The Black Coast – Right Message, Wrong Words

The Black Coast, by Mike Brooks, is the hardest type of book to read and review. There are a variety of different aspects of this fantasy story that I like greatly, but many of them are hampered by noticeable problems with the writing. The book was compelling enough that I absolutely wanted to finish it, but not engaging enough that it was smooth sailing. I found myself sitting down repeatedly for short twenty-page sessions when I got burned out due to frustrations with the text. But, I kept coming back because I wanted to find out what happened. It’s got some great messages that I agree with, but it delivers them in a hamfisted method that is about as subtle as a brick to the face. The Black Coast, the first book of The God-King Chronicles, is all over the place.

The premise of The Black Coast, at least, is promising and remains captivating from start to finish. What we have here is a good old-fashioned culture clash, with some new twists. The story takes place in a coastal empire that is often plagued by raiders from pirate-infested islands in the sea. These pirates have always been an unorganized pile of backstabbing marauders, but when an undead drauger starts to unite them by force under its banner, one of the pirate clans decides they’re uninterested in slavery with extra steps. They flee their island homeland and head to the only place they can imagine is safe – the shores of their longtime enemies and raiding targets. The reception they receive is anything but warm, but seeing as the raiders’ alternative is to go back and be enslaved – and the coastals (which is what I am referring to the people from the mainland empire going forward) choices are ‘get along or die by raiders’ – they are determined to find a way to make it work. And that IS what this book is primarily about, two long-standing peoples who hate one another committed to working together. The pirate horde led by an undying battle champion is very obviously shelved on a very high ledge with foreshadowingly pointy edges for the second book, and we are left to watch a sort of slice of life fantasy where Vikings and coastal British must find a way to coexist.

There are clear positive and negative elements of this culture clash. Positive: the cultures of the two people are set up in an interesting and dynamic way that feels like it fosters natural animosity that doesn’t paint either as the good or evil party. And the cultures themselves are pretty fascinating. They have some complex ideas about things like honor and purpose that are fun to discover. The entire story is painted in broad streaks of grey and it manages to often be clever in how it kaleidoscopically shifts between who could be right or wrong at any given moment  – but not always. Negative: sometimes the groups have awkward issues that feel way too heavy-handed. For example, one of the two nations is extremely sexist and the other is extremely homophobic. It doesn’t even feel slightly nuanced and it functions as a very lazy fulcrum by which to elevate the idea that ‘all people have problems, and if we just sat down and talked we could fix everything’. The Black Coast is performing best when it is coming up with savvy ways to connect cultural differences. Sweeping these lazy boulder-sized problems just get swept under the rug with minimal effort is problematic to the immersion.

Similarly, the characters are a mixed bag. The leads are all fun and complex enough to keep me interested. Daimon, head of the coastals, is struggling with the fact that he betrayed his adoptive family. When the raiders arrived, he took control of the situation and kept everyone from getting killed. He provides a refreshing perspective from an adoptive child with a great internal struggle, and I enjoyed his practicality and clear-headed thinking greatly. Saana, head of the raiders, is struggling with the fact that her people just want to… well, raid, and she seems to be the only one who can tell that that is not a good long-term strategy. She feels like the only student who did the homework in an unruly class who is trying to keep everyone out of trouble. I didn’t know “Viking Mom” was going to be a trope that I loved, but I am here for it.

However, there are additional POVs that caused a dissonance while reading and didn’t feel as enmeshed in the themes I’ve mentioned. These narratives are told by the sister to a king and a poor thief. The sister’s story feels wildly disconnected from what is happening with the culture clash, and the thief’s story falls off a cliff and isn’t heard from again two-thirds of the way through the book. On top of this, some of the supporting cast, like Saana’s close friends in the clan and Daimon’s brother, are well developed, but others are looking to set records in lack of character depth. Daimon’s father is a fairly pivotal character to the story and has a number of scenes with dialogue. Yet in all of them, all of them, he only says one thing, “my adoptive son has no honor and needs to die.” It is exhausting and really starts to drag on you after a while. Many of these characters simply exist to push the narrative in the direction Brooks needed it to go and it is easy to see the author’s agenda behind the choices thanks to his heavy hand. It absolutely shatters the immersion of a book for me when you can see the author forcing the story to go in certain directions.

The best thing I can say about The Black Coast is that it is different and original enough that it kept me interested from start to finish. The premise is interesting, and the execution is reasonably well done. Yet, the book is held back due to the heavy hand the author has in pushing the story along and would have benefited from a much lighter touch. I still recommend you check it out if the premise appeals to you, but know that you will have to take the good with the bad.

Rating: The Black Coast – 6.5/10

Fortuna – It Favors the Bold, Also the Bad (But in a Good Way)

41gnfzpyv8l._sx331_bo1204203200_I know it’s not exactly the best way to get excited about a book, but I was immediately attracted to Fortuna, by Kristyn Merbeth, when the eighties synthwave cover was revealed. When Orbit threw in a blurb likening the work to that of Becky Chambers, I was done for. No need to complete the chokehold with a synopsis about a family of space smugglers, but it was there anyway. Fortuna is a great book with a rollicking character-focused story that succeeds in emotional depth but reaches a little too far when it comes to large-scale destruction.

Fortuna is a nice mix of action and character driven narrative. It follows the Kaiser family, a small group of smugglers raised and managed by Auriga Kaiser, the biological mother of the crew. The main characters are Corvus, the eldest brother, and Scorpia, the second oldest. Upon hearing that Corvus is returning to the Fortuna(the name of the ship) after finishing his third year of service within the Titan planetary military, Scorpia hatches her latest plan to make her mother proud so she can take the captain’s reigns and continue the Kaiser legacy. However, Scorpia is not as competent as her confidence suggests, and the system itself has other plans that muddy the Kaiser’s ability to maintain their smuggling business. Amidst the family drama, resources become tight and rumors of war circulate as the planets begin to become more isolationist.

I want to start off by highlighting Merbeth’s exceptional writing ability. The chapters alternate between Corvus and Scorpia, both sides written in a first-person perspective. I normally have issues with first person, because I generally do not like how things are described from that perspective, but Merbeth really knocked it out of the park here. Not only do the two characters feel distinct as people, but it comes through in how they describe the people around them, or the environments they are in. Scorpia comes off as a confident, whip-smart, smooth operator who acknowledges she might drink too much and often looks at people in a buddy-buddy way. Often her descriptions feel as if they are pulled out of hat. Corvus, on the other hand, is reserved, disciplined and all too aware of himself. He constantly feels distanced from those around him, regardless of how close they are. His distance is often self imposed, exemplified by the directness with which he speaks to himself and those around him. It was very distinct and kept me pulled along through the whole ride.

In a similar vein, the characters are fairly deep even though some are built on recognizable foundations. Fortuna shines because of its characters and their relationships with each other. The Kaiser family feels alive, and they have a deep history with each other. They have been through a lot and it shows. Corvus’ return feels monumental, even though it’s subdued and carries a lot of baggage. Merbeth does an excellent job of revealing the experiences and motivations of characters in such a way that their interactions feel natural and uncontrived. I think a lot of people might feel beaten over the head with Scorpia’s flaws, but I think Merbeth nailed it. Scorpia is inconsistent, juvenile, and brash but wants to do what is best for her family and will go to whatever length she feels is necessary to keep them safe and happy. Her alcoholism runs deep, and it takes her a while to deal with it, while the rest around her see it day in and day out. Her flaws, as deep and heartbreaking as they were, were made endearing by her better qualities. Merbeth straddled the line of unbearable and loveable with Scorpia, and it made the book more engaging.

While the intense character drama drove the narrative, I felt that the plot was a little inconsistent. I enjoyed the smuggling and the politics between the different worlds. I also enjoyed that the smugglers were the connections in some sense between the worlds as they all slowly began to close their borders. My biggest issue with the plot was its sense of scale. The amount of destruction that occurs alongside the family drama felt unreal and made some of the arguments the Kaisers had a little garish and cartoonish. Pair that with the fact that a lot of it happened off-screen (for reasons that are apparent within the story that I want to avoid spoilers) also diminished the attachment. Merbeth did a good job in terms of set up and in explaining why the different members of the family would be affected by the events in the way that they were, but the events just felt too big. The planets, while fairly fleshed out, did not have a sense of scale. With the family drama in the forefront, it was hard to appreciate the threat, and just how much of an effect it had, and how the Kaisers were involved. I enjoyed the story and plotting of events in general, but I felt that some of the consequences were too big for a small family of smugglers.

In the end, I had a blast with Fortuna. It was a good ride with a lot of heart, and heavy family drama that felt well built within a well-realized world. The characters were likeable in the long run and felt distinct despite their rough beginnings. The book had its inconsistencies, but like its characters, the better qualities shone all the brighter because of it. I am definitely looking forward to the next book in the series. If you are looking for a small-scale drama among the stars with heavy consequences, then Fortuna by Kristyn Merbeth is for you.

Rating: Fortuna – 8.0/10

Record Of A Spaceborn Few – A Masterpiece Of Storytelling

y648No witty title today, just a post about a series that you should be reading. I have talked about Becky Chambers, and her incredible novels, before – but in essence she writes sci-fi slice of life novels. They are quiet, contemplative, and slow stories about people who make their lives in space. The problems that they encounter are rarely the world ending threats you expect in your typical sci-fi novel, and often are more about the pursuit of happiness. When I started reading these novels, I thought the premise was a cool idea but I was unsure how much I would enjoy the execution. Now I sit here wondering if it is too early to declare Record of a Spaceborn Few, book three in The Wayfarers, my best book of 2018.

Note: You don’t have to read these books in order, as they are all technically standalone, but there is enough crossover that I recommend you read them in publication order.

Record follows the story of the human exodus fleet. In Chamber’s universe, a long time ago, Earth began to show signs of environmental decay and collapse. In response to this, a large group of people got together and built a massive self-sustaining fleet to leave our planetary home and sail into the stars for better opportunities. The fleet eventually made contact with other alien races, humanity found new homes, and the exodus fleet completed its purpose. Except, not everyone left the fleet. In fact, a huge contingent of people decided to stay on the armada of ships as they permanently orbit a star gifted to them by another civilization. This story follows the lives of those who chose to remain on the exodus fleet, and the very personal difficulties that they struggle with as they try to find meaning in their own lives within the fleet. The story itself is both somber and uplifting. The book begins with a horrible accident – one of the exodus ships suffers a malfunction and ruptures, killing almost everyone aboard. The rest of the book is fueled by this event as the characters react to their own mortality.

The first two books in this series told beautiful personal stories, but neither of them were on the same level as Record. For starters there are a ton of POVs in Record:

  • Isobel – An older archivist who chronicles the history of the exodus fleet. Through her eyes we see how important the “world” of the fleet has been, and what it means as a symbol of humanity
  • The Alien Gol – I will butcher the spelling of Gol’s full name, but she is essentially a jellyfish like alien that has come to the exodus fleet to learn about it as a sociologist/anthropologist. Through Gol we see what the exodus fleet represents to non-humans
  • Kip – a teenage boy bored with his assigned lot in the Fleet. He has spent his entire life in the fleet and finds its technological shortcomings frustrating. He feels trapped in a decaying lifestyle that his elders have forced on him and doesn’t see the point in spending his entire life on the upkeep of useless ships that he hates. Through Kip we hear the arguments against the fleet and the arguments for leaving it
  • Sawyer – an outsider to the fleet who is trying to immigrate from his previously difficult life. Sawyer is Kip’s foil (and vice-versa) as he represents the universal difficulties that the fleet shields humanity from
  • Eyas – a fleet composter and burial expert. Eyas is a younger character who holds a job of much reverence in the fleet. Through her we experience and come to understand a lot of the culture and values of the fleet
  • Tessa – an engineer with two children. Her POV is a little hard to summarize in a paragraph, as it is very fluid and changes a lot throughout the course of the novel. However, I will say she gives you a lot of insight as a parent and helps you think about what the fleet might mean to future generations

All of these characters represent different opinions and beliefs that exist inside the exodus fleet, and each spend the novel arguing for their point of view. Chambers did an incredible job balancing their arguments so that everyone and no one seems right, giving you a ton to think about. On top of this, Chambers’ ability to personify the different characters is truly incredible. Kip’s POV as a teenage boy feels believable and relatable to my own experiences (when I was that age), while I felt I really understood the plight of a parent thinking about their children when I was inside Tessa’s head. Each character feels realistic, relatable, and lovable – and I adored each of them.

I have nothing but good things to say about Record of a Spaceborn Few. Becky Chambers has created a masterpiece of storytelling that I could read a hundred times and never stop enjoying. This sweet and somber story pulls you in and doesn’t let you go until the last tearful page. Record made me think a lot about my own life, and the things I take for granted. I feel like reading this book made me a better, more thoughtful, person – and what more can you ask from a story?

Rating: Record of a Spaceborn Few – 10/10

Aurora: The Beauty Of Home And The Importance Of Hard Science Fiction

Post by Alex Tas.

41ji898by9lI have been eagerly awaiting a chance to read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, but since I am already bogged down in so many series, I opted for his 2015 novel, Aurora. It starts at the end of a generational starship’s 170 year journey to the planet Aurora. Told from the perspective of a learning quantum AI, Aurora follows the chief engineer and her daughter as they address the day to day problems of maintaining the ship. Aurora is an important book that investigates the worth of long-term space travel, and questions our understanding of our environment, whether natural or constructed.

The story itself is easily digestible. As the aforementioned AI learns how to tell a story, the prose develops. The AI’s grasp on language starts simple and grows more complex as the story continues. This allows the reader to adapt quickly when Robinson shifts between the main story, the science driving the starship’s maladies, and several introspective monologues. Robinson also relies on basic geographic understanding of Earth, naming each of the ship’s twelve biomes as they relate to a similar region on Earth.  He efficiently describes the landscape in a way that does not burden readers, while managing to place the reader in the scene. Typical of hard science fiction, the characters are not the main focus, but serve as a vehicle to the narrative and the ideas it introduces. Using the limited third person perspective embodied by the AI, Robinson gives himself space to explore these ideas outside of the typical narrative progression. The story focuses on the constant conflict of living in space, instead of building up to an ultimate conflict.

With all the talk in our own lives of interstellar travel, manned missions to Mars, and the looming possibility of extra-terrestrial colonization, Aurora stands out. Instead of the usual gung-ho planet grab, the book is a solemn meditation on how humans tend to view their environment and how they try to adapt. Most of the problems that pop up are bizarre chemical reactions between the ship and the biomes, issues as the ship decelerates, or the effects of small populations on genetics across generations. While the crew has a fairly sizeable array of useful materials, the problems are not easily solved and sometimes cascade into each other. As media in our world tends to trumpet the advances and breakthroughs, Aurora highlights the labor behind the triumphs and explores their after effects. By not placing us into the mind of a central human character, Robinson gives the reader space to ponder the bigger picture he is painting. Instead of being tapped into the emotions of a single character, the audience understands this as a cautionary tale of reflection, not a triumphal scream into the void.

Robinson also uses science to consistently hammer this point home. Aurora is heavy on biology, physics, and chemistry. The scientific explanations are digestible, but there are a few areas where numbers are unavoidable and concepts have to be detailed. While the majority of these sections are written into the story, several do feel like annotations to better explain the text. This may distance or even lose some readers, even though Robinson is not using them to show his scientific expertise. These areas of the book serve as more color with which to paint the big picture. Personally, I enjoyed these sections as they show the collision between the human spirit and the inevitability of facts and natural law.

All of this is not to say that this is a cold book with no feelings towards the ship’s inhabitants. While the omnipresent AI cannot delve into the inner workings of the character’s minds, it highlights conversations that shed some light on the relationships that we, as humans, build. By revealing people’s interactions, the stress they endure, and the impact of constant environmental pressure on the human psyche, Robinson pushes the story to a larger scope. This is not a character-based narrative, where the protagonists learn something to further their goals. Instead, Robinson frames the ship as a microcosm of Earth. By increasing the distance from the central characters, Robinson broadens the historical scope of the ship as the story progresses. It slowly shifts from a tale about a few humans in space, to a parable about humanity.

Robinson handles most of his ideas deftly, with skill, efficiency, and well-tempered force. There are rare moments when the illusion is broken, but they are not frequent enough to drag the book down.  I would never call this a subtle book, but it is not overtly judgmental. While Robinson focuses on humanity’s relationship with science and technology, he chooses to highlight the limits of technology and human understanding. Through many of the conflicts in the book, Robinson critiques humanity’s intent through its application of science. To Robinson, technology is not damnation or salvation in and of itself, but is instead used by humans to bring about these ends.

By making humanity his centerpiece, Robinson leaves the reader with questions, doubts, and revelations about humanity’s place among the stars. Much like the northern lights the book is named after, Aurora is a wonder to perceive. It is a chance for readers to gaze up at the stars, admiring their elegance and ask “how”? Afterwards, they can look at the beauty of the world around them and ask “why”?

Rating: Aurora – 8.5/10

Wayfarers One and Two – A Delectible Duo

Today we have a double feature with books one and two of the Wayfarer series by Becky Chambers. Up first we have the incredible A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, which I will be shortening to SAP as I want to have room in the review to write things other than its name. Once finished I will talk about the sequel (which is more of a spin off), A Closed and Common Orbit. These books are super weird and I ended up loving both of them to pieces, so let’s jump right in.

51dgbi4se6l-_sx325_bo1204203200_As I said, these books are not your ordinary kettle of fish. SAP isn’t really about anything. It is a science fiction slice-of-life novel that follows the crew of a wormhole tunneling ship called the Wayfarer. The ship isn’t out to save, or doom, the galaxy- it is all simply a job for the crew, working 9-5 while also living as a large family in space. Our story starts with a new member joining the crew with a mysterious past, but while most science fiction novels segue this into world ending events, SAP only uses it to address that specific character’s backstory and slightly drive the overall plot forward. See SAP is all about the characters, and dear god are the characters excellent. We have the captain, pilot, navigator, 2 mechanics, engineer, chef/doctor, and the new clerk. I would tell you about each and every one of them, but for once I actually think I am going to hold off. The characters are all beautifully written and I loved them all. They’re an eclectic group and their personalities and stories have something for everyone, but while I had a favorite my ranking of who I liked most was so close for the entire cast it doesn’t really matter. As I mentioned, SAP follows the crew of a wormhole tunneling ship, and the plot of the book centers around the crew taking on a huge and challenging job that will keep them in an enclosed space for a long time stopping all over the universe. SAP uses this premise to weave a tapestry of micro stories about each of the individual members of the crew, telling you their life stories over the course of a chapter here and there, as well as showing their interactions as a cohesive crew. It is a book about people, and nothing, and I would read 100 of them.

On top of having one of the best written casts I have ever read, Chambers is a meticulous world builder with an eye for detail and… well… fun. Her universe is a place I badly want to live in as it sounds awesome. The races are interesting and original (mostly), the worlds and technological wonders are astounding, and she has done a great job of writing a window into her worlds for you to see all of them. The settings are extremely immersive, and I found myself wanting to call her and ask her all sorts of questions about how things worked. Due to the incredible setting, and relatable characters, SAP is one of the most relatable books I have read in recent memory. The entire novel is about small problems that everyone has: work, family, love, wanting to make something of yourself, running from your past, bigotry, war, loneliness, and the list goes on. If you can’t find something to relate to in this book you likely don’t have human emotions and should probably seek help.

168125Shifting to the second book in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit (CCO), you will find a lot of the same with some slight differences. Chambers mixes it up with her sequel, ditching the crew of the wayfarer and instead following two side characters from SAP. CCO alternates chapters between an A.I. who has just been born into the world and the mechanic watching over the A.I.. The A.I. is discovering new surroundings and sensations, and is trying to make sense of a whole new world. The mechanic’s chapters take place in the distant past and show how she once faced similar situations as a child and her struggles with the same problems. CCO is a different, but equally beautiful, book that weaves the stories of one womans past and the A.I.’s present to create a river of self discovery. I liked the duo of CCO less than I liked the crew of Wayfarer, but I still thought the cast of CCO was better than most books I have recently read. I appreciated that Chambers picked up right where she left off on worldbuilding in book two, and CCO continues to flesh out her captivating universe.

I don’t have a lot more to say about this series other than it has cemented a spot in my collection of favorite books in record time. I want more, tons more, and I think that Wayfarers is a series that anyone can enjoy. Do yourself a favor and pick them up now and take a break from reality and live the lives of a lovable crew tunneling through space, and finding their way in a brave new world.

A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet – 9.5/10
A Closed and Common Orbit – 8.5/10