The Wormwood Trilogy – It’s Here to Win Hearts, Minds and Bodies

51geqr9ecilRosewater has taunted me from my bookshelf for the past year. Handed to me by QTL Founder Andrew in one of his multi annual book distributions, it sat there slowly seducing me with its elegant cover. I knew nothing about it other than it garnered a lot of praise within review circles. “I’ll get to it one day,” I’d say to myself every time I looked at it, picking instead another ARC with a deadline, or a book I felt I needed to get out of the way. Until one day, I decided to venture into Rosewater’s unknown maze, to get lost in something I had no notion of beyond it being a first contact story that took place in Nigeria. Upon finishing Rosewater, I immediately ordered the next two books, their covers gleaming at me and taunting me with the horrors that awaited me inside them. Even during quarantine I tried to stick to a schedule, staying on top of the ARCs I requested, knowing that somewhere Wormwood was waiting for me. If you haven’t heard of it, or know very little of it beyond the review hype, let me tell you the Wormwood Trilogy, by Tade Thompson, is a delightful descent into madness with pitch perfect atmosphere, memorable characters and astonishing worldbuilding. That’s not even to mention the absolutely batshit plot developments, science fiction wondery, and the biting critiques that litter the pages of every book while remaining an undeniably fun experience to behold.

The Wormwood Trilogy takes place in a near future around 2062. Decades after a massive biodome appeared and ravaged London, a second Dome appeared in Nigeria. Upon discovering that the Dome provided electricity, and once a year opened its doors to heal those standing in front of it, people began to build the city of Rosewater around it. Due to the presence of these unexplained phenomena, the United States has shut itself off from the rest of the world and no one has heard a single peep from them since the 2010s. Rosewater begins the trilogy with the exploits of Kaaro, a man with a criminal past and a special ability that appeared after the Dome materialized. Kaaro is a “sensitive”, meaning he can read people’s minds and emotions and connect with other sensitives on a psychic level. During the day, he acts as part of a psychic firewall for the banking system, and he moonlights as an agent for the government of Nigeria. Most of the time he is brought in by his boss, Femi, for more overt forms of interrogation (aka questioning after torture). Kaaro is one of the most powerful sensitives, and he’s very good at using his powers, despite being lazy and recalcitrant at times. Soon, Kaaro finds out that other sensitives are starting to die mysterious deaths, and he may be next.

I will only really explain the plot of the first book because going into Wormwood as blind as possible makes the whole series a delight. Even the back-cover blurbs don’t give much away, throwing the reader for early loops. Instead, I want to focus on what makes each book great on its own, then delve a little into the series as a whole and how Thompson makes everything fit so well together.

The first book, Rosewater, reads like a murder mystery. The book flips back and forth between the present moment and Kaaro’s past, providing snapshots of how Kaaro’s powers grew, and how he learned to use them. The plot is incredibly well paced, feeling like you rowed your little boat into a massive whirlpool. It starts slow, luring you in without giving too much a hint at what lies ahead. Before you know it, you can’t escape, and the only way to truly end the swirling madness is to meet it in the middle.This is amplified by Thompson’s writing style in Rosewater, as the story is told through Kaaro’s eyes with with noir-esque prose. The women have a sense of mystery to them, and even with his abilities Kaaro is not sure how to approach them. Not to mention Femi has ways to avoid him and is able to block his intuitions altogether, presenting herself as always cold, always in control. The past and present sections perform an intimate dance, never fully revealing their purpose or relevance to each other until later in the story, and the maze starts to make sense. There is an ever present creeping sensation through the novel, as if you, the reader, are being tracked as well, as if the information Kaaro is delivering to you through his narration is enough for you to be a target with him, and it never lets up. The conclusion is astounding in every sense of the word as every piece of information past and present feels relevant, as if it was all right there in front of you this whole time. I still get chills and the hairs raise on my skin whenever I think about it.

Rosewater Insurrection does not disappoint either. If Rosewater is the whirlpool, Insurrection is all of the debris pulled in and spit back out as the whirlpool implodes. Kaaro is no longer the sole narrator, and while he doesn’t take a backseat, there are bigger players in the game. The political and social implications that follow the conclusion of the first book become the main focus here. We’re introduced to more people who have a stake in understanding what the Dome is and what purpose it might serve. The history of the city of Rosewater begins to be revealed, along with meditations on the colonial history of Nigeria. Thompson juggles a lot in Insurrection and in a lot of ways makes it look easy. The atmosphere is far more intense as we’re no longer just in Kaaro’s head. Not everyone has the playful pulpy outlook he has, and it really highlights Thompson’s ability to shift tone and give his characters interior lives. Thompson drags you into the story with larger than life personalities and dangerous games of political and espionage chicken as Rosewater begins a path towards independence from Nigeria. I found myself fascinated by the intrigue, unsure of who was right and who was wrong as everything became shades of grey mixed with the colors of the rainbow. Thompson deftly manages to make you feel both righteous and guilty at the same time as characters take on the fight of their lives and risk who they thought they were. Insurrection is a story in its own right, and while it does help to set up the plot of Redemption, Thompson avoids the typical middle book slump through sharp characterization, an acceleration of pace and a focusing of his larger themes.

Rosewater Redemption is an astonishing finale. Considering it had to follow both Rosewater and Insurrection, I was honestly taken aback by how hard Thompson comes out swinging. Loose threads left dangling from the previous books are picked up and yanked on. Consequences of previous actions bite back in full as characters reckon with their choices on a personal and political scale. It’s hard to describe Redemption without spoiling its plot, but thematically it is the most cutting of the three books, especially when it comes to the narrative of colonization and self determination. Thompson does not flinch, and Redemption is all the better for it.

On the whole, Wormwood is an incredibly fresh take on the first contact sub-genre. Thompson has incredible ideas that are interwoven into entrancing stories filled with rich, vibrant characters. Thompson performs amazing feats with his shifts in perspective giving his characters different perspectives, goals and fears. In turn, Thompson pulls his meditations on colonization into sharp focus as the characters act like a kaleidoscope, rapidly twisting and turning as they individually process and bargain their way through the constantly changing political landscape. I had an absolute blast reading Wormwood. It’s dark, it’s weird, it’s fun, it’s thoughtful, and I full-throatedly recommend you engage with it on your own and experience all Thompson has to offer.

Rosewater – 9.0/10
Rosewater Insurrection – 9.5/10
Rosewater Redemption – 9.0/10

To Sleep In A Sea of Stars – Or Preferably Under Six Feet Of Dirt

51lv5uh7nml._sx327_bo1204203200_Originally this “review” was going to just cover the partial galley. I made a promise to myself that I would not get lost in this book, allowing it to consume my soul, a quest I have clearly failed. I had three-quarters of a draft completed when my old pal Hugh-Brist showed up and petitioned me to read further. I asked him “Why Hugh, pray tell, would I embark on such a ridiculous endeavor?” His response was obvious: “Why not? Are you really going to call it quits after one hundred and thirty pages out of eight hundred and eighty? Are you that weak of heart?” I looked him dead in the eyes and I knew he had beaten me. So I bought a full copy of the book, and upon opening it on my e-reader, I knew I had fallen for one Hugh’s classic traps. The words “a book in the Fractalverse” flashed on my screen and I felt what was left of my soul scream and try to leave my corporeal form, but I held fast. I hunkered down with some tea, looked at my copy of The Trouble With Peace and whispered to it lovingly “please remain my lighthouse that guides me through these dark treacherous waters,” and I began to read the remainder of the book. To Sleep in a Sea of Stars (hereafter TSIASOS), by Christopher Paolini, is a textbook example of doing too little with far too much and still leaves you feeling emptier than a bout of food poisoning.

TSIASOS follows one Kira Navarez, a xeno-biologist who does (surprise!) xenobiology. She travels the galaxy, researching planets that may have signs of extraterrestrial life. But after years of travelling and being away from her boyfriend, xeno-geologist Alan J. Barnes, they decide it is time to settle down on a planet and forgo the long swaths of time apart. While studying some interesting rock formations at the request of Alan, Kira discovers something weird, and her world is turned upside down. She awakens in a medical facility, unsure of what happened, and no idea what she may have discovered. But the planet she was just about to call home is now forbidden, and she, along with the rest of her crew, have been quarantined awaiting study. Soon she discovers she has been exposed to something alien and a “living” skin suit has attached itself to her body, and she has no understanding of its purpose, let alone how to communicate with it. Not soon after, her ship, along with the majority of humanity, is attacked by an alien civilization that up until this point had been non-existent, plunging Kira into a galactic battle that would decide the fate of humanity itself.

Continuing with the theme of being honest, I don’t even really know where I can begin to talk about this book. I had to take a week to process it and get the demons out of my system. Several people had to walk me back from the precipice of lovecraftian madness, laughing at my misery while egging me on, craving those delicious moments where I cracked and revealed my feelings about the book. I knew I had to soldier on, but how can one reviewer withstand so much darkness and not emerge unscathed? Well, I didn’t, and really no hero should emerge without scars, otherwise there is no reminder of who you once were healing into the person you’ve become. Yes, that was a specific dig at this book. So, I might as well actually get to why I did not like this thing and be a decent reviewer so you, like all of my smart friends, can stay away from this pain.

This is an incredibly plot heavy book that does the absolute minimum required to service a fast-paced action heavy story. Now, some people do not mind a good page turner like that. Hell, I’m even predisposed to it on occasion. What I found extremely troubling about this particular book is that it is all payoff, no setup. Every moment that should have an impact on the characters and the reader just comes out of left field. There were several times where something is revealed to the reader that the characters already just knew. Ideally you would want this; it makes the world feel grounded in its own reality. However, Paolini makes it fall flat by shoving the interesting aspect of the world and a limp character moment into the same paragraph, making both fall even flatter. Sometimes he does the opposite, taking an interesting character moment and then blaming it on some behind the scenes tampering. There is no moment that feels like it will come back to haunt Kira, or any of the crew members. Every bit of tension is immediately released, or has zero consequences. There were clear moments where set up could have occurred, but Paolini just sidestepped it, had a small conversation about it between his characters, and moved on. This is very clearly an issue of showing versus telling, and somehow Paolini manages to do both at the same time while accomplishing nothing.

It does not take very long for the book to become a fantasy book in space, and the first clue rears its mighty head the moment Kira is able to understand the alien that has attached itself to her, and she learns its name is Soft Blade. Admittedly, the name itself is interesting, and adds an incredible amount of potential depth, but as I mentioned above, it never really pays off. After Kira’s entire crew is fridged–and no, I don’t mean cryogenically frozen, I mean killed– she is whisked away onto another ship full of ragtag smugglers/traders who do their very best to act out their tropes. A bit of mysticism ensues with a seemingly random passerby who tells her to “eat the path” and our gallant heroes are off to save the galaxy by finding a magical staff, right as a second batch of different aliens shows up to turn the war into a three-way. Listen, I’m not here to kink-shame, nor am I here to be a genre gatekeeper (hell we wrote a whole piece praising the idea of Science-Fantasy), but this book did not read as advertised and was worse for it.

“But Alex,” I hear you say, “what if I forgive this book of said trespass, will I enjoy it otherwise?” No dear reader, beyond the plot there is not really much else. Worldbuilding seems to be what people might be expecting given Paolini’s history, but it’s bare bones at best here, and even those bones have been cracked open and the marrow dried to dust. There are hints at interesting things, but there is never a why. There is no history, no politics, no governance, no corporations, no real reason to be in outer space. There are seemingly interesting groups of people, but they have no raison d’etre. The Entropists are the best example as they are the most fleshed out. The Entropists are an ill-defined group of humans who feel that the pursuit of science and reason should be first and foremost, but they just end up being space wizards. Their philosophy doesn’t really conflict with Kira or the other crew members, nor does it bolster her decisions. They are just there to shoot lasers and be cool. Literally every other group in the book gets a couple of sentences at best, even those who exist among the crew. In the end, the worldbuilding in TSIASOS is just cool little “lore-like” tidbits that are mere sprinkles of salt and pepper on an oversized and overcooked steak.

I wish I could sum up the aliens in this book in a laser precise sentence that sums up their narrative purpose while also pointing out their utter dullness. As I mentioned before, there are not one, but TWO alien species in this conflict. If you crank the handle long enough, a third one peeks its head up, gives you the finger and goes to hide in it’s mystery box for the rest of the book. To be fair, this is the one instance where Paolini provides set up, but then decides to put the payoff in another book. Instead we’re left with the Jellies and the Nightmares. The Jellies are a hierarchical form-fits-function civilization of squid-like aliens that have much more advanced technology than us, and they communicate by sense of smell. They are ruled by the mighty Ctein, a centuries old Jelly that controls every aspect of their lives and they don’t like humans. There is a lot to not like about the Jellies, but the part that irked me the most is due to the Soft Blade, Kira has no trouble communicating with them, and there is no translation element to the extremely different way they communicate. I may be spoiled by other authors who do an excellent job of tackling alien communications, but Paolini just punctualizes the speech differently, and has no room for interpretation. It removes any tension between Kira and the Jellies, and it makes me angry. The Nightmares are just space zombies, a giant all consuming space horde that wants to eat everything, for literally no other reason than it’s convenient to the plot. SO THAT’S COOL.

Well if the worldbuilding is lackluster, and plot is incredibly derivative, the characters have to be it, right chief? I don’t like being the consistent bearer of bad news, but no this really ain’t it. Kira herself is a blank slate whose primary character trait is “why did this have to happen to me, this sucks.” You can technically say she experiences “growth” as we are told of how different she is now than she was in the beginning of the book, but Paolini skips grounded character work making it feel unearned. Her big moments are accidentally killing people or Jellies, training with the soft blade while everyone is cryogenically frozen, and consciously killing Jellies. The people who know her are killed early on, allowing her to be free of historical constraints and allowing any moment to be considered development. Her job as a xeno-biologist is just that, a job. A lot of her interactions with other characters feel like transactions with non-player characters in an RPG, utilizing them for what knowledge or skills they can provide her to solve the puzzle and nothing more. What makes it so frustrating is Paolini tries so hard to make these intimate moments between strangers happen, and they all just fall flat, adding to the lore, instead of the drama.

I could write for days about this book, diving into spoilers and going into unwarranted, invasive, and completely unnecessary psychoanalysis. There are lists that could be produced about all the different references Paolini makes in TSIASOS to science fiction that just scream “I read sci-fi you guys, please I swear.” I have so many highlights in my e-reader that amount to “WHAT,” that they could serve as citations in a doctoral thesis on Paolini’s view of the human condition. Instead, I’ll just morosely say, please don’t read this book. Don’t put yourself through this gauntlet, don’t let Hugh-Brist tell you “it won’t be that bad.” I’ve waited until the end to say this, because I wanted you to read the whole warning before getting to this point. I needed you to understand, while not directly feeling this pain yourself. To Sleep In A Sea of Stars is just Eragon in space, and somehow that makes it worse.

Rating: To Sleep In A Sea Of Stars Why did I read this whole book, 2.0/10

Hench – It’s Good To Be Bad

IHench have a tenuous relationship with the concept of superheroes. Like many young boys in the U.S., I was exposed to them early and often through cartoons and memorabilia. Rarely did I read comic books, but sometimes they found their way into my hands, and on those occasions I did quite enjoy myself. Obviously, I grew fond of the Marvel cinematic universe, but after a while I became exhausted by what I feel is it’s constant stream of content. The DC Snyderverse did little to assuage the glut or reduce my apathy, and the only way I felt I could consume these stories was through comics and, even then, only as a form of critique. I returned to Watchmen, Swamp Thing and oddly Superman became one of my favorites even though I liked him least growing up. So now that you know my baggage with superheroes, I’m especially excited to share my review of Hench, a fantastic new perspective in an overcrowded genre and the latest book from our H2 Dark Horse list. Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots, is a revelation within the superhero genre, bringing humor, darkness, and character to the evil doers with panache while breathing life into the tropes it also examines on a deeper level.

The story follows Anna Tromedlov, a henchwoman who usually finds work through a temp agency. She’s more of a behind-the-desk type, preferring to be a data analyst for the villains of the world. When an opportunity to move into a lair and take up more field work pops up, she takes it for a little excitement. However, her first time in the field leads to disastrous results when she becomes a casualty to Supercollider, the world renowned ultimate Superhero, and is hospitalized by the encounter. Laid off, without health insurance, and about to be evicted, Anna begins a blog to track the destruction and death caused as collateral damage, earning her the ire of Supercollider, but the unexpected praise of one of the world’s top villains, Leviathan. Seeing her chance to do some good for the world while being the “bad guy,” Anna joins the villain’s ranks and begins to enact her revenge.

It would be easy to base this review on just how much a breath of fresh air Walschots’ debut novel is in the superhero genre. While she gets a lot of mileage out of focusing on the villains, she takes it much further by making the novel more than just a clever twist. The whole world is built on the premise that both Heroes and Villains need support staff, whether it’s the “Meat” who take the majority of the punishment for Villains as your standard bodyguard henches, or the interns who get to work early to make a fresh pot of coffee for the evil meetings. Walschots takes the time to build it out in a fun, brisk way that will be easily recognizable to most people even vaguely familiar with superheroes. It’s a blast, and I cackled heartily as the villainous bosses acted very much like a CEO out of today’s headlines. It wasn’t exactly lighthearted, but Walschots’ definitely knew how to adapt work culture to her world and it instantly ingrained me to the book.

After the initial introduction, Walschots doesn’t let up as her knack for character really begins to pull the story along. She knows how to make you care for her characters while you watch them descend into a form of madness. Anna’s journey was especially compelling from a temp who just wanted to do remote work, to a hench calling the shots on big operations. The best part about the endeavor is Walschots’ tenacity in sticking to Anna’s strength: data. Gathering data, forming predictions, and coming up with ways to help accelerate her plans are Anna’s powers, though it’s never mentioned in that way and she’s extremely good at it. None of her “battles” resort to her using her smarts to physically outwit opponents, she’s just there in the background, pulling levers and letting the disasters play out. On top of that, the conflicts were usually in a more personal space. How far was she willing to go to see her models through? Who was able to be sacrificed for the greater good of taking down superheroes? It was refreshing that she never had to throw a punch herself, instead becoming the villain she thought she could be by making her own choices and living with the consequences.

Walschots clearly has a deep love for the superhero genre as she just nails so many small details with style. I can’t tell you how many times I felt the hairs on the back of my neck standup when a superhero’s backstory lined up with their names. Or the amount of times I muttered “well that’s fucking cool” to myself during fight scenes. After being tired out by so many of these tropes in past few years, Walschots breathes a new life to them. She also isn’t afraid to turn over the rubble they use to cover their dark sides. While she does well with the caped crusaders, it’s clear she has a special place in her heart for the villains and their henches, and with the way she writes them, who can blame her. Anna’s life is turned upside down by Supercollider, and he doesn’t even apologize. Leviathan in turn gives her the resources to fund her newfound purpose and allows her ambition and skill to take her where she needs to go. The other members of the villains’ team, while not as fleshed out as Anna, are just as broken, ambitious and skillful in their own ways. They are also incredibly likeable and have full stories of their own that help Anna to find her place among equals. There are several moments shared between her and the other henches that are genuinely heart wrenching and breathtaking. Walschots fills the book with little surprises that are nods to the genre that don’t self aggrandize their own importance, and instead sneak up on you and embed themselves in your soul.

Hench is as solid a debut as I’ve ever read. The humor is dark and spot on, making me laugh out loud several times. Anna’s journey to becoming a top hench is compelling, emotional and weirdly fulfilling. The world is energetic, realistic where it needs to be, and stylized just enough to make the weird stuff more impactful. It feels like the perfect antidote to the superhero craze. Walschots makes it all look easy, too, but it’s clear a lot of love and effort was poured into this book.

Rating: Hench – 9.5/10

Noumenon Ultra – Every Ending Is A New Beginning

51rxroewdxlAnd so here we are, at the end and the beginning of a journey started a few years ago with Noumenon. Now, I had reviewed a few books prior to reading that delightful novel, but Noumenon may have been the book that really sold me on continuing to read and review new books. It is a special book in my heart, and my affection for the series only grew with Noumenon Infinity. Marina J. Lostetter seemed to have a special touch for writing humanity into the big question of “why are we here?” While she never provides an answer, her ability to explore the question through vignettes over centuries and millennia is astounding. If you’re wondering, does the third book encapsulate the things I mentioned in my previous adulations of Lostetter’s work? Of course it does, and it does so much more, making me reflect on why they feel even more important in the world of today. Noumenon Ultra is a near perfect capstone to the trilogy, offering deeper and more personal ruminations on our place in the universe with the perfect blend of scientific anomalies and personal struggles with them.

Ultra starts where Infinity leaves off, which, as readers of the series know, means absolutely nothing. I don’t want to get into too much detail, as it would inevitably spoil the other books, but needless to say humanity in all its forms are spread across the stars in search of ancient super structures and unlocking their secrets. After the considered “success” of the original Noumenon mission, there are still questions about the nature of the machines that are being found, constructed and activated by human hands. Characters from previous novels make their return along with new ones, with ever more distinct lives and even more questions.

First off, I absolutely adored this book. Second, there is one thing readers might be turned off by, but if you’ve liked the books to this point, it will be a non-issue. This is a slow burn meditation on what it means to be sentient without purpose in the universe. Lostetter’s prose sometimes feels like it meanders, following the thought patterns of the character as they tell their story. It’s easy to get lost in, and it might be off putting to those who are looking for something a little more concise. But again, I think this is true of all her work and fits nicely with the themes she explores. It also never gets overly bogged down; the story is broken into nicely sized vignettes that can be read on their own or in succession. So now those are out of the way, I feel I can gush a little more.

One of the things I praised previously about Lostetter was her ability to write characters and imbue them with significance even though they usually only exist for a chapter. I feel she has only gotten better at this, as each character still feels distinct, with their own issues, but they all feel even more tied together. There is a prevailing sense of loneliness in each character that once you see it, it’s impossible not to notice. Every one of them has their unique problem from the child who physically ages exponentially slower than they do mentally, to the clone of a long dead man who lives life back and forth over and over again never dying, while losing his memories of previous lives. This loneliness, while all-encompassing, never felt insurmountable. This is where Lostetter succeeds in her storytelling. While the big things in the background are shifting into place, these unknown scientific marvels being pieced back together for unknown purposes, these people are living their absurd lives, finding out who they are, and coping together.

What continues to perplex me about Lostetter is while she can do the smaller stories, she is also a master of mind bending scale. The size and scope of the artifacts she writes about is nearly unfathomable. The effort that the characters put into understanding and reconstructing these ancient behemoths is ludicrous. Smartly, she doesn’t spend too much time on the details of the construction process, instead focusing on their import to the character’s lives. Lostetter also takes the chance to explore design philosophy and scientific concepts with these artifact sections, providing insights to our world while presenting problems to her characters. There might be some dissonance with some of the examples, however, as they seem a little too on the nose, but it didn’t bother me too much. There is a reasonable in-universe explanation for the seemingly anachronistic analogies. Either way, Lostetter made me think about these concepts in new ways in and outside the book.

On its own, Noumenon Ultra stands tall, but it does require the shoulders of its predecessors. If you haven’t picked up Noumenon and you’re looking for a fresh and exciting dive into time- and universe-spanning science fiction, I highly recommend this series. Noumenon Ultra serves as a fantastic finish, pushing the boundaries of the previous novels, while adding new insight without overshadowing them. Lostetter shows a lot of growth book to book, digging deeper and finding more empathetic and meaningful ways to engage with science than previously explored. Lostetter feels more determined than ever to explore the connections between humanity and science, exploring the benefits as well as the consequences. There is so much more I could say about this series, especially Ultra. However, if there is one word that sums up this series, it’s human. Lostetter wonderfully captures the human experience in all its absurdities, trivialities, and grandiosity, never forgetting the importance of an individual’s ability to affect the universe at large.

Rating: Noumenon Ultra – 9.0/10

Architects of Memory – Unforgettable, Mostly

What’s that? It’s time for another dark horse review? Oh man, well I think I just used up that idea for an intro. Oh well, I got to it first so it’s mine now. I should be talking about a book right? Well, I’ll be honest, the first thing that leapt out to me about this book was the title. The description only sold it more, but that title really got to me. It felt like it could mean so many things, and I think that still remains true after completing the book. If you have somehow missed the title of this review so far, I am going to be talking about Architects of Memory, by Karen Osborne. It’s a solid debut with a compelling main protagonist, and a dreary future setting that succeeds despite some of its drawbacks.

Architects of Memory follows Ash Jackson, an indenture with the Aurora corporation. Ash and her coworkers are corporate scavengers cleaning up the debris from space battlefields in the aftermath of a major war with an alien race known as the Vai. After she and her fellow salvagers soon encounter something they don’t quite understand, they bring the mysterious salvage down to a planet to run studies on it, thinking it’s a zero point battery (a device that would fix the energy supply issues of space travel). While on the planet, another corporation makes its move, and the hunt for Ash and the object begins. The result for the reader is a book where sabotage, espionage, and kidnapping become tools of war for corporations  as they compete for ultimate control of weapons that could defeat the ever present threat of Vai.

In general, the story was enjoyable. It had a few slow moments while it transitioned away from a MacGuffin-centered storyline to a more character driven narrative about how to handle the MacGuffin. While I found myself drawn in by the plot in the beginning, Ash became the main reason I continued to read the book. Her journey from ‘corporate can-do’ to becoming her own person was a nice read. Osborne really captures the sense of trying to do everything you can while greater expectations are piled onto you until you reach a breaking point. Where this arc really succeeds is Ash’s breaking point does not make her a good person, and instead forces her to reckon with all of the bad she did beforehand, while attempting to do the right thing in the future. It was a nice addition that really fit into the universe of the book.

Speaking of, I enjoyed the indirect ways Osborne introduced the world of Memory to the reader. There aren’t any expanded monologues about how the world became the way it is. Most of the details are revealed through dialogue between different characters and diving into the history of the main character as she talked to herself and the ghosts of her past. I appreciated the slow rolling that let the characters breathe in the world that molds them into who they are without forcing it down the reader’s throat. Their choices highlighted what was important to the society they lived in while setting up crucial character moments for those who do develop. However, if you’re someone who wants more worldbuilding and intricate details, it leaves a little to be desired.

I did have a couple issues with the book. As I mentioned, the first portion of the story revolves around a MacGuffin, which didn’t really compel me personally. However, that became less an issue as the story evolved. The second issue is a little harder to ignore and her name is Kate Keller. Keller is the second POV character, and I did not connect with her or find her interesting until about two-thirds of the way through the book. I think part of it is that her sections were often shorter, infrequent, and felt like they were meant to break up Ash’s chapters to provide narrative tension. Unfortunately, a lot of her characterization was done by her own internal comparisons to Ash, leading to a much more direct style that felt disjointed compared to Ash. It makes sense that this sort of characterization happened through the lens of their romantic tension, but it made Keller feel like an accessory for most of the book instead of a full character in her own right.

Despite forgivable issues, I adored this book. Osborne’s metaphors were vivid and tactile, providing such a lush picture of place especially when it was important. Her aliens, the Vai, are weird, and wonderfully alien. Finally the ending to this book is as astounding as it is horrifying.  Overall, Osborne’s debut is an enjoyable read. It has a likeable protagonist, the world is interesting, and while not overly detailed, fleshed out enough to feel pervasive and weaved throughout the character’s lives. The issues I had did not push me away, but still feel important enough to point out that could affect your experience. There is still much to enjoy, and since the second half of the book is much tighter than the first, I think there is much more to look forward to from Karen Osborne.

Rating: Architects of Memory – 7.5/10

Prosper’s Demon – But He’s My Angel

50905325._sx0_sy0_So is it just me, or everyone else getting tired of me writing reviews about books I liked and/or loved? No? Just me then? Well luckily for you, I have another one of those reviews that you can’t get enough of. Fortunately, this one is a short little piece for a perfectly sized book. If you haven’t already guessed, I’ll be talking about Prosper’s Demon by K.J. Parker, an explosive novella that knows exactly what it’s doing and has a blast doing it. I’ve never read any of Parker’s other books, unless you count some of his works as Tom Holt (which is the real one?), making this novella an extremely pleasant experience.

Prosper’s Demon is told through the eyes of an exorcist that lives in a land reminiscent of Renaissance Italy. However, the main character, whom I’ll just refer to as the Exorcist (he goes unnamed) is fairly brutal and efficient in his exorcisms. He doesn’t really mind a little collateral damage, as long as the demon is forced out and the “greater good” is served. On top of that, he takes special pleasure in knowing that while demons never die, they feel exponentially more pain than a person upon their removal. The problem is his next target is a genius, artist, and scientist named Prosper of Schanz, who also happens to be tutoring the next king.

I apologize in advance for the amount of gushing that this short review will contain; it will honestly feel like an advertisement, but I’m quite okay with it (note I was not paid, but did receive a free copy from the publisher). This is easily my favorite novella, and for good reason. Parker absolutely nails the narration from the exorcist. Two pages in and he knows you hate him as much as he hates himself, but what can you do? Me, I just kept reading, pulled into the exorcist’s head as he regaled me with his tales of demon hunting. His lack of morality matches his wealth of cunning and cruelty. The way he describes his feelings is palpable, tangible and utterly relatable. I feel weird being so enthralled by him, but he’s such a convincing character that you buy into his pathological tendencies. He’s definitely not a good guy and he recognizes it, but he also knows that it’s you who really holds the ability to judge him. I do want to highlight that this is a dark book. Funny, too, but it’s pretty dark. There is a sadism present on every page, and a very casual, almost gleeful, acceptance of it by the exorcist himself. This is just what he does. He’s good at it, really fucking good at it, and I love him for it.

Beyond the main character, Parker does an incredible amount with so little space. I think it helps that he pulls from well known tropes within western enlightenment and renaissance history, but it feels deliberate. You immediately know how the world works, and he’s just peeling back the curtains. It’s an excellent way to fast track the story to focus on this single event, the exorcism of Prosper of Schanz, and holy hell is it an event. The whole novella builds up to it, as if the first page was a match being lit and you’re watching the spark wind through hallways to its ultimate destination. It’s fast and it’s furious, and it’s one heck of a ride. The demons themselves have a character to them as well. I won’t spoil too much, they are too much fun to encounter on your own, but I will say it’s easily my favorite representation of demons in fantasy. There is a weird humanity to them that is twisted by their nature, and twisted further still by the exorcist’s point of view. It’s brilliant.

I could go on about just how effective this book is at selling its incredibly short story. Chatter gleefully about it’s stark and cynical meditations on some of the greatest western enlightenment and renaissance ideas. But really, I just want you to read it. It’s dark, it’s horrible, it’s funny, it’s absolutely messed up, but it’s a great time and an excellent example of how much can be done in one hundred pages. K.J. Parker, this book has possessed me to finally pick up more of your work, you glorious monster.

Rating: Prosper’s Demon 10/10

The Space Between Worlds – The Abyss As a Mirror

One of my favorite things about writing for this site is the Dark Horse Initiative. One of the best choices we made this year was to split it into halves to discover even more new authors. It forces me to look for books that interest me but I might hesitate to pick up otherwise. The Space Between Worlds, by Micaiah Johnson, is the ideal dark horse. It’s exactly what you want in a debut novel: new ideas. It’s an engaging examination of identity that is full of grit and character while showing an incredible amount of promise for Micaiah Johnson beyond her debut. It has a couple of issues that are noticeable in the beginning of the book, but are improved upon as the book continues giving me faith that Johnson will only improve as she writes more books in the future. 

In Johnson’s far future setting, people are able to traverse between worlds, three hundred and seventy two of them to be exact. Through the miracle of quantum physics, humanity has found other instances of Earth that are similar enough that information about the future can be gleaned by travelling to them and bringing back the necessary data. While this seems like a boon, not all is well for the world Caralee inhabits. Caralee is a woman able to traverse between worlds, not because she’s particularly skilled, but because she happens to be dead in most of the other worlds. In order to hop to a parallel world, a version of you can’t currently exist in that reality. There are only eight other versions of herself still alive, and another one of them has just died. So Enbridge, the company conducting these excursions, wants to send her there to collect some data, and she can’t help but look into why she may have been killed.

First off, Johnson does an excellent job of keeping the story tightly focused and evenly paced to make sure the reader is hooked to the page. She clearly defines the limits of the multiverse and people’s abilities to travel fairly quickly so that it doesn’t bog down the later thriller- and action-oriented sections. I do want to point out that the beginning has a lot more telling than showing, but it tapers off pretty quickly. It’s not that the telling was uninteresting (in fact, it was extremely compelling), it just created a weird dissonance between the world and Caralee that made me want to know more about the world at large, than Caralee as a person. However, this does get resolved over time as Caralee’s character is brought into sharper focus. I was little concerned that my interest in the wider system would become a frustration that pulled me from Caralee, but Johnson sewed character focused seeds that made her story more interesting and coherent within the world. 

Johnson’s ability to write characters is astounding. There is a lot to like about this book, but something I absolutely loved was reading from Caralee’s perspective. Luckily for me, the entire book is from her point of view. It really helps that she’s such a well thought through character that feels complete in a writing sense, but incomplete in the human sense. She has this world-weary, cynical know-it-all feeling to her that helps her survive, but can sometimes blind her to things right in front of her. Caralee is the perfect lens through which the reader can view the issues of identity that book so heavily grapples with. Through Caralee, and the people who inhabit her admittedly few lives, the reader is treated to examinations of who people might innately be. I particularly enjoyed the fact that Caralee herself was not particularly curious about the nature of the multiverse as her detachment further steeped her in the morass of her own actions. She had a grim acceptance that the others may die, but she had the will to survive, regardless of cost. It made watching her grow and develop that much more satisfying.

Another aspect of the book that really hammered home everything I mentioned above is Johnson’s prose. Her writing is brash, unapologetic, and fierce. There is an undercurrent of anger to Caralee’s practicality as she narrates her life and describes the life of a traverser. The idea that the poor, brown, and black folks are the ones who are able to traverse due to their expectancy to be dead in other worlds clearly affects her, but she tries to hide it from herself by focusing so much on her own survival. Johnson’s writing feels so intentional and sometimes feels as if Caralee is talking to herself, or another version of herself, defending every one of her actions. It makes her feel vulnerable and as if there is a cognitive dissonance to how she has lived her life until this point. It’s fantastic and really pulled me into her life in a way I was not expecting. 

Overall, The Space Between Worlds is an incredible debut. It’s tightly focused and paced like a rocket launch. The world is interesting even though some aspects felt for a while as if they didn’t fit into the plot. Caralee’s voice is so incredibly strong that her development feels earned and true. The writing feels so deliberate and is tinged with a slight animosity, but not so much you’re pushed away from the story, just enough to make you feel as Caralee does. I definitely recommend you grab a copy of this book, and I can’t wait to read more from Micaiah Johnson.

Rating: The Space Between Worlds 8.5/10

Driftwood – Something to Hang Onto

I’m not a huge fan of post-apocalyptic stories. I don’t read them because they often have similar set ups and I usually come away with the feeling that I’m reading someone’s version of “here is what I would do.”  I have read a couple that make me think there are still some diamonds in the rough, but generally I tend to stay away after a number of offenders have left a bad taste in my mouth. But, considering the unraveling that has been 2020 so far, I decided to give the genre another try but with a little flavor to ease myself into it. Driftwood, by Marie Brennan, is a short, sweet, and dark apocalyptic fantasy that does not overstay its welcome while leaving you desiring more.

The titular ‘Driftwood’ is a weird place, where worlds go to die. Imagine a location where multiple parallel worlds exist with different cultures, species, languages, plants, and everything in between, yet these places are all slowly converging towards a central point called “the crush”. As these worlds get closer to the crush, parts of them begin to disappear. People no longer exist and eventually everything is eaten by the crush, and only those who learned to live outside their own reality survive. Driftwood is a collection of stories centered around one man, named Last, who is seemingly immortal to the drifters that inhabit the land. The fun part is these stories are told by people who were helped by Last as they tried to find ways to save their worlds, or little pieces of them. Unfortunately, there are rumours that Last has finally died, and the one hope they have of finding him is discovering the person who saw him… last. 

What I enjoyed most about Driftwood was the structure of the book. Everything takes place in a tavern that has been built numerous times called Spit In The Crush’s Eye. It is a gathering ground for the people who have eventually been able to leave their own world and move through Driftwood. Prior to each story, there is a short section in the tavern where someone introduces themselves before launching into their tale. It makes each personal recounting have a parable-like quality that adds a little whimsy. Sometimes they feel as if little lies have been added to make the story somewhat grander, but it feels personal and true all the same. This structure also adds a humanity to Last, while simultaneously instilling a sort of mythic sheen, as he stops at nothing to help someone in need. Most of these stories involve near Sisyphean tasks, but Brennan writes in a way that reveals how personally everyone takes the end of their own world that sort makes the individual stories seem smaller and less daunting. It’s a really clever way of handling the fact that all of these people are just watching and waiting for the apocalypse to come to them and made the endless calamity a little more digestible.

On top of all that, Brennan has a very distinct writing style that feels like someone recounting another person’s stories. She does not go overboard with descriptions, allowing the chaotic presence of the Crush, and slow convergence of worlds to fill your headspace. There is a mystery to it that leaves the reader feeling like this place cannot really exist, but it feels so real to those recounting, so how could they lie? It’s honestly wonderful to just pick up and read one story at a time so you can sit around and think about what it might mean afterwards. Brennan even writes some of the stories to feel as though the storyteller is trying to impart meaning whilst telling it, but unable to relay its personal importance to others in the room. It’s wonderful and terrifying to see something portrayed in such a sincere way, especially considering it’s people grappling with the death of everything they once knew.

There is not much else to say, or at least, to say to others who have yet to read the book. Each story feels special in its own way. While there seems to be a broader theme about storytelling, it also feels carefully crafted so that at least one story will resonant with every reader who picks up this book. I imagine it would be great to sit around a campfire with some friends, going over the stories, having someone tell each one in a sort of somber backyard theatre way. Then as the night grows quiet, think about all the stories that have been told through time, authored by civilizations that no longer exist. And then ask yourself, “why tell these stories?”

 Rating: Driftwood – 8.5/10

The Dark That Dwells – Good, Bright Fun

When I look for new releases to read, I generally try to leave my comfort zone. I tend to stay away from authors I already know, or have heard about, and look for debuts. Even if just a single part of the description engages me, I usually put it up for consideration. On top of that, I usually try to find something that, to me, might explore something within the real world. Rarely do I read for an escapist story. I chose this book more with an eye towards the first few requirements, while pushing myself out of that arbitrary “meaningful” comfort zone I tell myself I inhabit. The Dark That Dwells by Matt Digman and Ryan Roddy is a romp of a space opera, tinged with fun fantasy elements that feel like a role-playing game.

The Dark That Dwells takes place in a galaxy after the dissolution of a major empire, and its split into several different factions that now vie for control. Everything is feudal in flavor, with two larger powers in control of most of the space and smaller fiefdoms powerful enough to hold their own and enact their own destinies. While these powers conduct their business, an old evil awakens out of sight and out of mind. It doesn’t yet seem to threaten the established order, but there are a few who are willing to do anything to keep that evil at bay.

If that plot synopsis feels incredibly vague to you, well, you’re correct. It’s hard to describe what goes on in this book in terms of succinct plot. Dark has this weird dynamic, where the plot is very character driven and feels like it has very high stakes, but it’s not particularly focused on one thing or another. This does and doesn’t work because it keeps roping you into something that feels greater and greater, but in some ways you’re just reading a character drama that could potentially spill over into the wider world. The opening chapters for each character are nicely done; they do a great job of introducing the characters and the parts of the world they inhabit. As their stories go on, the reader is shown how they start to intersect and influence each other. The problem starts to show when the “main” characters  who exhibit the most external conflict(which the story is ostensibly about) take a back seat to the “cooler” characters.

This is highlighted in a lack of motivations that drive the characters. Sidna and Tieger have the most identifiable motivations and are in direct opposition to each other. Tieger is a witch hunter, and Sidna is the witch (in Tieger’s eyes) as she tries to find more power to keep him from killing her and protecting what is left of her kind. Fall and Ban seem to be more of the focus of the story since they exist to make decisions and facilitate the actions of the other characters. They often had more time to introspect and ask themselves “what am I doing?” before they ended up on whatever side of the conflict they did. They sort of ended up getting caught in the mess while also becoming the arbiters of right and wrong within the story. I think the part that annoyed me the most about this is that while Ban certainly has the darkest past and has to wrangle with  the most internal conflict, he never gets to break out of the “bodyguard” role. Meanwhile, Fall just gets to be special and cool while making a majority of the plot decisions. This is all on top of the fact that the main thrust of the story seems to revolve around the conflict between Tieger and Sidna. The emphasis on Ban and Fall ends up making Tieger and Sidna mere plot devices to propel Fall and Ban’s  internal conflicts. It didn’t necessarily detract from the fun, but it knocked all the punch out of the finale.

Where Roddy and Digman excel, though, is world building and description. I don’t read a lot of books with an incredible amount of physical description that paints a picture. I usually skew more towards mood and feeling over the literal physical presence of the world and characters. The authors describe everything, and clearly put a lot of love and detail into the work. The different empires and fiefdoms all have distinct armor, banners and colors. People are dirty, scarred, and carry a weight that really makes the action sequences feel heavy and grounded. The world feels raw and, if not realistic, then at least “real.” I spent a lot of time thinking about how characters moved, looked, clashed, and just generally existed. Rarely do I feel the “theatre of the mind” when I read, often just hearing the text in my brain, but Roddy and Digman made this feel like an epic science fantasy movie. It was incredibly enjoyable and rarely did I feel that descriptions overstayed their welcome.

The Dark That Dwells ended up being a good time despite its flaws. The ending leaves a little to be desired and sets up a world where so much more could be happening. In a lot of ways, this feels like a small RPG arc within a larger universe that has tons of small stories like this. I would definitely return to this world with a new cast of characters that unearth some of the forgotten histories that exist within it. If you’re looking for a good time with some distinct characters set in a fun world reminiscent of science fantasy RPGs, then The Dark That Dwells will fit the bill. I look forward to more from Digman and Roddy.

Rating: The Dark That Dwells 6.5/10

Unconquerable Sun – It Will Brighten Your Day with a Nuclear Radiance

It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I’ve never read a Kate Elliott book before. I didn’t even realize how prolific a writer she is until someone recently pointed it out to me. While I consider myself pretty adventurous, this definitely feels like a glaring blind spot. Absent literally any other segue, what caught my eyes about this book is it’s marketing tagline “gender-swapped Alexander the Great on an interstellar scale.” Normally, I don’t care for marketing, but something as simple and high concept as that will reel me in. Unconquerable Sun, by Kate Elliott, is a thrilling and intricate space opera that excels in worldbuilding and character development while delivering a relentlessly paced and heart-pounding plot. 

The book follows Sun, the current presumed heir to the Queen Marshall Eirene of the Republic of Chaonia. She just declared a major victory in a battle with one of the Republic’s oldest enemies, the Phene Empire, and is hoping to be announced as successor. However, her mother Eirene has other plans for her and sends her on a tour of the solar systems within Chaonian control. During this quasi victory parade/media relations tour, someone makes an attempt on Sun’s life, making her think a larger plot is afoot. Meanwhile, Persephone, a daughter of one of the major houses within the Chaonian court, is being roped back into the family’s political games after running away to the military academy. She doesn’t know what they have in store for her, and she wants no part of it as she becomes one of Sun’s Companions. As the intrigue of succession becomes more palpable, the Phene Empire and its sometimes friendly rival, the Yele League, plan for revenge to put the Republic of Chaonia back in its place. 

Let’s get this out of the way. Unconquerable Sun is a blast that glued my eyes to the page every time I opened it back up. Elliott spends an incredible amount of unwasted effort building the world her characters inhabit. She spreads a metric ass-ton of detail through the entire story, and does so with finesse, never bogging down the rest of the story. Elliott leaves no stone unturned as she describes everything from the military impact of a technology that enables interstellar travel, to the cultures that make up the different empires. Elliott adds a weight to the history of these galaxy-spanning empires I rarely experience, let alone find as captivating as the Republic of Chaonia and its struggle for autonomy. If I were to list everything I found cool about this book, it would take up several pages, but even that wouldn’t cover the effort Elliott goes through to make these little details add up and feel relevant to the story being told. 

Speaking of the plot, this book felt like riding a roller coaster while also spinning plates, and Elliott pulls it off. It’s bombastic, and constantly feels like the tension is rising. There are one or two moments of breathing room to allow the reader to digest everything happening, but I never felt that I couldn’t keep track of everything happening. Elliott really covers all the bases in Unconquerable Sun with political intrigue, chase scenes, one-on-one combat sections, epic space battles and powerful character dynamics that drive the emotional arcs of the main characters. On top of all that, the characters are wonderful to read, with more depth than I was expecting for something that already felt filled to the brim. I could lavish the rest of the review about Sun and Persephone and how fun and thoughtful the side characters were, but I’ll just say this: the characters are fantastic top to bottom in the book, and there are too many to really get in-depth about. 

Instead, I want to talk about Elliott’s writing, which is easily my favorite thing about this book, even after everything else I’ve mentioned. Her prose is not particularly flowery, but it is also more fleshed out than functional. Descriptions serve a purpose but add a little whimsy to everything to make it feel fantastical. However, her choice to tell Persephone’s story (and a few other side characters’ stories), through the first person, while telling Sun’s through a third person is absolutely masterful. I don’t know any other way to put it that is less gushing. It lent a human touch to Persephone and the people surrounding Sun while imbuing Sun with this mythic quality. The audience receives no inner monologue from Sun, dispelling any chance at understanding her doubts and fears. The reader is subject specifically to what Sun’s companions see, and what Elliott chooses to express in the third person. Because of that, Sun is an avatar of indomitable will, pure conviction, and ruthless cleverness. She will win, or die trying, and Sun does not try. Not only does Elliott manage to bestow this mythic quality on Sun, she tells you she is doing it, and got me rooting for her like some ecstatic fan all the same. 

Unconquerable Sun is not without fault, but the few issues I had were so inconsequential they were overpowered by everything I already mentioned. The book is through and through a delight to read. The world feels grounded but incredibly rich and new. The characters are enjoyable and easy to relate to, even Sun who always feels slightly distant. I cannot wait for the next book in the series, and I will definitely have to look at Elliott’s other books to fill the void. 

Rating: Unconquerable Sun – 9.5/10