How Rory Thorne Destroyed The Multiverse – Thankfully There Is Another One

81g3gpska-lRight before my city enforced strong restrictions and everything closed due to our current pandemic, I metaphorically looted my library. I figured that if I was going into isolation I might as well grab as many books as I could carry to the front desk and just try reading some random things that caught my eye. The results of this have been… mixed. Turns out that publisher marketing teams know what they are doing and are extremely skilled at putting nice covers on questionable books. But, there have been some gems out of the pile of disappointment I grabbed, and How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse, by K. Eason, is definitely one of them.

Thorne is a fantasy and science fiction hybrid, one of my favorite things to stumble upon. Combining the two genres is hard to do, but a number of my all-time favorite books fit into this niche, so it’s safe to say the premise excited me. How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse tells the story of, well, Rory Thorne. Rory is the princess of an intergalactic empire that grew from humble fantasy beginnings over untold generations. She is the first girl to be born to the royal line in a ridiculously long time, so the royal parents decide to follow the age-old tradition from when their kingdom was first founded: ask the faeries of the land to grant her a blessing. It seems like a cute and fun idea until the faeries actually show up and bless Rory with 13 gifts. They are varied, interesting, and mostly benign – except for two. One faery gives Rory the ability to always be able to tell when people are lying, and a second gives her a well of courage to know when not to back down. We then rapidly get taken through Rory’s journey to adulthood and get key glimpses into how these two gifts forge her into a fascinating adult. This takes up roughly the first third of the book, and then we shift to something new.

The first third of the story is about building Rory’s personality and attaching the reader to her, and the back two-thirds are about stripping her of all her tools but her mind and throwing her into a political sea and seeing if she sinks or swims. This portion of the book is a political thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the last page. It’s extremely satisfying to see how key moments from the first part of the book made Rory into a person who can handle challenges thrown at her in the second part of the story. It makes Rory feel extremely alive, relatable, and likable – and makes all of her victories feel extremely earned.

The world and cast are fun, cool, and do a great job of pulling in the reader. Thorne leans more towards science fiction, with the fantasy sprinkled in for some magic realism…in space. The formula works well for the book as the magic always feels like a subtle catalyst that keeps the plot moving and keeps things interesting without overstaying its welcome or stifling Rory’s achievements. One of her many talents is picking up support characters, and helping them shine. The secondary characters are all fun and interesting in their own right, but they also serve as a powerful mirror to look back at Rory, work as a foil, and further her continual growth in the latter part of the story.

The plot is very satisfying, with twists and challenges that kept me coming back. But, if one were to just glance at the back blurb of Thorne, you would see some cursory paragraphs about the plot and the following statement: “[the book] is a feminist reimagining of familiar fairytale tropes and a story of resistance and self-determinationhow small acts of rebellion can lead a princess to not just save herself, but change the course of history. ” While I understand that this tagline is there to catch the eye and sell books, I honestly think it does the book a disservice. Everything that quote mentions is definitely a part of this book, but I feel like it narrows the success of the story. How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse should resonate with every reader, as it tells the story of how every person can face adversity and challenges. It tells a particularly compelling story for women and facing sexism, but as a man, I still found it extremely relatable to my own personal trials and tribulations. This book is great for literally anyone.

The one place that I felt Thorne dropped the ball a little was in the finale. Things wrap up very quickly and it feels like a lot of loose ends are tied up in a short number of pages. What is surprising is the ending reads like Eason was wrapping things up and removing the possibility of sequels, but this is the first of an intended duology. I am not exactly sure where the story is going next, but I am still excited to find out when it becomes available.

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse is a unique gem of a book that is hard to classify. Its pacing, storytelling, tone, and genre-blending are all uneven, but they serve to enhance the power of the narrative instead of detracting from it. Rory is a relatable and endearing protagonist that you would need a heart of stone not to like. Other than its strange climax, How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse has been one of the best books I have read this year so far. If I had managed to get to it when it came out last October, it definitely would have made it into our top of 2019 list. I will not make the same mistake with the sequel.

Rating: How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Legacy Of Ash – The Beginnings Of Something Good

81yarluoexlI have been looking for some new epic fantasy recently as a lot of the larger series I have historically turned to have been wrapping up the last two years. Luckily, it looks like this year is going to be big for epic fantasy, with a number of established authors like Lawrence and Wexler launching new series and many debut authors throwing their hats into the ring. Speaking of which, one of the new debut series I have managed to sink my teeth into this year is Legacy of Ash, by Matthew Ward. If this book is any sort of sign of the quality of epic fantasy coming down the pipeline, then we are in for a great year.

Legacy of Ash has all the staples of a good epic fantasy. It has a fascinating and expansive world, a large number of varied POVs, satisfying character journeys/growth, political intrigue, and a captivating plot. His debut story kicks off strong and fast. The book begins with the end of a war from the POV of the queen of the losing side. She dies almost immediately, and through her death, we are introduced to the three primary POVs of the story: her executioner, Viktor, and her two children, Josiri and Calenne. These are the characters the story focuses on, but the side cast is enormous, varied, and well fleshed out. The overall plot is too complicated to summarize in a paragraph, but it essentially revolves around post-war tensions a decade after the opening scene, political intrigue, a supernatural global threat, and our three protagonists coming to terms with who they are.

While everything in that last sentence, combined with brisk pacing and good prose, contributes to why Legacy of Ash is good – it is the ever-present theme of our protagonists wrestling with their identities that helps Legacy stand out among the crowd and leave a lasting impression compared to its contemporary competition. At the start of the book, each of the leads has a very clear sense of identity and direction. Ward then continuously throws obstacles and challenges at them to question their beliefs and positions. The protagonists take in the information and decide if it will alter their course. It is a very natural, surprising, and well-written series of growth arcs that does a lot to keep you invested in the story. The only problem is that the three arcs feel like they have different levels of polish.

Josiri’s arc is the best. It’s the most fleshed out and the most interwoven with the plot. As the crown prince of an oppressed people, Josiri lives his life with rigid discipline, sharp pride of his heritage, and fierce loyalty to his mother’s memory and his people. The challenge that Josiri faces is deciding when it’s worthwhile to let go of pride and culture to save his people. Ward strikes a well-argued balance for the pros and cons of preserving national identity vs. absorbing into an oppressor to change it from within, and Josiri’s story kept me turning pages until the last.

Next, we have Viktor, who I absolutely love as a character but feel his challenges fell a little flat. Viktor is champion of the realm and a massive hulking and brooding behemoth of a man. However, he cherishes friendship, and, while I would hesitate to call him a softy on the inside, he has a lot more empathy and emotional depth than I expected. My issue with Viktor is that his internal struggle revolves around whether or not to embrace the fact that he can use cursed magic. He has interesting powers, and Ward does a good job painting the pros and cons, but at the end of the day, his struggle just didn’t feel as interesting or original when you put it next to Josiri’s.

And then we have Calenne. I don’t really know what happened with Calenne, she feels like she suffered from an attempt to tie all the various plot threads up. Calenne, as the second child of the dead queen, doesn’t have the responsibilities to the throne of her older brother. She was too young to remember the mother who died and feels chained to her memory and shadow and unable to be her own person. She wants nothing to do with her people; she just wants to run away and live her own life. Calenne’s story starts very strongly. At the start of the book, she is very unlikeable, but Ward knows this and does a great job giving Calenne meaningful and satisfying moments of growth to find balance in helping her people and living for herself. Unfortunately, Calenne’s story starts to go a little off the rails in the second half of the book. She isn’t given nearly the same amount of page time as the two others and disappears entirely for about a fourth of the novel. In addition, her character choices begin to push against the natural organic growth that you see with Viktor and Josiri and feel a bit erratic. A lot of this appears to do with her choices moving certain elements of the plot along and simply being a victim of Ward needing to introduce various elements. However, the handling of her character in the back half of the book feels a little clumsy when compared to the boys and it was disappointing.

Legacy of Ash is a strong debut with a lot packed into its first novel. Its fast pace and exciting twists make it feel like Ward crammed three books worth of content into one condensed super novel. The characters are fun and likable, though there were some minor issues with polish in the back half of the story. Overall, I really enjoyed this first book and I will be on the lookout to pick up the sequel as soon as I can.

Rating: Legacy of Ash – 8.0/10
-Andrew

5 Lighthearted Reads for Dreary Times

Let’s get straight to the point: everything is tough right now. And rather than regurgitate the buzzwords and messaging you see on all your social platforms, I’d like to shift gears and offer you a little light to get through some dark times. Here are five lighthearted reads that will put a smile on your face!

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune 

This book. This. Friggin’. Book. I turned the final page of The House in the Cerulean Sea with glistening, teary eyes and a smile so large it probably threw Earth’s gravity off-kilter (if you felt that, I’m sorry–should be back to normal now). TJ Klune has served up an unassuming book with an unassuming protagonist that just wrecks you by the end. It’s a tale of found family and unconditional love and fighting for what’s right in the face of adversity. It’s told with careful attention to detail and a glimmer of hope. Our recent review (a well-deserved 10/10, by the way) covers the main points, but here’s the skinny: it’s a glorious fantasy novel featuring a diverse cast of characters and a world exploding with magic. For what it’s worth, I can remember two books EVER making me cry, and this is one of them (the other being City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett, but those were tears of well-earned sadness). 

For the love of all that you hold dear, read this book. 

Strange Planet by Nathan W Pyle

You may have seen these charming aliens gracing your Instagram feed. Nathan W Pyle’s account of the same name features cute-as-heck extra-terrestrials experiencing the wonders of Earth through fresh eyes. The book (and its June-slated sequel, Stranger Planet), collects these charming cartoons and reignites the beauty in everyday things that we too often take for granted. 

To Pyle’s aliens, sunburn is an adventure and cats are mysteries to solve. No familiar scenario or phenomenon is exempt from the adoration of the creatures, and every panel offers thoughtful observations on everyday life and human emotion. 

Everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too by Jomny Sun

Oh, you already finished Strange Planet but you can’t wait for the sequel? You need another charming illustrated exploration of Earth through an extra-terrestrial’s eyes? Dang, sorry I can’t hel–BAM. Here’s Jomny Sun’s charmingly magnificent masterpiece. Jomny, a misfit alien, is sent to study earth. He befriends animals and plants. He discovers what it means to feel. He learns that it’s okay to be sad just as much as it’s okay to be happy. 

Jomny Sun presents a lovely view of humanity, and every single page teaches some sort of life lesson. I’ll leave you with a personal favorite, aliebn misspellings-and-all: “I’ve been wonderimg why the lonely ones make the most beautifubl music and i thimk its because theyre the ones most invested in filling the silence.”

Year Zero by Rob Reid

Sometimes, you need a rich sci-fi world complete with intergalactic federations, societies on the brink of war, and weapons capable of destroying entire solar systems. Sometimes, you need a humorous sci-fi romp in which aliens have been illegally streaming Earth music for years and, as a result, owe us trillions upon trillions of dollars. For those in need of the latter, I offer you Year Zero.

Backed by a wealth of his industry knowledge as the founder of Rhapsody, Rob Reid weaves a hilarious tale of intergalactic copyright infringement and piracy. It’s a hoot from start-to-finish, and while Year Zero explores some important questions about art and consumption in the space-travel age, it’s really just a straight-up adventure that pokes a lot of fun at many of our artistic institutions. Oh, and it’s kind of a love letter to music as a whole. 

If you’re looking for an overly-hyphenatedly-described genre-defining space-faring sci-fi mega-masterpiece, well…*gestures to The Expanse.* If you want to heed the words of Cyndi Lauper and sneak in a few chuckles, check out Year Zero

What If? By Randall Munroe

Randall Munroe’s collection of “serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions” induced more riotous laughter in me than any book I’ve read in recent memory. A former NASA employee and all-around talented writer, Munroe approaches said questions with a flair for scientific accuracy and a sharp penchant for gut-busting punchlines. Throw in the hilarious stick-figure comics, and you’ve got the full package. 

Here are some of the questions on display: “How much force power can Yoda output?” “If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the moon at the same time, would it change color?” “What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?”

So, yeah, things get crazy. What If? provides a refreshing escape from these tough times into rampant absurdity.

Vagabonds – Dirty Unwashed Potential

81nxmr1dtrlVagabonds, by Hao Jingfang, is the latest Chinese science fiction novel that Ken Liu has skillfully translated from its native tongue for readers’ enjoyment. While I really hope this trend continues and begins to branch out to every culture possible, I find myself struggling to grasp and enjoy Chinese Science Fiction every time I foray into it. When I dug into the Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, I was fairly sure the issue was with me and my rudimentary understanding of Chinese culture. However, when it came to Vagabonds I had a much harder time pinning down what wasn’t clicking.

On its surface, Vagabonds has an interesting premise that would capture the heart of any fan of golden age sci-fi. Earth is a capitalist paradise, while Mars is a Socialist utopia, and they do not get along. After many years of war, a ceasefire is announced and a selection of students from both worlds are allowed to travel between the planets and put on a miniature world’s fair to display the brilliance and achievements of their home planets. We follow the POV of two individuals, one from Earth and one from Mars, who find themselves changed by their time on their respective new planets. Each of these POVs returns home to find themselves different from their peers and incompatible with their old homes. The story is about these protagonists trying to reconcile what they learned while away from home and prevent future conflict across the stars.

Initially, I was really enjoying Vagabonds. The premise is cool, the culture shock is captivating, the world-building is engaging, and the theoretical ideas surrounding capitalism and socialism by Jingfang feel like fresh takes that I was keen to hear more of. But, my joy and engagement did not last. As the book continues to chug along, and the perspective shifts from a split POV to focusing primarily on a single character, my interest began to wane. Vagabonds feels like it suffers way too much from long and uninteresting self-reflecting eulogies from its cast, and ideas that are just not deep enough to support its gigantic page count.

You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the names of any of the POVs and cast, and that is because I cannot remember any of them. The characters are all unmemorable and fairly dull, which makes the fact that the book explores their feelings about every gust of wind and falling leaf drag on the reader like swimming with lead weights. The more that the book shifted from its core arguments of capitalism vs. socialism to the exploration of how its boring cast felt about events – the less I liked it. There are still some great ideas in the story, but they are absolutely not worth the amount of time it took me to dig them out of the rest of the filler.

Vagabonds is a book with a powerful premise that lacks in execution. Its enormous page count is unwarranted, and its characters carry the story about as well as sieves carry water. If you are a huge fan of golden age science-fiction and if you don’t mind a clunky narrative with an unwieldy page count, you might really enjoy it. But, if you find yourself having to choose between Vagabonds or a different enticing read – I would likely recommend that you go with the later.

Rating: Vagabonds – 5.0/10
-Andrew

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