Children Of Ruin – Oh What A Wonderful World It Could Be

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So, we have a sequel to Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky – which is very interesting. We loved Children of Time here at The Quill to Live. Our review can be found here, but to make a long story short every one of us who had the chance to read Time came out of the experience listing it as a favorite book. However, we also assumed the story was over. Time’s narrative ends in a really good place and felt like it was a very strong stand-alone novel. If you had asked me if there would be a sequel a year ago I would have said, “God, I hope not.” Despite this, Tchaikovsky sat down and wrote a follow-up novel called Children of Ruin, and if he feels that there is still more story to tell then I trust him enough at this point to read it. As usual, my trust was well rewarded. There are mild spoilers from Children of Time ahead.

If you are unfamiliar with Children of Time, well then you should be reading our first review linked above and subsequently to that, reading that incredible book. If you have read the first book, or I haven’t scared you off, know that Children of Ruin is an impressive piece of writing. Part of the massive power of Time’s story is how Tchaikovsky manages expectations and constantly surprises you with how the book develops. Over the course of the story, we get to see how the humans and portiids approach and solve problems – and the results that Tchaikovsky presents are always imaginative, alien, and thought-provoking. This is part of why I was concerned with a sequel story. Now that I was wise to Tchaikovsky’s methods, I was concerned that Ruin might lack the sense of surprise and wonder from book one. It does not.

Children of Ruin opens in a very similar manner to its predecessor. You get to see a terraforming team working on a planet to make it ready for human life. This is a massive oversimplification but: things go horribly wrong, everyone almost dies, and it results in a supervirus rapidly evolving a new kind of animal to live on the newly transformed planet. We saw coming out of the end of book one that the humans and portiids had found a way to exist together without killing one another. At the start of Children of Ruin, these two groups are starting to work together and launch an expedition to the stars to explore a mysterious beacon calling for help (which are of course the octopuses). Thus we have the two timelines in the book. In the past, we get to see the development of this new animal species – octopuses. In the present, we get to see our humans and portiids from Time investigating what is going on with this new species thousands of years later.

On some level, Children of Ruin follows a very similar formula to Children of Time. The structure of the narrative is extremely similar, and both books focus on how an animal with very different senses and thought patterns might approach civilization if they were the dominant species. If the only difference between the books was seeing the evolution of spiders and octopuses respectively, it would be a worthwhile read. The octopuses approach communication and thought visually in the book, just like they do in real life, and it results in some of the most imaginative, well written, and captivating first contact scenes I have ever read. Fantastically, that is not the only difference between the two books, and the additional changes in Ruin elevate it to the same greatness of Time.

Tchaikovsky clearly knew going into Children of Ruin that his readers would be coming to the table with more information than they did with book one. He knew people would be expecting the unexpected and looking for out of the box answers to the problems he presented in the story. To combat this, it felt like Tchaikovsky just keeps nesting additional boxes and misdirects in the story. He plays with the expectations set by book one to create new opportunities for surprise and experience. It is a brilliant display of talent when it comes to themes and misdirection, and it meant that despite being a much wiser person when I read Ruin that I still got taken on a wild ride.

In addition to the powerful narrative, Ruin builds upon the strengths of Time allowing Tchaikovsky to prominently display his skills as a writer. The worldbuilding is incredible, with the book having a true alien atmosphere that you can immerse yourself in. The book has powerful emotional moments of shock, horror, and excitement that will have your heart racing as you read it. I think one area that was already great that got better was the characters. The cast of this book is phenomenal and I felt deep emotional connections to all of them. This ties into the one thing I didn’t like about the book. I felt that the stories of some of these incredible characters didn’t feel fully explored by the end of this story.

Children of Ruin, much like its predecessor, is an incredible piece of science fiction that I firmly believe will be considered a classic in the future. It is original, entertaining, thought-provoking, surprising, and takes an already very high bar and sets it higher. You owe it to yourself to read these magnetic books and experience life through a new set of sensory organs. Both Time and Ruin are two of my favorite books in recent memory.

Rating: Children of Ruin – 10/10
-Andrew

The Last Astronaut – One Small Step Into… Eh, You Should Figure It Out

I would not say that The Last Astronaut by David Wellington is a bad book. It just didn’t quite hit the marks that it set out to hit. The story itself was okay on its own; it did not feel entirely new to me, but it was not stale either. The possibility of extraterrestrial life visiting our solar system can be a fun way to uncover aspects of humanity left unexplored in other genres. The secrecy around the discovery in The Last Astronaut made the race to answer the question of ‘who are they and what are they doing here’ more personal than most first contact stories I have read. The general structure of the book’s beginning felt like I was going to dive into some characters who carried demons. I expected that this unknown entity was going to exploit this baggage, shining a light on the characters’ faults as they plunged deeper into the darkness of space. My eyes were open for whatever curveballs the author was ready to throw at me. Unfortunately, Wellington’s strange choice to frame the narrative as a documentary paired with his unremarkable writing softened the emotional punch foreshadowed for the characters. 

The Last Astronaut takes place fifty years in the future after a failed manned mission to Mars. The captain, Sally Jansen, had to make a life or death decision and sacrificed a crew member for the rest of the group. Afterwards, NASA was defunded to near non-existence. Fifteen years later, an object is spotted slowing down as it enters the solar system, and with very few people who know about it, and even fewer astronauts remaining, Jansen is called in to lead a crew of inexperienced people to a presumed alien ship. Their mission is to make contact and find out what they might be doing here, and whether or not they could be considered a threat. 

After the first chapter, Wellington tells the audience that the text that follows is a revised edition of the report he initially penned. This was not merely a statement of the facts, but an inspection of the characters’ mental and emotional states as they explored this alien artifact. The documentarian flair was unexpected and a little jarring, as it tells the reader exactly what to expect instead of letting the story tell itself. I did not pay too much attention to this stylistic choice at first because it felt like an afterthought. By the time the third documentary-style quote from a character appeared, I was already bored with it. It was not consistent enough to add any real tone to the story, and the weird pacing interrupted the natural flow. These little snippets offered little new information, and tended to just hang there, like the guy at the party who pushes his way into a discussion by repeating what someone just said. I was mostly able to ignore these asides, but as they continued to show up, it became a problem for me. 

The whole book suffered from this mismanagement of tone. It felt like it was written to be a sci-fi blockbuster movie. The text lacked a real sense of tension, almost as if Wellington was relying on the reader to feel the wonder or fear of entering an alien spacecraft without experiencing it through the characters. There were moments where the author would dive into a description and relish in it, but there were no subtle reminders of the atmosphere or the character’s disposition. I did not even realize this was supposed to be a horror story until about sixty percent of the way through the book. However, the horror elements of the narrative were more to do with the plot than the tone or general ambience. It wasn’t until the crew was deep inside the alien ship that I realized that most of the scenes inside the alien craft were supposed to be set in the dark. This took place long after the crew realized they might be trapped and resources were limited. It was so jarring I flipped backwards through the pages to find descriptions of the dark setting and found little. Instead, Wellington preferred to describe everything that was happening- regardless of a character’s ability to see it- and then wait for you to remind yourself that it’s actually quite dark and scary. It was frustrating to say the least.

The characters were fine. They were not nearly as cardboard as others I have read, but they did not quite hit the level of depth I think Wellington was aiming for. If this was meant to be a journey into the darkness of space and the madness that comes from encountering an alien entity, there was a lot left to be desired. The character’s actions and choices often felt in service to the plot as if their arcs were already predetermined. The ‘darker’ qualities to the characters were amplified immediately, leading them to feel necessary to the plot and artificial. It kicked the story into overdrive, but at the cost of growth or underlying tension. It felt like Wellington was racing to the finish, wanting to reveal the nature of the alien rather than investigate the people involved, which seemed at odds with his initial framing. Little effort was spent in trying to convince the reader of the struggle within the various characters and their conflicting goals as they became more aware of the aliens’ goals.

The overall mystery of the ship and the increasing madness of the crew are good foundations, but they just didn’t feel fully fleshed out. Throughout the book, the only thing that compelled me to keep going was to find out the truth of the alien ship, not how the characters were affected. The retrospective framing was also distracting in a way that removed any sort of horror. It foreshadowed a nice conclusion, dissipating any tension that could be built. All of the emotional impact had to be supplied by the reader, never by the writing itself. If it had been a movie, it would have been an enjoyable schlock sci-fi horror flick. Instead, the book feels lackluster and in service only to itself. 

Rating: The Last Astronaut – 5.0/10
-Alex

Children of Time – The Web Of Life Finds A Way

51wkqa3knrlI have a confession to make. Sometimes, I can get a little vain about my ability to think about books. I also have a penchant for wanting to discuss themes in books in a way that shows how smart I think I might be. It’s a frustrating vanity I can’t seem to rid myself of. It reared its ugly head in a big way with a beautiful science fiction standalone titled Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I bought it on impulse one late night last year as it popped up as a “readers also enjoyed.” All I needed were four words: intelligent spiders in space. How could I resist such a notion, especially with an Arthur C. Clarke award and a glowing quote from Peter F. Hamilton? I read it in July 2017, and I have been struggling to put into words ever since how much I love this book. Every time I sit down to write a review, new revelations dawn on me about the book, and nothing gets written. This is my attempt to lure you into its web.

Children of Time begins far into the future, where humanity has begun to terraform planets and spread throughout the stars. A scientist by name of Avrana Kern has decided that, instead of inhabiting some of these created paradises, we should send apes down onto them with an “uplift virus” that will hyper-evolve generations of mammals towards intelligence in order to eventually have a dialogue with someone in an otherwise empty galaxy. Unsurprisingly, there is a large group of people who do not like this idea, and they attack the space station where the scientists are operating. In the chaos, Kern manages to send the virus, but fails in sending the monkeys. The virus, with nothing better to do, finds its way into something else: spiders (portia labiate). From there the story splits into semi-parallel storylines: one told from the perspective of the evolving spiders, the other told by the descendants of humanity who are recovering from the civil war sparked a thousand years ago by Kern’s vision.

Tchaikovsky’s story straddles centuries. We are introduced to a new generation of spiders every few chapters (with each generation showcasing the evolutions gained from the previous spider protagonists). The humans on the other hand manage to stretch their lives by cleverly spanning large chunks of time using cryogenic freezing chambers. He keeps the reader engaged through tight pacing and complex characters built from recognizable archetypes. Additionally, the incredible detail with which he describes the evolution of the spiders would make National Geographic’s best travel and nature writers jealous. Tchaikovsky misses no small details, providing what feels like a historical highlight reel of the spider’s physical and cultural development as the species and society progress.

That is not to say that the human story is boring, but it was harder to get engaged with their storyline. It follows the perspective of Holsten Mason, a historian of sorts who is tasked with witnessing humanity leaving Earth for the last time and document the life it is going to build for itself. The magic of this side of the story is that the constant time jumps that leave the main character, and the reader, disoriented. Every time Mason wakes up, something new has happened or some bit of information is missing, and the reader finds out what has changed alongside the character. Tchaikovsky keeps all of these perspective shifts and leaps fresh with a few tricks that provide insights into the human condition, without beating the reader over the head with them.

The characters on a whole feel organic and lived in. The humans have a touch of desperation to them that not only expresses their fears of the future, but their apprehension towards each other. They are a broken people, the children of a civil war so toxic it poisoned the Earth itself. On the flip side, the spiders feel curious, ambitious and altogether optimistic. They are a new species carving out a space in existence on a not so perfect planet, but without the baggage of history weighing them down. These and other differences are painstakingly highlighted as the novel goes on, showing different ways problems are solved without pointing out direct differences. Tchaikovsky’s use of science fiction trappings is creative and feels organic. Most of the human technology is traditional sci-fi fare, but it has a flair to it that took me aback several times. The humans’ technology feels rigid, decrepit, and built with a lack of resources. Meanwhile, the spiders are clever and flexible in their use of biological technologies. They have access to so much, and they use everything to their fullest ability. Tchaikovsky goes through great lengths to show how both species interact with their environment through use of their resources. Each species feels different and unique, making technology a theme instead of a setting. Humanity feels isolated, paranoid, and defensive, while the spiders are inclusive, challenging, and integrate themselves into the world.

I could go on about this book, peeling back its many layers, and pointing out all the clever devices that Tchaikovsky left as surprises for the readers. I could gush even more about his commentary on power in relation to information, squeal about how the main characters and their roles in society reflect the values those societies hold dear. I could blather on about how the ending is a glorious refutation of stories we as civilized, economically focused, western Europeans have told ourselves about ourselves. I could highlight that accepting and promoting the education, validity, and intelligence of a society’s oppressed groups can bring about greater freedom for everyone is a theme that both the spiders and humans share. Instead, I will say Children of Time is easily one of my favorite books of this year, if not one of my favorite books ever. It is not perfect, even though all I want to do is talk about it. The initial human chapters did nothing for me and felt standard and unexciting until I started looking backwards. It requires a lot of buy in from the reader to feel the nuances and the gears turning while reading. However, every moment of build up is worth it as the payoff is one of the coolest takes on evolution and alien competition I have ever read. The Quill to Live enthusiastically recommends you check out Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

Rating: Children of Time – 10/10
-Alex