Mad Max: Fury Road — Blossoming In The Desert

If there ever was a piece of media that acted as my editorial/sexual awakening, Mad Max: Fury Road would be it. It wasn’t the first film to make me think critically about movies and their themes and messages. But It was the first one that made me really want to understand media (be it books or movies) on a deeper level than “I’m sixteen and this is deep.”

Obviously, for a movie of this magnitude, there are plenty of reviews, think pieces, and film analyses already out there. Hell, I’ve read a bunch myself over the years. But you’re not here for that, this is a book website. Why the hell am I talking about a movie? Well folks, it’s because Fury Road offers a window into worldbuilding that fantasy and science fiction readers should all take a gander into. I looked into that abyss, and have yet to turn my head around and walk away. So come, sit by the fire, let me tell you a story about a story. Stay awhile, and listen to learn of the halls of Valhalla, so that you too, may ride eternal, shiny and chrome.

What Is Fury Road?

For those who don’t know, it’s a 2015 film, directed by George Miller, starring Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. It’s a post-apocalypse film that is loosely related to the events of previous Mad Max films, but it stands completely on its own. Max (played by Tom Hardy), wanders the wasteland alone and is the will to survive embodied. In the first minutes of the film, he is captured by Immortan Joe and his army of war boys. Immortan Joe is the ruler of this region of desert, controlling the one source of water, or as he calls it aquacola. One of the leaders of that guzzoline fueled army is Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron). During a routine supply mission, Furiosa detours the suped up caravan and makes a break for it, offering freedom to Immortan Joe’s five wives, whom she has hidden away in her war rig. Soon her plan is discovered and she has to fight not one army, but three as Immortan Joe summons his allies the Bullet Farmer and the People Eater to hunt her down and reclaim his property. Max is along for the ride as a blood bag for one of the war boys, and ends up entangled in Furiosa’s quest, despite his feral need to just run away. What follows is a two hour long car chase full of stunts that should make every other car-based action movie retreat into its shell.

There is a lot going on. It doesn’t help that my brain has been religiously steeped in the tea that is this movie several times a year. Its vocabulary, while not a part of my everyday vernacular, is deeply embedded in my brain folds. It’s nearly impossible to describe the movie without it. Thankfully, a lot of the words make sense, but I think part of the fun is hearing them and drawing the conclusions for yourself. Fury Road certainly thinks this is the case; the film thrusts its lexicon in your face. No explanation, no audience-insert character to explain things. The movie just throws you in, and expects you to catch up. Words like “organic mechanic,” “guzzoline,” and “the bullet farm” breeze by and as the audience you just have to make the connection yourself. Don’t get me wrong, it helps that it’s in a visual medium, so the words are associated, most of the time, with an image.

Why is this special? Well, for me it speaks to the appreciation the creators had for their world. Whether it was designed from the get go, or had input and additions later, there is a strong sense of how it operates, and how people within it live their lives. It then organically reveals itself to the audience. There isn’t an exposition dump in the beginning. Instead, the movie opens with the words “my world is fire and blood,” and proceeds to show you that world. It’s a visual feast of a movie that blends its visuals with dialogue so the two act in concert. I can feel it now: “Alex, it’s a movie, of course those can be implemented visually.” True, but let’s take another movie that is a visual treat as a counterpoint example: Inception. Most of the movie’s dialogue focuses on explaining how the world works. It’s been the butt of many jokes, with several episodes of different cartoons making fun of it. But, when you really think about it, the visuals within the movie don’t tell you much about what is happening. In some ways, it informs you that a dream may be occurring, but even that is purposefully muddied. If there was not a single bit of dialogue, could you even describe the insane heist plot at the center of it? Could you describe the movie as a series of dreams within dreams, within dreams?

Where does Fury Road differ in this regard? Everything you know about the story, the characters and how they should be viewed, is shown. Someone doesn’t immediately tell you Immortan Joe is a bad guy. The movie highlights his abuse of power through his doling out of water to the poor, by dumping it on the ground and telling them not to get addicted to a thing they need. He lives in a castle made of rock, gardens adorn the top of mesas, hundreds of feet above the masses, with hydroponic gardens hidden behind bank vault doors. Max is a rabid dog, fighting for his survival, acting without thinking to the point where they literally muzzle him. Furiosa is calm and commanding, her presence itself enough to elicit respect from other characters and the audience. Over time, these aspects of the characters are highlighted, broken down and changed or reinforced as necessary, specifically through their choice and action. Not only that, but their world is revealed in much the same way, piece meal throughout the movie giving life and meaning to every aspect. Why do the war boys fight for Joe? Because he has promised them eternity in his Valhalla if they die for him. Why does Max run? Because he needs to escape his past.

The Awakening

After my first viewing, I wasn’t quite sure what to think of the movie. I had a good time, but I had trouble deciding if I was missing something, or if the movie was less than I expected. It was a splinter, caught deep under a fingernail. I had to get it out, otherwise it would fester. But in order to get it out, I would need to remove parts of, if not the entirety of my nail. I had to know: Was I the dummy? Or was the movie bamboozling me? So I read. I read reviews and thought pieces, I dove into film analysis on YouTube and started to watch breakdowns and analyses of other films to just get an understanding. I tore down the teenage movie critic I had inside me and rebuilt him from the bottom up. Then, Fury Road came to blu-ray and I immediately bought it. I went straight to my friend’s house, and we watched it before a camping trip. It was a completely different movie to me. It spoke to me on so many different levels. It was no longer just an action movie. It had everything I ever wanted or needed in a movie, and I was only scratching the surface.

Fury Road showed me a world that was stark and absurd. It was a desert devoid of plants, but teeming with life. I never knew you could make so much color out of red, orange, yellow and brown. Every scene was bursting at the seams with meaning. I could feel it start to seed the fresh soil I had just prepared  in my mind. My friend and I couldn’t stop talking about it during our camping trip, yelling at each other “witness me” from atop stones 3 feet off the ground. We listened to the soundtrack on our way to Shenandoah Valley and on the way back. We immediately watched it again upon returning to his apartment, still covered in the stink of three days of hiking. I was hooked. I felt I had been enjoying media wrong most of my life.

Of course, this voracious need to dig into film spilled over into my reading habits. How could it not? No longer was entertainment, just entertainment. It was a doorway into the creator’s head. It was something I could separate from them entirely, and imbue with my own meaning. Everything became a statement, consciously or unconsciously, about how I or the artist(s) viewed the world. Of course, reading was different. I didn’t have the camera to direct my attention, or the actors to make me feel for them. I just had words on a page. Big words, small words, run on sentences, cut off dialogue, first person and third person perspectives all started to be imbued with something more. Fury Road handed me the keys to the car, and I’ve had my foot on the pedal since.

Hope Is A Mistake 

Fury Road did one more thing that absolutely changed how I thought about media and really turned me toward the path I walk today. Max and Furiosa, along with their rag tag group, find who they have been looking for among the wastes, and finding the green just as barren, decide that they should continue into the desert in the hopes of finding something more. Before they commit, however, Max offers an alternative. Instead of running away, with a high chance of dying in the desert, they could turn around. They could smash through Immortan Joe’s army,  trap them in the canyons, and take the Citadel with its water and farms back for everyone.

Even on my first viewing, this hit me so hard. Inundated with so many science fiction and fantasy books and movies about finding a greener land, Fury Road did something different. Clear as day, the characters, the world, and metaphors all collided in a single phrase that reverberates in my mind every day: “hope is a mistake.”  Max and Furiosa, along with Immortan Joe’s wives and the women they found, all in this moment realize, you can’t run from the world and you can’t flee your demons. You can only turn to face them, and fight for the world you believe in. It is also suggested by a character who has no personal qualms with Immortan Joe, only the utmost respect for the lives of the people around him.

If it weren’t for this moment, I probably would have walked on, in search of media that was more suited to my tastes. I wouldn’t have tried to learn more about myself, along with the craft of storytelling. It would have been just another movie that was alright. Instead, I look for all these details wherever I go for stories. If I don’t like something, I ask why, and I question the text, and I feel out the characters. Stories I like often revolve around people coming together to fight for life beyond mere survival. The world needs to be a living breathing place that has connective tissue everywhere. No longer do “big ideas” or “neat technology” revolving around poorly drawn characters with passable and predictable stories make the cut.

It’s why I read books I don’t like all the way through. It’s not just about being a completionist, it’s trying to see the whole picture, and whether the little pieces work together. I have to know if the author throws the emergency brake for a 180 degree turn without rolling the car. Or if the characters learn about themselves and the nature of their world. I can’t understand the world without seeing someone else’s perspective of it, in their own language. In some sense, that’s what world building is, seeing reality through someone else’s senses. You get a gauge of what they think is important.

And I have to talk about it, I have to dive into it all, and break it down. I can’t just enjoy something based on its technical merit. Purple prose is fantastic, but it’s not enough. I love a good character study, but it doesn’t stand on its own. Worlds can be built and destroyed, but they mean nothing to me if they don’t mean anything to a character beyond being the setting. I feel the need to write about books because I hope others will see what I see, or even more. There is so much beneath the surface in every story, from the moment it’s an idea in someone’s head, until it’s seen by the eyes of a reader.

Fury Road helped me understand that art informs the world, just as much as the world informs art. They’re impossible to separate, and the worldbuilding in the movie speaks to this idea so much. To tell you all of the things the movie shows you, would cheapen the experience, and belittle your ability to draw your own conclusions. A good book does the same, and gives an even more intimate chance to do so.

Companion – Building a Sequel

Before I start, I need to point out something about how I read books in order for this review to make sense. I’m not a very visual reader, I see words and they echo in my head. Sometimes pictures come if I concentrate hard enough, but that slows down my ability to read. Intricate descriptions of an object’s physical properties do very little to paint a picture in my mind. Action scenes often have to ride on emotional momentum. For me, words inform the mood of a book and suck me in through intensity, atmosphere, and emotion. I think it’s why I tend to gravitate towards a large vocabulary; fine-tuned wording is more effective at enhancing my personal reading experience. So take the following review with a grain of salt as this inclination very much tailored my experience with Companion by Luke Matthews. Companion, also a self published novel, is a risky follow up to Construct. It bets on high characterization over the strong plotting seen previously, leaving me with mixed emotions. However, while I adored the introspective elements, the sometimes overly detailed stage dampened my enjoyment of the book.

Companion picks up a little while after the end of Construct. Jacob splits off from Eriane and Samuel, his plan is to close up some loose ends so they do not hinder the group in their ultimate quest. Samuel follows Eriane on her own separate quest to find the fabled Gunsmith. Eriane had broken her gun in their climatic fight in Construct, and direly needs it fixed. Unfortunately, in this world, even owning a gun, let alone using one, is grounds for execution. Then there is Dal, a man who has lost his memories and returns to his old crew by accident. Despite his former crew’s misgivings and suspicions about him coming back, he tags along for an escort mission through some of the most dangerous territory in the land. He doesn’t quite know what he’s looking for, but he feels he’s in the right place anyway, even though his life is very much on the line.

Alright, let’s dive in. I had trouble with Companion. While some areas of the book reduced my enjoyment, Matthews made some choices I particularly liked. I enjoyed Matthews’ switch to a more introspective story, especially given the ending of Construct. The characters each had their own journey, all of which feel earned and in some ways necessary for future installments. They each had their own pasts to resolve with their perceived futures and wanted to prepare for the fights ahead. There was a solid theme of identity portrayed through each character as they tried to reconcile who they were and who they are. I also appreciated that the introspection did not require fighting through bodies to come to their respective ends within the book. Dal was a wonderful addition to the cast that helped increase the weirdness within the world of The Chronicler Saga. He added some grit even though he was bewildered most of the time, trying to catch up with the madness of his previous life.

Their individual travels also allowed for a further realization of the world. Not a whole lot, but there were the beginnings of a larger place with small towns scattered about. It’s not as fleshed out as I normally would like, but the glimpse was nice and added to the dark western feel I got from the previous book. Matthews took a slower route this time, and it was scenic enough. But I think this was where I had some trouble. Where Construct hooked me with its driving plot and thick atmosphere, Companion had to rely mostly on the characters and a curiosity of the world. Both were handled, and in some cases handled well, I just didn’t particularly jive with some of the choices made throughout the book. Especially the decision to backseat Samuel’s own role within the story, but I digress.

Part of it comes back to the issue I described in the introduction. Companion seemed to be filled with more character and object description than I remembered from the first book. I don’t have the distinct feeling that it was as prevalent in Construct as it was here. There were intricate details of things in places that I didn’t really care about. People covered in trinkets, dusty tables covered in books, and other fantasy paraphernalia that didn’t add too much to the flavor for me. So I tried to ignore that by really ramping up my attention to the characters. The problem I ran into here wasn’t so much the development as much as there were no foils. The characters were different enough, I just didn’t get the distinct feeling that their journeys were very different from each other. Construct benefitted from the back and forth between the perceived good and bad guys, giving you a different taste of story beats. But Companion has three protagonists that are all on similar internal quests that lead to similar outcomes. The lack of variety made it feel slower and more of a trudge than the previous book, which was frustrating for me.

Ultimately I had a very middling experience with Companion. I didn’t hate it at the end nor did I feel betrayed, but in some ways I did feel appreciative. Appreciative that Matthews took some interesting risks that for me paid off two-thirds of the time. In part my particular reading style got in the way, but also because of those same risks. If you liked Construct, I think you’ll like this one and your mileage may vary depending on the kind of reader you are. The characters are better and more interesting, and the world just has a little more to it. I’m still interested in the world, and I really want to see Samuel’s and his friends’ journeys to the end and unveil the revelations of the Chroniclers. I didn’t like it as much as Construct, but don’t let that deter you if you’re curious. Matthews has certainly put in the work, and I hope he continues to do so in the next book.

Rating: Companion– 6.5/10
-Alex

Memoria — Once Again, With Even More Feeling

I don’t know what’s in the water that some of these newer authors have been drinking, but boy am I jealous. Almost every sequel I’ve read in recent memory has been an absolute treat. Sometimes they just completely blow the debut out of the water, and others continue the legacy of the first, making no excuses. Just don’t let me get my hopes up too high now, or I might enjoy something for once. Memoria, by Kristyn Merbeth, is no exception to this rule. Fortuna, the first book in the Nova Vita Protocol, was an absolute delight, and I’m happy to report that the sequel did not falter. Memoria is an emotional rollercoaster that avoids the middle book slump with finesse.

It’s going to be hard to avoid spoilers for the first book here, so if you’re thinking about picking it up, turn back now. Memoria follows soon after the catastrophic events of Fortuna. The planet Titan is once again a cold dead wasteland, its population wiped out by a Primus bomb delivered by Auriga Kaiser herself on behalf of Gaia, a planet that was speedrunning it’s isolationist measures. Gaia itself was also turned into a wasteland due to latent alien technology, and it’s citizens were evacuated to Nibiru, which has caused some tension to say the least. The Kaisers are grounded without a ship, and Scorpia is feeling antsy, while Corvus is helping the rest of the family settle into life on Nibiru. However, an opportunity to get a ship comes up, and Scorpia takes it, even if it means taking it to Gaia to study the alien technology that has made it inhabitable. What they find sets her on edge, and makes Corvus think that the fight is only about to begin.

Let’s get this out of the way first. Merbeth’s characters are the highlight of the story. I fell in absolute love with them in the first book, and it was easy to slip into the Kaiser’s drama the second time around. They feel even more alive after having some time to sit and think about the events of the first book. Scorpia is trying to deal with her alcoholism, and Corvus, well…he’s being Corvus. Their siblings are also dealing with the events of the past, especially since they unknowingly had a hand in it. Scorpia wants to fly, while everyone else just wants to live where they can find a home. Needless to say, the tension is high between the members of the family and it won’t take much to tip the scales. It feels like Merbeth set up a pressure cooker filled with dynamite and beans, plugged the release valves, and stepped back to see what would happen. The drama and fights feel real, earned, and heartbreaking. Without the glue of their tough love mother, Auriga, it’s up to Corvus and Scorpia to hold them together, and they are failing.

The writing is still top notch. While I loved Scorpia in the first book, there was a sense of sadness I got whenever I read her sections this time around. She was still her charismatic, bumbling self, but there were times where she felt she didn’t quite believe in herself and had to put up a front for the rest of her family. It made it more heartbreaking everytime she thought about meeting oblivion at the bottom of a bottle. She’s still my favorite of the characters, and her journey just wrecks me. And oh boy, is Corvus being the most absolute Corvus he can be. He’s still detached, cold, and doesn’t know how much he should hold onto his old world. Even around his family he can’t seem to let go, and really ties himself to his Titan heritage. But even though he gets stuck in his own head, afraid to talk to others, he rarely fails to act when he’s needed. Everytime he goes out to do something he hates, I could feel his emotional armor cloak him until it was all over. And everytime it happened it hurt even more.

The stakes are even higher this time around, and Merbeth actually got me to buy in a little harder this time. My main complaint about Fortuna was that the events felt too big, and I had no real sense of scale. It’s still somewhat the case here, but it feels more purposefully nebulous. I mean, how can one capture a whole war through the eyes of two family members? The conflict is far more drawn out, with politicking and pressures building on the various factions within the story. Repercussions from Fortuna hang on every sentence that demands action. People died in fits and spurts here, on and off screen and everyone of them felt tangible. It certainly helps you get to see aspects of it through Corvus’ eyes, a veteran of the constant struggle on Titan. He brings a grim framing that feels like a horrible job that doesn’t necessarily need to be done, but he follows through anyway. It really made the war scenes pop in a way I wasn’t expecting. Plus, the Kaiser’s as a family never felt completely safe. Merbeth splits them up and it was incredibly nerve wracking as I waited for several of them to never come back.

I don’t know how many more times I’m going to have to end a review this way, but I hope it’s many more times to come. Memoria is a spectacular follow up to Fortuna. The characters feel like they went through some sewers in the first book, only to find themselves stuck in the waste treatment plant, with even less friends on their side. The writing separating the chapters was still tight, allowing each character to feel their own, and give different perspectives on the tasks ahead. And the family stakes were more cleverly intertwined with the grand stakes. There was a solidness to the events that made the war feel like a war. I am honestly afraid of what Merbeth has in store for readers in the next book, because I don’t think the Kaisers will ever catch a break.

Rating: Memoria 9.0/10
-Alex

A Broken Darkness — When the Light at the End of the Tunnel is But a Candle

Beneath the Rising was one of the early Dark Horses of last year, and boy, oh boy did it pack a punch. I wasn’t expecting a sequel, but Premee Mohamed decided to grace us with one anyway. If her debut novel had my curiosity, the follow up has my attention. A Broken Darkness is a strong follow up that builds on the foundation of its predecessor and delivers strong writing through great characterization. This review is primarily for those who have read the first novel, though some spoilers have been avoided. So if you haven’t I would recommend checking out our review of Beneath the Rising here instead.

Following the events of the first book, A Broken Darkness follows Nick Prasad on another dark adventure with his estranged friend and world renowned genius Johnny Chambers. They had managed to seal away the Ancient Ones, but their friendship was destroyed in the process. Johnny has another amazing reveal, promising the future of clean energy, and Nick is sent by the Ssarati Society to witness the event. While there, something happens that shouldn’t have, They have returned and in an even stronger fashion than before. Johnny says she didn’t know and was sure she sealed them away forever. However, Nick has his doubts, while also fearing that she may be the only one to save them once again.

Mohamed does a great job diving right back into the fray with A Broken Darkness. Nick’s head is just as jumbled as it was before, and in some ways he’s even worse off. The revelations of his relationship to Johnny at the end of Rising have clearly fractured his mind, and his choice to walk away from her only splintered it more. He constantly seems at war with himself, trying to convince himself that Johnny has every intent to save the world again, while having trouble with the fact that she has previously let him down. At times it gets a little repetitive, but Mohamed approaches it freshly enough that it didn’t feel like it was dragging. It helps that Nick’s mind and his body feel completely separated. He thinks one thing, but acts another in front of her, as if he can’t quite break the hold she has on him. This is excellently conveyed through their great chemistry, and his constant berating of her within his head. It’s painful to watch, but easily conveys the nature of their toxic relationship and feels realistic given their history and the events they are living through.

The story is still rip-roaringly fast. Nick and Johnny are globetrotting again to new places and also seeing some familiar faces. It’s fun, and at times scary. The lengths they go through to find the information they need are astounding. Mohamed is pretty good at reminding readers who specific beings are, and what purpose they had in the previous story without taking you out of the flow too. The writing is still incredible, specifically within Nick’s head. There are a few times where the dialogue was a little much, particularly when Nick and Johnny would share references to each other. There were times when it felt purposefully out of place, like Nick was caught in the trap of Johnny’s presence and needed to please her. Other times it just felt like it was filling space. Overall it wasn’t that big a deal to me, even with the pop culture references, because they felt real for the most part. It’s as if the only way to close the distance between them is through a shared superficial past. Darkness is filled with moments like this that remind you of who Nick wants to be, while constantly reminding you of who he is and how it’s directly tied to Johnny.

Rising was great at highlighting the racial and class tensions between Johnny and Nick, and Darkness is no different. In fact, Mohamed doubles down on the race and class aspects, making them impossible to ignore. The ties between these two tensions run incredibly deep between the two books and it’s impossible to cover them without spoilers. To avoid them, I want to highlight a few ways Mohamed weaves them into the narrative, keeping the story going while alluding to the darker themes hiding in the shadows. The phrase that reverberated through my mind as I read this book was “she can’t keep getting away with it!” Johnny constantly thinks she can do whatever she wants to save the day. Many times the Ssarati Society, a secret organization of watchers that Nick now belongs to, tries to foil her plans, but often Nick gets in the way. Johnny can never be defeated, and often brushes Death’s shoulder while pulling off some grand scheme. And Nick, for all his internal bluster, lets her get away with it and fights for her, even though he hates her. It leads to a somewhat baffling but terrifying climax that doesn’t attain the heights of the previous book. However, it made me do a double take so I could be sure I read it right, and it really clarified the rest of the book for me.

If you enjoyed Beneath the Rising, I am sure you will enjoy this one too. In some ways it’s a little more of the same, but Mohamed has gotten sharper. It’s semi-repetitive nature feels like a feature, begging to be examined instead of brushed off. Nick’s point of view is messy and it’s hard to trust him and those he embeds himself with. There were fewer moments of dread from the Ancient Ones this time around, but it felt far more tailored to Nick and Johnny’s relationship, and Johnny’s hubris. The ending is definitely worth the read on it’s own, but the journey only makes it more horrifying. While it does not break new ground in the way it’s predecessor did, A Broken Darkness still represents a great addition to this story. If you haven’t picked up either book, and are curious about Lovecraftian inspired horror with a modern twist, I implore you to read them.

Rating: A Broken Darkness – 8.0/10
-Alex

Velocity Weapon — Shooting for the Stars

Friends, folks, however you consider yourselves, I have to admit a wrongdoing of untold selfish proportions. I have read this book twice, once upon its release, once quite recently, and I have yet to praise it’s glory to you. However, with Megan O’Keefe wrapping up her trilogy later this year, I figured I’d revisit the saga for a full read through, and ameliorate my sins. Reading Velocity Weapon is joy synthesized with breakneck thrills, and it’s a drug that does not lose its potency upon repeated use. Its twists and turns still came out blasters a’blazing, even the ones I remembered. So I’m here to tell you, if you missed Velocity Weapon by Megan O’Keefe, you should take another pass at the Ada system and marvel at its fast-paced beauty.

The story takes place in the far future of humanity, centered on a single star system (called Ada) that seems to reside on the borders of a greater human civilization. It has a single jump gate that leads to a wider universe populated by humanity. The planet Ada Prime is ruled by the Keepers, and its neighboring planet, Icarion, is signalling it will fight for greater access to the jump gate heavily regulated by the Primes. Enter the Greeve siblings, Biran and Sanda. Sanda is a member of Ada Prime’s spaceborn navy, while Biran is a newly inducted member of the Keepers. However, Sanda has woken up inside an enemy warship, after spending 230 years in cryo sleep. There is not a single human soul on board, leaving the ship’s AI, Bero (shortened from The Light of Berossus), to explain the situation to her. Ada Prime (Sanda’s world) was destroyed alongside Icarion in the latter’s pursuit for greater Autonomy. Unfortunately, with that knowledge comes Bero’s own complicity in the act, as he is the weapon Icarion used. Meanwhile, 230 years in the past, Biran is the new Speaker for the Keepers. His goal is to maintain a sense of peace and control of the situation after discovering his sister may have been killed in a warning shot from Icarion. How does Sanda cope with the loss, and how can she survive when everything she has ever known has been wiped out? What can Biran do in the face of impending doom, unbeknownst to him, as the two planets hurtle towards oblivion?

Velocity Weapon is a non-stop roller coaster that just never ends. O’Keefe slams the throttle to ludicrous speed from the opening chapter and does not let up. I found myself constantly amazed with O’Keefe’s ability to weave back and forth between the stories. She consistently ramps the tension up in both, while having them interact over the vast timeline. There is no direct interaction, but Sanda slowly coming to the realization that her entire life is gone, and those she loved destroyed, ramps up the ever present threat in Biran’s story. They are both speeding towards the collision, and even after several reveals, O’Keefe never lets up on the gas, finding ways to accelerate the narrative even more. It’s one rip-roaring hell of a good time.

The characters are a hoot and a half. Sanda doesn’t take shit from anyone, even from the ship Bero. If there is a problem, she puts her head down and works to solve it, even when it seems impossible. She is pure grit and action, pushing forward through her muddy circumstances with unwavering tenacity. She often puts herself in harm’s way, even when odds are clearly stacked against her. On the other hand, Biran is more like a bull in a china shop with a law degree who convinces the shop owner it was their fault for letting him in. He has moments where he wreaks havoc unwittingly because he feels it’s the best choice in his heart. Once he sees the trap he’s gotten himself into, though, he’s really good at turning the tables and making it work for him. Over time, he becomes more of a smooth operator, and it’s a pure joy to watch. Bero is a delight, and feels like an overpowered computer that is just growing as a personality. The computer exhibits the calculating nature and instant access to information while being jumbled up with emotional control of a child. Bero’s relationship with Sanda is a treat, and O’Keefe’s ability to write banter truly shines here.

The world presented within Velocity Weapon is also astoundingly realized, especially given the lightning pace that characterizes the book. It is a relatively small story, taking place within a single system that feels very much on the outskirts of a vast network of human colonies. There definitely seems to be a reason that the information dial is set to low for the majority of the characters, and O’Keefe sells it. Some people might find that certain sections of the book feel conveniently written, giving context to a mystery that isn’t present till later in the story, but I personally ate it up. It felt like following gumdrops into the dark forest that is clearly also on fire. O’Keefe littered the pages with these small mysteries nudging the reader forward, forcing me to interrogate the world and the character’s roles within it. It helps that O’Keefe leaves one with the knowledge to understand some things, but the well is much deeper than one can even imagine.

I only have two miniscule complaints about the book that stood out to me more on my second reading. The first is that sometimes the last quarter felt exhausting. O’Keefe shifts the plot into lightspeed, and twists and turns fly at you like asteroids in a Star Wars movie. It’s a rollicking good time that forces you to finish the book, but it’s also a lot of information to handle. I’m very glad I went for the re-read in preparation for the next two books. Second, there is a third POV character involving  a heist that is mostly disconnected from the back and forth between Sanda and Biran. It’s not that it was uninteresting, it just occasionally breaks the flow of the story. When it worked well, it was a good break, other times it just felt like it got in the way. It’s a great set up for the following books, but right now it feels a tad clunky.

Velocity Weapon ranks up there with one of the most aptly named science fiction books I’ve ever read. It blasts off with an extreme amount of force, and accelerates into near oblivion by the end. The first time I read it, I was ecstatic about it, and that really didn’t change on the second go around. It packs a punch and leaves one wanting more from the world and its characters. It’s hard to cover so much good that happens in a single book, but O’Keefe manages to make almost every aspect of the book tantalizing. However, now that I’ve refreshed myself on the details, I’m ready to dive into Chaos Vector just in time for the end of the trilogy later this year. If you’re looking for a fun, fast paced, high octane science fiction story, then Velocity Weapon is the perfect ignition.

Rating: Velocity Weapon 8.5/10
-Alex

A Desolation Called Peace — A Sequel Deemed Magnificent

A Memory Called Empire is easily one of my favorite debut novels of the last several years. Not a lot of other books captivated me with the levels of palace intrigue Arkady Martine was able to stuff inside it. Not only that, but the book massaged my big brained ego with its exploration of identity in the face of hegemonic culture. Needless to say, I loved the hell out of it. And when I heard there was going to be a sequel, my heart filled with glee. Well, that sequel is about to be released, and I am excited to say it was just as much a blast. A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine, is a worthy successor, delivering an excellently paced plot full of character, political intrigue and oh so delicious language.

The book takes place shortly after the events of A Memory Called Empire. Mahit Dzmare has returned to Lsel and has been dodging Heritage, who is in charge of her imago machine, as she’s afraid they’ll discover her secret and wipe out her memory line. Nine Hibiscus is the newly appointed yaotlek, sent to the front lines with six fleets to encounter the coming alien menace. She has some other captains questioning her authority, while many of her pilots are dying without any real progress. So she sends for a diplomat from Information, and Three Seagrass answers the call. As Three Seagrass finds her way to the front, she stops by Lsel Station and convinces Mahit to join her and help her translate the messages they received from the aliens in a last ditch hope to prevent all out war. In the capital, Eight Antidote, heir apparent to the throne, is undergoing his imperial education under the tutelage of interim ruler Nineteen Adze and an array of military advisors. However, he plays the child to gather information that may ultimately decide the fate of the Teixcalaanli Empire and the future of his people.

If A Memory Called Empire was a foundation shaking earthquake, Desolation is the much feared tsunami. Martine does an excellent job of digging into the themes of the first book, while avoiding repetition and retreading well-worn paths. Instead, she splits the narrative in a more deliberate manner between four different perspectives, allowing her themes to evolve more organically. Individual identity and its relationship to culture still plays a major part, but it’s more immediate and personal aspects are uncovered. First contact between two incredibly hegemonic powers dives into the nature of communication and the ethics of overwhelming force. Training and cultural memory take the forefront through the eyes of Eight Antidote, the heir to be, as they struggle to understand the purpose of empire. There is a plethora of explorations into the human condition, it would take up the review to just dive into a few of them.

The story is incredibly well paced, opening up with the first salvo of Teixcalaanli’s counter attack against a formless alien menace, and only spiraling upwards from there. Each point of view feels like its own unique story, with its own particular role to play. I experienced so much joy and stress while reading about Eight Antidote learning to be an emperor, while Nine Hibiscus is trying to lead a fleet on the verge of mutiny against an alien they know nothing about. Interlaced with those stories is Mahit navigating who she is with two other people in her head, all while Three Seagrass is getting her to help lead a dialogue with the aliens they just encountered. Yet, even though this is all happening at the same time, Martine has no problem keeping you in tune with every aspect. Martine is a watchmaker of the highest order. She meticulously crafts all of these small spinning gears, and forces the reader to watch them spin on their own. You can see the teeth connecting to other gears and you know it’s turning other hidden gear(s), but you don’t know how big or small they are comparatively. Every now and then she gives you a glimpse of the finished watch, but never quite the entirety of the arrayed network of precisely tuned waltzing cogs, that is until she does. And when every little piece comes together, and I mean literally every little piece, and the clock strikes midnight, it’s truly a sight to behold.

A concern I had leading into Desolation was character. Mahit was such an interesting perspective due to the cultural war raging in her brain and the way everyone views her as a tool. I was afraid that stepping outside her would dampen the magic of Memory, but that was not at all the case. While Mahit and Three Seagrass each feel as vivid as they did in Memory, I found myself equally entranced by the other two main characters. Eight Antidote felt like a child who grew up with the sobering knowledge that they would one day be emperor and the responsibility he would have to his people. His escapades while “playing spy” were a delight, while also filled with a foreshadowing tension. Nine Hibiscus comes off as a confident wild card of a general, who plays to win, but only if she has the absolute correct hand. Martine is excellent at showing characters through their actions, while juxtaposing them with how others view them from worlds away. Palace intrigue is on full display here, and she uses it to her full advantage, allowing the reader to question the actions of the characters and hiding their intent. I loved every second of it.

All in all, if you liked or loved Memory, you’ll likely have similar feelings about Desolation. I didn’t expect to slip into Martine’s use of language like a fish in water after two years, but I did. The plotting feels just as strong, with the end feeling like destiny. The characters are vibrant and their stories feel just as human. The themes don’t feel as blunt as in Memory, but they are still a wonderful shifting kaleidoscope that changes each time you take a deeper look. There aren’t many books that I’d wish my memory erased for a re-read, but these two are definitely on that list.

Rating: A Desolation Called Peace – 9.5/10
-Alex

 

The Echo Wife — Echo, Echooo, Echoooooooooo

Yeah yeah, the subtitle is easy pickings, but sometimes it’s the simple things in life that are the best. It’s very hard to come up with a pun that combines the act of echoing and the myriad themes Sarah Gailey has packed into this book. There are questions about the debate of nature vs nurture, and an extreme muddying of the waters. You have traumas past and present building characters with insatiable levels of drive in one direction or another. So instead of agonizing over the title, I chose to dig into the book itself. The Echo Wife, by the aforementioned Sarah Gailey, is a dark journey through the psyche of a woman that also manages to blur the lines of nature versus nurture in clever ways.

Evelyn, the main protagonist and only perspective, is a renowned scientist in the field of cloning. She has just been presented with a major award for her advances in the field, and yet her husband is too busy having an affair to care about her accomplishments. But it’s not the average run of the mill affair. Martine, her husband’s new girlfriend, is a clone of Evelyn grown and raised in secret by her husband to be everything Evelyn was not. Obedient. Patient. Gentle. Martine oddly wants to form a sort of friendship with Evelyn, and Evelyn obliges by having a meeting over tea, and having Martine over at her place. One night she receives a terrible phone call from Martine: her ex husband is dead, and Martine has killed him. In order to hide the secret of Martine, and the death of her ex husband and keep her standing within her field, Evelyn hatches a plan that will require her particularly useful set of skills.

While the premise sounded promising, I had a hard time getting into this book. Mostly, I think I had trouble with the main character, Evelyn, and her blunt anger and career driven attitude. It’s less that I find these traits distasteful, it’s just her inner monologue became a repetitive jackhammer in my brain, and threatened to become the sole way in which I saw her character. While it serves as a sturdy foundation for further exploration of the book’s themes later on, I had a hard time getting past the upfront and ever present repetition of who Evelyn was to herself. However, while these aspects of Evelyn don’t really soften through the progression of the book, Gailey highlights their omnipresence within Evelyn’s life in interesting ways as the story goes on. Her counterpart, Martine, is a great foil, and really helps dig into Evelyn’s brusque manners in exciting and compelling ways. Martine dilutes some of Evelyn’s more obtuse qualities, not through action but by taking up space within the story. She’s too polite, goes out of her way to make people feel comfortable, but also shows some of the incessant drive that fuels Evelyn. She has her own dreams and desires even if they are mostly programmed by Evelyn’s husband. I admire Gailey’s ability to make two people who are so different feel so similar at the same time, without resorting to superficial contrivances.

The story itself is weirdly fun. Gailey presents a pretty horrific and disturbing scenario with a quirky sensibility. There are points where it feels like they wrote a fifties television show pilot, complete with a “shrewish” woman learning the ropes from her perfect housewife clone. I wouldn’t say I laughed, but there is sinister comedy at play that keeps the story oddly light, while it explores some shadowy territory. That feeling stops, however, during Evelyn’s flashbacks to her upbringing. These chapters are tough pills to swallow, and while they were never a joy to read, they were compelling in their own right. Her relationship with both her parents and the interactions she has with them are haunting in many different ways. Gailey does an excellent job of keeping the information low in these sections, focusing on the memories a child would have developed, instead of viewing them as Evelyn would as an adult. They are free of rumination and judgement, giving you a window into her past with the shades half drawn.

Though it takes some time for the wallpaper to be stripped from the intricate mosaic below the surface, the mosaic is horrifying and breathtakingly beautiful at the same time. Gailey juggles concepts of free will and human programming, while humming a mashup of I Love Lucy and The Twilight Zone. It’s a strange novel, but Gailey patiently allows the snowball of a reveal to build up. Obviously, nature vs nurture comes up, but they throw a wrench in the gears by confusing the two. What does it mean when the programming is a form of nurture, but meant to create a specific nature? It’s further complicated by the memories that Evelyn has of her childhood as they dive into how she becomes who she is. Gailey plays it well too, not diving too much into cause and effect, instead allowing the reader to parse the memories like they would their own life. They are written as if you’re asking yourself, “why am I the way that I am,” while diving into the packets of neurons that make up your past to find those answers, without really finding specific events. It’s exciting and dreadful at the same time because all it does is bring you to one terrifying answer, you’re unique, but not special.

Gailey has written a fun and dark exploration of what makes us who we are. I am glad I stuck with it, but I will admit it was a tough go for the first fifth of the book. It never really picks up great speed, however, they are patient, and I recommend you be patient too. There are times the book threatens to be a thriller, but it never really follows through, but I think it’s better for it. If you’re looking for a brisk, weird and uncanny dive into the nature of identity through a funhouse mirror, Echo Wife should be on your to TBR.

Rating: The Echo Wife – 7.5/10
-Alex

 

Tower of Mud and Straw — Colossal in its Brevity

They say it’s never a good idea to judge a book by it’s cover. After a while, when it comes to actual books, that advice gets harder and harder to follow. It’s not easy with all these amazing artists out there, providing color and form to black and white text. Some of my favorite covers are striking juxtapositions between the title and the actual picture. However, the cover for this book felt oppressive and mysterious and it just lured me in. A dark tower invades the page, punctuating the cover’s foggy negative space. Even though the perspective is from above the gargantuan feat of engineering, it still towers over you, begging you to throw stones at it while it cackles at your powerlessness. The owner of this cover, Tower of Mud and Straw, by Yaroslav Barsukov, is a flurry of a novella, and delivers its meticulously planned punches with style and heart. 

The book follows one minister Shea Ashcroft after he has been banished to the border for defying the queen’s orders to gas a crowd of protestors. His task is to aid in the construction of the largest anti-air defense tower in history. Having no other choice, Ashcroft heads to the bordertown of Owenbeg and begins to learn about the construction and the hazards that plague it. Upon discovering that risky Drakiri technology is being used to prop up the giant tower, Ashcroft is pulled into conspiracy after conspiracy. Some want the tower finished to aid in the coming war with their neighbor, others want it destroyed as it will fulfill an apocalyptic prophecy. Ashcroft just wants his life back and will do what he must to make sure the construction succeeds. 

One of the most standout aspects of this book is Barsukov’s writing. It’s flowery, but in the way that kudzu is flowery. It’s dense and tangled, and obscured much of my understanding beyond the surface. Barsukov doesn’t hold the reader’s hand. Sometimes it’s easy to get a little lost, but I think that’s partially the point. Interesting things are clearly afoot, but at the same time they are clouded by Ashcroft’s perspective. It’s often manic, jumping between past memories, present events, and futures imagined. Barsukov sometimes highlights these different mental spaces within the writing. Other times it blends together, allowing Ashcroft’s guilt and pain to come to the forefront, blurring his current reality. It’s clever, even if sometimes confusing. My advice, take it slow to fully appreciate the whirlwind. 

I also had a blast with Barsukov’s worldbuilding. It’s minimal, and forces you to ask questions and pay attention to everything. Often my curiosity on a subject was answered by the character’s own ignorance. It creates this neat little push forward that compels the reader to keep digging in the hopes they might discover the answer to the mysteries themselves. A lot of these answers remain ambiguous, but in a way that feels thematically fulfilling. Barsukov plays it tight to the chest, only giving the reader what the flawed narrator discovers, allowing Owenbeg to slowly flesh itself out as needed. It doesn’t hurt that Ashcroft is not a great investigator, but he does know a thing or two about the technology from the secretive race of Drakiri that is being used to cut corners. It makes the world feel exciting, and casts Ashcroft as a bull-fish in a chinashop out of water. 

However, I will say I was lukewarm on Ashcroft himself. I think there are aspects to him that are compelling, but I wasn’t entirely sure of his drive. The book starts out with his refusal to follow the queen’s orders, and while I admire his moral standing on not gassing protestors, I never got the sense it was part of who he was. He has a past, but it’s never satisfactorily explained how he gets from his history to the place we meet him in the opening pages. Normally I wouldn’t mind so much, but the gap in Ashcroft’s development is disappointing when the book seems to explore the desire for power and the atrocities one has to carry out in order to achieve and secure it. I didn’t feel his own lust for power that propelled him to the capitol, and in the queen’s graces, he just happened to be there. Everyone around Ashcroft has their own agenda, pushing him to complete or destroy the tower for intangible and tangible reasons. It leaves him bewildered as there is just not enough time to inform himself before committing to one side or another. Yet, Ashcroft feels like a dog chasing cars. There wasn’t enough of a foundation to make me feel this was who he was leading up to defying the queen. It’s not a deal breaker, and if you read the book as some fever dream, that is packed with innuendo and metaphor, it works really well. It’s just something that stuck out to me, and kind of hampered some of the introspective tension in the climax.

All in all, Tower of Mud and Straw is worth the couple of hours it takes to read it. In the ever growing market for novellas, Barsukov’s story is a contender for the top brackets. It’s clever, it’s feverish, and he leaves much up for interpretation. There aren’t any real answers to the myriad of questions, and the whip crack transitions between plot points cover Barsukov’s tracks even better. Some people might want explanations, but I was quite satisfied by the end of the book. It’s a real treat, and I implore you to check it out. 

Rating: Tower of Mud and Straw – 8.0/10
-Alex

Engines of Oblivion — Perpetual Motion in Action

Last year I had the pleasure of reading Karen Osborne’s debut, Architects of Memory. Over time I feel I may have been a little tougher on it than necessary, especially since it was smack dab in the middle of other wonderful books on my TBR. I also buried the lead on Osborne’s rich world of corporate warfare and espionage, completely glossing over how ingrained within the characters the system was. However, the book still left me excited for more of Osborne’s work and well, luckily for me and other fans, the second book is around the corner. Engines of Oblivion is a more brutal examination of Osborne’s world, with tighter character work and pacing to boot. 

Engines is the story of Natalie Chan as she cobbles together a life after the events of Tribulation in the first book. After a routine scouting test of her remote controlled mech goes awry, and Natalie is removed from her position as head of her lab. The test went perfectly in the minds of the Board members, but Natalie’s unwillingness to see their point of view has put her in dire straits. To salvage her reputation she has to capture Ash Jackson and their former captain, Kate Keller. The board doesn’t believe Ash and Kater are dead, and has a distinct feeling that Natalie helped them escape their grasp. Paired up with the infamous Dr. Reva Sharma, Natalie sets off to find Ash and Kate, to hopefully help Aurora corporation unlock the remaining secrets of the alien Vai and take the fight to them. 

Like I said in the intro, I totally flubbed on pointing out Osborne’s screed against corporatocracy in the first book. It’s a major foundation of the world and the characters’ journeys, and Osborne fleshes it out beautifully. Every aspect of life revolves around ones relationship to a corporation. Osborne delivers it in handfuls as well, allowing it to come out in speech and action instead of a direct to reader monologue. It’s a living breathing corporate owned humanity where everything is a commodity, where the lowest are treated as expendable slaves, and the highest used as replaceable machine parts. If I had read the book at a different time, this would have been the center of the review, but alas, I had been mired in several such stories, and it took a truly awful book to make me realize how important it was to Architects. That being said however, Osboune ratchets it up several notches in her second outing, and I was hooked on it. The different ways contracts, hierarchy, personal choice, and internal storytelling dance in their violent waltz is constantly on display in Engines

The best choice Osborne made for the book was centering Natalie as the point of view for Engines. It honestly felt like a stroke of genius. Don’t get me wrong. Ash Jackson is great in Architects, but Natalie was someone I had trouble sympathizing with on a personal level. She was xenophobic and dedicated her life to fighting the alien menace. Even when Ash tried to explain their thinking, how their understanding of life was so incredibly different from our own, Natalie was stubborn about wanting to exterminate them at all costs. This continues into Engines and while it’s not exactly baklava, it’s less cartoonish and is rounded out. It comes from a place of misguided protection, but her xenophobia is still highlighted. Natalie as a person still frustrating, but it felt so right for her character.

It was fascinating to see Osborne’s world through Natalie’s eyes. She was truly someone who believed in the power and mission of Aurora, and she felt they could make the best use of her skill. However, this feeling is slowly eroded through the story as she learns more about the goals of Aurora and the board members she so diligently serves. Every step Natalie takes to her vision of freedom, she learns of two or three more barriers. Following her, and watching her try to buck the system she has been fighting for was truly a treat. Natalie spends a lot of time following orders, mildly questioning orders and trying to bury her own complicity in the red tape of bureaucracy. Osborne writes with patience, watering the seed of Natalie’s guilt and dissent with care, never allowing a single moment to define “this is where she changes.” She begins to question her relationships, her skills, and her place within Aurora as it uses her to suit its needs. Osborne makes it work with hard-hitting reveals, and slow acceptance on Natalie’s part. It becomes a journey of taking responsibility for one’s own complicity and by god, is it a journey. 

Engines of Oblivion is the perfect sequel. Osborne amplified every aspect of the first book and made it all tighter. The story is always moving, but Osborne deftly controls the speed, ramping it up for tension, and slowing it for introspection and revelation. Her choice to step outside her original protagonists and gaze at her corporate world through Natalie’s eyes was bold and insightful. There are layers to Natalie, and her transformation through the book is hard fought. She never feels quite safe, whether it be from conflict in front of her, or from her own internal turmoil. Every piece of the narrative fits into the wider puzzle, and when you get to see the whole picture, it’s beautiful. If you liked Architects of Memory at all, you need to pick up Engines of Oblivion. And if you haven’t read the first one, it’s absolutely worth it to read Engines

Rating: Engines of Oblivion – 9.0/10

-Alex

Amid The Crowd of Stars – Bright, but Less Crowded Than I Hoped

Over the past few years I’ve moved away from the idea that science fiction is the genre of “big ideas.” It can be a good descriptor, but unless a specific topic is discussed within a specific book, I find it unhelpful. “It’s a book about big ideas” has become a meaningless phrase to me, and I’m a better reviewer for it. That being said, if a book is marketed or said to explore a distinct idea, well, it’s extremely hard for me to say no to that book. It’s partially why my TBR is just an unending pit and I just need a book that shows me why it’s okay to die with tasks unfinished (now that’s a BIG IDEA). So when I stumbled about the description for this next book, I just had to read it. Amid The Crowd of Stars, by Stephen Leigh, is a tightly focused novel about the ethics and implications of interstellar travel and colonization that rarely goes beyond its central concepts both to its benefit and detriment.

The novel follows Ichiko Aguilar, a Japanese scientist sent to  investigate an established colony, called Lupus, cut off from Earth for centuries. Once there, she takes it upon herself to research and record the societies that have developed in response to the environment they live in. Through her short trips she meets Saoirse Mullin, a member of the Mullin clan on the Inish isles, and daughter of the clan’s matriarch. Now that the colony has contact with people from Earth, Saoirse dreams of returning to humanity’s home. Unfortunately, the centuries upon the colonized planets have not been kind to the people there, and they may harbor diseases that could ruin life on Earth. Tests need to be completed and research to be done in order to ensure that both the people of Earth and those on Lupus will not harm each other. 

Firstly, Leigh’s exploration of the subject at hand is pretty thorough from a psychological and biological perspective. He wastes no time in setting up the stakes, diving right into the issues from the get go. Some readers might find it a bit jarring, especially with the minimal worldbuilding outside the colony, but it pulled me right in and focused on the smaller aspects of the story. The conversations surrounding the ethics of being exposed to alien biomes and becoming a part of them feel natural, even in their thought experiment format. Leigh mostly succeeds in making the central thesis a part of the story, and allows the characters and events to dictate the debate. Rarely did I ever feel like Leigh was building to a point, allowing the situation to play out instead of feeling like a lecture on why it should be done a specific way. Leigh, without succumbing to a dooming perspective, also did not limit his imagination when it came to implications and consequences. It was an intricate dance of grounded realism and fantastical “what ifs.” Leigh wrote a far more curious book than I was expecting and that warmed my critical heart. 

However, while it was a great exploration of “should we colonize alien biomes and forever change the internal makeup of some humans,” it’s hard to say it’s an excellent story. It’s not bad by any means, and often Leigh manages to make it compelling, but on it’s own it isn’t much to write home about. There is a lot of slow revealing of information over the course of the book, but rarely does it feel overtly impactful. The fact that the story is limited to two points of view when there are easily more than four different perspectives lessens the stakes in some ways. I realize that the goal was more the exploration of “exposure to alien DNA and its ramifications,” but at the same time I felt the focus was a little too narrow. There were definitely moments that could have thrown a wrench into the proceedings, but the story seemed to stop outside of the character’s perspectives at some points. If there had been a little more discussion outside earshot of Ichiko and Saoirse from the people on and off Lupus, the grander story would have been more intriguing to me.

Fortunately, Leigh is good at writing characters. Ichiko and Saoirse are both interesting and have internal lives that make their actions and concerns tangible and natural. Their individual stories made the book feel like a drama for the most part, instead of a thought experiment. The debate has a real effect on both their lives, and they each do their part to solve the problem. Saoirse especially feels daring and bold when it comes to increasing her chances at leaving the world of Lupus. Ichiko feels curious, and views the situation as an opportunity to learn while at times forgetting that the people of Lupus exist on their own. Their relationship to each other is dynamic, and Leigh does a great job of making it feel tense between them when there are secrets and implications. The author rightly makes this relationship the focal point of the debate, but as I said before sometimes it has a penchant for feeling like the only part that matters. 

Overall, I enjoyed my time with Amid the Crowd of Stars, but it also didn’t surpass my expectations. It’s a powerful thought experiment with a narrative window dressing, not a thrilling tale with a cleverly nested discourse. The two main characters feel alive, as do aspects of the world in the center of the book. The book also feels ripe for metaphors if you want to aggressively read into some of the subtler themes, particularly in relation to a sense of place within nature, but they also don’t feel purposeful. There is a lot to like about this book, and if you’re at all the kind of person who reads science fiction to better conceive of a future, it should be on your list. 

Rating: Amid the Crowd of Stars – 7.0/10

-Alex