Children Of Time/Ruin – Prologue Vignettes 4-6

51sght5qhjlWe are back with the second half of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s vignettes! If you are just catching up with The Quill to Live, Orbit has graciously allowed us to publish a series of vignettes that take place between two of our favorite books: Children of Time and Children of Ruin. Our reviews of each can be found by clicking the links in the titles, and if you missed part one of this post you can find it here. Thanks again to Adrian and Orbit for giving us the opportunity to post these. We hope you take the time to check out the shorts and original books when you have a second. Enjoy!

Children of Time: Six Prologues – Part 2

4. Tomb Raiders

When the impact came it nearly took Arkin from his feet, for all he was clinging to the airlock handholds. He had his helmet on already, waiting for the alarms to tell him they had a hull breach. Or perhaps they were still intact, but now attached inextricably to the ancient space station, about to explore this brittle treasure trove only to discover that there was no way back.

“We have a seal,” Serry Lain’s voice came in his ear.

“Orbit?” This from their leader, Channec, clinging on next to Arkin.

“Too soon to tell. If we have knocked it loose, it’s only by a little. You’ve got time to get in and out,” Lain reported. Her voice was fizzy with static, ghosting with sudden tides of white noise. The sound brought both wonder and wariness to Arkin. Interference like that meant something was live on the station, after so many, many years.

Live meant worth salvaging. Salvage was why they were here.

Some time long before, a distant ancestor of Arkin had looked up past the thinning clouds and seen the night sky full of stars. The ice had been retreating; the dust of ages had finally settled out of the upper atmosphere, letting the sun take a renewed interest in the planet. Geothermal fires, brought close to the surface by the ice’s own creeping weight, did the rest. Summer returned to Planet Earth, and with it a chance to stargaze.

Even back then, as proto-Arkin tilled his fields and hoped the raiders wouldn’t come this year, he would have noticed how many of the stars moved swiftly across the sky. Old Farmer Arkin couldn’t have known what they were; he couldn’t have known that his distant descendant would travel by thunderous blazing rocket up to those stars, to become a raider himself.

“Check your lid,” Channec said, all business and clasping her own helmet into place. They were piecemeal, these suits. Arkin was uncomfortably aware that two people had died in his before they had patched it up once more and given it to him. But everything was scarce, back home. The great wealth of the Old Empire people had been mined, drilled, burned up, squandered back in their day. Arkin’s people lived on a planet scattered with their leavings.

Almost everything we have is a hand-me-down, he thought, not for the first time. They were here in a rocket that was a child’s crude sketch of the beautiful vessels the ancients had built. They were here because a classicist – meaning someone skilled in interpreting Old Empire writings – had discovered something about this orbiting hulk the ancients had left to the vacuum of space. We’re just ticks on their dead body.

But he had his helmet on. No doubt Channec would say people back home were counting on him.

“Air out,” Channec ordered, and Lain confirmed. Arkin felt his suit bulk out around him, waiting to see if any warning lights would come on this time. Of course, if they didn’t, it might just mean the warning systems had malfunctioned as well.

“Let’s get in there.”

Arkin wound the handle and the airlock hatch juddered open. He checked the seal, finding just enough holes to make him unhappy. Facing them was a pitted section of metal wall, holed through at two or three places. Channec nodded to him and they began the tentative, painstaking job of breaking through.

“I’m detecting low-level power readings,” Lain’s half-obscured voice informed them. “We’re knocking on the right door.”

A section of the station wall suddenly came free in Arkin’s shears and he toppled forward with a cry. For a moment he lost all reference, the universe wheeling freely around him. He was horribly aware of the jagged edges of his incision, the ballooning fabric of his suit, the airless, unpressurised death all around him.

Channec snagged his boot, and for a moment he was just a frozen weight on the end of her arm, already crossed over the threshold into the territory of the ancients.

“Get a grip,” came her sharp voice in his ear, with her own backing of static now, and he managed to orient himself and find something to hold onto.

He looked and nearly swallowed his tongue. He was sharing the compartment with a corpse.

The ancient had died without a suit on, just clothes that looked pale and papery. He – she? – drifted there like one of the drowned, slowly turning, withered to a dry-stick figure, skin brittle and tight over bone. The ends of all four outflung limbs were broken off by collisions with the walls. Arkin’s eyes tracked a lone, mummified finger as it spun slowly past his visor.

“Stop gawping,” Channec told him. “It’s not like it’s your first.”

“Ah…” Lain was hard to make out. “Getting increased power sig… …ever you’re going to do… quick….”

“We don’t even know what we’re going to do,” Arkin muttered.

“Just come with me,” Channec told him. She shouldered forwards, batting the vacuum-dried corpse out of the way as though it were no more than a bad dream.

“What? What do you know? What did they give you?” Arkin thought of that classisist, sitting safe at home on Earth while they risked their lives on a hunch.

“Enough.” Channec pulled herself forwards – zero gravity was like second nature to her; she seemed to swim through the airless spaces of the station while Arkin blundered along behind.

They found more shrivelled revenants: some buckled in as though a little webbing would save them, others floating loose like ghastly bobbing apples. Channec had no time for them, shoving them aside so that they span end over end, colliding with the walls or with Arkin. He could feel a sickness creeping up inside him: he had seen the occasional space-dead corpse before, but when this station powered down it must have had twenty or more souls aboard it. His mind was full of their last moments, as imagined by their distant, distant descendant. They had been the ancients. They had walked the stars and commanded the elements with a science that might as well be magic for all Arkin understood most of it. And yet they had died.

“Here.” Channec had stopped at a half-open hatch. Beyond was a room walled with screens and the minimalist consoles the ancients favoured. Everything had been done for them by their machines, Arkin knew. They had not needed the buttons and levers and instruments of the crude rocket that had brought the salvage team up into orbit. Their civilization had been ghostly, virtual, transcending the physical.

But by trial and error, Arkin’s people had learned how to pirate some few scraps of that world: reviving long-dead electronic libraries just long enough to steal a book or two, pirating from the memories of lobotomised computers. Just enough to recreate a fraction of the wonders of the ancients.

Lain said something over the comms, but they heard nothing except static.

“’Here’ what?” Arkin demanded, but Channec was orienting herself, choosing one featureless console over the others. She bent over it, thick-gloved hands moving carefully as she unhooked something from her belt: a reader.

“How do you know there’s anything?” he demanded, but she ignored him.

He swept his torch beam across the room and felt his gorge rise another inch when he found two bodies up against the ceiling. These were wearing suits: one had no helmet, the exposed head no more than parched skin stretched over an eyeless skull. The other had its helmet on, and Arkin imagined that one ancient living out some few additional hours until the suit’s air supply was exhausted. Had they railed against their doom? Had they desperately tried to reactivate the dead consoles to hear another human voice before the end?

Then the lights came on, throwing their shadows, Arkin and Channec and the corpses, into sharp relief against the walls. Something was glittering over the console.

Arkin stared. Stars; he saw stars. They glittered and span in the air around Channec. He saw her head tilted back, her hard-bitten expression transformed to childlike wonder.

“It’s here!” Over the comms, her voice crackled and spat, the static ghosting louder like a heartbeat. “This is the motherlode!”

“What is it?” He couldn’t take his eyes from the display.

“Maps, maps of where the ancients went!” Channec explained. “The worlds they visited, the new homes they made for themselves amongst the stars. Worlds that aren’t neck deep in poisons, Arkin.”

He felt something catch at his throat, and then the comms roared with a new voice.

It was four times as loud as Channec had been. It spoke with the irregular heartbeat of the static, and in a language that had no native speakers left alive. Stern and pitiless it exhorted them to do something. Leave, Arkin decided. Red sigils were appearing in the air, flickering and corrupt, but definitely bad.

“It’s still alive!” he yelled, but there was no chance of anyone hearing him while that artificial voice dominated comms.

Channec was focused on the reader, willing it to speed up its download. Who knew what would actually be readable, of the pittance they could carry away. But he had seen the stars now. He knew what was at stake.

The virtual starfield wheeled about him, ancient numbers and alphabets projected across his visor and his suit, and the shadows moved too.

He saw it too late: the lights stayed still but the shadows moved.

The suited figure was drifting down from the ceiling. Within its helmet Arkin saw a death’s head shift loosely as the suit’s ancient mechanisms propelled it towards Channec.

He yelled; he yelled at her, and tried to bumble his way towards her, but already too late. One gloved, dead hand snagged the hoses of her suit.

Channec twitched and flailed, unable to see what had her. Arkin bounced off the consoles, spun through the stuttering red glyphs, groping for purchase. When his view brought him Channec again, she had smashed the ancient suit’s faceplate in with something, but of course the wasted cadaver within was not directing its movements. He saw its armoured gloves clamp to her own helmet. His screaming voice was loud in his own ears, and in his ears alone.

With a convulsive movement Channec wrenched the reader from the console and shoved it at him, even as he reached her. Her helmet was askew. He caught a last view of her determined face.

She got the reader clamped to his belt and kicked him in the chest, sending him hurling back the way they had come, sending herself and the homicidal suit spinning off across the room. Before they reached the far wall, he saw her helmet come loose.

Whimpering and panting, surrounded by the sounds of his own exertion, he fumbled and scrabbled his way back towards Lain and their ship, desperate to escape this orbital mausoleum with the inestimable treasure Channec had died for.

5. Voyage to Nowhere

You wake in darkness, enclosed. Something is forcing its way into your mouth, down your throat. Something is clamped about your nose. Things are invading you. You fight; you can’t fight: you are restrained. Then something gives; your arm clutches towards your face but strikes a cold, hard surface right before you… above you… you cannot tell. You cannot tell which way is up.

Your hand slithers up the cold surface until it is at your mouth. Tubes, there are tubes. You wrench them out. You stare into the darkness until the lights come on.

They are soft lights, originating from somewhere behind your head. Probably they are intended to be comforting. You are not comforted.

The barrier before you is clear. Looking out of it you see… ranks of clear-fronted coffins in a great dark space. At first you think they are reflections, but all the others of you are asleep, their tubes still plugged into nose and mouth.

You have no idea where you are. You yell. You bang at the clear plastic. It is colder than it was.

There is a voice, a man’s voice.

“Can you hear me?” it says.

You listen. It repeats itself. The voice sounds patient, sad.

“Yes,” you whisper into the tiny coffin that is your world. “I hear you. Who are you?”

“Do you know where you are?” asks the voice, leaving you uncertain whether it’s owner can hear you.

You open your mouth to say, and there is a hole in your mind, a great yawning gulf where the knowledge should be. You do not know where you are. You do not know who you are. Your sense of self is a string of disjointed images: the sun, parents, a brown landscape, the harsh taste of the air.

“Listen to me,” says the voice. “You are on the Gilgamesh. The Gilgamesh is a colony ship. Do you remember.”

You know the name, but it’s like someone you met a long time ago. You can’t place it. You try to understand what the voice means. A colony ship…?

The voice continues with its dreadful, didactic patience. “The Gilgamesh is on a journey to another world, do you understand that?”

And you do. When the information abruptly flowers in your mind you feel like weeping. You are coming back to yourself. You are more than these broken fragments. “Yes,” you say, and “Yes!”

“We have star maps from the Old Empire,” the voice confides to you – things you think you knew once, fitting into place like bricks, one on another. “We are humanity, in this ship. We are on a long journey to a planet that we believe the ancients made into another Earth. But an unspoiled Earth, one not poisoned by their war.” There is a terrible, wistful yearning in that voice.

“Who are you?” you demand. If not for that yearning you might have taken it for some thinking computer, such as the ancients were supposed to have.

“My name is Guyen. I am the Gilgamesh’s commander. Right now I’m the only member of Key Crew not in suspension. You and I are the only two human beings awake.”

And you think about that, and you know it must be an honour that they’ve woken you first. You and the commander, of all those sleeping people outside your coffin. “Commander,” you say, “how long before we’re on this new Earth?”

Guyen’s voice says nothing for long time.

“Commander?” you prompt him, and then again. And then again.

“If it is there,” says Guyen’s disembodied voice, “then the Gilgamesh will reach it in approximately twelve-hundred years.

You do not understand. Guyen does not volunteer an explanation. You cannot even think of how to phrase the question. The silence stretches out, and it’s getting colder.

“You see,” the commander tells you eventually, after listening to your teeth chatter, “you are the first.”

“The first to wake.” You can barely get out the words.

“The first cargo malfunction,” Guyen tells you. The words mean nothing. You turn them over in your mind. Still nothing. Then, as though a visual illusion has just flipped before your eyes, you understand.

“We knew this would happen with a proportion of the cargo over the time periods involved,” Guyen goes on, and you wish he would just shut up but you have no way to make him. “I had the Gilgamesh wake me, when it did. You are the first. I felt I owed it to you.” And, perhaps because his voice is all you have, you can hear the ragged edges there: the man who is responsible for everything.

You try to say something. Guyen will never know what your final message to him would have been.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

The light goes out.

6. Trespassers in Eden

Another Earth.

They were working on this place when the bomb went off in Reykjavik, putting the finishing touches to a biosphere imported from earth. A big job, but the planet was perfect for it, the first of a long string of islands in the great empty night. The dream project of a misanthropic genius transhumanist, who planned to make it her grand experiment.

When everything fell apart, when the colonies on Mars and Europa and all the others died, when the signals from Earth ceased, this other Earth circled its far-distant other sun with blithe unconcern. The genius behind it never got to run her experiment. Something else happened instead, something unplanned for, unexpected, unwanted.

All the while, when the tough remnants of the human race lived in the shadow of the ice and dragged themselves back into an understanding of themselves, something else was breeding and growing on this world, a usurper in this human paradise. Not an experiment, barely a mistake, just an unintended side-effect of how things fell out.

And one day, while mankind regrouped on its poison Earth, eyes looked up at the sky and asked Why? and Where did we come from? They looked at the pinprick lights above them and wondered why one moved so swiftly across the sky, never realizing that they were looking at all that was left of their creators.

From something that merely bred and fed, they became something that remembers and builds and dances and thinks. They told their own stories in their own language.

They cannot know that their creators are coming back to haunt them. They cannot know that sometimes, Where did we come from? is the worst question of all.

Children Of Time/Ruin – Prologue Vignettes 1-3

51wkqa3knrlToday we have something a bit different and very fun. If you are a reader of the site you might be aware that we absolutely loved Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time and Children of Ruin. Our reviews of each can be found by clicking the links in the titles, and if you haven’t read them before you will hear about all the various things that make them great. So, when Orbit kindly reached out to me and asked if I wanted to be a part of an effort to republish some prologue vignettes that Tchaikovsky wrote for between the two books – it was an emphatic yes. We will be posting the vignettes in two sets, half today and half later this week (found here). Now, in an effort to not drone on like someone giving you their life story similar to an online recipe page – please enjoy these fun prologues to some of our favorite books.

Children of Time: Six Prologues – Part 1

1. For the Love of All Humanity

There was nothing he could do about the millions watching remotely except show them.

Njall Torek’s record said he was diligent and hardworking. He had come to the University of Reykjavik with immaculate references back before the major establishments had begun vetting their staff quite so carefully. He was well-liked amongst his fellows and he didn’t try to bother the actual academics. He knew his place. That was what most of his superiors felt about Njall: he knew his place. He was a good man for electrical problems, for minor repairs, installations, pest-control even. For a university whose business was increasingly virtual, these little physical problems would crop up, and when they did, Njall would be there to put them right down again.
He had now finished his last little physical problem for the university. Now, like those millions, it was his role to watch from a remote location. What he could do, he had done.

On the physical stage, now, one of the guest speakers was standing to introduce herself. The auditorium was packed out with those were willing to go to the expense of travelling to meet these people. Not students, but industrialists, foreign academics and politicians, big names here to make big deals behind the scenes.

Members, Njall knew, of the conspiracy.

This speaker was a small Chinese woman, grey-haired and neat. She was something in genetic surgery: her team had been key in embryological engineering, or so Njall gathered. There was quite a Chinese contingent in Reykjavik these days. He might have passed her in the street without comment, without knowing that she was one of them.
Some of the others – on the stage, in the audience – he wouldn’t have made that mistake with, not ever.

There was a war on, Njall knew. It was a war against humanity. Njall loved humanity. He was fiercely committed to it, as a patriot was to a nation, as a true believer to a creed. Njall knew humanity had a destiny, and that destiny was being taken away.

These people who had gathered here at Reykjavik, they were traitors to their kind. He knew them all – he had looked at their biographies and their bibliographies, seen the fields they worked in and the ‘achievements’ they were responsible for.

Out there, out past the blue of the sky, there were worlds, Njall knew. Not just the other orbs of Earth’s solar system – settled by human ingenuity, at cost, and still imperfect and hostile places to live. There were worlds around other stars that ships from Earth had reached. They were terraforming them even now, finding planets of the right mass, within the Goldilocks band between death by fire and death by ice, and putting the last touches on them to make a better home than Europa or Titan or even Mars would ever be. Those were humanity’s inheritance, Njall knew. And they were being taken away. These people – people like the men and women and – some of them he couldn’t even tell! – on the stage, they had already made plans for those worlds. And no matter what they might say, Njall knew those plans did not include provision for anything he would recognise as human.

He knew this. He had been told this by his leaders, and he believed them. The defenders of humanity had plenty of friends in high places who knew the truth.

Out there in that auditorium there were people who made computers that thought, or who turned human eggs and seed into abominations, or who altered chimpanzees and dolphins and elephants so they could speak.

Non Ultra Natura. No more than human. That was Njall’s flag. Out there in the auditorium there were already people who had cast off the birthright of their humanity to become part machine, part beast, part something else entirely. Some of Njall’s comrades held that it was against God’s law, but Njall only knew that he was human, and proud to be human, and that those who sought to become more than human would only ever become less, slaves to the AIs and the talking dogs and whatever other atrocities they dreamt up.

There were millions worldwide watching this conference on ‘transhumanism’, millions who had been fooled by this circus into wanting to give up the one true gift they were born with. All Njall could do was show them the error of their ways. All Njall could do was fight for the side of life.

As the next speaker stood – some thing that was neither male nor female, neither human nor machine – Njall felt his revulsion peak, and the bomb he’d set beneath the stage went off.

2. The Last Martian

One hundred and four days.

Jenniver Amartez was impressed, in a way. None of it was supposed to last that long, not in these conditions. But it had struggled gamely on, and there had come a point, around the sixty day mark, when she had thought they had wrought better than anyone had anticipated, and it would last.

By seventy-five days that illusion was gone. The living systems were too complex to find equilibrium, the environment too hostile to give them the time. Everything had begun to die.

The main colony was long dead by then. By the time she had been able to jury-rig a receiver, the only signals she could pick up were automated warnings, and precious few of those. Pretty much everything had been knocked out.

She didn’t want to think about how many Martians there had been, before the virus pulse from Earth. Thousands, certainly. Men and women and children whose parents and grandparents had been Martians. People whose ancestors had come here when the planet truly was a freezing hell, instead of just a steadily deteriorating purgatory. They had lived in domes and they had worked on the atmosphere – painstakingly transforming it into something that was a slower death for humans, and that could just about sustain other life, with help.

She had not realized, until the pulse, just how much help.

Jenniver Alvarez walked through the dying forests of Mars.

Trees stood in tall rows – not really trees, not really like anything that had evolved on earth, but bioengineered life designed to suck in carbon and push out oxygen. The orderly ranks of them ran as far as the eye could see, and the ground around them was carpeted with a man-made moss/fungus symbiote. All artificial, just like everything on Mars was artificial except the rocks and the ice and the thin carbon dioxide atmosphere that was gradually re-establishing its hold on the planet.

A fourth-generation Martian, she had given her life to Mars. Not long ago she had been able to walk in the plantation without a suit, with only a portable air supply to tipple from, like a hip flask. The biomass around her had pumped out heat and oxygen, and she had looked forward to her children or her grandchildren running free and swift in the low gravity, masters of a world made home by the hand of humanity.

Now she wore a suit, for as the atmosphere around her thinned, the heat given out by the plants was sucked away. Now she carried her air with her.

Some part of Mars had been green, for a brief moment: a generation in individual human terms, an eyeblink in the history of the species. Now it was brown as the plantations withered and died around her.

Everything had been so carefully maintained by the computers. The entire colonised area of Mars had been a colossal cybernetic system managed by artificial brains able to tweak every little detail. The vast plantations were maintained by an irrigation network, constantly fed exactly the required balance of nutrients and chemicals to help them conquer the red planet’s ire. When the pulse came, transmitted on multiple frequencies from Earth, travelling at light speed without any warning, every system on Mars had gone down, hopelessly riddled with a virulent artificial plague.

She had been keeping track of the war, of course. There had even been fighting on Mars, though not so very much. Everyone had followed the reports, hoping that someone would win quick enough that a normal service would be resumed. If not for the anti-tech backlash, probably it would have been. But one side in the war had yoked its fortunes to the popular groundswell worked up by the NUNs and the other extremists, and then they found them were the tail trying to wag the dog. They found you can’t just put crazy like that back into the bottle. Every time someone came to the peace table there was another attack, an assassination, something to fan the flames. On Mars, the colonists had listened to the reports grow graver and graver, until there were no more reports, and the only comms they could intercept were military. They were still listening intently when the virus pulse came through.

They had all died, the people in the domes. The computers had been keeping them alive. But Jenniver, out here alone in the agricultural station, she had lived. Here, within the planet’s raw new lungs, the work of human hands had persisted for a few more tens of days.

She passed one of the robot workers, little more than a wasted weight of metal. Everything had gone down. She didn’t want to think of the outer colonies, those fragile little bubbles on the gas giant moons or the mining bases in the asteroid belt. The pulse would have reached them all, and further and further, radiating outwards towards the stars.

Not long now.

Jenniver Amartez stood amidst the dying Martian forests and looked out into the dark sky, seeking the dust-shrouded, silent orb that was Earth.

3. Home Fires

He was a hunter in a harsh season. His name was Rom.

His people lived in the lowlands, near the sea, but the fishing had been poor this year, poorer than the last. The fish were so few, and many of them caught deformed. A strong man could live on fish alone and not get sick, but not the children, not women heavy with child, not the old. So Rom had set out to his old hunting grounds to trap and kill the beasts his forefathers had left him.

Last year he had been everyone’s favourite. He had come home with four sticks strung with rats and squirrels and rabbits. This year the cold had come early – the first snows seemed only a moon after midsummer, and he could count the days he had seen the sun on his fingers and toes. Today, the sky was closed with white cloud, and sky-dust was blowing on the wind, that tasted sour and salt on his tongue.

This year he had set his traps but the beasts did not come. The cold had driven them further afield, or else they remembered Rom and his snares, and their dead relatives, and avoided him.

He knew the legends: how great magicians of an elder age had raised up the beasts and given them thought and speech, and how that had angered God, who had brought the winter to make an end of all the sinners in the world.

Rom wondered sometimes if he was a sinner, and how many sinners were left, for the winters were no less fierce than in his childhood. If anything they were worse.

Rom could not know that the pale masses of dust that still clogged the upper air had thrown back so much of the sun’s heat that his world was gripped between two hands of ice, north and south. Every summer they relaxed their grip, those hands, but each winter those fingers stretched out, further than the year before. But all Rom knew was that the winters grew worse by little increments, and the hunting sparser, and life grew harder. He had been forced to go further afield, each day’s travel a burden on him as the way back lengthened. Now he had come uphill to the broken stone land in the hope that the shelter of the place would have brought in perhaps cats or foxes or even swine, big game to make the journey worthwhile.

But the snows were closing on him, numbing his fingers and nose and ears even though he wrapped his cloaks about him, each a patchwork of tiny pelts.

The broken stone land was ahead of him, as far as the snow let him see: some great towers still stood, reaching high enough to prop the clouds up. Many more had fallen, making the place a maze of broken stone. There were riches there, so they said, but it was haunted by terrible spirits, and there were other tribes, too, jealous of what they had. And surely, if that was the case, the hunting would be no better there. But Rom was desperate.

He had heard that a great guardian had once stood before the Stone Place, warding off any who sought to claim its riches. Now he saw the truth of it, though she had fallen long before, her gigantic stone body strewn in sections down the slope from the broken stump of her feet. She had stood tall and robed and crowned, said the stories, and he believed them, seeing her now. She had one hand lifted high, bearing a sword to smite those who might trespass in the broken stone land.

Rom’s feet dragged: he could not feel them through the chill. Even his own weariness was just a distant drumbeat, slower and slower. If he did not find shelter soon, he would be simply one more hunter who walked out into the world and never returned, and his people would speak his name a few more times, and forget him.

The furthest-flung pieces of the guardian were ahead of him, stone shrapnel looming high, half-smothered with snow. He could see the wind-shadow they cast, though, and forced his senseless legs onwards, step after step, even as the gusts blew fiercer and swifter, a blizzard building in the eternally white sky.

He saw the outflung arm, now in pieces but still reaching out towards him. She had been bearing something aloft, but amongst the fragments of her splendour he saw no shattered sword blade or spear haft. Whatever it was she had been holding, he could not make it out.

As his stumbling progress brought him closer, his mind drifted. He saw her, in his head: a beautiful tall woman standing defiantly, daring any to challenge her. In his mind she was not placed to warn away travellers, but to challenge the winter itself: standing firm against the wind and snow, and in her hand, a flame.

He collapsed at last, but he was in the shadow of the stone. With clumsy, unfeeling hands he got out his sticks and tinder, and lit his fragile fire in the shelter of a broken stone torch.

Network Effect – A Whole New Ballgame

41spd48rbalLet’s get it out of the way early: Martha Wells’ Network Effect is phenomenal and likely surpasses the high expectations set by the novellas. If you are coming into this paragraph and don’t know what I am talking about, I assume you have been living under a rock. Wells’ Murderbot novellas have repeatedly raked in every award they can qualify for and have been a standout smash genre hit. We reviewed them here (novella 1-2, 3, 4), all extremely positively, and they might be the best novellas I have ever read. However, this year Wells decided to expand the series with a full-blown sequel novel. This was both exciting and a little concerning, as a lot of what made the novellas powerful was their tight character-driven focus and succinct themes. The stories felt perfect for their short page length and just because the novellas were great doesn’t mean the novel would be outstanding. This makes the fact that Network Effect nails the transition so darn exciting.

As this is technically the fifth part in the series, and it would be very easy to spoil entire novellas, I am going to completely skip on the plot of Network Effect. If you are new to the series, check out my review of All Systems Red to get an idea of what you are walking into — but know that I haven’t met a human who didn’t enjoy these books. The purpose of this review isn’t to dissect whether you should buy this book — we unequivocally think that you should. No, the purpose of this review is to pay tribute to the literary triumph that is Wells’ Network Effect.

Network Effect is very different in style from the novellas it follows. The novellas had a tight focus, clear streamlined themes, and eschewed world-building for a narrow cast to highlight the character arc of Murderbot. Network Effect instead pulls the story back and broadens the scope. There is significant world-building, a larger and more ambitious plot, an expanded range of protagonists (though Murderbot is still the star), and in-depth explorations of themes that were only hinted at in the original novellas. The book has this wonderful relationship with its preceding novellas where each of the short stories feels like a piece of a large puzzle that, after four novellas, is starting to come together. Each novella is like a specialized tool that shapes specific elements of the narrative in Network Effect in easy-to-identify ways. It feels like the novellas painted a picture you could only catch glimpses of at first. They foreshadowed conflicts, built emotional stakes, and familiarize the reader with the world and cast. But Network Effect is the grand reveal where the curtain is pulled away and you can finally see the finished masterpiece. It is a hell-of-a book.

Network Effect is an unqualified success and is going to be one of the most popular books this year. I foresee it winning a number of awards and accolades, all of which will be rightly deserved. Wells’ enormous skill in moving the narrative from novellas to novels makes me wonder what other novellas could shine from a similar treatment. The entire Murderbot series is phenomenal and you should pick up the fifth chapter as soon as you have the chance. You could say it networks all the novellas together effectively… I’ll see myself out.

Rating: Network Effect – 10/10
-Andrew

Shorefall – Remember To Breathe

Do you like rollercoasters? Do you like feeling the grim reaper’s breath on your neck as you hurtle through time and space at speeds that the human mind wasn’t meant to comprehend? Does being super incredibly stressed for uncomfortably long periods of time turn you on? If you answered yes to any of these questions have I got a book for you! Shorefall, by Robert Jackson Bennett, is the emotional equivalent of being shot into the sun at terminal velocity and I absolutely love it.

If you are just reading The Quill to Live for the first time, welcome to the site! Please know that we collectively love RJB and think he is one of the best contemporary writers of modern fantasy. Shorefall did little to dissuade us of that notion. The book is the sequel to Foundryside (our review of book one can be found here) and while Shorefall picks up the narrative three years later – it only feels like seconds. Sancia, Berenice, Orso, and Gregory have founded their own scriving house with plans to use the technology they invent, steal, and extort to better the world around them and burn the remaining established houses to the ground. However, these plans need to take a major pause when they learn of an otherworldly threat descending on their beloved city. There are some mild spoilers for Foundryside after the cover picture so turn back now if you haven’t read the first book and want to remain completely pure.

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At the end of book one, the Foundrysiders released what seemed to be a god from her entrapment. They had mixed feelings about this, but feel decidedly negative when they learn that a second opposing diety looks poised to also return to wage war on everything. The first hierophant, a man who could wipe cities off the planet with a thought, is coming back. The Foundrysiders begin to scramble to prevent the hierophant’s return, as it could spell the end of reality itself.

Here’s the thing. I thought Shorefall would be a story about our lovable crew from book one working together to figure out how to prevent this clearly unstoppable force of nature from coming back and ruining existence. The book would be a game of tag between the Foundrysiders and the cult ushering the hierophant’s return. At the end of the book, the cult might get successful in bringing him back in some form and we would have an intense set up for book three in this series. That is not what happened, at all. I am sorry for these mild Shorefall spoilers, but the first hierophant makes it back in something like the first 10% of the book. The entirety of Shorefall after this point essentially becomes the story of “what if a team of four talented engineers got into a batshit insane pissing match with Cthulu?” It is one of the most intense and fast-paced stories I have ever read, with the sense of palpable urgency never letting up for a single second. Every second of this novel feels appropriately like a mere mortal standing firm against the will of a cosmic deity and saying “fuck you.” It is a work of art.

The magic continues to be one of the coolest and most imaginative concepts that I have ever read. Bennett refuses to be backed into a corner by his premise and continues to find more and more interesting ways to step outside the box he built for himself. The way the characters use and bend the rules of the world to affect change feels like an inconceivably large puzzle snapping into the correct configuration. The magic is also still visceral and nightmarish. I am haunted by some of the descriptions and deaths from this series. I see them in my mind when I lay down to sleep at night and cannot block the sounds of their imagined cries as they are ripped to pieces. This series is not for the squeamish.

Shorefall is so much more than I expected. On top of giving me enough anxiety to have a stroke, it has truly beautiful character stories. Just like in book one the POV is split between all four of our leads, with a slightly greater focus placed on Sancia and Gregory. Each character is dealing with some heavy stuff that is explored in great detail. To give you a peek into some of their trials: Sancia is trying to understand what to do with her life now that she has stability for the first time ever. Gregory is trying to gain some semblance of control over literally anything to feel like he has a shred of agency in his life. Berenice is struggling with the idea that while she is amazing at many things, in order to do what is needed she has to step outside the comfort zone she has hidden in her entire life. Orso is coping with the profound realization that most of his life’s work isn’t going to amount to anything and trying to find meaning in his existence. This is only a fraction of what these characters are going through and it is wonderful.

However, I will say that while it is truly impressive that Bennett managed to create such a fast-paced story with such memorable character arcs – it feels like these two powerful elements of the story do not compliment each other well. The pacing rips you through the story so fast there is rarely time to sit and digest things. This works well from a plot perspective because it keeps you so off-balance that every new piece of information feels like an amazing twist. But these character stories are beautiful and deserve to be luxuriated in, and there simply doesn’t feel like there is enough time to do so with how fact the pace moves. I just want it all, to be pulled across a lake of imagination at the speed of sound and at the same time sit on the shores and calmly enjoy the view.

Shorefall is not what I expected in the best way possible. It is a lightning strike to the spine, an explosion of ideas and feelings, and a hauntingly beautiful story about good people making hard choices. It is a success as a sequel in every possible way and I can think of and if you are not already reading The Founders series by Robert Jackson Bennett you are missing out. Shorefall is not a book to let pass you by like a ship in the night.

Rating: Shorefall – 9.5/10
-Andrew

Repo Virtual – Planet Of The Bots

91pmbl4opmlRepo Virtual is a peculiar and somber book that feels like a mash-up of different stories. Although it’s not quite a debut, as the author Corey J. White has a number of other publications to their name, we decided to put it in our dark horse initiative because not a lot of people seemed to be talking about it. The novel feels like it borrows storytelling elements from a lot of popular stories while also contributing its own original takes and ideas. The result is a fascinating and chaotic story of a possible near-future Korea where the virtual and the physical worlds are almost indistinguishable.

Although it doesn’t quite seem it, I think Repo Virtual might be a post-apocalypse story – even though the apocalypse in question is more like a quiet sigh than a big bang. The narrative follows the POV of Julius Dax, a bot technician by day and a virtual repo man by night. He makes his living by stealing gear and items in giant online games and selling them for hard currency. Julius lives in Neo Songdo, a city that is more virtual interface than stone and concrete. He is barely scraping by when his sibling brings him a job of a lifetime – stealing an unknown object from a reclusive tech billionaire. However, when it turns out the item he steals is the first sentient AI, everything goes south rather quickly.

On its surface, Repo Virtual is a fairly basic heist novel. The plot is serviceable, the job is exciting enough, and the characters are fun if a little cliche. However, the book really shines when it uses the heist plot to facilitate some fantastic social commentary as well as advance its pretty heavy themes. I would argue that Repo’s two biggest ideas are 1) that humanity is destroying its own existence through the facilitation of capitalism and 2) the rise of AI and how a new computer mind might see and change the world – both of which it explores in great detail. As I mentioned, Repo paints a bleak future for humanity. Through Julius, we get to see how hard literally everyone but a handful of billionaires work, how greedy fanatics make use of people’s anger and frustration, and how these things eventually fuel the collapse of society. It doesn’t inspire a lot of hope – but it is nicely balanced by the rise of the AI representing a new hope. The AI is like an inquisitive child and does a lot to provide a light at the end of a dark capitalistic tunnel. While I think that White did a good job arguing for his themes, I would point out that his arguments are not subtle. In fact, this is some of the most blatant and opinionated writing I have read in a while. In many ways, the book reads like a well written political paper more than a story – which weirdly works for me.

On the novel front, the world and characters are a mixed bag. Neo Songdo is bleak but feels like a well-realized and well-written possible future. The characters, however, are where things get a little uneven. Julius was great, though I did feel that his inner monologues sometimes felt a little redundant as he constantly thought about past injuries he cannot afford to have fixed, reminding the reader how terrible life is under a capitalist society that monetizes everything. On the other hand, the antagonists (who I don’t name to avoid spoilers) left a little to be desired. They felt cookie cutter and generic in comparison to Julius’ more dynamic personality, and I don’t actually think they added a lot to the story. Their entire side story would have functioned the same if the antagonists had been removed and replaced with “cops trying to stop Julius from committing crimes for good reasons.”

Repo Virtual feels like a poignant and clever criticism of capitalist society and commentary on AI wrapped up in a single package. The story is short, entertaining, and drives its points home well. While I don’t see this being the next blockbuster hit, it is definitely worth the short amount of time it would take to read, and it might make you think about the future trajectory of the human race. White has done a great job crafting a novel that depressed then uplifted me – all the while entertaining me with a kick-ass action-adventure.

Rating: Repo Virtual – 7.0/10
-Andrew

The Priory Of The Orange Tree – A QTL Discussion

Today we have another audio review from Andrew and Alex. This time we are digging into the critically acclaimed The Priory Of The Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon. It is a giant standalone book that serves as a great introduction to epic fantasy. The review is without spoilers, so jump on in and find out if this gigantic book about dragons and fruit is for you. As always, you may want to turn down your volume as we have trouble controlling the volume of our voice at the start. We’re working on it.

The House In The Cerulean Sea – Enough Love And Heart To Fill An Ocean

81mny8q7ollThe House In The Cerulean Sea, by TJ Klune, is a loving book about the wonders of children and learning to live your life in the present. There is so much I like about this book that I don’t know where to start. It will easily grace the top books of 2020 list of anyone who reads it. If Klune’s other books are anything like this one, I have discovered a treasure trove of new reads that I can’t wait to dig into. Don’t wait on this March release; if you are looking for a pick-me-up you should buy it, rent it, or borrow it as soon as you can get your hands on it.

The story of The House In The Cerulean Sea is packed full of heart, humor, and adventure. It tells the story of Linus Baker. A forty-year-old caseworker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, his job is to travel the world to various orphanages for magical children and see if they are being properly cared for. He leads a quiet and solitary life, his only real companion is his temperamental cat. Some may call him stodgy and stiff, but he is good at his job and he has been doing it a long time with almost no change. That is, until an order from upper management sends him on an assignment from Hell, literally. Linus is sent to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears, do his job, and determine both if the children are being well cared for and whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days. But, to do his job and determine if the children are a threat (to themselves and others), Linus must go through the orphanage’s caretaker: Arthur Parnassus. He sees the children as his own, and he would do anything to keep them from being harmed.

Even in this brief description of Cerulean’s plot, there is a lot to unpack. First, we have Linus. Dear god does he stand out from your typical fantasy protagonist. He is older, overweight, stodgy, big-hearted, organized, observant, and so much more than I expected when I first opened the pages of this story. Which, is kinda the point. Part of Linus’ story is about his hidden depths and his journey of self-discovery to find them. His character arc is frankly beautiful and one of my favorites in recent memory. Linus’ interactions with the children of the orphanage are heart-achingly sweet for a very specific reason – he treats them like adults. One of the major themes of Cerulean is that children have value as people, not just as someone’s child. They have tiny clever minds brimming with creativity and wonderful thoughts. I think it says a lot that I have never wanted to have kids more than after reading Cerulean. The personalities of these tiny individuals, and their relationships with Linus and Arthur, could warm the heart of a corpse.

But, the book is about a lot more than happy feelings and good times. The six children in question are on this special island orphanage because they have been through hard times. Magic is reviled in Klune’s world, and it is easy to see that it is a simple narrative allegory for someone who is even slightly different. Much of the story involves Linus confronting his own initial expectations, predispositions, and biases to see these magical beings for who they actually are. While this isn’t exactly a new idea, Linus’ earnest personality and quiet introverted nature make the theme much more resonant than the average fantasy book I read. Linus doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, so it’s easy to forgive his presumptions, and it’s satisfying when he evolves as a person.

On top of all of this, Cerulean has three hidden elements that up it from great to amazing: humor, romance, and adventure. The book is hilarious in a very Terry Pratchett-Esque manner There are a lot of hyperbolized and hilarious descriptions of the workplace, seaside villages, and beach vacations. The story will have you laughing out loud, or at least smiling, from start to finish. Next, we have the romance – which creeps up on you while you aren’t watching. I was impressed at both how organic, given its short page length, and timeless, given its fantastical nature, the love story in Cerulean felt. It is also a gay romance that feels accessible to anyone of any orientation – which the genre badly needs. Finally, the book is brimming from cover to cover with a palpable sense of adventure. The entire narrative, on some level, revolves around Linus stepping outside his comfort zones, and this is enhanced by a literary ambiance that evokes discovery and the unknown. The prose is good, and the worldbuilding is serviceable. Yet neither of these things feel important given the power of the characters and themes.

The House In The Cerulean Sea will absolutely be one of the best books of 2020. It is a bright, warm, and surprisingly clever book that reflects its wonderfully unassuming protagonist perfectly. It was just what I needed after going through a difficult time the last few months and it put a smile back on its face. To top it all off, the book has well-realized themes and unique stand out elements that distinguish it far and above what else has come out this year so far. The Quill to Live unabashedly recommends The House In The Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune. Go read it the second you can.

Rating: The House In The Cerulean Sea – 10/10
-Andrew

The Unspoken Name – A Maze Of Mystery

unspoken-gld-t1Yesterday we posted our first 2020 Dark Horse Initiative list, but you might have missed it because we put it out on an unusual day for us. The reason for this is I was dead set on getting my review of The Unspoken Name, by A. K. Larkwood, out today, and it felt weird to review it before including it as part of our DHI. The Unspoken Name is a powerful, unusual, and extraordinary debut that will likely be the talk of the town for many months to come. The book is not at all what I expected from its back blurb, but I think that may be the point. This story is mercurial, untraditional, engrossing, and occasionally a little rough. But, above all else, it is a beautiful story that is worth reading and a debut that promises that Larkwood is an author to keep an eye on.

The plot follows Csorwe, an orc priestess of the titular god of “The Unspoken Name.” Her job, for a short period, is to be a conduit for communication between the god and supplicants who come with offerings. She is supposed to serve this role for a number of years, starting as a young child, and eventually be sacrificed to the god at a certain age. She knows that her death is marked on the calendar from day one of her service, and she reacts accordingly, becoming a sullen, fatalistic, and incurious person. What is the point of exploration and discovery when you know you will die soon? This all changes when a supplicant, a Gandalf-esque wizard, comes to The Unspoken and whisks her away right before her death. He enlists her in a bodyguard for a quest to reclaim his homeland and they travel Larkwood’s multiverse (a series of worlds interconnected by a giant maze of portals) seeing all sorts of wonderful things – and that’s about all I am going to tell you.

The story of The Unspoken Name is surprising. It doesn’t follow a clear path and often takes unexpected turns and twists into wonderful new directions. For a large portion of the book, Csorwe doesn’t really have a goal. She thought she was going to die, it didn’t happen, and she doesn’t have a plan for what to do now. She has some ideas, but not many, and a huge part of the story is her just trying things out and learning about the world. It is a beautiful and unique narrative style that I really enjoyed and gave the book a very pervasive atmosphere of whimsy and wonder. This is helped enormously by the fact that the world is just absolutely wonderful to explore. he magic and multiverse are convoluted and complicated by design to keep everything mysterious. However, what you do learn about – such as the race of giant snake philosophers who built the foundation of civilization as they know it – is wonderful. I also particularly liked how there are a variety of different magical races, but race politics was a very minor footnote in the story. For example, Csorwe is an orc and while that carries through into a lot of her flavor and general identity, there is very little attention and time given to it by the other races or people. The entire book projects this idea of a universe where people come in all shapes and sizes and that is very normal and not worth commenting on.

I ate up every second of the world-building and constantly found myself desperate for more. However, the world is more of a vehicle for the journey of self-discovery that Csorwe and many other characters find themselves on and it definitely plays second fiddle to the characters. The characters are absolutely fantastic. The protagonists mostly share the theme of growth and self-discovery and the antagonists are mired in a refusal to change or grow. It is a powerful high-level idea that plays out wonderfully in the character stories and the individual journeys of the cast are extremely satisfying to boot. I really enjoyed Csorwe. She feels so real and relatable it hurts. Her joy at discovering new things and skills is so sweet, and her mistakes feel like important moments that she learns from and grows. I don’t want to talk too much about the supporting cast for spoiler reasons, but they also share the same arcs and moments.

Despite all my lavish praise, I do think the book struggled in a place or two. In particular, the book can have slightly uneven pacing and some trouble with telling versus showing. While it’s wonderful that the book wanders, Larkwood occasionally seems to feel scared the reader will get bored if she lingers too much in any particular place and jumps from set-piece to set-piece. In a book about stumbling and finding your way, I didn’t think there was enough breathing room to occasionally take in and process things. In addition, for someone who has sheltered her entire life and has “inexperience” as a cornerstone of her personality – Csorwe has a weird tendency to just announce everything there is to know about a person in her head the second she meets someone. Meeting new characters often has Csorwe take one look at them and think things like “he was a cruel man, who seemed like he had a troubled youth. He wasn’t respected by his peers and spent his life trying to live up to the expectations of his father. He didn’t call his mom enough.” I kept waiting to find out she secretly possessed psychic powers or some sort of keen insight, but by the end of the book, it seems like the story just suffers from a little too much telling.

The Unspoken Name is a stroll through a garden of wonders in book form. It is filled with whimsy and wonder and tells the story of a woman finding her place in the world after rejecting the role fate placed on her shoulders. It is a wonderful book that surprises and delights from the first to the last page. A.K. Larkwood has crafted an absolutely stellar debut that only has a few minuscule issues. I cannot wait to see where the story goes next, though I have absolutely no idea where Larkwood will take us next.

Rating: The Unspoken Name – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Dark Horse 2020 – Jan to June

After the success of last year’s Dark Horse Initiative, we knew we were going to do it again this year. For those of you just joining us, the DHI is our attempt to sift through all the relatively unknown debuts coming out in a year and bookmark a handful to check out and review just based on their descriptions. However, when we were building the lists this year we realized that we had A LOT of books on it – so we decided to make two. We are splitting the DHI into two lists, one for each half of the year. The following books are our picks for books coming out from January 2020 to June 2020, and we will have a second list for the back half of the year in July.

As mentioned, each of the following 12 books (in no particular order) is something that caught the eyes of one of our reviewers. We will do our best to read and review all of these, but there are only so many hours in the day so no promises we will get to all of them. Regardless, each looks like a promising new story and we are very excited to check them out! Happy 2020 everyone.

  1. Repo Virtual by Corey J. White
  2. The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood
  3. Mazes of Power by Juliette Wade
  4. A Song Below Water by Bethany C Morrow
  5. The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez
  6. Rebelwing by Andrea Tang
  7. Docile by K. M. Sparza
  8. Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed
  9. The Loop by Ben Oliver
  10. The Dark Tide by Alicia Jasinska
  11. The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell
  12. Goddess in the Machine by Lora Beth Johnson

The Naked God – A QTL Discussion

We return with our final installment of our Night’s Dawn audio reviews! For those of you still listening, thank you for sticking with us. We know this is a bit out of the ordinary for our content and we are learning a lot. This time we are doing book three, The Naked God, in The Night’s Dawn trilogy, by Peter Hamilton. The goal of this discussion, once again, is to dive a little deeper into the book to better explore what makes them good, bad, and unique. There are a lot of spoilers for the books in these discussions, so if you wish to remain ignorant I recommend you skip today’s post. Otherwise, here is the discussion of book three (PS., we are extremely loud so you might want to turn down your volume):