote a distinct lack of finality to everything that made the world really come alive. There was also a lot of understated interplay between the characters and the setting, making the characters feel present within the world while also being very affected by it. I think that without the deft handling of the setting and its effects on the people living in it, this book would have fallen short. 

Sisters of the Vast Black is unfortunately brief, but it packs a punch. The themes of sin and redemption are cleverly explored through the characters and the world. Rather’s sense of history and ability to portray the longstanding effects of past events is admirable. I want more of this world, more of the people living inside it, finding their way in the dark. I want to watch it change in the small subtle ways that mirror the real world. Needless to say, I recommend Sisters of the Vast Black especially if you’re looking for something a little different that feels human at heart, and otherworldly in scope.

Rating: Sisters of the Vast Black – 8.0/10

Future Tense Fiction – A Variety of Hope and Anxiety

Future Tense Fiction

After reading Broken Stars earlier this year, I became somewhat enamored by the idea of short story collections. I love that they can be incredibly focused while allowing the reader some room to explore outside the story. So when offered the chance to read Future Tense Fiction, a collection of works from well known contemporary authors from Slate’s column of the same name, I jumped at the opportunity. I’m not going to talk about the collection as a whole, mostly because it didn’t have the single guiding hand feel to it that Broken Stars did. Overall I came away fairly satisfied, with only a couple of the stories not leaving much of an impact. Mostly I wanted to take the time to highlight a few of the stories that touched me in different ways in the hopes of piquing your interest in the form and its strengths. 

First up: Domestic Violence by Madeline Ashby. The story follows Kristin as she tries to determine why a co-worker is running late. Janae, the woman in question, mentions that the smart home she lives in won’t let her out without solving riddles that her husband has devised. It’s a very simple premise, but the horror behind it stuck with me. Ashby’s prose is dripping with the small infractions men put women through on a daily basis that are easily exacerbated by technology. While I consider myself fairly cognizant of these attitudes, Ashby exposed a few other ways in which technologies that are touted as convenient may only be convenient for some. It was an enlightening read that will stick with me for a while, and will push me to continue considering the unexamined implications of convenience technology. 

Burned over Territory by Lee Konstantinou was my second favorite story from the batch. It takes place in a post-Universal Basic Income United States, in which everyone receives a monthly check from the government to support themselves. The story follows Viola, a former heroin addict, who is running for Chairperson of the Federation. The Federation is an organization that members give their basic income to, and in return receive housing, food and other basic necessities, allowing them to pursue what interests they may. I particularly enjoyed Konstantinou’s ability to explore a system of government and the trials it faces within a limited page count through the fairly realized character of Viola. Often a lot of the more “political” science fiction I’ve read pushes politics to the side, waving away issues with the creation of a new system, but Konstantinou places it front and center. Although the system itself is different, the same societal problems we experience in our society linger, making the election stakes feel incredibly real and giving the Federation a vitality I was not expecting. It felt like an honest attempt at an exploration of a more left-wing ideal of politics, highlighting that revolution is ongoing and will always have to deal with the same systemic problems we face today.

Mika Model by Paolo Bacigalupi was another of the more horrifying stories in the collection. It has a neo-noir setting and follows Detective Rivera as he is dragged into a murder case where the perpetrator is a sex robot. I know it sounds a little ludicrous, and Bacigalupi seems to give a wink to the reader by using the trappings and structure of a noir detective thriller. What makes the story so much more compelling, however, is Bacigalupi’s use of language and how specific characters interact with Mika, the robot involved in the murder. On the surface it is plainly a story about determining the humanity of a robot designed to be, effectively, a mechanical sex worker. Bacigalupi does not stop there and consistently urges the reader to pull on the thread to unravel something deeper. Ultimately, I came away with my stomach in knots, unable to cope with the extrapolation of this story to any sort of “other” people may encounter on a daily basis.

I’ll end with my favorite story of the bunch, Lions and Gazelles by Hannu Rajaniemi. The main gist of the story is that ultra-venture capitalists host a yearly competition in which startups compete with each other for funds. The novelty comes from contest being a race in which the entrepreneurs competing for cash enhance their bodies biologically. In the competition, mechanical modifications are forbidden, and the competitors, in a sense, become their own experiment while they attempt to hunt down a mechanical gazelle and win the prize. Having recently read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, along with taking up running, Rajaniemi’s story cut immediately to the heart of the sport. The main character’s arc was so thoroughly satisfying, and Rajaniemi perfectly captured the thrill of the chase with his prose. It was incredibly streamlined and had such purpose driving the story I was engrossed from beginning to end. If you’re a runner, this story is magical.

All in all, this collection makes me want to pay closer attention to short stories. There is a purpose to them, and when done well, it can get a reader to feel or think differently in only a few pages. There are a few other stories I would like to highlight here, but I feel like I would just come off as gushing. Future Tense Fiction is a delightful collection that captured my imagination in fourteen different ways. So if you’re at all interested in short stories and the power they can wield, I highly recommend picking up Future Tense. 

Rating: Future Tense Fiction – A Highly Recommended Cornucopia of Stories for your Fall Reading/10

-Alex

P.S. If you can’t get enough of talking crows, this collection has a story for you. 

A Song for a New Day – Playing Fast And Luce

As with a lot of people, music has played a defining role in my life. I never really played an instrument (fifth-grade trumpet does not count), but it was always there in the background guiding how I viewed the world. However, my tastes and attitudes in the past few years have changed greatly from my punk and power metal days of high school to a more individualized and private set list of artists scattered throughout Bandcamp. I find myself mesmerized by the subdued vibrancy of vaporwave more often than not, and I get easily separated from current popular tastes, making it harder to share my favorites with those around me. So when I heard there was a novel about illegal underground concerts in a future where public gatherings are outlawed, my interest was piqued and the folks at Berkley were kind enough to indulge me. Song for a New Day, by Sarah Pinsker, is a reflective yet energetic story about the power of music to create community in a time of extreme alienation. 

Pinsker’s novel follows Luce Cannon, a musician on the cusp of stardom, whose future of playing for her fans ends with everyone else’s. Luce is on tour when bomb threats start to permeate the nation, causing a wave of uncertainty and fear that anywhere could be hit. As she plays her last known concert, one of the threats is actually carried out, killing hundreds of people. Afterwards, an epidemic of disease leads to laws banning public gatherings, followed by companies eager to offer services that allow people to stay in their homes. Rosemary Laws, a second protagonist, grows up in this new world, known as ‘the After’. Her parents move to a farm to increase their sense of safety, further increasing their isolation from a progressively more insular world. She barely remembers what it’s like to have lived in ‘the Before’, spending most of her time in a virtual space that allows her to do her job from afar. When she is presented with a chance to do something different, Rosemary seizes the opportunity and takes a job at StageHoloLive to search for new musical acts in person. This seemingly unrelated chain of events facilitates her eventual run-in with our other lead, Luce Cannon. 

The main story is a joy to read as Pinsker interweaves her two narratives together, creating a mentor/student relationship where both character’s take turns in each role. Luce’s story starts with the slow and fairly realistic creation of the After, eventually digging into her attempts to cope within the new paradigm. The anonymous terror threats paired with the outbreak of a deadly disease lead to a self-imposed isolation that everyone seemed “okay with” in order to secure a safer life. Through Luce’s eyes, the reader is shown an incredibly personal account of the events, getting piecemeal snippets of the events as they occur. The author’s choice to focus on the everyday effects really drew me in, tying me to Luce and the people she surrounds herself with. On the other hand, Rosemary’s story highlighted the contented alienation most people would probably have resigned themselves to. Her parents isolating her to keep her safe, leaving her with a dead-end job, nothing to do, and nowhere to go. Seeing Rosemary learn how to navigate in a society she barely understood and learn how to be around other people was engaging and empowering. 

While the story was enjoyable, Pinsker’s characters made it all the more impactful. Rosemary and Luce felt incredibly human. Their decisions have real consequences that sometimes didn’t get cleaned up, making their journeys feel all the more personal. Rosemary’s need to explore the world paired with her culturally imposed naivete put her in some dangerous situations. Luce had a defiance to her that was whispered with every breath. However, it seemed to become a feeling of comfort, allowing her to explore her music without exploring herself or the world around her. These two dynamics played off each other extremely well, each character’s actions affected one another like dominoes. Pinsker’s ability to portray self reflection touched me deeply, as the thought processes Rosemary and Luce both went through felt very relatable. Their ability to screw up, and then pick themselves up and try again with a different approach was inspiring. Pinsker avoided making these moments feel cheap by grounding them in very deliberate and reconciliatory actions that felt natural to the character’s sensibilities. 

The book’s themes of rebuilding community and self discovery dripped off every page, supported heavily by Pinsker’s approach to narrative. The entire book felt deliberate, blending style and substance almost seamlessly. The dual narrative allowed her characters’ insecurities to play off each other, giving the story a more natural flow. Pinsker highlights this duality by writing them in different perspectives, Luce being written in the first person, with Rosemary in the informed third person. It allowed me to sink into Luce’s world-weary and largely individualized defiance and feel the comfort of “doing what I can.” Rosemary becomes the perfect contrast, as her careless curiosity and need to prove herself drive a lot of the action. The third person style allowed me time to reflect, as if another person were there, guiding the introspection. There were a few cheesy moments, but they didn’t stick out in any seriously intrusive ways. 

There is so much to talk about with this book, it’s honestly hard to contain within a few paragraphs. Pinsker has an amazing ability to write concerts in a way that puts the reader in the thick of it. There is a rawness to the story that pulled me along and left me needing more every time I had to set the book down. It made me yearn for the pit in the middle of a show, screaming the lyrics at the top of my lungs, shoulder to shoulder with other euphoric strangers. On top of all of that, it made me think about how I engage with the people around me in my everyday life; how it’s easier to just put on my headphones and walk through the world to my own prescribed beat, instead of opening my ears to those around me. It’s tough and scary to think about building or participating in a community, let alone actually doing it. It isn’t any easier in Song for a New Day, but it makes the work feel worth doing. 

Rating: Song for a New Day – 8.5/10

-Alex

The Cruel Stars – Vicious, Yet Dubious Fun

519c9vra2hlThere is something alluring about military science fiction. It takes the massive volume of space and narrows it to a single point: conflict. Often, this specific genre ignores a lot of the more nuanced questions that sci-fi often proposes in favor of a single query: what would humanity do in order to survive? Normally, I miss this complexity and nuance, but every now and then I want an action-focused romp against an easily discernible bad guy that definitely needs a kick in the teeth. Luckily, the folks at Del Rey offered me the chance to fulfill this desire by letting me read John Birmingham’s recently released novel, The Cruel Stars. It’s a book that offers a clear black-and-white conflict with heavy action, but delivers little else.

The Cruel Stars takes place in the Volume, a series of undefined star systems colonized and inhabited by humanity. Two hundred years prior to the events in the book, a civil war was fought to decide the course of human development. To be honest, Birmingham gives the reader very little context about this war beyond “the Sturm lost.” The Sturm, a faction of people that felt they needed to purify the species of any genetic or cybernetic enhancements, were essentially thrown into the void after their defeat. Little is said about the conflict itself, and nothing is specified about the way they lost to one of the book’s protagonists. As the book opens, the Sturm are returning to fulfill their promise. The descendants of the Anti-Sturm (how I refer to them, not Birmingham’s words), the victors of the war, are ill-prepared to deal with their return. The spaceborn naval forces of the Anti-Sturm are crushed in an instant, allowing the Sturm to begin their campaign with confidence. Unfortunately for them, they do not wipe out all resistance, most notably failing to neutralize the man who defeated them two hundred years earlier.

The plot itself is straightforward, putting the reader in the passenger seat as the Volume-wide invasion is witnessed through five different perspectives – all of which take place within the same star system. Birmingham spends little time introducing the five POV characters, offering a chapter to each before the conflict begins. By eschewing worldbuilding and focusing on the characters and plot, Birmingham sets a brisk pace that propels the action forward. The narrative moves with a frenetic style that kept me entertained for the most part, but it leaves little to no real breathing room to really understand the conflict. I don’t mean to say “space Nazis should be given their due,” as much as I want to point out that the people fighting them are barely given a cause beyond “they’re gonna kill us”. It isn’t necessarily a huge problem, but it did not engage me with the fight for survival beyond “the Sturm can’t win”. It’s very black and white, which is what was promised, but the few slow moments left my brain to probe the empty spaces where worldbuilding should have filled in the gaps.

Which leads to the book’s info dump of an introduction that other reviewers warned about. Within the first chapter, I joined the ranks of readers who discovered that the book hits the reader with a lot of information up front before jumping into the “real” story. Normally, this doesn’t bother me, but The Cruel Stars made it more of a slog than usual. Birmingham introduces the story’s primary protagonist in a slurry of unfamiliar and decontextualized military ranking titles while also attempting to explain the character’s background and motivations. This narrative choice was confusing and failed to provide the “hook” that would otherwise have drawn me in. The other introduction chapters read similarly, with scant details on the world and societies that developed after the war, beyond the character’s small relation to them. I wasn’t initially bothered by this choice because it felt like Birmingham was leaving room for characterization to happen later as the protagonists watch their world burning. However, the reader is rarely given an idea of what kind of world the Sturm are destroying, let alone any reason the characters would fight for it. It feels like a missed opportunity to really dig into the setting and the factors that allowed for the rise of the Sturm in the first place.

There is also a very noticeable lack of scale to the story and the conflict. The reader is given very little indication of the size of The Volume. Vague descriptions offer an idea of factions that make up the Volume, but have no indication of their size, location, or political goals. We know that one controlling interest is a megacorporation where the C.E.O. is chosen by feudal birthright, while another powerful political entity employs a type of debt slavery, but that’s about it. Earth exists, but in what capacity, I could not tell you. That isn’t to say Birmingham is scant on details. In fact, he loves having minituae filter through the characters and the way they engage with their surroundings. The issue arises when these details focus so much on the character’s relation to the world that the world itself becomes muddy. It would be cool if that was used to highlight the Volume as a place that needs change, and that this war is just the thing to get it started. Unfortunately, this is not the case. While the characters expressed a general disdain for the socio-political structure of their world, there is little interest in following through on that unhappiness to facilitate real change.

The world would have also felt a little more real if the characters themselves went beyond their initial personality. All of the protagonists follow a fairly standard action character archetype, which makes them easy to latch onto. They were likeable enough, but they don’t really grow beyond that introduction. The reader is told that the characters are flawed, but other than being generally obstinate, I’m not sure what their flaws were. They didn’t really exhibit them in any way that felt human or effective. The “flaws” did not add any real character tension between the rag-tag team, nor did it lead to any conflict within the story. On top of that, characters who exhibited traits considered “impure” by the Sturm did not seem to have any added stake in the fight either. Everyone had the same feelings about the Sturm, which was just, “man, I hate those guys.” Even a small window into the life of the Sturm did not open any real avenues for exploration.

While The Cruel Stars has its issues, I actually had some fun with it. There are so many small details scattered through the book that feel like breadcrumbs to a larger context. There is potential for a more cohesive world with a broader and more nuanced understanding of the conflict at hand. The action is fast and intense, making the fights feel loud and messy. There are a few weird and contrived decisions, but overall the story had a nice flow that reminds the reader that a war is happening. The technology used in the opening gambit by the Sturm is terrifying, visceral and unexpected. There is a beautiful nuance to the way the Volume refers to the bad guys as the Sturm, while the bad guys call themselves “The Human Republic.” The little pieces added some flair and kept stringing me along to the end just to see how it would play out.

There is something fascinating about a story that has the ability to entertain while also leaving so much room for dissection. I think where this book mostly falls apart for me is that while I loved all the small details, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. It’s disconnected from its own world as much as it is from ours. It barely satiates the need to watch Nazis get their just desserts, while offering little in the way of counterargument to their ideals beyond “no way, José.” The Cruel Stars was fun and had some genuinely cool ideas, but that’s about all I think it has to offer.

Rating: The Cruel Stars 5.5/10
-Alex