A Desolation Called Peace — A Sequel Deemed Magnificent

A Memory Called Empire is easily one of my favorite debut novels of the last several years. Not a lot of other books captivated me with the levels of palace intrigue Arkady Martine was able to stuff inside it. Not only that, but the book massaged my big brained ego with its exploration of identity in the face of hegemonic culture. Needless to say, I loved the hell out of it. And when I heard there was going to be a sequel, my heart filled with glee. Well, that sequel is about to be released, and I am excited to say it was just as much a blast. A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine, is a worthy successor, delivering an excellently paced plot full of character, political intrigue and oh so delicious language.

The book takes place shortly after the events of A Memory Called Empire. Mahit Dzmare has returned to Lsel and has been dodging Heritage, who is in charge of her imago machine, as she’s afraid they’ll discover her secret and wipe out her memory line. Nine Hibiscus is the newly appointed yaotlek, sent to the front lines with six fleets to encounter the coming alien menace. She has some other captains questioning her authority, while many of her pilots are dying without any real progress. So she sends for a diplomat from Information, and Three Seagrass answers the call. As Three Seagrass finds her way to the front, she stops by Lsel Station and convinces Mahit to join her and help her translate the messages they received from the aliens in a last ditch hope to prevent all out war. In the capital, Eight Antidote, heir apparent to the throne, is undergoing his imperial education under the tutelage of interim ruler Nineteen Adze and an array of military advisors. However, he plays the child to gather information that may ultimately decide the fate of the Teixcalaanli Empire and the future of his people.

If A Memory Called Empire was a foundation shaking earthquake, Desolation is the much feared tsunami. Martine does an excellent job of digging into the themes of the first book, while avoiding repetition and retreading well-worn paths. Instead, she splits the narrative in a more deliberate manner between four different perspectives, allowing her themes to evolve more organically. Individual identity and its relationship to culture still plays a major part, but it’s more immediate and personal aspects are uncovered. First contact between two incredibly hegemonic powers dives into the nature of communication and the ethics of overwhelming force. Training and cultural memory take the forefront through the eyes of Eight Antidote, the heir to be, as they struggle to understand the purpose of empire. There is a plethora of explorations into the human condition, it would take up the review to just dive into a few of them.

The story is incredibly well paced, opening up with the first salvo of Teixcalaanli’s counter attack against a formless alien menace, and only spiraling upwards from there. Each point of view feels like its own unique story, with its own particular role to play. I experienced so much joy and stress while reading about Eight Antidote learning to be an emperor, while Nine Hibiscus is trying to lead a fleet on the verge of mutiny against an alien they know nothing about. Interlaced with those stories is Mahit navigating who she is with two other people in her head, all while Three Seagrass is getting her to help lead a dialogue with the aliens they just encountered. Yet, even though this is all happening at the same time, Martine has no problem keeping you in tune with every aspect. Martine is a watchmaker of the highest order. She meticulously crafts all of these small spinning gears, and forces the reader to watch them spin on their own. You can see the teeth connecting to other gears and you know it’s turning other hidden gear(s), but you don’t know how big or small they are comparatively. Every now and then she gives you a glimpse of the finished watch, but never quite the entirety of the arrayed network of precisely tuned waltzing cogs, that is until she does. And when every little piece comes together, and I mean literally every little piece, and the clock strikes midnight, it’s truly a sight to behold.

A concern I had leading into Desolation was character. Mahit was such an interesting perspective due to the cultural war raging in her brain and the way everyone views her as a tool. I was afraid that stepping outside her would dampen the magic of Memory, but that was not at all the case. While Mahit and Three Seagrass each feel as vivid as they did in Memory, I found myself equally entranced by the other two main characters. Eight Antidote felt like a child who grew up with the sobering knowledge that they would one day be emperor and the responsibility he would have to his people. His escapades while “playing spy” were a delight, while also filled with a foreshadowing tension. Nine Hibiscus comes off as a confident wild card of a general, who plays to win, but only if she has the absolute correct hand. Martine is excellent at showing characters through their actions, while juxtaposing them with how others view them from worlds away. Palace intrigue is on full display here, and she uses it to her full advantage, allowing the reader to question the actions of the characters and hiding their intent. I loved every second of it.

All in all, if you liked or loved Memory, you’ll likely have similar feelings about Desolation. I didn’t expect to slip into Martine’s use of language like a fish in water after two years, but I did. The plotting feels just as strong, with the end feeling like destiny. The characters are vibrant and their stories feel just as human. The themes don’t feel as blunt as in Memory, but they are still a wonderful shifting kaleidoscope that changes each time you take a deeper look. There aren’t many books that I’d wish my memory erased for a re-read, but these two are definitely on that list.

Rating: A Desolation Called Peace – 9.5/10
-Alex

 

The Echo Wife — Echo, Echooo, Echoooooooooo

Yeah yeah, the subtitle is easy pickings, but sometimes it’s the simple things in life that are the best. It’s very hard to come up with a pun that combines the act of echoing and the myriad themes Sarah Gailey has packed into this book. There are questions about the debate of nature vs nurture, and an extreme muddying of the waters. You have traumas past and present building characters with insatiable levels of drive in one direction or another. So instead of agonizing over the title, I chose to dig into the book itself. The Echo Wife, by the aforementioned Sarah Gailey, is a dark journey through the psyche of a woman that also manages to blur the lines of nature versus nurture in clever ways.

Evelyn, the main protagonist and only perspective, is a renowned scientist in the field of cloning. She has just been presented with a major award for her advances in the field, and yet her husband is too busy having an affair to care about her accomplishments. But it’s not the average run of the mill affair. Martine, her husband’s new girlfriend, is a clone of Evelyn grown and raised in secret by her husband to be everything Evelyn was not. Obedient. Patient. Gentle. Martine oddly wants to form a sort of friendship with Evelyn, and Evelyn obliges by having a meeting over tea, and having Martine over at her place. One night she receives a terrible phone call from Martine: her ex husband is dead, and Martine has killed him. In order to hide the secret of Martine, and the death of her ex husband and keep her standing within her field, Evelyn hatches a plan that will require her particularly useful set of skills.

While the premise sounded promising, I had a hard time getting into this book. Mostly, I think I had trouble with the main character, Evelyn, and her blunt anger and career driven attitude. It’s less that I find these traits distasteful, it’s just her inner monologue became a repetitive jackhammer in my brain, and threatened to become the sole way in which I saw her character. While it serves as a sturdy foundation for further exploration of the book’s themes later on, I had a hard time getting past the upfront and ever present repetition of who Evelyn was to herself. However, while these aspects of Evelyn don’t really soften through the progression of the book, Gailey highlights their omnipresence within Evelyn’s life in interesting ways as the story goes on. Her counterpart, Martine, is a great foil, and really helps dig into Evelyn’s brusque manners in exciting and compelling ways. Martine dilutes some of Evelyn’s more obtuse qualities, not through action but by taking up space within the story. She’s too polite, goes out of her way to make people feel comfortable, but also shows some of the incessant drive that fuels Evelyn. She has her own dreams and desires even if they are mostly programmed by Evelyn’s husband. I admire Gailey’s ability to make two people who are so different feel so similar at the same time, without resorting to superficial contrivances.

The story itself is weirdly fun. Gailey presents a pretty horrific and disturbing scenario with a quirky sensibility. There are points where it feels like they wrote a fifties television show pilot, complete with a “shrewish” woman learning the ropes from her perfect housewife clone. I wouldn’t say I laughed, but there is sinister comedy at play that keeps the story oddly light, while it explores some shadowy territory. That feeling stops, however, during Evelyn’s flashbacks to her upbringing. These chapters are tough pills to swallow, and while they were never a joy to read, they were compelling in their own right. Her relationship with both her parents and the interactions she has with them are haunting in many different ways. Gailey does an excellent job of keeping the information low in these sections, focusing on the memories a child would have developed, instead of viewing them as Evelyn would as an adult. They are free of rumination and judgement, giving you a window into her past with the shades half drawn.

Though it takes some time for the wallpaper to be stripped from the intricate mosaic below the surface, the mosaic is horrifying and breathtakingly beautiful at the same time. Gailey juggles concepts of free will and human programming, while humming a mashup of I Love Lucy and The Twilight Zone. It’s a strange novel, but Gailey patiently allows the snowball of a reveal to build up. Obviously, nature vs nurture comes up, but they throw a wrench in the gears by confusing the two. What does it mean when the programming is a form of nurture, but meant to create a specific nature? It’s further complicated by the memories that Evelyn has of her childhood as they dive into how she becomes who she is. Gailey plays it well too, not diving too much into cause and effect, instead allowing the reader to parse the memories like they would their own life. They are written as if you’re asking yourself, “why am I the way that I am,” while diving into the packets of neurons that make up your past to find those answers, without really finding specific events. It’s exciting and dreadful at the same time because all it does is bring you to one terrifying answer, you’re unique, but not special.

Gailey has written a fun and dark exploration of what makes us who we are. I am glad I stuck with it, but I will admit it was a tough go for the first fifth of the book. It never really picks up great speed, however, they are patient, and I recommend you be patient too. There are times the book threatens to be a thriller, but it never really follows through, but I think it’s better for it. If you’re looking for a brisk, weird and uncanny dive into the nature of identity through a funhouse mirror, Echo Wife should be on your to TBR.

Rating: The Echo Wife – 7.5/10
-Alex

 

Engines of Oblivion — Perpetual Motion in Action

Last year I had the pleasure of reading Karen Osborne’s debut, Architects of Memory. Over time I feel I may have been a little tougher on it than necessary, especially since it was smack dab in the middle of other wonderful books on my TBR. I also buried the lead on Osborne’s rich world of corporate warfare and espionage, completely glossing over how ingrained within the characters the system was. However, the book still left me excited for more of Osborne’s work and well, luckily for me and other fans, the second book is around the corner. Engines of Oblivion is a more brutal examination of Osborne’s world, with tighter character work and pacing to boot. 

Engines is the story of Natalie Chan as she cobbles together a life after the events of Tribulation in the first book. After a routine scouting test of her remote controlled mech goes awry, and Natalie is removed from her position as head of her lab. The test went perfectly in the minds of the Board members, but Natalie’s unwillingness to see their point of view has put her in dire straits. To salvage her reputation she has to capture Ash Jackson and their former captain, Kate Keller. The board doesn’t believe Ash and Kater are dead, and has a distinct feeling that Natalie helped them escape their grasp. Paired up with the infamous Dr. Reva Sharma, Natalie sets off to find Ash and Kate, to hopefully help Aurora corporation unlock the remaining secrets of the alien Vai and take the fight to them. 

Like I said in the intro, I totally flubbed on pointing out Osborne’s screed against corporatocracy in the first book. It’s a major foundation of the world and the characters’ journeys, and Osborne fleshes it out beautifully. Every aspect of life revolves around ones relationship to a corporation. Osborne delivers it in handfuls as well, allowing it to come out in speech and action instead of a direct to reader monologue. It’s a living breathing corporate owned humanity where everything is a commodity, where the lowest are treated as expendable slaves, and the highest used as replaceable machine parts. If I had read the book at a different time, this would have been the center of the review, but alas, I had been mired in several such stories, and it took a truly awful book to make me realize how important it was to Architects. That being said however, Osboune ratchets it up several notches in her second outing, and I was hooked on it. The different ways contracts, hierarchy, personal choice, and internal storytelling dance in their violent waltz is constantly on display in Engines

The best choice Osborne made for the book was centering Natalie as the point of view for Engines. It honestly felt like a stroke of genius. Don’t get me wrong. Ash Jackson is great in Architects, but Natalie was someone I had trouble sympathizing with on a personal level. She was xenophobic and dedicated her life to fighting the alien menace. Even when Ash tried to explain their thinking, how their understanding of life was so incredibly different from our own, Natalie was stubborn about wanting to exterminate them at all costs. This continues into Engines and while it’s not exactly baklava, it’s less cartoonish and is rounded out. It comes from a place of misguided protection, but her xenophobia is still highlighted. Natalie as a person still frustrating, but it felt so right for her character.

It was fascinating to see Osborne’s world through Natalie’s eyes. She was truly someone who believed in the power and mission of Aurora, and she felt they could make the best use of her skill. However, this feeling is slowly eroded through the story as she learns more about the goals of Aurora and the board members she so diligently serves. Every step Natalie takes to her vision of freedom, she learns of two or three more barriers. Following her, and watching her try to buck the system she has been fighting for was truly a treat. Natalie spends a lot of time following orders, mildly questioning orders and trying to bury her own complicity in the red tape of bureaucracy. Osborne writes with patience, watering the seed of Natalie’s guilt and dissent with care, never allowing a single moment to define “this is where she changes.” She begins to question her relationships, her skills, and her place within Aurora as it uses her to suit its needs. Osborne makes it work with hard-hitting reveals, and slow acceptance on Natalie’s part. It becomes a journey of taking responsibility for one’s own complicity and by god, is it a journey. 

Engines of Oblivion is the perfect sequel. Osborne amplified every aspect of the first book and made it all tighter. The story is always moving, but Osborne deftly controls the speed, ramping it up for tension, and slowing it for introspection and revelation. Her choice to step outside her original protagonists and gaze at her corporate world through Natalie’s eyes was bold and insightful. There are layers to Natalie, and her transformation through the book is hard fought. She never feels quite safe, whether it be from conflict in front of her, or from her own internal turmoil. Every piece of the narrative fits into the wider puzzle, and when you get to see the whole picture, it’s beautiful. If you liked Architects of Memory at all, you need to pick up Engines of Oblivion. And if you haven’t read the first one, it’s absolutely worth it to read Engines

Rating: Engines of Oblivion – 9.0/10

-Alex

Amid The Crowd of Stars – Bright, but Less Crowded Than I Hoped

Over the past few years I’ve moved away from the idea that science fiction is the genre of “big ideas.” It can be a good descriptor, but unless a specific topic is discussed within a specific book, I find it unhelpful. “It’s a book about big ideas” has become a meaningless phrase to me, and I’m a better reviewer for it. That being said, if a book is marketed or said to explore a distinct idea, well, it’s extremely hard for me to say no to that book. It’s partially why my TBR is just an unending pit and I just need a book that shows me why it’s okay to die with tasks unfinished (now that’s a BIG IDEA). So when I stumbled about the description for this next book, I just had to read it. Amid The Crowd of Stars, by Stephen Leigh, is a tightly focused novel about the ethics and implications of interstellar travel and colonization that rarely goes beyond its central concepts both to its benefit and detriment.

The novel follows Ichiko Aguilar, a Japanese scientist sent to  investigate an established colony, called Lupus, cut off from Earth for centuries. Once there, she takes it upon herself to research and record the societies that have developed in response to the environment they live in. Through her short trips she meets Saoirse Mullin, a member of the Mullin clan on the Inish isles, and daughter of the clan’s matriarch. Now that the colony has contact with people from Earth, Saoirse dreams of returning to humanity’s home. Unfortunately, the centuries upon the colonized planets have not been kind to the people there, and they may harbor diseases that could ruin life on Earth. Tests need to be completed and research to be done in order to ensure that both the people of Earth and those on Lupus will not harm each other. 

Firstly, Leigh’s exploration of the subject at hand is pretty thorough from a psychological and biological perspective. He wastes no time in setting up the stakes, diving right into the issues from the get go. Some readers might find it a bit jarring, especially with the minimal worldbuilding outside the colony, but it pulled me right in and focused on the smaller aspects of the story. The conversations surrounding the ethics of being exposed to alien biomes and becoming a part of them feel natural, even in their thought experiment format. Leigh mostly succeeds in making the central thesis a part of the story, and allows the characters and events to dictate the debate. Rarely did I ever feel like Leigh was building to a point, allowing the situation to play out instead of feeling like a lecture on why it should be done a specific way. Leigh, without succumbing to a dooming perspective, also did not limit his imagination when it came to implications and consequences. It was an intricate dance of grounded realism and fantastical “what ifs.” Leigh wrote a far more curious book than I was expecting and that warmed my critical heart. 

However, while it was a great exploration of “should we colonize alien biomes and forever change the internal makeup of some humans,” it’s hard to say it’s an excellent story. It’s not bad by any means, and often Leigh manages to make it compelling, but on it’s own it isn’t much to write home about. There is a lot of slow revealing of information over the course of the book, but rarely does it feel overtly impactful. The fact that the story is limited to two points of view when there are easily more than four different perspectives lessens the stakes in some ways. I realize that the goal was more the exploration of “exposure to alien DNA and its ramifications,” but at the same time I felt the focus was a little too narrow. There were definitely moments that could have thrown a wrench into the proceedings, but the story seemed to stop outside of the character’s perspectives at some points. If there had been a little more discussion outside earshot of Ichiko and Saoirse from the people on and off Lupus, the grander story would have been more intriguing to me.

Fortunately, Leigh is good at writing characters. Ichiko and Saoirse are both interesting and have internal lives that make their actions and concerns tangible and natural. Their individual stories made the book feel like a drama for the most part, instead of a thought experiment. The debate has a real effect on both their lives, and they each do their part to solve the problem. Saoirse especially feels daring and bold when it comes to increasing her chances at leaving the world of Lupus. Ichiko feels curious, and views the situation as an opportunity to learn while at times forgetting that the people of Lupus exist on their own. Their relationship to each other is dynamic, and Leigh does a great job of making it feel tense between them when there are secrets and implications. The author rightly makes this relationship the focal point of the debate, but as I said before sometimes it has a penchant for feeling like the only part that matters. 

Overall, I enjoyed my time with Amid the Crowd of Stars, but it also didn’t surpass my expectations. It’s a powerful thought experiment with a narrative window dressing, not a thrilling tale with a cleverly nested discourse. The two main characters feel alive, as do aspects of the world in the center of the book. The book also feels ripe for metaphors if you want to aggressively read into some of the subtler themes, particularly in relation to a sense of place within nature, but they also don’t feel purposeful. There is a lot to like about this book, and if you’re at all the kind of person who reads science fiction to better conceive of a future, it should be on your list. 

Rating: Amid the Crowd of Stars – 7.0/10

-Alex

The Bobiverse – Or Why We Should Kill God

If you’re not familiar with me, you’ll first need to understand that I have a bad habit of reading things I hate, and reading too much into those things that I hate. I imagine everyone does it on some small level. There is that quick hit of rage dopamine you get whenever the thing you hate does something you don’t like, and you can’t help but burn out those receptors and permanently ruin your brain chemistry. Oh, that’s just me? Well that’s okay, at least you might get some entertainment and insight into some works you may have considered reading while you watch me hurt myself. You can blame the rest of the QTL staff on allowing me this indulgence. Anyway, with its fourth book being released in physical form later this month (already out on audible), I decided I should unnecessarily and aggressively dig into why I don’t like The Bobiverse by Dennis Taylor.

The Bobiverse is a series of science fiction novels that follows one, well actually many, Bob Johanssons as they traverse the local star systems around the Sol system as Von Neumann probes. Okay, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here. Bob Johansson was a computer programmer looking to live the rest of his life enjoying it, when he was struck by a car and killed. Decades into the future, he finds his consciousness has been uploaded into a computer by a theocratic American government, known as FAITH. If he does not comply with their demands to be loaded into a self replicating space probe, he will be deleted, so of course he goes along with their game. Unfortunately, this puts him in competition with other countries with similar programs and he’ll have to play catchup. Worlds are at stake, and honestly who could pass up the opportunity to explore the galaxy as a near immortal probe?

Bobiverse

Interestingly, I enjoyed the first book, We Are Legion, when we read it for the site’s book club many moons ago. It had an interesting premise, and while the writing isn’t anything to brag about, Taylor kept the tone light and fun while dealing with the potential destruction of the world. I got annoyed with the sci fi pop culture references, but that’s always a problem for me (*cough cough Ready Player 1+2 cough cough*). There were interesting explorations into how the probes could replicate, and the ways in which a person with a programmer’s skill set could use those skills to their advantage if they became the computer. It tended to focus on the Bobs I was uninterested in, but the book showed a decent amount of potential for a fun, somewhat light sci-fi romp filled with pop culture references most fans would enjoy.

Bob is a generally lackluster protagonist that has moments of fun revelation. All of his emotions are attached to pop culture references of the science fiction kind, which has its charms, but is ultimately shallow. The books are written from a first person perspective from the different Bobs as they pursue their individual projects. This perspective tends to be more limiting than it is enlightening, and it often reinforces the more lackluster aspects of the Bobs’ personalities instead of highlighting their differences. I realize that in some ways, this does depend on one’s own mileage with Bob, and his many counterparts, but I also find it disconcerting that I intensely loathed Bob by the end of the series, without any internal strife within the character to point to. I recognize that it’s supposed to be fun and lighthearted, but there is a power dynamic at play in the books that goes unrecognized. So let’s unearth it and ruin people’s fun, shall we?

So, the question is: who is Bob? Well, as stated, he is a computer programmer, uploaded into a spacefaring computer, and he happens to like a lot of science fiction media. When he creates new instances of himself, there are slight variations, but not much else. They are mostly named for characters in Bob’s pantheon of “good media,” and are differentiated by aesthetic differences through the creation of their own virtual environments and which project they prefer to work on. They all reference the same media, make the same jokes and laugh at each other’s references in a weird self reinforcing bubble. The different projects offer a little bit of depth, but honestly they just feel like most science fiction fans dreams of “if I were in charge of a space project.” That’s not a bad thing, it’s just not made interesting by Bob’s internal monologuing or external conversations with his other instances.

This is exacerbated by the fact that most of his additions to the wonders of the galaxy are just bland and not insightful. Rarely do you get a full explanation of what you’re seeing through Bob’s eyes as much as you are getting what he’s feeling. On top of that, his feelings are most often expressed through pop culture references, so if you don’t have that info somewhere in your grey matter hard drive, it’s hard to relate. Even when I had that storage, I couldn’t relate to Bob, because his main emotions were usually “awe” or “frustration/anger,” with no real in between. Sure, it’s technically development, in the way a suburban McMansion neighborhood is developed, just the same idea over and over again after having the interesting contours flattened out. It creates this weird dynamic where the way the audience interacts with the world of Bobiverse is by taking cues from Bob, instead of feeling alongside Bob.

This is further compounded by the intense similarity between the Bobs, as they offer no new perspective. They offer the same emotional range, sometimes with a different sense of pop culture. This leads to a very small amount of conflict between the Bobs. Whenever there is a mild disagreement, emphasis on the word mild, on priority, they just make a new Bob, and train him to do whatever they feel is necessary, and because he’s such a “good guy,” the new Bob plays along until it’s time for them to develop their own projects. Granted, this dynamic is purported to change in the fourth installment, but the first three novels did not really foreshadow this tension. Their projects don’t really get in the way of each other’s ambitions, and while some of them do some questionable things from my perspective, they all just kind of go along with it. It’s this weird cycle of, I’ll help you do your thing, just so I can go off and do my thing, and if you need more help you can make another Bob to handle it. There is a feeling that each one is just too important to help one another out with their tasks, unless there is something in it for them. It’s not that one Bob develops a God-complex, it’s that they all have a God-complex.

So what does the first person perspective have anything to do with all of that? Well, to me, it hides the fact that in this universe, Bob is God. Instead of recognizing the power he wields over the fate of humanity, it paints him as a nice guy who just would rather enjoy his media, but everyone’s problems keep getting in his way. The only perspective you get is that of the Bobs, no one else. Sure, you get conversations between him and the corporeal humans of Earth, but since you see them through his eyes, they are whiny brats who want things from him. And since there is basically no tangible difference between the Bobs’ perspectives, they all reinforce each other, creating a bubble. This framing centers Bob first and foremost in every situation. It becomes his interests that matter, not the people he’s interacting with. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. Good character stories can come from a self-centered first person narrator. But Bob feels anything but that, and the reinforcement of other Bob’s harboring similar opinions and attitudes only strengthens the feeling.

Now, a lot of what I just said is a lot of “yeah, no duh. It’s a first person perspective you ignorant reviewer,” but hear me out. The problem is not so much the point of view, so much as the lack of exterior influence on said perspective. There are no characters who really oppose Bob in a way that allows them to affect his position on one matter or another. Sure, he has to deal with the Brazilian probes, or argue with the leaders of the pockets of survivors, but he has all the power. He has the ability to choose whether people live or die, and prioritizes their chances at survival based on his emotions first, then his abilities. Characters have to acquiesce to his demands or suffer consequences. Now, there aren’t many instances in which Bob actually acts on his frustrations with the different regional leaders, but the sentiment hangs in the air because he can act on them. To pull from a well known cultural phenomenon, “it’s the implication.” Every poor interaction is filtered through Bob’s eyes, and he gets to joke with himself “wouldn’t it just be easier if I just left them there to die,” and another Bob pipes up and laughs with him as said leader is left hanging on hold while they work out a “real solution” to the problem. What makes it even more apparent is that the few people who are within Bob’s good graces don’t demand or ask anything of him. They are seen as practical, even if the only basis for that reasoning is they are a long lost descendant, or in some cases just being white. There is even a storyline in which he allows for a human woman scientist to upload her brain into a probe because she likes him. In the light that I read these stories, there is a grim practicality to the way he handles problems. If people end up being helped, well, he’s just a nice guy and no one can disparage him.

I will admit that this is a very aggressive take on the series. I had a strong reaction to reading it, and it’s stuck with me through the years. I do plan on reading Heaven’s River, and I probably won’t like it, but that’s my cross to bear. If I ruined your fun with the series, I’m not sorry. If you don’t like this reading of it, that’s cool too. All I’m saying is that if you wanted to enjoy a series about the exploration of the universe, why read a series where the main character has the only say in what should be awe inspiring to you – and bases it entirely on the author’s taste in older media. If you want a morality tale that deals with humans uplifting a nascent species of aliens, why read a book that outright references the prime directive before blasting past it without any real qualms. These books feel written in a way that means you’ll love them or you’ll hate them, as if readers themselves are trying to get in Bob’s good graces to ascend their corporeal forms. There is better science fiction out there than a boomer getting their brain uploaded into a computer to relive the glory days of 20th century science fiction.

The Outside – Seeing the Forest Over the Trees

51ti-w7znslI hate missing books. Sometimes they just come out during a crowded release season, or I’m feeling too burnt out to give the book its proper due. Whatever the case, there is a satisfaction you feel when you finally get to it regardless of the book’s quality. However, there are those perfect moments, when your anticipation is rewarded and the story is more than you could have dreamed. Such is the case with this book. The cover was alluring with its grey negative space punctured by the red space suit, and the large yellow block lettering for the title. Its synopsis pulled me in closer and whispered its potential for dark secrets into my ear. The Outside, by Ada Hoffman, is a monster of a book that capitalizes on its premise and left me needing more.

The story follows Yasira Shien, an autistic scientist on the verge of inventing a new energy drive. In the midst of an experiment, the device explodes, allowing Yasira to see beyond the limits of her reality. However, the space station is destroyed and her fellow scientists are killed in the accident, and she is brought before the AI Gods, who shepherd mankind, and her work is deemed heretical. For penance, they offer her the chance to serve Nemesis, the god who hunts heretics and keeps humanity safe from the Outside. But Yasira wouldn’t hunt anyone, instead she needs to bring home her mentor in order to please Nemesis. As her search progresses, however, she begins to question the nature of her reality and begins to doubt who has her best interests at heart.

This book was quite the ride, annihilating my expectations. I don’t even know where to begin, because there are so many goodies packed in. The characters are top notch, the story is thrilling, the horror elements are creepy, and the way Hoffman handles her themes is just…magical. I think I’m also burying the lead on this one, but the lovecraftian horror is…out of this world. I couldn’t help it, this book just makes me want to sing about it, and if I had a singing voice, you’d be hearing this instead of reading it.

Let’s get beyond the gush, though, and highlight what makes me love this book. First off, Hoffman’s take on AI Gods guiding humanity through space is fantastic. There is a deep history here that carries a sense of weight, and the various characters really feel like they live there. The Gods themselves, while virtually all powerful, need humans and their souls in order to continue existing and projecting their miracles. There is this foreboding sense too that they want humanity to develop a specific way, allowing them to experiment in limited ways, but also restricting their own benevolence to avoid coddling. They maintain a sense of order through a structured hierarchy involving angels and other servants. These servants are, more often than not, augmented humans who have become more machine than human. Akavi is one of Nemesis’ angels, and he’s an utter delight as he tries to get Yasira to bring him to her former mentor through whatever means are at his disposal.

Hoffman utilizes this premise to maximum effect in regards to character, story and themes. I don’t want to get into too much detail about one particular thing for two reasons. One, the story itself is just a joy to read blind. Two, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Every piece is like a gear in an intricate clock, winding through an elegant dance that encompasses the whole story. The push and pull on Yasira as she does Nemesis’ bidding while wrestling with the mind-opening teachings of her former mentor is astonishing. Every plot point felt like a new door being opened into understanding everything else that came before it while also breaking down your understanding of Hoffman’s world. It was enchanting, and I was enthralled from beginning to end. An end which synthesized everything before it and feels complete in its own respect.

There are a few issues I had with the book, but they are mostly small and not worthy of a deeper dive. They weren’t fundamental problems that slowed the ticking of the clock and rarely pulled me out of the experience. It’s a hard novel to dissect because it works on the grander scale that the little pieces get subsumed by the whole. It feels like reading about the inner workings of Big Ben and then going to see it and all your knowledge about it is overtaken by awe, allowing you to appreciate it on all of its levels. I truly got lost in this book, and I can’t wait to read more from this series. So open your door and then your mind, it’s time to go to The Outside.

Rating: The Outside – 8.5/10
Alex

The Stars Are Legion – Brutal and Whimsical

29090844._sy475_I’ve been meaning to check out Kameron Hurley’s recent work for a long time. I read The Mirror Empire back in 2015 and was immediately impressed by her ability to be brutal about violence and use her settings and worlds to convey sharp critiques while keeping her books fun. As I began to read more books, however, I never made my way back to her work, even though her ideas sounded intensely intriguing. Well this year, I decided to finally make time for Hurley’s work and starting with The Stars Are Legion (Legion), I made a great choice. Legion is a bombastic, weird, violent, and enheartening science fiction joyride.

Legion is a story about a society of all women, who live on living breathing shell worlds. These shell worlds are attached to each other by giant tentacles, and each world cannot survive on its own. The top of society lives near the exterior skin of these worlds, often leading raiding parties to take over and incorporate other worlds of the legion into their own. The levels below all have different cultures, understandings of the world around them and perceive their duties in different ways, scarcely believing anything exists more than two or three levels above them.

The reader follows Zan, a woman who wakes up to no memories and is immediately informed she is the savior of her people. Zan is told she will lead them to the Mokshi, a living planet that is able to escape the tendrils of the Legion and journey into space without fear of dying on it’s own. But, something is awry. As she comes to grips with her new reality and takes stock of her surroundings, she begins to get the distinct impression from the reactions and attitudes of the people around her that this has happened before. The person who feels closest to Zan, Jayd, seems to know more about Zan’s condition than she is letting on. It certainly doesn’t help that Jayd is the daughter of Empress Katazyrna, and is willing to do what is necessary to save her people. Is Zan the savior of the Katazyrna world, destined to lead them to the promised land of Mokshi, or is she just a pawn in the Empress Katazyrna’s game for more control of the Legion?

So let’s get this out of the way, I generally dislike amnesia as a form of introduction as it often feels like the easy way to hide information. Hurley manages to make the concept work, though, by both adding sinister undertones and not holding your hand when it comes to her worldbuilding. Unfortunately, I think it will lead to some readers bouncing right off, but I found it extremely compelling. Hurley gives just enough information about the world to let it build in your mind, to let the textures sink into your brain folds, and start to see it through your own eyes. The fact that everything, and I mean literally everything is made of flesh, sinew, blood and other various bodily focused materials slowly came to be realized, and it’s gross-out feel starts to subside. The lack of information dumps also allowed me to contextualize the world and think about how everything worked without it needing to be explained. I was free to think about what Hurley might be getting at by gradually fleshing out the world of the Legion. It’s an exciting form of worldbuilding that I’d love to see more of, allowing the more curious readers to really engage with the book.

While the worldbuilding, story and characters were all enjoyable and interesting in their own right, the most fascinating aspect to Hurley’s writing in this particular story is her themes. She has found a way to straddle the line of using a jackhammer on your skull to point out that there is more to the story than it’s surface presentation, while being subtle about what exactly she is trying to say. Much like the worldbuilding, she forces you as the reader to pick apart the little details, following them like a trail of breadcrumbs to the billboard at the end. She in some ways forces you to question her choices in the story, and question the systems at play. The little details aren’t interesting on their own, there is something else beyond it that makes it even more fascinating if you’re willing to ask “why?” Obviously you can read the book without tugging at those strings and still have a good time, but I strongly urge you take the opportunity to dive in.

However, while I found myself able to root out the morsels like a pig in a truffle laden forest, I do think the book requires a lot of buy-in from the reader. It’s a fast paced book that has a decent amount of action but there weren’t a whole lot of moments for reflection. There were times during dialogue heavy portions where I thought there would be a little more goading by Hurley to dig deeper into what she wants the reader to understand, but she sometimes just moves on. As I said previously, I don’t need hand holding, but at the same time, I never felt a moment where Hurley just slams the sledgehammer home to make her point. It creates an interesting dialogue with the reader, but doesn’t create a singular point of revelation in the story itself.

I had a great time reading Legion. I read the whole thing in less than two days. Hurley’s world is fascinating, allowing you question all of its details while making you think similarly about our own world. Her characters are interesting, even if they’re not super deep. Her themes run rampant, her metaphors take on new light as more and more of them are revealed. And while some people enjoy having things explained to them, I preferred Hurley’s method of letting the work speak for itself. If you’re looking for something strange, brutal, different from the science fiction you are used to, The Stars Are Legion is worth your time.

Rating: The Stars Are Legion 8.0/10
-Alex

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