A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe – Vast and Furious

35520564Here we have another of Orbit Publishing’s summer debuts, which they graciously sent me in exchange for an unbiased review. A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe, by Alex White, is the first book in his Salvagers series. I will tell you right off the bat that I think this is going to be one of the most divisive books I have read and a lot of people are going to love it and a lot of people are going to feel its not their thing. Which side you fall on is what I will hope to show you with this review. However, if I had to describe this book in an elevator pitch, I would say it is Firefly, meets Fast and Furious, meets National Treasure.

Building off that last sentence, Big Ship is a story about an unlikely and eclectic crew, with a penchant for danger and huge ridiculous vehicle stunts, on the hunt for historical treasures. Our protagonists are Boots and Nilah, two complicated women from very different backgrounds who are thrown together by circumstance. Boots is a war veteran from a conflict that had no winner and a scam artist with no scruples. She survived a war that wiped out both sides and now scrapes by selling fake salvage/treasure maps to suckers who come to her. She also has a rare birth defect, she was born with no magic. On the other hand, Nilah is a magic prodigy with a need for speed. Pampered and privileged as the daughter of the elite, Nilah is a race ship driver, spending her time using her mechanical magic to drive a futuristic race car. She is egotistical and spoiled, but none can deny her brilliance with her magic as she’s consistently at the top of the pack when it comes to speed and finesse on the track. The two of them end up on the run when Boots accidentally sells a map that unearths a conspiracy and Nilah witnesses (and is accused of) a murder that was meant to cover it back up. The two of them end up on the ship of Boots’ old commanding officer, someone she detests for his actions in the aforementioned war, and they all quickly realize that the only way they are going to get out of this is to follow Boots’ map to its final mark.

Big Ship is a fun, loud, and adventurous book. As you can likely tell from the plot description the story has treasure hunting, racing, lots of combat, and unlikely heroes. It is a tale of space rogues that will appeal on the surface to most with its kick ass magic system that I have only mentioned so far. Big Ship is closer to a fantasy/sci-fi hybrid as the populace of White’s world are all born with specialized magic (called “marks”) that allow them to enhance their tech, or use tech to enhance their magic. For example, Nilah has a mechanist’s mark that allows her to “feel” her vehicles as if they were part of her body and adjust them as if she was an AI. The captain of the ship they all ride on has a mark that allows him to produce shields, and using the ships interface he can project magical auras around it. It’s a really cool and fun magic system that constantly surprised and delighted me. The book is original, fun, and exciting, so you might be wondering why I mentioned it will likely be divisive. Well there are two major reasons, neither of them a flaw, but things that might not align with everyone’s tastes.

The first reason is that Boots and Nilah are incredibly unlikable (or at least at first). The book has a tremendous amount of character development, but the first chapters surrounding our leads had me wanting to blast them out an airlock. Boots is selfish and self-pitying and hard to feel sympathetic for as she rips off everyone around her. Nilah is arrogant and naive and watching her take her first steps in the “real world” was painful. I grew to love both of them as they became much better people over the course of the book, but if you do not have the patience for the character growth it may be a major turn off. The second reason is that the book is incredibly dramatic. I’m talking borderline soap opera dramatic. Everyone is constantly fighting, everyone is constantly talking about their feelings, and everyone is always pouring their heart and soul out to anyone who will listen. I did not enjoy this, but I want to stress that despite my dislike I still think that it was well-written and well-executed. The prose style was just not my preference and it had me rolling my eyes in many scenes. That being said, I was easily able to move past the moments I didn’t enjoy due to the gripping plot and the books biggest strength: the spectacle and combat.

Combat is really hard to write, and White is really good at it. I think this book would make an excellent movie because White’s action scenes were so visceral and present in my mind that I felt I was living them. His attention to detail with sound effects in particular really got my adrenaline pumping, with things like the noises of retractable claws and the whining stress on ship parts bringing scenes to life. This combined with some huge Fast and Furious style action set pieces led to some very memorable scenes that are still vivid in my mind after finishing the book.

While A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe might lose some people with its dramatic emotions and less than perfect protagonists, those that push on are going to find a new favorite book. The world is incredible, the adventure engrossing, and the combat will have you on the edge of your seat. Big Ship is the strongest debut I have read in 2018 so far and I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel as soon as I can.

Rating: A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe – 8.5/10
-Andrew

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Grey Sister – A Younger Sibling With A Bag Of New Tricks

9781101988886_GreySister_FCOmech.inddI managed to get my hands on one of the most anticipated releases this year, Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence, and thanks to Mark for an early review copy. The book is a sequel to his incredibly powerful Red Sister, a book that placed in my top 3 favorites of 2017. Since most of you are going to be reading this book no matter what I say let me ease your worries and stoke your excitement, Grey Sister is excellent and something to be very pumped for. On the other hand, I don’t think it quite lived up to the success of Red Sister (which is fine as it was an incredibly high bar to reach).

The plot picks up right where Red Sister left off and ties up a few small loose ends and cliffhangers from book one. The story then immediately jumps forward two years as Nona finishes grey class and moves into mystic – ahead of most of her friends (except Darla who is her only ally in her new class). This works as a nice reset for the social dynamic, allowing Nona to still have a great group of friends to interact with, but she is also forced into a new group of people that present new challenges. Nona’s new antagonist classmate is delightful to hate. I found myself constantly hoping she got punched in the face and I felt much more satisfaction when the antagonist experienced small humiliations compared to when they happened to Zole/Ara in Red Sister. The plot mostly follows around a number of characters working to return the Sister Mercy’s shipheart and to ferret out Sherzal’s plans.

One thing I truly like about Mark as an author, and why I will always read his books, is that you can constantly see him growing and evolving as an author. Each book he writes, he tries to improve and iterate on past ideas and techniques. While it can occasionally make it feel like some sequels don’t live up to their predecessors, his books always feel fresh and exciting. Grey Sister still has a ton of strengths that Red had: a lovable cast, intense action, an engrossing setting, and a plot that hooks you and doesn’t let go. It also has a number of new things that improve upon Red Sister, such as the better antagonist I mentioned before. For me, the biggest improvement between Red and Grey Sister is that Abbess Glass is a POV with a large amount of page time. I really, really, like Abbess Glass and getting to spend time in her head did not disappoint at all. In addition, while Red Sister spent a lot of time meandering and exploring the world without direction – Grey Sister is much more laser focused in its pursuit of the shipheart/Sherzal plot established in book one.

I think some will see the more focused approach of Grey Sister as a good thing, but for me it kept me from reaching the highest highs I got in Red. There isn’t a ton of time spent in class or learning things in Grey Sister, instead the book focuses more on the times between class where Nona and her crew can plot and scheme. As a result, there were a lot less moments of delightful discovery as Nona learned a new skill or lesson, one of the biggest draws of Red Sister. They are definitely not absent, Nona’s grey trial was endlessly fun, but they are just noticeably less frequent than in Red Sister and it makes Grey feel like a thinner book.

Despite my few less than positive comments, I read Grey Sister in two days, so I obviously enjoyed it immensely. Grey Sister delivers on most of what Red did with a number of new delightful tricks that help distinguish it from its sister novel. I know that Mark wrote this series as a trilogy all at once, but I find myself hoping that he somehow keeps writing books in the setting. I don’t think I will be ready to leave this world after one more book and I don’t feel like I have gotten nearly enough time with any of these characters.

Rating: Grey Sister – 9.0/10
-Andrew

The Prey Of Gods – Gods And Robots And Popstars (Oh My)

y648Two of my favorite things come together in today’s review: interesting settings and science fiction/fantasy mashups. The Prey of Gods, by Nicky Drayden (her debut novel), takes place in South Africa and has a whole lot going on including reborn gods, super drugs, mind control, and AI gaining sentience to name a few. The excellent cover caught my eye, and when I read the first chapter and it ended with gay sex between a dolphin and a crab I was intrigued to know what the next chapter had in store (you know you are a little curious).

The Prey of Gods most reminds me of American Gods by Neil Gaiman, in all the best ways. The story tells of several fantastical players’ machinations coming to a head in the modern age. There is an age-old sadistic goddess stuck doing manicures for a living as she tries to regain her power. There is a young boy who is discovering that he has the power to mind control others while he is high. There are AI servants who are slowly gaining consciousness. All of these people are thrown into a pot where they work against and with one another to create this weird tapestry that feels hectic, but is a blast to follow along with.

This book might have the most diverse cast I have ever read, and I guarantee it has something for you. My personal favorite character is a politician who turns into a drag pop diva as the story progresses, as he is hilarious. While his story didn’t appeal to me initially – his personality is magnetic and I just loved the way his voice on the page pulled me in. Drayden has a real talent for multiple POVs, as she managed to give her characters very different voices while also maintaining a nice cohesion across the story. Another favorite of mine is the robots. As opposed to most robot uprisings that I have read, this is more an uprising of robot moms? One of the AI’s is observing a second POV and is essentially concerned for his health and is constantly worried about him – which was adorable. Despite the fact that there were definitely POVs I liked more than others, there weren’t any I disliked.

Despite a messy start, the story quickly solidifies into a clear plot. I mentioned the sadistic goddess? She is quickly established as the antagonist of the book, and it is up to the rest of the ensemble cast to band together and pool their skills to stop her. Drayden does an excellent job mixing her crazy ideas with small poignant emotional moments between her characters that get you invested quickly. My favorite scenes varied between huge flashy displays of magic, and small quiet conversations between family members. It is a book that knows how to balance the serious and the fun to make you appreciate both.

If I had any critique for the book it might be that despite being set in South Africa, I didn’t feel like I got a strong enough sense of the culture and environment I was immersed it. Drayden does show us some of the old goddesses, tribes, and cultures of the land but I never quite found myself fully transported into Africa in quite the way I was hoping, but this could be just as much a failing on my part.

Overall, The Prey of Gods is an incredible debut from an author with a vivid imagination, and a talent for bringing tons of different POVs to life. This book felt like a stand alone, but there is definitely room for a sequel if Drayden wanted to, and I would be happy with any additional books she cared to write. The Quill to Live definitely recommends you check out this wacky and poignant adventure sometime soon.

Rating: The Prey of Gods – 9.0/10