The Vela: Season One – Didn’t Quite Come Together

51-5yjqg17lThe Vela is a (fairly) new serial story that can be purchased in seasons from Serial Box or in collections from Amazon. As a concept, the idea of serials is interesting: the book is written and released one chapter at a time. Instead of having a single author, serials are often written by a group, with a different author handling each chapter. We have also actually covered a serial that we really enjoyed called Bookburners – you can find the review here. The Vela: Season One is written by a group of authors composed of Yoon Ha Lee, Becky Chambers, SL Huang, and Rivers Solomon. All of these authors are individuals whose work I have previously greatly enjoyed, some of whom appear on our yearly best-of lists. This made it surprising when I didn’t really like The Vela.

The Vela is a science fiction drama that reframes how the rich treat the poor through an interesting futuristic lens. The narrative takes place in an original solar system, but to explain it more easily I am going to use ours analogously. So science has progressed, all of the worlds of the solar system have been colonized, but faster-than-light travel is impossible. Mercury and Venus were terraformed early, and they’re home to the wealthiest individuals. Meanwhile, Uranus and Neptune are more problematic and result in a poorer way of life. Then the wealthy of Mercury start to mine the Sun for Hydrogen. This goes on for a long time without issue, until they realize too late that they are diminishing the power of the sun. By the time they figure it out, the people of the furthest planets have essentially had their death warrants signed by the 1%. The planets are cooling and soon will reach lethal temperatures. Given the limitations of space travel, only a few can escape on refugee trips inward – while most will have to sit and freeze to death. The story focuses on a single refugee ship, The Vela, that somehow gets lost on its way towards safety. Our protagonists set off on a humanitarian mission to find and save it, but they find a lot more than they bargained for.

The story starts strong with some very interesting ideas, and I was extremely invested from page one. One of the best things The Vela does is capture the human condition in these refugees and those who are left to die. It is an impressive glimpse into the minds of people in a truly awful position, and it did a great job of reminding me of refugees in the actual world and how we need to help them and how the actions of a single group can have far-reaching implications that we don’t consider. However, while the premise and atmosphere were both fantastic – the story, characters, and writing didn’t really come together.

First off, the story doesn’t really live up to its grand premise. The pacing is a bit clunky, plot points are fairly predictable, and there is a lot of time spent chasing MacGuffins. Some of my favorite parts of the story are the extremely beautiful moments told through diaries and interviews of people doomed to die. They are deeply touching and crystal clear fragments of human experiences – but they don’t actually push the narrative forward. It results in alack of direction that hampers the investment in what is happening.

Second off, the characters feel a bit flat. We have two major POVs, Asala and Niko, and a smattering of minor POVs. Asala is a mercenary hailing from one of the dying planets on the fringe of the solar system. She is contracted to find the Vela, and through her we are supposed to get a glimpse into the psyche of these poor doomed people. Niko is the privileged child of one of the leaders of an inner planet. They join the mission out of a crushing amount of guilt for what their people have done, and a desire to make the world a better place. These two make an interesting duo, but they don’t feel like they have a lot of depth and personality beyond what I have already listed. I did like some of the secondary characters a lot, like the authoritarian dictator who is pulling together her planet after a brutal civil war, but they just don’t represent enough page space to make up for the momentum lost by the two leads.

Third, the writing of the four authors doesn’t blend together well. In Bookburners, I could barely tell when a different writer swapped in. In The Vela, it was extremely evident who was writing at any given time. The different authors have very different foci and voices, and it builds to this inconsistency in the narrative that pulls the reader out. I really liked each of the writers individually, but the end result was a sum that was less than its parts.

The Vela has a strong premise, and it certainly isn’t terrible, but it fails to meet the high standard I have for the authors who wrote it. Each of the authors is fantastic on their own and does a great job creating these pockets of quality work, but the combined product feels uneven and poorly blended. I am mildly curious to find out what happens next in The Vela, but it would take a strong recommendation from someone I trust to get me to pick up Season Two at this point.

Rating: The Vela: Season One – 5.0/10
-Andrew

Bookburners – You Will Burn Through It

29238781I haven’t had a lot of experience with books written in groups, but what little experience I have had has been good. When I think of the staggering amount of work that went into a group paper in college, I can only imagine that it is even harder to organize a group of people to write a 600 page novel. However, I am always impressed with how smooth the group books I have read come out, and Bookburners, by Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, and Brian Francis Slattery, is no exception.

Bookburners was published as a serial novel, with each chapter a self contained story that plays out like a TV episode. This is my first time reading a story of this nature, and I found I really liked the experience. While the book did feel like the pacing suffered compared to traditional books, the overall story translated well into half hour chapters – and it makes the book really easy to put down and pick back up. The group of authors did a great job unifying their voice, and while I could pick out which of them wrote a chapter by their writing, the tone and the feel of the book always remained consistent. In the end it did give me the experience of reading the same way I watch a TV show and it was a lot of fun. But what is this show about?

Bookburners follows the story of a team of Vatican specialists as they travel the world and deal with rogue books and artifacts that contain demons. Our protagonist is an American cop whose brother is possessed by a book in the opening chapter. Once her brother’s situation is “dealt with” (avoiding spoilers) she ends up joining Team Three of the Vatican special forces. Team Three’s job is the study and retrieval of artifacts, Team Two are essentially PR, and Team One are the big guns that move in when a book/artifact gets out of control. If I had to pick one sentence to describe it to someone I would say that it feels like Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Warehouse 13. Team Three is made up of five members, Sal (our POV), Menchu, Grace, Asanti, and Liam. Each of them has an interesting, and of course tragic, backstory that got them into this line of work and I loved them all. The characters in this story are all fun, from the protagonists to the villains, but if I had to pick a favorite it would have to be Grace. She is a small Asian woman, and the team’s heavy muscle, and her backstory is one of the most unique and interesting things I have read recently.

One thing I will say is that while I love the world, I think the series could use a little more world building. When reading Bookburners I constantly felt like I did not have enough information about the world they work in. It often felt like we did not get information about their work until moments before we needed it, and this can occasionally make the book’s world feel a little shallow. However, to be fair I think this is something that was bound to happen due to the style of episodic writing. While the world in Bookburners felt a little thin compared to other books in the genre, it still felt much deeper than your traditional TV show. In addition, the moments where we do get worldbuilding really shine. My favorite chapter/episode was one in which the team goes to a supernatural black market and you get to meet all the major players in the magical world.

Overall I really liked Bookburners and I am definitely going to continue following the series. I purchased the first season in the omnibus, and then tried following some of season two as it was published episodically. I have found that I much prefer bingeing the story in one sitting to reading a chapter every so often, so I will be waiting for the seasons to finish to read them all at once. The book is a really fun take on fantasy writing, and if you are looking for something new to keep your reading experience fresh it does quite nicely. I really hope that the team can keep it going for many seasons to come and I can’t wait to see what is in store for Team Three next.

Rating: Bookburners: Season 1 – 8.0/10