Riot Baby – Anger As Art

71rws3vbplThis year has been full of some genuinely fantastic novellas, and TOR has done an exceptional job of leading the charge. Novellas have such potential to be focused, and a lot of authors have recently showcased that potential in big ways. Novellas can be explosive and monumental and addicting. One that has stuck with me through the year, and I couldn’t help but re-read a couple of times due to the protests this summer and fall, is Riot Baby, by Tochi Onyebuchi. I wish I could find a way to distill how I feel about it into a single sentence, or even a review. I’ve attempted below, but this is easily one of the most subjective and gut feeling reviews I’ve written. Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby is a laser focused story of anger, pain and revolution, and you should read it.

Riot Baby is the story of Ella and her brother Kev, two kids who grow up while black in an increasingly dystopian America. Ella witnesses her brother’s birth during the LA riots, after the officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King were acquitted. Ella has a gift; she can see the future of those around her, and it’s filled with pain, suffering and death. She ends up leaving her family as her power grows, and Kev is thrown in jail. As they grow older, Ella is able to use her powers to take Kev mentally somewhere else and show him the world, but he slowly grows impatient, knowing she could level the prison and help him escape. Ella visits Kev while he’s in jail, reminding him she’s still there for him but unable to do anything about his predicament despite her powers. Meanwhile Kev lives day to day, trying to survive without succumbing totally and completely to the system.

There is no dancing around this, I loved Riot Baby. Onyebuchi drives through the story with purpose, using his disjointed structure to maximum effect. The story jumps back and forth between Ella and Kev, showing their individual experiences within America as it grows increasingly bleaker as they get older. Ella’s journey to understand her power, to learn to carry the knowledge she has of the future and shape it, is phenomenal. Kev’s time in prison is equally claustrophobic, pent up and hopeless, lending a sense of desperation and anger. Onyebuchi knows exactly when to switch between them to highlight their mirrored journeys and growing frustration with the tension between them.

While the bare bones of the story itself is a solid foundation, Onyebuchi’s writing style kept me enthralled and heightened the emotional impact of the siblings’ story. There is a brewing anger behind every sentence. An undercurrent of injustice rippled each page as Kev and Ella had to come to grips with the world they lived in. What I found so fascinating about the anger in Riot Baby is how incredibly right it felt. There is a fervor in it that grows in a raging crescendo towards the end of the book that is unavoidable, and it feels like a siren’s call. I initially read this in January, and felt it, and after this summer, it feels even more poignant on re-read after re-read.

The way Onyebuchi interweaves Ella’s powers into the history of Black America is poetic and righteous. It’s a casual reminder of our past, so much as it is a clarion call for a better future. Each scene is painted vividly, focusing on the people and how they are affected. Sure places, and things play an important role, but how these people’s lives are affected by the system are highlighted. Whether it be children or adults, men or women, they can’t escape the ever watchful eyes of the state. It’s an exercise in empathy, an empathy rooted in a passionate rage at the injustice of the system, that I’ve rarely seen and Onyebuchi pulls it off with aplomb.

It’s hard to talk about this book as a book. I could go into the technicals a little more, and maybe dig into whether the characters work or not. But I honestly feel like I’d be doing Onyebuchi and Riot Baby a disservice to break it down so mechanically, when it’s so purposefully full of emotion. There is such a powerful whirlwind in it’s pages, howling to those who read it. I recommend Riot Baby wholeheartedly. You should read it with others and talk about it. Be galvanized by it. It’s a story, sure, but it’s the perfect representation of art speaking a truth most should know by now. Let it speak to you, so you don’t remain silent about it afterwards.

Rating: Riot Baby 10.0/10
-Alex

Pale Light In The Black – If Only It Were A Little Brighter

81imkkyialSometimes you read a book, and you’re not entirely sure how you feel about it. It’s hard to put into words how you would recommend it. Over time, you realize your gut feelings are just going to be the way you feel about it for a while. And it’s not necessarily the book’s fault; it’s more your expectations and taste that make it feel off. This book is one of those books for me, something I enjoyed, but after it was all said and done, I had questions. A Pale Light In The Black, by K.B. Wagers, is a competent book that focuses on its characters and their personal journeys, sometimes to the detriment of worldbuilding and plot.

The book follows the day-to-day goings-on of the Zuma’s Ghost, a ship within the Near-Earth Orbital Guard (Neo-G for short). They’re a sort of space coast guard, set up a few hundred years into a future after a great collapse in civilization. Maxine Carmichael is trying to escape the grasp of her powerful Navy family, joins Neo-G, and is assigned to the Zuma’s Ghost after the crew’s well liked lieutenant is promoted to commander in the far reaches of a newly established colony. On top of her newbie status, Carmichael is also a member of the family that controls Life-Ex, a life extension drug that can be most easily obtained through service in one of the branches of the Earth military. Can Carmichael integrate herself within Zuma’s Ghost and help them to keep their reputation?

I enjoyed Pale Light, but I was not enthralled with it. It’s an extremely good cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter’s day. Wagers is good at character dynamics. Wagers’ heartfelt moments feel warm and fuzzy, and they capture the feeling of awkward situations super well. I also enjoyed that while Carmichael had a lot to prove, the rest of the team wasn’t overly hostile to her in the beginning. Sure there was tension, and it ebbed and flowed based on their situation, but everyone was dedicated to making the new team work. Wagers then focused the character’s dynamics on how they could help each other bring out their strengths, and highlight each other’s weaknesses, without having a single overly determined character breakthrough prejudice. Wagers side steps all of the normal “new kid on the block” drama, giving the characters all a chance to grow on equal footing. It was delightful and refreshing.

Where the book fell flat for me, however, is that some of these character moments felt they should have been punctuated by events in the plot, and they just weren’t. They still packed a punch for most of the book because Wagers made their daily routines, day to day drudgery of being on a ship, and anxiety about the future feel important. But it came up short for me in the later sections of the book, when everything the crew had been working for felt as if it had been bypassed. Most of the book is spent training for a competition with the other branches of the military so the Neo-G can show they can hang with the big kids. When the story reaches the big games, though, it’s just a snapshot of all the events the characters participate in. In some ways, I’m okay with this as it feels like Wagers is pulling a Rocky, it doesn’t matter that they won or lost, just that they pulled together and competed in a way that satisfied them. It’s charming, but it also feels stilted because these moments in the games don’t feel big. It just felt unfinished to me.

I also was a bit dissatisfied with the worldbuilding in Pale Light. I like complexity, so take these feelings with a grain of salt. It feels incomplete and I can’t tell if that’s because there is more to come, more reckoning in the future, or if it’s built just enough to make the story work as is. There is a societal collapse, and a few hundred years later, humans are in space. How they got there is a mystery, what caused the collapse is a mystery (though it’s somewhat implied that what we’re doing now is the problem), and why humans decided to create a space navy, army, marine corps instead of just the Neo-G is unanswered. It didn’t really ruin my reading experience that these things were just there, taken for granted. But those questions remained, and still remain.

I want to reiterate, despite the problems I had with the book, I still enjoyed myself. Wagers does an excellent job of ingraining the reader with the day to day life of the crew and their interpersonal tensions. If I were less picky about certain things, I would have loved this book on the characters alone. However, I didn’t fully love it, and if you can put those other issues aside, then you’ll get a warm story about people working together, and dealing with their problems in an ebb and flow. Friendships aren’t built on overcoming huge character differences, or by making grand gestures. It’s the small things, day in and day out. It’s the little frustrations and the tiny bits of attention we give to each other at just the right moment. Wagers captured that beautifully, and made sure it applied to everyone in the book. So if you’re looking for a breezy read that fills you with the warmth of a found family, A Pale Light in the Black is for you.

Rating: A Pale Light in the Black 6.5/10
Alex

Rendezvous With Rama – Solar Social Distancing

I suppose it was only a matter of time. My long-running obsession with 2001: A Space Odyssey finally inspired me to explore the larger Clarke pantheon. Outside of Childhood’s End, I had only ever read the Odyssey series, opting instead for more modern sci-fi tales. But over the past few weeks, I have been maniacally packing my apartment for an upcoming move. Rendezvous With Rama was the single book I left unpacked, thus forcing me into a new Clarke adventure. With classic Clarke flair, Rama amazed in some moments and made me cringe in others. 

Rendezvous With Rama takes place in the 2130s, and mankind has terraformed all of the inner planets (plus a handful of moons) except Venus. Clarke wastes no time on the history behind humankind’s planetary colonization and instead jumps right to the point. A big-ass metal cylinder enters the solar system and careens toward the sun. I mean it when I say it’s a big-ass metal cylinder–the thing is kilometers long, and the humans dub it “Rama.” Spoiler alert, they plan to rendezvous with it. Commander Bill Norton leads the expedition to investigate Rama, and what follows is a largely entertaining first-contact adventure. 

Rama is just classic Clarke. Characters take a backseat to science and captivating prose that describes the wonders of space. Rama is justifiably a source of awe for even the most experienced of spacefarers. As Clarke readers might expect, Rama itself is probably the deepest character in the book. Everyone else, right down to Commander Norton himself, is a cookie-cutter archetype. Members of the crew pop up as they’re needed for the story, then fade into oblivion until they have something else to do. Among the cast, Jimmy Pak is my personal favorite. He’s a lunar Olympian who smuggles his flying bike onto the Rama expedition and, in true Chekhov’s gun style, makes full use of it during a particularly tense exploratory sequence. 

I rarely have an issue ignoring the bland characterization that serves as a Clarke-ian stamp, but there’s a major flaw in this story that left a bad taste in my mouth. Sexism runs rampant in Rama. There’s one paragraph dedicated to a crew member’s musings about whether women should be allowed to be astronauts. His reasoning? Their breasts are just too gosh-diddly-darned jiggly in low gravity, and boo-hoo it’s distracting. The incriminating segment is about a paragraph long, and it serves absolutely zero purpose within the scope of the book. Similar comments pop up throughout the book, though this is the most obvious and egregious. And while I’m sure fanboys might defend this as a product of its time, I saw no need whatsoever for a paragraph-long lamentation about space-boobs. It’s a shame that of all the amazing parts of this book, this is one I remember most. However, the story of Rama is a marvel of science fiction. If you skip over the few questionable segments, you’ll be treated to a fantastically mysterious journey of first contact. I felt the air thicken as I read. My heartbeat accelerated as I wondered at the fate of characters who, generally, are forgettable simulacrums of humanity. 

Structurally, Rama reads like a collection of short stories. To be clear, there’s a narrative throughline, and this is most definitely a novel. However, each chapter raises a concern, sees the crew address it, and then moves on. The resulting stakes are relatively low throughout the larger story arc of Rama, but it’s a nice treat to read bite-sized stories that serve a bigger story and advance the crew’s exploration of a completely alien ship. All of these bits and pieces culminate in an ambiguous ending that true to the story. If you’re looking for definitives, Rama isn’t for you. Rama is about implications and possibilities, not answers. And Clarke does a wonderful job of giving you plenty to think about alongside the easily digestible story. 

To say any more about Rendezvous With Rama would spoil the book’s best moments. This one’s best if you’re hankering for a quick sci-fi story replete with a mysterious atmosphere. Clarke fans won’t be surprised by his ability to effortlessly describe new scientific frontiers while also leaving precious little space for character growth. If you’re a newcomer, expect an intriguing spacefaring romp that has character, but gives precious little in terms of cast members.

Rating: Rendezvous With Rama – 8.0/10
-Cole

Axiom’s End – Ellis’ Beginning

Axioms EndAxiom’s End, by Lindsay Ellis, is less than what I expected, and more than I could have asked for. It’s a solid debut that serves as a great first step in a trilogy, offering a fun fast paced plot with thoughtful meditations on how people relate to one another and the “alien.” Part of me doesn’t want to write this review. I’ve been a big fan of Lindsay Ellis’ work for the last few years and she easily makes up the largest chunk of inspiration when it comes to how I approach my media critiques. “If you’re new to the world of Lindsay Ellis, her YouTube channel is a great starting point. Obviously when I heard she was writing a book, nay, a whole trilogy, I got very excited at the prospect of reading them. Here I am looking squarely in the mirror and confronting this parasocial relationship trying to find a way to convince myself, and ultimately you, that I enjoyed this book on its own merits.

Axiom’s End is the story of Cora, an early twenty something college dropout who makes a living on temp work that she can get from her mother. Her father is a major media phenomenon who leaks government documents pertaining to alien contact, and he’s been estranged from the family for years. The year is 2007, Bush is in office, and the financial crash that has come to dominate the millenial’s collective psyche is just around the corner. On her first day at a new temp position, Cora witnesses a meteor strike, known as Obelus, nearby her office building that blows out the windows, several weeks after a similar strike, labeled Ampersand. Later that night Cora encounters something she can’t rationally explain. No one believes her, but an alien has definitely broken in her home. When Federal agents show up to investigate, Cora makes a break for it, trying to escape the lies surrounding her family running into the very thing she refused to believe was real, the alien she refers to as Ampersand.

As you may have guessed from the introductory paragraph, this is a pretty hard book for me to review. I feel I’m constantly guessing whether I appreciate the book as a thing in and of itself, or I appreciate it as an extension of Ellis’ work on YouTube, or if I’m just telling myself I liked it because of said appreciation. I started my reading with that mindset, trying to parse through how much meaning there was supposed to be in everything, and whether I liked it, and what that was going to mean for the review. Friends asked my opinions on it given my history of sharing her film critiques. It was a fairly exhausting experience, but that feeling only lasted a few chapters before it clicked and Ellis whisked me away into her world and plot.

First and foremost, the aspect of the book that stood out to me the most was Ellis’ ability to capture mood. The leaks from Nils (Cora’s estranged father) that periodically show up, and the conversations Cora has with those around her, and the reminders of the impending financial collapse during the waning years of the Bush presidency sell this feeling of the constant drudgery and uncertainty of the time. While Ellis is able to capture Cora’s feeling of aimlessness, and her apathy that comes from a promised future revoked, Cora feels a little too lost in the beginning, and it took me a while to connect with her. She is constantly ping ponged between tasks, and her family felt estranged from her unintentionally. This feeling continues through the book, but about a fifth of the way into the novel it starts to feel purposeful and intentional, giving insight to Cora as a person, and how she relates to those she loves.

Two other things I want to highlight about this book are Ellis’ aliens and the budding relationship between Cora and the alien known as Ampersand. First the amygdalines (as they refer to themselves) are wonderful. They are detached and seem fairly insular, unassimilated within the story, and in some ways avoiding assimilation by the reader. Any purpose the government thinks they have is for the most part projected onto them by humans. They have a culture that is slowly unveiled through the book that barely feels uncovered. This isn’t a bug, it feels more intentional as if the language barrier will never be fully crossed. And speaking of, how Ellis handles communications in this book is as enjoyable as it is thoughtful. I think some people might question the particulars, especially with how Cora and Ampersand communicate, but I found myself fascinated with Ellis’ focus on word choice. That paired with Cora acting as translator for Ampersand’s extremely brusque way of talking to her. It made for some interesting conversations between Cora and Ampersand as he questions her ability to faithfully relay his meaning to other humans who he engages with. Miscommunication is a theme throughout the book, emphasizing the importance of what people choose to say as well as what they choose to not say.

Lastly, the relationship that blooms between Cora and Ampersand is positively delightful. I think a lot of people’s enjoyment of the book will revolve around whether they care about how these two interact, or if they want to see sci-fi action and the worldwide consequences of first contact. Personally, I became invested in this relationship as they navigate how to talk to each other and relay those conversations to the world. There are monster romance elements galore that escalate consequences for the two of them as they explore this new world they are creating. It fits in very nicely with the other conversations about culture clash as Cora and Ampersand serve as a case study. There are some extremely touching moments, and there is a lot of tension between them as Ellis darts back and forth between trust and mistrust with panache. Reveals don’t feel convenient to the plot; they feel incredibly character based, each one growing stronger as they reinforce the themes around communication. It’s truly wonderful, and I’m glad it’s the center-piece of the novel.

If you’re like me, and have hesitations about this book, don’t worry about it. Just pick it up and read it, but go in knowing that this is a smaller story with bigger implications. It’s about navigating the treacherous waters of communicating with those you love and care about, and with people you barely even know exist. Ellis provides a thoughtful take on the human condition, aliens included, with fast paced blockbuster action sequences and a bittersweet monster romance story. A line that comes up frequently in the book is “Truth is a human right” and the political implications are obvious. However, Ellis reminds us that it applies in all situations, especially individual relations, and that “the truth” is harder to synthesize than one would expect. I genuinely enjoyed Axiom’s End and truthfully look forward to the next book in the series.

Rating: Axiom’s End 8.5/10
-Alex

The Wormwood Trilogy – It’s Here to Win Hearts, Minds and Bodies

51geqr9ecilRosewater has taunted me from my bookshelf for the past year. Handed to me by QTL Founder Andrew in one of his multi annual book distributions, it sat there slowly seducing me with its elegant cover. I knew nothing about it other than it garnered a lot of praise within review circles. “I’ll get to it one day,” I’d say to myself every time I looked at it, picking instead another ARC with a deadline, or a book I felt I needed to get out of the way. Until one day, I decided to venture into Rosewater’s unknown maze, to get lost in something I had no notion of beyond it being a first contact story that took place in Nigeria. Upon finishing Rosewater, I immediately ordered the next two books, their covers gleaming at me and taunting me with the horrors that awaited me inside them. Even during quarantine I tried to stick to a schedule, staying on top of the ARCs I requested, knowing that somewhere Wormwood was waiting for me. If you haven’t heard of it, or know very little of it beyond the review hype, let me tell you the Wormwood Trilogy, by Tade Thompson, is a delightful descent into madness with pitch perfect atmosphere, memorable characters and astonishing worldbuilding. That’s not even to mention the absolutely batshit plot developments, science fiction wondery, and the biting critiques that litter the pages of every book while remaining an undeniably fun experience to behold.

The Wormwood Trilogy takes place in a near future around 2062. Decades after a massive biodome appeared and ravaged London, a second Dome appeared in Nigeria. Upon discovering that the Dome provided electricity, and once a year opened its doors to heal those standing in front of it, people began to build the city of Rosewater around it. Due to the presence of these unexplained phenomena, the United States has shut itself off from the rest of the world and no one has heard a single peep from them since the 2010s. Rosewater begins the trilogy with the exploits of Kaaro, a man with a criminal past and a special ability that appeared after the Dome materialized. Kaaro is a “sensitive”, meaning he can read people’s minds and emotions and connect with other sensitives on a psychic level. During the day, he acts as part of a psychic firewall for the banking system, and he moonlights as an agent for the government of Nigeria. Most of the time he is brought in by his boss, Femi, for more overt forms of interrogation (aka questioning after torture). Kaaro is one of the most powerful sensitives, and he’s very good at using his powers, despite being lazy and recalcitrant at times. Soon, Kaaro finds out that other sensitives are starting to die mysterious deaths, and he may be next.

I will only really explain the plot of the first book because going into Wormwood as blind as possible makes the whole series a delight. Even the back-cover blurbs don’t give much away, throwing the reader for early loops. Instead, I want to focus on what makes each book great on its own, then delve a little into the series as a whole and how Thompson makes everything fit so well together.

The first book, Rosewater, reads like a murder mystery. The book flips back and forth between the present moment and Kaaro’s past, providing snapshots of how Kaaro’s powers grew, and how he learned to use them. The plot is incredibly well paced, feeling like you rowed your little boat into a massive whirlpool. It starts slow, luring you in without giving too much a hint at what lies ahead. Before you know it, you can’t escape, and the only way to truly end the swirling madness is to meet it in the middle.This is amplified by Thompson’s writing style in Rosewater, as the story is told through Kaaro’s eyes with with noir-esque prose. The women have a sense of mystery to them, and even with his abilities Kaaro is not sure how to approach them. Not to mention Femi has ways to avoid him and is able to block his intuitions altogether, presenting herself as always cold, always in control. The past and present sections perform an intimate dance, never fully revealing their purpose or relevance to each other until later in the story, and the maze starts to make sense. There is an ever present creeping sensation through the novel, as if you, the reader, are being tracked as well, as if the information Kaaro is delivering to you through his narration is enough for you to be a target with him, and it never lets up. The conclusion is astounding in every sense of the word as every piece of information past and present feels relevant, as if it was all right there in front of you this whole time. I still get chills and the hairs raise on my skin whenever I think about it.

Rosewater Insurrection does not disappoint either. If Rosewater is the whirlpool, Insurrection is all of the debris pulled in and spit back out as the whirlpool implodes. Kaaro is no longer the sole narrator, and while he doesn’t take a backseat, there are bigger players in the game. The political and social implications that follow the conclusion of the first book become the main focus here. We’re introduced to more people who have a stake in understanding what the Dome is and what purpose it might serve. The history of the city of Rosewater begins to be revealed, along with meditations on the colonial history of Nigeria. Thompson juggles a lot in Insurrection and in a lot of ways makes it look easy. The atmosphere is far more intense as we’re no longer just in Kaaro’s head. Not everyone has the playful pulpy outlook he has, and it really highlights Thompson’s ability to shift tone and give his characters interior lives. Thompson drags you into the story with larger than life personalities and dangerous games of political and espionage chicken as Rosewater begins a path towards independence from Nigeria. I found myself fascinated by the intrigue, unsure of who was right and who was wrong as everything became shades of grey mixed with the colors of the rainbow. Thompson deftly manages to make you feel both righteous and guilty at the same time as characters take on the fight of their lives and risk who they thought they were. Insurrection is a story in its own right, and while it does help to set up the plot of Redemption, Thompson avoids the typical middle book slump through sharp characterization, an acceleration of pace and a focusing of his larger themes.

Rosewater Redemption is an astonishing finale. Considering it had to follow both Rosewater and Insurrection, I was honestly taken aback by how hard Thompson comes out swinging. Loose threads left dangling from the previous books are picked up and yanked on. Consequences of previous actions bite back in full as characters reckon with their choices on a personal and political scale. It’s hard to describe Redemption without spoiling its plot, but thematically it is the most cutting of the three books, especially when it comes to the narrative of colonization and self determination. Thompson does not flinch, and Redemption is all the better for it.

On the whole, Wormwood is an incredibly fresh take on the first contact sub-genre. Thompson has incredible ideas that are interwoven into entrancing stories filled with rich, vibrant characters. Thompson performs amazing feats with his shifts in perspective giving his characters different perspectives, goals and fears. In turn, Thompson pulls his meditations on colonization into sharp focus as the characters act like a kaleidoscope, rapidly twisting and turning as they individually process and bargain their way through the constantly changing political landscape. I had an absolute blast reading Wormwood. It’s dark, it’s weird, it’s fun, it’s thoughtful, and I full-throatedly recommend you engage with it on your own and experience all Thompson has to offer.

Rating:
Rosewater – 9.0/10
Rosewater Insurrection – 9.5/10
Rosewater Redemption – 9.0/10
-Alex

To Sleep In A Sea of Stars – Or Preferably Under Six Feet Of Dirt

51lv5uh7nml._sx327_bo1204203200_Originally this “review” was going to just cover the partial galley. I made a promise to myself that I would not get lost in this book, allowing it to consume my soul, a quest I have clearly failed. I had three-quarters of a draft completed when my old pal Hugh-Brist showed up and petitioned me to read further. I asked him “Why Hugh, pray tell, would I embark on such a ridiculous endeavor?” His response was obvious: “Why not? Are you really going to call it quits after one hundred and thirty pages out of eight hundred and eighty? Are you that weak of heart?” I looked him dead in the eyes and I knew he had beaten me. So I bought a full copy of the book, and upon opening it on my e-reader, I knew I had fallen for one Hugh’s classic traps. The words “a book in the Fractalverse” flashed on my screen and I felt what was left of my soul scream and try to leave my corporeal form, but I held fast. I hunkered down with some tea, looked at my copy of The Trouble With Peace and whispered to it lovingly “please remain my lighthouse that guides me through these dark treacherous waters,” and I began to read the remainder of the book. To Sleep in a Sea of Stars (hereafter TSIASOS), by Christopher Paolini, is a textbook example of doing too little with far too much and still leaves you feeling emptier than a bout of food poisoning.

TSIASOS follows one Kira Navarez, a xeno-biologist who does (surprise!) xenobiology. She travels the galaxy, researching planets that may have signs of extraterrestrial life. But after years of travelling and being away from her boyfriend, xeno-geologist Alan J. Barnes, they decide it is time to settle down on a planet and forgo the long swaths of time apart. While studying some interesting rock formations at the request of Alan, Kira discovers something weird, and her world is turned upside down. She awakens in a medical facility, unsure of what happened, and no idea what she may have discovered. But the planet she was just about to call home is now forbidden, and she, along with the rest of her crew, have been quarantined awaiting study. Soon she discovers she has been exposed to something alien and a “living” skin suit has attached itself to her body, and she has no understanding of its purpose, let alone how to communicate with it. Not soon after, her ship, along with the majority of humanity, is attacked by an alien civilization that up until this point had been non-existent, plunging Kira into a galactic battle that would decide the fate of humanity itself.

Continuing with the theme of being honest, I don’t even really know where I can begin to talk about this book. I had to take a week to process it and get the demons out of my system. Several people had to walk me back from the precipice of lovecraftian madness, laughing at my misery while egging me on, craving those delicious moments where I cracked and revealed my feelings about the book. I knew I had to soldier on, but how can one reviewer withstand so much darkness and not emerge unscathed? Well, I didn’t, and really no hero should emerge without scars, otherwise there is no reminder of who you once were healing into the person you’ve become. Yes, that was a specific dig at this book. So, I might as well actually get to why I did not like this thing and be a decent reviewer so you, like all of my smart friends, can stay away from this pain.

This is an incredibly plot heavy book that does the absolute minimum required to service a fast-paced action heavy story. Now, some people do not mind a good page turner like that. Hell, I’m even predisposed to it on occasion. What I found extremely troubling about this particular book is that it is all payoff, no setup. Every moment that should have an impact on the characters and the reader just comes out of left field. There were several times where something is revealed to the reader that the characters already just knew. Ideally you would want this; it makes the world feel grounded in its own reality. However, Paolini makes it fall flat by shoving the interesting aspect of the world and a limp character moment into the same paragraph, making both fall even flatter. Sometimes he does the opposite, taking an interesting character moment and then blaming it on some behind the scenes tampering. There is no moment that feels like it will come back to haunt Kira, or any of the crew members. Every bit of tension is immediately released, or has zero consequences. There were clear moments where set up could have occurred, but Paolini just sidestepped it, had a small conversation about it between his characters, and moved on. This is very clearly an issue of showing versus telling, and somehow Paolini manages to do both at the same time while accomplishing nothing.

It does not take very long for the book to become a fantasy book in space, and the first clue rears its mighty head the moment Kira is able to understand the alien that has attached itself to her, and she learns its name is Soft Blade. Admittedly, the name itself is interesting, and adds an incredible amount of potential depth, but as I mentioned above, it never really pays off. After Kira’s entire crew is fridged–and no, I don’t mean cryogenically frozen, I mean killed– she is whisked away onto another ship full of ragtag smugglers/traders who do their very best to act out their tropes. A bit of mysticism ensues with a seemingly random passerby who tells her to “eat the path” and our gallant heroes are off to save the galaxy by finding a magical staff, right as a second batch of different aliens shows up to turn the war into a three-way. Listen, I’m not here to kink-shame, nor am I here to be a genre gatekeeper (hell we wrote a whole piece praising the idea of Science-Fantasy), but this book did not read as advertised and was worse for it.

“But Alex,” I hear you say, “what if I forgive this book of said trespass, will I enjoy it otherwise?” No dear reader, beyond the plot there is not really much else. Worldbuilding seems to be what people might be expecting given Paolini’s history, but it’s bare bones at best here, and even those bones have been cracked open and the marrow dried to dust. There are hints at interesting things, but there is never a why. There is no history, no politics, no governance, no corporations, no real reason to be in outer space. There are seemingly interesting groups of people, but they have no raison d’etre. The Entropists are the best example as they are the most fleshed out. The Entropists are an ill-defined group of humans who feel that the pursuit of science and reason should be first and foremost, but they just end up being space wizards. Their philosophy doesn’t really conflict with Kira or the other crew members, nor does it bolster her decisions. They are just there to shoot lasers and be cool. Literally every other group in the book gets a couple of sentences at best, even those who exist among the crew. In the end, the worldbuilding in TSIASOS is just cool little “lore-like” tidbits that are mere sprinkles of salt and pepper on an oversized and overcooked steak.

I wish I could sum up the aliens in this book in a laser precise sentence that sums up their narrative purpose while also pointing out their utter dullness. As I mentioned before, there are not one, but TWO alien species in this conflict. If you crank the handle long enough, a third one peeks its head up, gives you the finger and goes to hide in it’s mystery box for the rest of the book. To be fair, this is the one instance where Paolini provides set up, but then decides to put the payoff in another book. Instead we’re left with the Jellies and the Nightmares. The Jellies are a hierarchical form-fits-function civilization of squid-like aliens that have much more advanced technology than us, and they communicate by sense of smell. They are ruled by the mighty Ctein, a centuries old Jelly that controls every aspect of their lives and they don’t like humans. There is a lot to not like about the Jellies, but the part that irked me the most is due to the Soft Blade, Kira has no trouble communicating with them, and there is no translation element to the extremely different way they communicate. I may be spoiled by other authors who do an excellent job of tackling alien communications, but Paolini just punctualizes the speech differently, and has no room for interpretation. It removes any tension between Kira and the Jellies, and it makes me angry. The Nightmares are just space zombies, a giant all consuming space horde that wants to eat everything, for literally no other reason than it’s convenient to the plot. SO THAT’S COOL.

Well if the worldbuilding is lackluster, and plot is incredibly derivative, the characters have to be it, right chief? I don’t like being the consistent bearer of bad news, but no this really ain’t it. Kira herself is a blank slate whose primary character trait is “why did this have to happen to me, this sucks.” You can technically say she experiences “growth” as we are told of how different she is now than she was in the beginning of the book, but Paolini skips grounded character work making it feel unearned. Her big moments are accidentally killing people or Jellies, training with the soft blade while everyone is cryogenically frozen, and consciously killing Jellies. The people who know her are killed early on, allowing her to be free of historical constraints and allowing any moment to be considered development. Her job as a xeno-biologist is just that, a job. A lot of her interactions with other characters feel like transactions with non-player characters in an RPG, utilizing them for what knowledge or skills they can provide her to solve the puzzle and nothing more. What makes it so frustrating is Paolini tries so hard to make these intimate moments between strangers happen, and they all just fall flat, adding to the lore, instead of the drama.

I could write for days about this book, diving into spoilers and going into unwarranted, invasive, and completely unnecessary psychoanalysis. There are lists that could be produced about all the different references Paolini makes in TSIASOS to science fiction that just scream “I read sci-fi you guys, please I swear.” I have so many highlights in my e-reader that amount to “WHAT,” that they could serve as citations in a doctoral thesis on Paolini’s view of the human condition. Instead, I’ll just morosely say, please don’t read this book. Don’t put yourself through this gauntlet, don’t let Hugh-Brist tell you “it won’t be that bad.” I’ve waited until the end to say this, because I wanted you to read the whole warning before getting to this point. I needed you to understand, while not directly feeling this pain yourself. To Sleep In A Sea of Stars is just Eragon in space, and somehow that makes it worse.

Rating: To Sleep In A Sea Of Stars Why did I read this whole book, 2.0/10
Alex

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!