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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Unconquerable Sun – 9.5/10 

Sea Change – Be That You Wish to See

Nancy Kress has been on my to-read list for a while. She has a weight to her name, especially when it comes to her treatment of genetics and bio-engineering. I have not made my way to her earlier works yet, but I was presented with an opportunity to read Sea Change, and I decided that something new could be a good entry point. Sea Change is a short read with overt themes, forcing readers to ponder the use of genetically modified foods in preparation for climate change. While I think it handles that discussion with care, I was not entirely enamored with the characters or the story itself. 

Sea Change is told through the perspective of Renata Black, an agent of the Org, an underground group of environmental activists, scientists, and farmers who are secretly working on GMO variants of food. After a biopharmaceutical company caused The Catastrophe, GMOs were banned in the United States, and continuing research on them was forced underground. Renata herself is an agent who runs communications between a small splinter cell within the Org. She is in charge of making sure that the secret laboratories stay functional and hidden. Communications are handled through a very specific shade of paint, Tiffany Teal, and in small personal groups to avoid widespread uncovering of the group’s activities. However, Renata is sure there is a mole within her cell, and it’s up to her to make sure the offender is found before real damage is done. 

I will be honest, it’s very hard to write about a book like this. If you have read some of my reviews over time, you’ll know I often try to parse through the work and talk about the author’s handling of their more overt themes, focusing on the characters and the development of the theme throughout the book. Sea Change is weird to me because I think Kress handles the themes very well in terms of overall portrayal; she does not beat around the bush when it comes to instilling a specific message. Kress presents facts in such a bare and blatant manner it’s hard to look away. However, I had trouble reconciling this with the rest of the story as portions of it fell flat from a narrative perspective. Chiefly, I had issues with the main character Renata Black. 

Renata Black never felt like a full character to me. Part of that might be an issue with the book’s length, but I felt as though a lot of it stemmed from her development. A lot of her dialogue is delivered in a straightforward and factual manner. Every event within her life has a cause and effect stated very plainly through the narration, and very often her interactions with people felt transactional. There is a distinct lack of internal life that felt disruptive and weird. This could have been interesting if Renata herself had something to hide, or she was ashamed of something she was defensive about. It inhabited this weird space where she was talking to the reader and monologuing to herself, but never really accomplishing either. In some ways, there was a lurking sense of depression, but it never really solidified. When she became suspicious of those around her, it just fell flat. I was not in her head, feeling her concerns. While Renata’s life and choices were interesting and daring on paper, I never felt like she was in danger. There was no thrill or anxiety, but neither was there the confidence that comes with experience. The only times I really felt her come through were when she dealt with the people of the Quinault Indian Nation, but even these sections though had a perfunctory vibe to them.  

That being said, I think Kress handles science in this book with a level reverence I rarely see. She spends time teaching the reader about the facts and engages with the arguments for and against the topic at hand. Kress does not get overly detailed to a point that turns the reader off, and she employs a laser-like focus when it’s necessary to press a point home. When she describes incredibly weird things within genetic traits that could cause massive problems or be enormous boons, it never feels like a lecture. Kress disengages from the usual “technology good/bad,” and instead contemplates who stands to benefit and who should be making decisions regarding the use of GMOs. It never feels like a clever “both sides” argument either as Kress shows that ordinary everyday people are most often hurt. Power discrepancies are rarely shown in this subtle, but unforgiving way and Kress handles it incredibly well. I particularly enjoyed this “fight with what you have” mentality that was imbued within the different members of the Org and the Quinault Nation. Even though we did not get to see much of the side characters, we at least got to see their strengths and callings be emphasized within their roles.In the rebel groups, everyone was necessary regardless of skill or ability, which felt incredibly important to highlight in the times we are currently living in.

If you’re looking for a book with a targeted message as well as an engaging and educational discussion of a real-world topic, Sea Change is definitely for you. However, if you’re looking for a thriller that tries to balance all of the plates while doing the above, I think this book falls a little short. It’s a decent narrative representation of the dangers and benefits of GMOs, but it can be tough if you don’t buy into Renata Black. Overall, I’m glad I read it, and I look forward to more of Kress’s work because of this. 

Rating: Sea Change: 7.0/10
Alex

The Loop – Round and Round, Here We Go Again

I’m not big on young adult fiction. I didn’t read a lot of it growing up, and as I get older I have an even harder time considering it. It has just never resonated with me, and continues to be low on my literary priorities list. Granted, I just said I have not read a lot of YA, so I’m generalizing it with my most memorable experiences. This is all to say that you should take this review with a grain of salt. Upon my realization that this dark horse was YA, I knew I was going to have reservations but I still tried to go into it with an open mind. The Loop by Ben Oliver feels like a standard action-oriented science-fiction dystopia that does not challenge the reader and barely scratches the surface of its own world. 

The Loop follows Luka Kane, a teenager who has been in prison for over two years. This prison is called The Loop, and its prisoners are subjected to some pretty horrible stuff. They do not see any of the other prisoners, and they are confined to their cells for the most part. However, every six months, they can participate in a Delay, a stay of execution granted to them by being subjected to scientific and medical experiments that the wealthy can then benefit from. Around Luka’s sixteenth birthday, the prisoners are separated into two groups and an unscheduled Delay is offered to everyone. Upon Group A’s return to the Loop, something is different about them– namely, that they try to escape their cells with wide grins plastered upon their faces. The prison is thrown into chaos as it seems to the prisoners that the world itself might be falling apart. This offers the prisoners an opportunity to escape, but is the world outside even worse than the one they have come to know within the Loop? 

When I first read the description of this book, I was excited. Some tiny part of my brain planted a seed deep inside, hoping that this prison would be a time-based maze. Don’t ask me where that thought came from, but there it is. So like I said, this book was doomed for me. Maybe a lot of how I read it was from a close-mindedness about the genre, agitated by my preconceived notions. Now since you’re here though, I might as well get into the actual review. 

The biggest gripes I had with The Loop were its characters and its worldbuilding. There was not a whole lot going on that made it interesting. Luka Kane was a fairly standard teenage boy. He’s in prison, for a crime the reader does not learn about until later, who does his best to stay absolutely fit mentally and physically with a daily reading and exercise regimen. Throughout the book, Luka never reveals any flaws, beyond he is just too good of a person. Any interpersonal conflicts he gets into are due to his naiveté, even when his “friends” are telling him otherwise. You could make the case that he is just willing to face the consequences of his choices, but ultimately he feels like someone who would stick his head in a wild alligator’s mouth, have the gator bite down and his last thoughts be “I was too trusting, I guess.” Luka often felt like someone discovering the world as a reader would, instead of feeling like a character who knew the world for what it was. Once the nature of his crime is revealed, I felt justified in my feelings of him as a character. I won’t spoil it here, but for me, it was unintentionally deflating. I won’t even go into the side characters because honestly, I barely remember their names only a week later, let alone their roles in Luka’s life.

So what does Luka reveal about the world he lives in as he travels through it? Well, again, I found the book lacking. That is not to say there aren’t details. Oliver clearly is imaginative in his construction of a cruel society. It also helps that the society that exists in his future feels eerily familiar, but turned to eleven. Society is split between the elites and the rest, all under a single world government. Elites have access to bionic technology that the rest do not. They run the prisons, which are used as science labs which experiment on the poor for the benefit of the elites. Percentages of the population are lost in drug-enhanced virtual realities. However, I did not care about this world. Sure, it’s cruel, it’s mean, and it’s hard, but I just never got the sense that it could be real. I didn’t believe that the characters were frustrated with it or dealing with it in any significant way. I’m not even sure there was an accepted resignation to it either. It was frustrating given that on the surface, the world they inhabit is terrifying but hollow.

Like I said earlier, this is just not really my kind of book. That said, and with my admitted lack of knowledge of YA literature, I don’t think this offers new or different ideas to its genre. Knowing that it’s the first in a trilogy also dampens any sort of excitement, considering that a lot of the questions the series will raise probably won’t be answered, let alone asked until the end of the second book. Even as a romp, I can’t recommend this book because I didn’t feel any sort of suspense or apprehension. But hey, to each their own, I just know I was not a fan. 

Rating: The Loop: 4.5/10
-Alex

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.

Anthropocene Rag – It Is What You Make Of It

50905290._sx318_sy475_I am always on the lookout for stories about America, especially when it comes to speculative fiction. I find the myths about the United States, its formation, and expansion fascinating especially when they so often cover up many complicated and horrific histories. Its simplicity is enchanting to me and constantly begs deconstruction to find what the true “heart” of the American Story is. This is heightened during an election season, where talk of “what America is and should be” hangs heavy in the air. Add the third layer of COVID-19, and a lot of these questions and stories get brought into an even sharper focus when compared to the facts and histories. What the hell does that have to do with the book I am reviewing? Well Anthropocene Rag, by Alexander Irvine, is a clever, fun, engaging, and weird little book about a post-apocalyptic America that mostly succeeds in deconstructing how “we” talk about the story of America.

The book follows six main characters as they are visited by a construct named Prospector Ed, who gives them a golden ticket to enter the fabled Monument City. Each of the characters must travel to the Rocky Mountains across an America that is teeming with nano machines. A lot of the populace was killed and integrated into the machineries during an event called the Boom (the Boom is also used to refer to the machines collectively). The machines are everywhere, and depending on where you live, humans may or may not have a good relationship with the unpredictable Boom. In San Francisco, there is a relative harmony, as the machines inhabit human bodies. Other places are not so lucky, and people could be dismantled in seconds without even realizing it. But the Boom is doing something weird as all across the land, they are re-enacting the stories and folklore that make up the American Mythos.

Irvine’s writing is the first thing that truly hooked me about Anthropocene Rag. It feels like you’re sitting around a campfire with him as he recounts a past event. The characters come alive through his voice, making them feel both human and larger than life. The author also manages to make you as the reader complicit in the story through this stylization, asking you questions and sometimes making you feel as if you could stop it all at any moment. But you don’t, you want to know how it ends, you need to know how it ends. Fortunately, Irvine does not seem to judge you for this complicity, almost in some ways acknowledging that he too is at fault. It’s an incredibly engaging way to tell a story, and it calls attention to the story of America as well. Fortunately, Irvine succeeds in keeping the tone jovial, even as he is trying to get you to gaze into the abyss.

Irvine’s writing also helps the atmosphere within Anthropocene Rag. There is not a lot of plot, so Irvine relies very heavily on intimating feeling to great effect. The different regions that the characters begin their journey in, along with where they travel through, feel like you expect them to. I’m having a hard time explaining it, but Irvine nails the cultural osmosis of the different corners of America. Florida and New York City, feel like off versions of what we know of them today, as if something changed about them, but the bones are still there. There is a familiarity to them, as if Irvine wanted to reveal the core parts of them in a more thematic fashion. It was extremely haunting, and if that was Irvine’s goal, he succeeded. However, there is a slight tendency for some areas to feel “stereotypical” due to the fast nature of the book, but I also find it easy to overlook considering it is a lot more about the “feeling,” but I think some of it handily waved off in the deeper themes.

Among the myriad of themes, the one that obviously sticks out the most is “what is America?” It saturates every paragraph trying to fill the void between your eyes and the page. Irvine deftly explores this idea by using the campfire storytelling method I described above. Irvine gives no background to the disaster, just providing a name, the Boom, and the mystery around it. America as a concept barely exists within the text as the past is erased, forgotten. The only entities to remember it are the Boom themselves as they recreate and re-enact myths like Paul Bunyan and classic Mark Twain stories. Characters don’t know anything but their present lives and where they are headed. It feels as if Irvine is trying to mirror the creation of America by wiping away the past to create a new history, a new future, a new America. It feels especially clear when you compare it to the way conversations pass over the systematic extermination of Native Americans, “manifest destiny” and “American Exceptionalism.” Irvine does it right in front of the reader using stories you know, stories you feel something about. While you’re complicit he’s doing it without you, almost as if he’s taunting you. It’s eerie and beautiful and hits all the right notes for me.

There is so much more I’d love to dive into with this story, but we would be here forever. I had a good time with the characters, their little conversations as they traveled the wilds. I loved how Irvine was able to make the land feel so big and so very small and insignificant at the same time. I didn’t particularly enjoy one of the reveals, but I don’t think it hurt the story. I don’t think the book is for everyone though, as it is a little weird, and exists more in the realm of metaphor than the concrete. Some of the journeys may also fall a little flat if you aren’t steeped in American Folklore. However, I highly recommend it if you’re feeling adventurous and willing to consider the idea of “America” in these trying times.

Rating: Anthropocene Rag 8.5/10
-Alex

Docile – It Will Bring You To Your Knees

If you have read a lot of my reviews in particular, you might have noticed that I enjoy reading books from the perspective of an individual’s relationship to society. So when offered the chance to read a book with the tagline “there is no consent under capitalism,” you can imagine the inhuman sounds of excitement that spawned within my mouth. Not only does it scratch the aforementioned itch, but I get to think about capital “C” Capitalism too? Sign me up, I’m ready to report for duty. Fortunately, for people who are not me, K. M. Szpara’s debut novel Docile, is not quite the screed I was looking for. Instead, Szpara delivers an intelligent, emotional and deeply human exploration of how society, economics and power can affect those struggling at the bottom, as well as those who rest at the top. 

Docile is the story of two men, Elisha and Alex, in a near future Baltimore where trillionaires reign supreme. The state of Maryland enacted a law in which debt is shared by members within a family, but can also be sold to those with the means, for years, even lifetimes, of servitude. Luckily, for those willing to sell their debt, there is Dociline, a drug that inhibits the short term memory of the user and turns them into an effective automaton, allowing them to serve out their term in relative “peace” and ignorance. Elisha’s family is millions of dollars in debt, and he takes it upon himself to sell it and serve so that his younger sister has a chance at life. Alex is a trillionaire and heir apparent to the Bishop Family, the makers and distributors of Dociline. After a recent breakup that makes the board question his abilities, Alex purchases Elisha’s debt and takes him on as a Docile, as part of his plan to prove the effectiveness of a new version of Dociline. Alex’s plans are thrown to the wind when Elisha refuses the drug, creating new terms for their relationship. What follows is a story of sex and abuse as the two men try to discover who they are to themselves, and each other. 

Szpara accomplishes an incredible amount within Docile and interweaves so much of it together that it’s very hard to separate and highlight the strengths of the individual parts. Fortunately, I do not have to break that much down to really get to the good stuff. The characters are honestly the star of this book, and I owe that to Szpara’s attention to baseline emotions, deterioration of said emotions, and the internal monologuing he provides for Elisha and Alex. Both characters are written in incredible detail but not in a way that overwhelms the reader. Their transformations through the book are gradual, aided in part by time skips that feel natural as the characters follow the emotional paths their decisions set them down. Elisha’s journey of defiant and somewhat naive farmboy to cowed subservient plaything was as heart wrenching as it was believable. In turn, Alex’s transition from uncertain scientist to a domineering and demanding master was cleverly executed through his understanding of playing the role, and yet he still becomes the mask. 

Much of the excellent characterization is highlighted by Szpara’s efficient and descriptive writing style. He is straight-forward and not ambiguous in his descriptions of character’s feelings, sexual acts being performed, or societal roles being played. It is a raw and unflinching look at power dynamics from an economic, social and personal level. That is not to say however, that morality shines through every step of the way through the book, with Szpara highlighting what is wrong in every situation. Instead, Szpara questions the systems at play through the character’s own inner monologues, following their own trains of thought after they did something they found distasteful. Szpara succeeds in balancing his knack for subtlety and smashing through a brick wall with a megaphone. He achieves subtlety in the quiet moments, where the characters reflect on their actions, and through which point of view situations are described. His loudness comes through in his use of language and Szpara’s refusal to couch actions in metaphor or euphemisms. It pulled me in while allowing me to think about the things Szpara’s characters were dealing with. 

The lynchpin argument of the book is right there on the cover – “There is no consent under Capitalism.” If this feels daunting and in your face, do not be alarmed. Szpara’s handling of that thesis is more human and intimate than I expected. Instead of a sweeping system wide exploration of all the different ways big and small people are affected, the whole of Docile is focused on a single pair of men, one with power and privilege, the other without. Szpara goes to great lengths to paint this relationship with as many colors of abuse and intimacy as he can, highlighting the lack of choice, and the gap between Elisha and Alex. The author also emphasizes how the economic system bleeds into every aspect of life, every interaction is tainted in some small way, that it’s impossible to know where the system ends and one as an individual begins. Szpara surprised me most with his exploration of Alex, and his role within the system he was perpetuating. The small amounts of maliciousness that start to get infused in his daily life as he “trains” Elisha to prove to the company board he is a stable and productive member of Elite society. How he, along with Elisha, become the embodiment of his theme of “you change a little bit every day,” until they both become unrecognizable. It was cleverly and masterly handled. 

Lastly, I just want to commend Szpara for writing a dystopia that in its bones, reflects the material conditions of now, instead of just the worries and anxieties of where we as a culture might be headed. I think there is a tendency to slip into “the worst possible scenario,” and, to me, it feels like the author avoids that here. Instead, Szpara tries to highlight what is already concerning today, with a slight step up on the absurdity scale. Instead of billionaires there are trillionaires. Instead of working your whole life to pay for debts incurred in order to participate in life, you sell your debt to become a docile and take a drug to ease the pain. The questions that characters ask themselves do not just relate to their specific situation but highlight general concerns that then branch into other questions. On top of that Szpara avoids spiraling, and digging too deep where everything feels hopeless, choosing to focus on what’s important: the people who inhabit their/our lives and who we choose to be around them. It was an incredibly touching revelation. 

Overall, Docile, is an incredibly fascinating read, with wonderful characters and a world that feels all too real. Unfortunately, some may be put off by the incredibly vivid and descriptive sex scenes, or the large amount of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse on display. However, if that is not a hindrance to you as a reader, this is definitely worth your time. Rarely has such a monstrous world felt like it was dealt with in such a human fashion. I definitely recommend it, and look forward to more of Szpara’s work. 

Rating: Docile – 9.0/10
-Alex 

Beneath The Rising – On Top of Its Game

I have always been enticed by cosmic horror and other Lovecraft adjacent stories, but I never really dove into the genre. It’s always lurking in the background, taunting me with its perceptions of madness. Luckily for me, Premee Mohamed’s Beneath The Rising is a Lovecraftian story filled to the brim with horror, adventure, a dash of comedy, and a lot of fast-paced adventure. Beneath the Rising follows two teenagers on the cusp of adulthood and on the eve of destruction as they sort out their friendship and try to contain the Lovecraftian consequences of their decisions. Written through the eyes of seventeen-year-old Nick Prasad, the story explores the nature of cultural and class differences, shared traumas, and teenage romance as the characters attempt to save the world from Eldritch horrors.

The story begins when Johnny, Nick’s childhood friend and supergenius, Joanna “Johnny” Chambers”, returns from her latest travels of the world and shows Nick her latest experiment, a new unending source of clean energy. Upon activating the device, strange beings start appearing and harassing the two teenagers. Soon, Johnny reveals to Nick that she fears she has awoken the Ancient Ones, beings she has learned about through the various scientific societies she is a part of. Nick is inadvertently pulled into the chaos of Johnny’s quest to save the world by virtue of being her closest friend, even though he feels he barely knows her. He’s poor, of Indian descent and secretly in love with Johnny, a rich, white supergenius who flies around the world. 

Mohamed’s ability to explain the world through Nick’s eyes is wonderful. I sometimes felt lost, but it seemed like a deliberate choice, becauseNick’s consciousness switched between memories and current events with no real transition. It was as if I was reading someone’s thoughts while they were trying to parse what was happening in front of them and also reconciling it with a memory it triggered. These were the only times I felt pulled out of the book, but it gradually became less jarring as I attuned to the style. Nick felt like a teenage boy, aware of the seriousness at hand, but willing to take a crack at a joke to impress his friend. He referenced pop-culture a decent amount, but mostly because that was the easiest way to relate to the absurd situations he found himself in. Normally, I cringe at pop culture mentions, but they felt natural here in a way I have not experienced before. It felt like Mohamed purposefully wrote them as a point of contact for Nick to make sense of the world instead of being used to relate to the reader, and that is refreshing.

With the story being told in the moment through Nick’s point of view, the pacing is fun and frenetic. It conveys a sense of what Nick and Johnny must be feeling as they face the end of the world. There are constantly new threats that must be dealt with, or a new library to get to in order to find a way to defeat the Ancient Ones. Mohamed’s strength as an author is not just in her ability to keep the plot moving, but also giving the characters room to breathe and process what they just went through. Johnny lends an air of “whatever, I see crazy stuff all the time,” while Nick is still playing catchup and questioning the nature of their friendship, let alone the nature of the cosmos. Their fights with each other hit hard, and the reconciliation is earned if it even happens. Their relationship is truly engrossing as it’s pushed to the limits as these two teenagers travel across Northern Africa and the Middle East. Even more astounding is Mohamed never let the larger plot fade away and lose relevance, having it hover over the characters like a sword of Damocles. It put a lot of pressure on the story and kept pulling me to the next page.

I am not an avid reader of Lovecraft, but even so, something about the way the mythos is used felt refreshing. The Ancient Ones were always within reach, but rarely ever in sight, adding an increasing amount of tension. This might be disappointing for some, but I did not mind it. The first time “something” showed up in the story, I felt my blood run cold and I owe that to Mohamed’s careful and deliberate revelation of the world. My feelings as a reader often seemed to mirror Nick’s, unsure of what was going on and always needing an explanation, but only able to get a little bit from Johnny. It felt like a madness creeping into Nick’s brain, as if what he was going through could not possibly be real, but there was no other explanation. Moments that were humorous could also be easily turned on their heads as moments of horror. I never got the sensation that I missed the cue, however, as if Mohamed was hinting at the ambiguity for a reason and making me think about how teenagers would handle themselves in these terrifying situations.

The last aspect of the book that really gripped me, however, was just how insidious every interaction felt. Mohamed starts the story off with a moment of alternative American history in which 9/11 happens, but the planes miss. Similar tensions still pervade the western hemisphere, however, and Nick receives some of the backlash as an Indian person born and raised in Canada. It felt real, and as if Mohamed looked at me through the pages of her book, and asked “are you paying attention?” I could not stop looking for the little ways this change wove its tendrils into how Nick and Johnny engaged each other and the world given their backgrounds. I felt every word and turn of phrase had to be dissected. Being inside Nick’s head only fine-tuned this notion, making Johnny feel unreliable and dodgy in response to his inquiries. It was bold, and I felt it paid off immensely through the rest of the story.

Overall, if you’re looking for a fast, fun take on the cosmic horror genre that pushes its characters to the limits, Beneath The Rising is for you. Mohamed cares for her characters, and her love of the world that she’s built shines through. There are plenty of twists that are as revealing of the story as they are impactful to the characters. I had a blast, and this book makes me want to dive further into the genre. So, if you feel its pull even slightly, its worth it to answer its call.

Beneath The Rising: 8.0/10

-Alex

Famous Men Who Never Lived – Open Your Heart And Your Reality

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Famous Men Who Never Lived boasts an incredible premise that earned it a spot on our Dark Horse list for 2019. K Chess’ tale promised alternate timelines, a commentary on immigration, and a healthy dose of literary homage. The results will inevitably depend on the individual reader, but for my part, Famous Men Who Never Lived hit hard and made me think long after I closed the back cover.

Protagonists Helen “Hel” Nash and partner Vikram Bhatnagar are Universally Displaced Persons (or UDPs). On the heels of nuclear war and terrorist attacks, Helen and Vikram–alongside ~156,000 other UDPs–are selected via a lottery system for a one-way trip to an alternate reality. Our reality, if you will. The technology, customs, and people in the reality they travel to are foreign to the UDPs. They’re enrolled in integration courses and allowed to live in this alternate New York, but they’re treated with rampant discrimination. Even the smartest and most successful UDPs (Helen was a surgeon in her reality) struggle to find footing in their new world. Helen becomes obsessed with The Pyronauts, a book Vikram brought through to this new reality. Ezra Sleight, the author of the genre-defining sci-fi novel, lived to old age in Hel’s reality but died at 10 years old in the new one. Hel wants to memorialize the people like Sleight who had a great impact on her old world but were never given the chance in the new one. She makes brief headway, only to encounter massive resistance as she further explores the idea. Meanwhile, she loses The Pyronauts–the only known copy in her new reality.

Hel’s escapades in pursuing the creation of a museum to the titular people who never lived are intriguing, and they’re framed by Chess’ elegant, simple writing. Viewing the reality I know through the eyes of a foreigner is an impressive and prosaic achievement on the author’s part. The characters only add to this brilliantly skewed perception of a reality that’s completely new to a small selection of its population. Chess creates vibrant, diverse characters who each provide a fascinating lens through which we can view and evaluate our own reality. Vikram is my personal favorite; his struggle to balance his memories of the old world with his desire to adapt to the new one is gorgeously portrayed in his interactions with others. He takes a menial job as a security guard and makes the most of his new lot in life while simultaneously doing whatever he can to help Hel open her museum.

The premise of Famous Men, boiled down to its barest elements, is a commentary on immigration. Members of our reality instinctively reject travelers from an alternate timeline. During my initial read, I found this quite literally unbelievable–wouldn’t we welcome reality-hoppers with open arms and eagerly gobble up information about their lives, technologies, and customs? I scoffed at the book during moments that explored this idea of being the “other” until I turned the final page and let it stew in my mind for a few days. Immigration is a global issue, and it only took one brief look outside of my bias and privilege forcefields to understand what Chess and her characters were saying. Just as so many of us (in the U.S. at least) instantly disregard immigrants from other countries, the population of Chess’ constructed reality wave off UDPs as unimportant or even harmful to their world.

And that’s part of the magic of this book. I closed Famous Men Who Never Lived with a scowl, unsure of its attempt to make meaningful commentary on a notably divisive issue. Post-read, the novel had time to subconsciously stir and simmer my brain stew until a delicious, revelatory morsel emerged and helped me grasp an issue I’d previously been willing to ignore.

Famous Men Who Never Lived reflects our political landscape and expertly explores the impact of our behaviors and biases on those around us. Hel reads as a perfectly respectable person whose only “faults” are being from an unfamiliar place and wanting to tell the story of her people. She’s a case study in how far people will go just to make their voice heard and how happily those in power will suppress those crucial minority voices. The book is both a warning and a call to action that I took to heart.

From a strictly narrative standpoint, if you’re looking for a fast-paced, action-packed bender of a plot, Famous Men Who Never Lived most certainly will NOT scratch that itch. It will, however, give you a new perspective on what it means to feel like an outcast when all you’ve done is exist in a place where people thought you should not. It will place you into the shoes of someone whose only crime is being thrust into a land that won’t support them. It will show you that the world would be a better place with just a little more empathy and compassion. And for that, it’s worth your time.

Rating: Famous Men Who Never Lived – 9.0/10
-Cole

Sisters of the Vast Black – We’re Nuns, We’re Nuns in Space!

I’ve never been a religious person by any stretch of the imagination. Our family only went to church on Christmas, and that was about it. As a result, finding myself excited about the prospect of the Catholic Church in space was a weird experience for me. Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather scratched an itch I didn’t know I had (ARC provided by the publisher through NetGalley). Rather wrote an engaging novel about a small group of nuns learning the meaning of their faith in a galaxy reluctant to embrace the larger Catholic Church.

Sisters of the Vast Black takes place on a living ship, Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, and follows the sisters of the Order of Saint Rita as they travel to a new colony in distress. Along the way, they deal with adapting earthly church doctrine to spacefaring life in big ways and small. The Catholic Church, defeated years ago along with Earth in a war for control of the space born colonies, is resurgent and willing to test its new sense of power and reach. The sisters of the Order begin to feel the influence from the Church themselves, causing them to question their faith. Individuals’ secrets are brought into the light as pressure starts to mount and their loyalty to each other and the church is tested. 

The story itself meandered a little for the first half of the book. It didn’t feel like it had a lot of direction, and the narrative often takes a backseat to the worldbuilding. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but since it is a novella I was a little worried about where the story was going to end up. Fortunately, Rather pulls it in for a tighter second half. She uses everything she explored in the first half to hone in on the characters’ individual stories as they grapple with the tightening control from the Church and reignition of war. Any concerns I had about losing the thread were washed away in the succinct but open ending that focused on individual faith in the shadow of the Catholic Church. 

The narrative’s success depended on the characters themselves. Rather takes the time to develop the characters by giving them a weight that makes them relatable. I found myself enmeshed in their lives with the day-to-day of maintaining the ship instead of waiting for something to rock the boat so to speak. The daily repetitive tasks and the small conversations about church doctrine and coming changes helped to build the identity of the characters quickly without throwing a quick succession of  events at the reader. The hushed ways they whispered to each other about their lives, or rumors they have heard built a sense of community among them that set them apart from the world they inhabited. It was a really nice touch that made me care about who they were as people instead of just pieces to move the story along. 

The real star of the book, for me, was the setting. The world Rather created was subtle yet incredibly enticing. Not only did the church feel important to the characters, it felt like a living presence within the solar system. There was a history that felt raw and immediate, like an open wound that had not been properly tended. Rather wrote a distinct lack of finality to everything that made the world really come alive. There was also a lot of understated interplay between the characters and the setting, making the characters feel present within the world while also being very affected by it. I think that without the deft handling of the setting and its effects on the people living in it, this book would have fallen short. 

Sisters of the Vast Black is unfortunately brief, but it packs a punch. The themes of sin and redemption are cleverly explored through the characters and the world. Rather’s sense of history and ability to portray the longstanding effects of past events is admirable. I want more of this world, more of the people living inside it, finding their way in the dark. I want to watch it change in the small subtle ways that mirror the real world. Needless to say, I recommend Sisters of the Vast Black especially if you’re looking for something a little different that feels human at heart, and otherworldly in scope.

Rating: Sisters of the Vast Black – 8.0/10

Future Tense Fiction – A Variety of Hope and Anxiety

Future Tense Fiction

After reading Broken Stars earlier this year, I became somewhat enamored by the idea of short story collections. I love that they can be incredibly focused while allowing the reader some room to explore outside the story. So when offered the chance to read Future Tense Fiction, a collection of works from well known contemporary authors from Slate’s column of the same name, I jumped at the opportunity. I’m not going to talk about the collection as a whole, mostly because it didn’t have the single guiding hand feel to it that Broken Stars did. Overall I came away fairly satisfied, with only a couple of the stories not leaving much of an impact. Mostly I wanted to take the time to highlight a few of the stories that touched me in different ways in the hopes of piquing your interest in the form and its strengths. 

First up: Domestic Violence by Madeline Ashby. The story follows Kristin as she tries to determine why a co-worker is running late. Janae, the woman in question, mentions that the smart home she lives in won’t let her out without solving riddles that her husband has devised. It’s a very simple premise, but the horror behind it stuck with me. Ashby’s prose is dripping with the small infractions men put women through on a daily basis that are easily exacerbated by technology. While I consider myself fairly cognizant of these attitudes, Ashby exposed a few other ways in which technologies that are touted as convenient may only be convenient for some. It was an enlightening read that will stick with me for a while, and will push me to continue considering the unexamined implications of convenience technology. 

Burned over Territory by Lee Konstantinou was my second favorite story from the batch. It takes place in a post-Universal Basic Income United States, in which everyone receives a monthly check from the government to support themselves. The story follows Viola, a former heroin addict, who is running for Chairperson of the Federation. The Federation is an organization that members give their basic income to, and in return receive housing, food and other basic necessities, allowing them to pursue what interests they may. I particularly enjoyed Konstantinou’s ability to explore a system of government and the trials it faces within a limited page count through the fairly realized character of Viola. Often a lot of the more “political” science fiction I’ve read pushes politics to the side, waving away issues with the creation of a new system, but Konstantinou places it front and center. Although the system itself is different, the same societal problems we experience in our society linger, making the election stakes feel incredibly real and giving the Federation a vitality I was not expecting. It felt like an honest attempt at an exploration of a more left-wing ideal of politics, highlighting that revolution is ongoing and will always have to deal with the same systemic problems we face today.

Mika Model by Paolo Bacigalupi was another of the more horrifying stories in the collection. It has a neo-noir setting and follows Detective Rivera as he is dragged into a murder case where the perpetrator is a sex robot. I know it sounds a little ludicrous, and Bacigalupi seems to give a wink to the reader by using the trappings and structure of a noir detective thriller. What makes the story so much more compelling, however, is Bacigalupi’s use of language and how specific characters interact with Mika, the robot involved in the murder. On the surface it is plainly a story about determining the humanity of a robot designed to be, effectively, a mechanical sex worker. Bacigalupi does not stop there and consistently urges the reader to pull on the thread to unravel something deeper. Ultimately, I came away with my stomach in knots, unable to cope with the extrapolation of this story to any sort of “other” people may encounter on a daily basis.

I’ll end with my favorite story of the bunch, Lions and Gazelles by Hannu Rajaniemi. The main gist of the story is that ultra-venture capitalists host a yearly competition in which startups compete with each other for funds. The novelty comes from contest being a race in which the entrepreneurs competing for cash enhance their bodies biologically. In the competition, mechanical modifications are forbidden, and the competitors, in a sense, become their own experiment while they attempt to hunt down a mechanical gazelle and win the prize. Having recently read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, along with taking up running, Rajaniemi’s story cut immediately to the heart of the sport. The main character’s arc was so thoroughly satisfying, and Rajaniemi perfectly captured the thrill of the chase with his prose. It was incredibly streamlined and had such purpose driving the story I was engrossed from beginning to end. If you’re a runner, this story is magical.

All in all, this collection makes me want to pay closer attention to short stories. There is a purpose to them, and when done well, it can get a reader to feel or think differently in only a few pages. There are a few other stories I would like to highlight here, but I feel like I would just come off as gushing. Future Tense Fiction is a delightful collection that captured my imagination in fourteen different ways. So if you’re at all interested in short stories and the power they can wield, I highly recommend picking up Future Tense. 

Rating: Future Tense Fiction – A Highly Recommended Cornucopia of Stories for your Fall Reading/10

-Alex

P.S. If you can’t get enough of talking crows, this collection has a story for you.