Noumenon Ultra – Every Ending Is A New Beginning

51rxroewdxlAnd so here we are, at the end and the beginning of a journey started a few years ago with Noumenon. Now, I had reviewed a few books prior to reading that delightful novel, but Noumenon may have been the book that really sold me on continuing to read and review new books. It is a special book in my heart, and my affection for the series only grew with Noumenon Infinity. Marina J. Lostetter seemed to have a special touch for writing humanity into the big question of “why are we here?” While she never provides an answer, her ability to explore the question through vignettes over centuries and millennia is astounding. If you’re wondering, does the third book encapsulate the things I mentioned in my previous adulations of Lostetter’s work? Of course it does, and it does so much more, making me reflect on why they feel even more important in the world of today. Noumenon Ultra is a near perfect capstone to the trilogy, offering deeper and more personal ruminations on our place in the universe with the perfect blend of scientific anomalies and personal struggles with them.

Ultra starts where Infinity leaves off, which, as readers of the series know, means absolutely nothing. I don’t want to get into too much detail, as it would inevitably spoil the other books, but needless to say humanity in all its forms are spread across the stars in search of ancient super structures and unlocking their secrets. After the considered “success” of the original Noumenon mission, there are still questions about the nature of the machines that are being found, constructed and activated by human hands. Characters from previous novels make their return along with new ones, with ever more distinct lives and even more questions.

First off, I absolutely adored this book. Second, there is one thing readers might be turned off by, but if you’ve liked the books to this point, it will be a non-issue. This is a slow burn meditation on what it means to be sentient without purpose in the universe. Lostetter’s prose sometimes feels like it meanders, following the thought patterns of the character as they tell their story. It’s easy to get lost in, and it might be off putting to those who are looking for something a little more concise. But again, I think this is true of all her work and fits nicely with the themes she explores. It also never gets overly bogged down; the story is broken into nicely sized vignettes that can be read on their own or in succession. So now those are out of the way, I feel I can gush a little more.

One of the things I praised previously about Lostetter was her ability to write characters and imbue them with significance even though they usually only exist for a chapter. I feel she has only gotten better at this, as each character still feels distinct, with their own issues, but they all feel even more tied together. There is a prevailing sense of loneliness in each character that once you see it, it’s impossible not to notice. Every one of them has their unique problem from the child who physically ages exponentially slower than they do mentally, to the clone of a long dead man who lives life back and forth over and over again never dying, while losing his memories of previous lives. This loneliness, while all-encompassing, never felt insurmountable. This is where Lostetter succeeds in her storytelling. While the big things in the background are shifting into place, these unknown scientific marvels being pieced back together for unknown purposes, these people are living their absurd lives, finding out who they are, and coping together.

What continues to perplex me about Lostetter is while she can do the smaller stories, she is also a master of mind bending scale. The size and scope of the artifacts she writes about is nearly unfathomable. The effort that the characters put into understanding and reconstructing these ancient behemoths is ludicrous. Smartly, she doesn’t spend too much time on the details of the construction process, instead focusing on their import to the character’s lives. Lostetter also takes the chance to explore design philosophy and scientific concepts with these artifact sections, providing insights to our world while presenting problems to her characters. There might be some dissonance with some of the examples, however, as they seem a little too on the nose, but it didn’t bother me too much. There is a reasonable in-universe explanation for the seemingly anachronistic analogies. Either way, Lostetter made me think about these concepts in new ways in and outside the book.

On its own, Noumenon Ultra stands tall, but it does require the shoulders of its predecessors. If you haven’t picked up Noumenon and you’re looking for a fresh and exciting dive into time- and universe-spanning science fiction, I highly recommend this series. Noumenon Ultra serves as a fantastic finish, pushing the boundaries of the previous novels, while adding new insight without overshadowing them. Lostetter shows a lot of growth book to book, digging deeper and finding more empathetic and meaningful ways to engage with science than previously explored. Lostetter feels more determined than ever to explore the connections between humanity and science, exploring the benefits as well as the consequences. There is so much more I could say about this series, especially Ultra. However, if there is one word that sums up this series, it’s human. Lostetter wonderfully captures the human experience in all its absurdities, trivialities, and grandiosity, never forgetting the importance of an individual’s ability to affect the universe at large.

Rating: Noumenon Ultra – 9.0/10
-Alex

Architects of Memory – Unforgettable, Mostly

What’s that? It’s time for another dark horse review? Oh man, well I think I just used up that idea for an intro. Oh well, I got to it first so it’s mine now. I should be talking about a book right? Well, I’ll be honest, the first thing that leapt out to me about this book was the title. The description only sold it more, but that title really got to me. It felt like it could mean so many things, and I think that still remains true after completing the book. If you have somehow missed the title of this review so far, I am going to be talking about Architects of Memory, by Karen Osborne. It’s a solid debut with a compelling main protagonist, and a dreary future setting that succeeds despite some of its drawbacks.

Architects of Memory follows Ash Jackson, an indenture with the Aurora corporation. Ash and her coworkers are corporate scavengers cleaning up the debris from space battlefields in the aftermath of a major war with an alien race known as the Vai. After she and her fellow salvagers soon encounter something they don’t quite understand, they bring the mysterious salvage down to a planet to run studies on it, thinking it’s a zero point battery (a device that would fix the energy supply issues of space travel). While on the planet, another corporation makes its move, and the hunt for Ash and the object begins. The result for the reader is a book where sabotage, espionage, and kidnapping become tools of war for corporations  as they compete for ultimate control of weapons that could defeat the ever present threat of Vai.

In general, the story was enjoyable. It had a few slow moments while it transitioned away from a MacGuffin-centered storyline to a more character driven narrative about how to handle the MacGuffin. While I found myself drawn in by the plot in the beginning, Ash became the main reason I continued to read the book. Her journey from ‘corporate can-do’ to becoming her own person was a nice read. Osborne really captures the sense of trying to do everything you can while greater expectations are piled onto you until you reach a breaking point. Where this arc really succeeds is Ash’s breaking point does not make her a good person, and instead forces her to reckon with all of the bad she did beforehand, while attempting to do the right thing in the future. It was a nice addition that really fit into the universe of the book.

Speaking of, I enjoyed the indirect ways Osborne introduced the world of Memory to the reader. There aren’t any expanded monologues about how the world became the way it is. Most of the details are revealed through dialogue between different characters and diving into the history of the main character as she talked to herself and the ghosts of her past. I appreciated the slow rolling that let the characters breathe in the world that molds them into who they are without forcing it down the reader’s throat. Their choices highlighted what was important to the society they lived in while setting up crucial character moments for those who do develop. However, if you’re someone who wants more worldbuilding and intricate details, it leaves a little to be desired.

I did have a couple issues with the book. As I mentioned, the first portion of the story revolves around a MacGuffin, which didn’t really compel me personally. However, that became less an issue as the story evolved. The second issue is a little harder to ignore and her name is Kate Keller. Keller is the second POV character, and I did not connect with her or find her interesting until about two-thirds of the way through the book. I think part of it is that her sections were often shorter, infrequent, and felt like they were meant to break up Ash’s chapters to provide narrative tension. Unfortunately, a lot of her characterization was done by her own internal comparisons to Ash, leading to a much more direct style that felt disjointed compared to Ash. It makes sense that this sort of characterization happened through the lens of their romantic tension, but it made Keller feel like an accessory for most of the book instead of a full character in her own right.

Despite forgivable issues, I adored this book. Osborne’s metaphors were vivid and tactile, providing such a lush picture of place especially when it was important. Her aliens, the Vai, are weird, and wonderfully alien. Finally the ending to this book is as astounding as it is horrifying.  Overall, Osborne’s debut is an enjoyable read. It has a likeable protagonist, the world is interesting, and while not overly detailed, fleshed out enough to feel pervasive and weaved throughout the character’s lives. The issues I had did not push me away, but still feel important enough to point out that could affect your experience. There is still much to enjoy, and since the second half of the book is much tighter than the first, I think there is much more to look forward to from Karen Osborne.

Rating: Architects of Memory – 7.5/10
Alex

2010: Odyssey Two – Starry-Eyed Sequel

Before I start this review, a few orders of business must be addressed. First: we have an unwritten rule at The Quill To Live that we don’t review sequels unless we have reviewed previous installments. Look at me, shirking tradition, braving the unknown just like Clarke’s fictional spacefarers! Well, not quite. Though we never reviewed 2001: A Space Odyssey, I did write an essay about its impact on me as a reader. It also made an appearance on our “Best ‘Buts’ of SFF” list. If I had given it a score, it would’ve been a perfect 10. Second order of business: as I mentioned in my love letter to 2001, the novel and movie that sparked this sequel were produced in parallel, rather than in succession. As a result, the book and movie differ on some points, and Clarke, perhaps understanding the widespread impact of the film, chose to favor the movie’s details over his prose treatment. I can’t imagine it will throw too many readers off, and he does mention this in the mass market paperback’s intro letter. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting. 

With those notes out of the way, let’s jump into 2010: Odyssey Two. From this point on, though, beware of 2001 spoilers.

2010: Odyssey Two, Arthur C. Clarke’s brilliant follow-up to 2001: A Space Odyssey earns its spot among the sci-fi greats. Both a daring sequel to one of the genre’s masterpieces and a resonant story on its own, 2010 is damn near perfect, save for a few standard Clarke faults. For anyone interested in a journey into the unknown mysteries of our solar system and a pioneering expedition into the future of humanity, 2010 is a perfect launchpad. 

Clarke’s successor to his spacefaring masterpiece is…another spacefaring masterpiece. 2010 puts Heywood Floyd front and center, following his supporting role in the early chapters of 2001. Floyd uproots his happy life in Hawaii (his house overlooks the ocean, and dolphins swim up to greet him every day) in favor of a trek toward Jupiter, where the U.S. spaceship Discovery was left derelict after mysterious events involving astronauts Dave Bowman, Frank Poole, and supercomputer HAL-9000. Floyd and a few fellow American astronauts are slotted into the crew of the Leonov, a Russian ship destined to head for Jupiter. The team-up between the U.S. and Russia becomes necessary to reach Discovery before other nations try to claim the derelict ship. Their primary opponent is China, who builds a space station shrouded in mystery, then uses it to launch a ship on course for Jupiter. That ship–Tsien— will by all calculations arrive well before the Leonov and allow China to salvage, i.e. steal, Discovery’s remains despite the diplomatic ill will it could generate. 

However, despite the excitement in all of this plot, it is all just the setup. Clarke does a frankly amazing job creating a conflict for the members of Leonov’s crew. As the space race kicks off, the pressure is high and tension is thick. But the sprint to recover Discovery only serves as a springboard into a downright mind-boggling narrative. Clarke’s prose is perfect. There’s no other way I can put it. He keeps one foot firmly planted in real scientific concepts and the other on cosmic hypotheticals with fascinating (sometimes terrifying) implications. The imposing monolith returns, and a few staple characters from 2001 reprise their roles in 2010, but I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the wonderful reveals Clarke has in store for first time Odyssey-goers.

Clarke’s one-two punch of prose and plot is a difficult combination to beat. After all, there’s a reason one of science fiction’s most lauded awards is named after the guy. His mastery is on full display here, just as it was in 2001. There’s a new surprise on every page, and you’re ushered to them gently by his lyrical descriptions of space and its myriad mysteries. Clarke is a sci-fi treasure, and this book proves it. 

Most readers, even the Clark diehards, would likely agree with my lofty statements about the author’s prose and plots. I’d also say that they’d heartily support my claims that Clarke prefers to let characters take a backseat to those elements. 2010 is no exception. Beyond a few names and roles on the Leonov, there’s little I could tell you about each character in 2010, except for a few iconic returning cast members. If you’re a character-driven reader, Clarke’s not going to satiate your particular palate. But if you can see past the shallow characterization, you’ll be treated to a smorgasbord of hyper-visual science writing that drops you right into the dark vacuum of space. Reading Clarke is like floating through the solar system and understanding all that you see, even if that understanding means accepting that the mysteries of space are incomprehensible to the untrained mind. It’s a delicate, sometimes confusing balance. But for me, Clarke’s shunting of character depth works in 2010’s favor. 

And if you stick with 2010, be prepared for an ending that’ll send goosebumps up your arms. I’ve read this book twice now, and each time I turned the final page with wide eyes and my jaw agape. Every speck of Clarke’s story culminates in a stunning climax, and I believe this to be a near-perfect conclusion. 

To remove my (hopefully obvious) love for the Odyssey series and give an objective opinion on 2010 is admittedly difficult. On the fence about Clarke? My suggestion is to try 2001 and let it serve as a barometer. If you want more after that, rest assured that Clarke delivers tenfold (or should I say 2010-fold?!) in the sequel. And once you close this quick and elegantly written sci-fi tome, you’ll feel in awe of our universe and curious about both the glorious treasures and dangers it may contain. 

If you can’t get enough of the Odyssey series, check out my 2010 Page2Screen conversation with Ian Simmons of KickSeat.com. In our latest episode, we discuss 2010 and it’s film…”adaptation.”

Rating: 2010: Odyssey Two – 9.5/10

-Cole

The Dark Horse Initiative: January-June Wrap Up

Welcome to our Dark Horse Initiative wrap up for the first half of 2020! This year, we found a surplus of debuts we wanted to review, so we divided our Dark Horse list into two halves. 

January through June brought us 12 debuts. After a handful of delays, we finally knocked most of these off our TBR. We didn’t get to every book on our Dark Horse list for January to June, but we did finish nine of them. Now it’s time for a wrap up before we shift focus to the second half of the year, which is also stacked with anticipated reads. Here’s our round-up:

Repo Virtual Repo Virtual feels like a poignant and clever criticism of capitalist society and commentary on AI wrapped up in a single package. The story is short, entertaining, and drives its points home well. White has done a great job crafting a novel that depressed, then uplifted me – all the while entertaining me with a kick-ass action-adventure.

From our review: “Repo Virtual is a peculiar and somber book that feels like a mash-up of different stories…The result is a fascinating and chaotic story of a possible near-future Korea where the virtual and the physical worlds are almost indistinguishable.”

The Unspoken Name The Unspoken Name is a stroll through a garden of wonders in book form. It is filled with whimsy and wonder and tells the story of a woman finding her place in the world after rejecting the role fate placed on her shoulders. It is a wonderful book that surprises and delights from the first page to the last.

From our review: “This story is mercurial, untraditional, engrossing, and occasionally a little rough. But, above all else, it is a beautiful story that is worth reading and a debut that promises that Larkwood is an author to keep an eye on.”

The Vanished Birds – Although we read it, we didn’t review The Vanished Birds. It’s a poetic and beautiful piece about suffering and the tenacity of the human spirit. It is certainly a beautiful and powerful book – it was simply too depressing for us to find the right words to accurately talk about it. If you want to feel profoundly sad, check it out.

Docile – K.M. Szpara’s debut is stunning in its portrayal of two men developing an unhealthy and antagonistic romantic relationship that negates their humanity. If it had been the destruction of said men, this book would have been good, but the healing process and the slow reconciliation makes this book a real treat. 

From our review: “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.”

Beneath the Rising – Preemee Mohamed busts through several dimensions with this debut, offering a fast and fresh take on the Cthulu Mythos, bending it and twisting it to reveal some of its darker and more haunting origins. 

From our review: “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.“

The Loop – Ben Oliver’s debut left a lot to be desired. It engages the reader as much as it engages with its own world: barely. 

From our review: “…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.”

The Dark Tide – Alicia Jasinska’s debut novel boasts delectable prose and a gritty, satisfying concept, but the characters and plot might make some readers hesitant.

From our review: “The Dark Tide meshes unique twists on classic fairy tale fantasy tropes and lyrical prose, forming a reading experience that feels breezy and poetic. And while those elements bring a fresh feel to the narrative, I struggled to connect with the characters or their stories.” 

The Kingdom of Liars The Kingdom of Liars offers an impressive fantasy debut and a promising start to Nick Martell’s The Legacy of the Mercenary King series. 

From our review: “There’s a veritable treasure trove of fantasy fun to be had in The Kingdom of Liars for the right reader. For me, it was an enjoyable and breezy read. Though I saw some slight issues, I’m really excited to see where Martell takes us next. This debut neatly sets the stage for book two, where I’m hoping the worldbuilding takes a front seat and the larger web of intrigue starts to point toward a climactic conclusion.” 

Goddess in the Machine – Lora Beth Johnson’s sci-fi debut brims with fun moments, clever twists, and an intriguing concept. 

From our review: “…Goddess in the Machine emerges an interesting and readable concoction. Johnson’s unique perspective and ideas go a long way in carving out a niche for this book within the sci-fi community. Even with lackluster character and setting work, I’m convinced that Lora Beth Johnson is a debut author to watch. After reading Goddess in the Machine, I’m eager to see where she takes us next.”

Eager for more debuts? Check out our Dark Horse picks for July through December 2020, and keep an eye out for more reviews every week!

The Space Between Worlds – The Abyss As a Mirror

One of my favorite things about writing for this site is the Dark Horse Initiative. One of the best choices we made this year was to split it into halves to discover even more new authors. It forces me to look for books that interest me but I might hesitate to pick up otherwise. The Space Between Worlds, by Micaiah Johnson, is the ideal dark horse. It’s exactly what you want in a debut novel: new ideas. It’s an engaging examination of identity that is full of grit and character while showing an incredible amount of promise for Micaiah Johnson beyond her debut. It has a couple of issues that are noticeable in the beginning of the book, but are improved upon as the book continues giving me faith that Johnson will only improve as she writes more books in the future. 

In Johnson’s far future setting, people are able to traverse between worlds, three hundred and seventy two of them to be exact. Through the miracle of quantum physics, humanity has found other instances of Earth that are similar enough that information about the future can be gleaned by travelling to them and bringing back the necessary data. While this seems like a boon, not all is well for the world Caralee inhabits. Caralee is a woman able to traverse between worlds, not because she’s particularly skilled, but because she happens to be dead in most of the other worlds. In order to hop to a parallel world, a version of you can’t currently exist in that reality. There are only eight other versions of herself still alive, and another one of them has just died. So Enbridge, the company conducting these excursions, wants to send her there to collect some data, and she can’t help but look into why she may have been killed.

First off, Johnson does an excellent job of keeping the story tightly focused and evenly paced to make sure the reader is hooked to the page. She clearly defines the limits of the multiverse and people’s abilities to travel fairly quickly so that it doesn’t bog down the later thriller- and action-oriented sections. I do want to point out that the beginning has a lot more telling than showing, but it tapers off pretty quickly. It’s not that the telling was uninteresting (in fact, it was extremely compelling), it just created a weird dissonance between the world and Caralee that made me want to know more about the world at large, than Caralee as a person. However, this does get resolved over time as Caralee’s character is brought into sharper focus. I was little concerned that my interest in the wider system would become a frustration that pulled me from Caralee, but Johnson sewed character focused seeds that made her story more interesting and coherent within the world. 

Johnson’s ability to write characters is astounding. There is a lot to like about this book, but something I absolutely loved was reading from Caralee’s perspective. Luckily for me, the entire book is from her point of view. It really helps that she’s such a well thought through character that feels complete in a writing sense, but incomplete in the human sense. She has this world-weary, cynical know-it-all feeling to her that helps her survive, but can sometimes blind her to things right in front of her. Caralee is the perfect lens through which the reader can view the issues of identity that book so heavily grapples with. Through Caralee, and the people who inhabit her admittedly few lives, the reader is treated to examinations of who people might innately be. I particularly enjoyed the fact that Caralee herself was not particularly curious about the nature of the multiverse as her detachment further steeped her in the morass of her own actions. She had a grim acceptance that the others may die, but she had the will to survive, regardless of cost. It made watching her grow and develop that much more satisfying.

Another aspect of the book that really hammered home everything I mentioned above is Johnson’s prose. Her writing is brash, unapologetic, and fierce. There is an undercurrent of anger to Caralee’s practicality as she narrates her life and describes the life of a traverser. The idea that the poor, brown, and black folks are the ones who are able to traverse due to their expectancy to be dead in other worlds clearly affects her, but she tries to hide it from herself by focusing so much on her own survival. Johnson’s writing feels so intentional and sometimes feels as if Caralee is talking to herself, or another version of herself, defending every one of her actions. It makes her feel vulnerable and as if there is a cognitive dissonance to how she has lived her life until this point. It’s fantastic and really pulled me into her life in a way I was not expecting. 

Overall, The Space Between Worlds is an incredible debut. It’s tightly focused and paced like a rocket launch. The world is interesting even though some aspects felt for a while as if they didn’t fit into the plot. Caralee’s voice is so incredibly strong that her development feels earned and true. The writing feels so deliberate and is tinged with a slight animosity, but not so much you’re pushed away from the story, just enough to make you feel as Caralee does. I definitely recommend you grab a copy of this book, and I can’t wait to read more from Micaiah Johnson.

Rating: The Space Between Worlds 8.5/10
-Alex

Goddess in the Machine – An Otherworldly Sci-Fi Debut

Fresh from our Dark Horse list for the first half of 2020 comes Lora Beth Johnson’s Goddess in the Machine. This YA-leaning debut hits hard with twists and turns galore, all neatly packaged in a far-future setting with a mysterious cast tangled in an intricate web of court intrigue. 

Andra (short for Andromeda) wakes up drowning. When she emerges from her cryo’sleep, she learns that her stint in hibernation, originally planned to last 100 years, actually spanned 1,000. She wakes up to a desolate planet where the English language (of which Andra is a studied connoisseur) has shifted through the years to become a truncated, to-the-point means of communication similar to today’s internet slang. Zhade (pronounced, as Johnson eloquently describes, like a mix between “shade” and “jade”) is the first face Andra sees, and he quickly becomes her semi-reliable guide to this new world. Zhade tells Andra she is a Goddess, the third to have awoken, and brings her to the domed city of Erensed. In Erensed, Andra stays in the place of Maret, a leader dubbed the “Guv.” Maret rules alongside his quietly malicious mother and has a complicated history with Zhade. Andra’s escorts into this new world tell her very little, and she’s forced to discover where she is, what being a Goddess means, who she can trust, and how the barren world’s hodgepodge technology relates to the innovations of her own time. 

Goddess in the Machine mixes unique elements together to form an intriguing and altogether pleasant reading experience. Johnson’s primary strength lies in her command over the English language. Protagonist Andra broadcasts her linguaphile status to the reader and quickly assimilates to the “High Goddess” language employed by Erensedians. As a reader, I found the language tough to grapple with for the first third of the book. In a world where “matter” becomes “meteor,” “magic” means “technology,” and adverbs use a fixed suffix–”actually” becomes “actualish”–I struggled to find my linguistic footing. But Johnson smartly makes the language easier to understand by simply earning it. These characters talk, grew up talking, and have always talked in a world that uses “certz” instead of “sure” or “certain.” And while Zhade has a few POV chapters narrated in this new speech, most of the book happens from Andra’s “normal” English POV. The strange, evolved English plays a significant role in stressing how out of place a millennial English speaker would feel in Erensed or the desolate world beyond the dome. Major points to Lora Beth Johnson for using her strengths and her love of language to seamlessly entrench the reader in a foreign world. 

At one point, probably about 35% through the novel, I heaved a sigh and wondered “where is this all going?” The very next chapter brought a well-earned and skillfully revealed twist. Johnson continued the pattern throughout Goddess. Every time I thought she had revealed all of her cards, she whipped another one out of her sleeve. It’s impressive for any author to pull off a twist, much less multiple in a row. The fact that Johnson does that as a debut author makes me incredibly excited for her future work. 

That said, Goddess in the Machine isn’t perfect. The plot, though twisty and well-handled by Johnson’s natural linguistic talents, doesn’t burst with stakes. I generally cared about what would happen, but it was mostly to search for the next big reveal or twist. I wanted to feel for the characters and their arcs more than I did–particularly the supporting cast. Andra is a multi-faceted and flawed protagonist while the characters she interacts with sometimes feel vapid. There’s plenty to love about each of them; I just wanted more. Goddess’ plot has hooks–space traveler hibernates in cryo’sleep for 900 years longer than intended–but the characters stifle Andra’s questions, instead hoping to use her to their own ends. As a result, the side cast felt diluted, as if they’re one-note archetypes interacting with a multi-dimensional main character. 

And that point leads neatly into worldbuilding. Erensed clearly overflows with danger, and the surrounding desert landscape proves a harsh backdrop to this story of the future. But I never felt like I was there. I’m a big “theater of the mind” reader, and I try to visualize scenes and settings in great detail. The world of Goddess in the Machine has some unique elements, but few details exist to truly set it apart from other sci-fi settings. Through Andra’s eyes, I hoped to experience Erensed via wonderful sensory descriptions. Instead, many of the locales struck me as generic. 

When you mix all of these ingredients together, Goddess in the Machine emerges an interesting and readable concoction. Johnson’s unique perspective and ideas go a long way in carving out a niche for this book within the sci-fi community. Even with lackluster character and setting work, I’m convinced that Lora Beth Johnson is a debut author to watch. After reading Goddess in the Machine, I’m eager to see where she takes us next. 

Rating: Goddess in the Machine – 7.5/10

-Cole

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.