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

The First Sister – A Little Bit Of Everything, Not Enough Of Something

the-first-sister-9781982126995_hrThe First Sister, by Linden Lewis, is an impressively ambitious debut, and one of our dark horses of 2020. Part space opera, part social commentary, part feminist power piece, and part character-driven narrative, this book has a lot of moving pieces in a fairly small page count (350). It feels like a tiny explosion of everything that makes the science fiction genre a joy to read. But, when you have a book with a low page count and so many ideas, there is only so much you can cram onto each page. The result is a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. The First Sister is good at a lot of things, but great at almost none of them.

The First Sister tells the story of war across the solar system. Earth and Mars went to town on each other for a long time until all their AIs got up and left to found a more peaceful civilization elsewhere. This left the two planets exposed to the technologically superior outer planets who began to prey on their previous long-time inner planet bullies. Earth and Mars banded together and the solar system found itself in a two-territory conflict with the asteroid belt as a border. But our story isn’t focused on the big picture. Instead, The First Sister tells a very personal story of three characters and how their experiences bring context to the issues humanity is facing.

The biggest protagonist is the titular First Sister. She’s a sort of pseudo nun/sex slave of the Earth/Mars side and she is forced to live her life on one of the capital ships, servicing the troops spiritually and physically. Her voice is taken from her so that she may not complain about what is done to her, but she is allowed some boons. The First Sister is a highly sought-after rank among the slaves and it means that she may only be claimed by the captain of the ship – minimizing her torments. However, we join our First Sister in the midst of a change-up in the leadership of her vessel and her role is in jeopardy – and she will do anything to keep the small privileges she has gained.

The other two POVs consist of Lito and Hiro, a bonded pair of outer planet spies who use neural connectors to link brains. Their link allows them to think and fight in tandem for greater strength and efficiency. When an operation they are conducting goes south, Lito is dishonorably discharged. But, Lito is recalled to service when Hiro goes rogue as the best person to track Hiro down and eliminate them. Lito’s sections involve him tracking Hiro down in the present, while Hiro’s sections take the form of an audio diary that flesh out the duo’s past and why they defected.

The characters of The First Sister are its strong point. All three leads go through an enormous amount of growth over the course of the book and it really helps you get invested in the protagonists. Their stories are interesting and refreshing – plus they each have a lot of personality and depth which makes them feel rewarding to root for. I also have only praise for the supporting cast, which contains a plethora of side characters that do a great job of moving the story along with exciting set pieces and providing a canvas for the protagonists to paint themselves on. Unfortunately, this is where my unfettered praise ends.

The worldbuilding and storytelling in this book is a mixed bag, which is why I transitioned away from them so quickly at the start of the review. The world of The First Sister is awesome, but I constantly found myself struggling with some of Lewis’ new ideas and inventions due to a lack of context. A perfect example of this is I think I correctly described to you which planets are on the two sides of the war, but I am not 100% sure because the sides of the conflict are only talked about once or twice, and even then Lewis uses very vague terms that left me unsure who was who.

Other times, the ordering of information in the book confused me. Lito and Hiro are both masters of these really cool mercury swords that can change shape and style at will. A huge portion of the start of the book shows you how training with these swords is a vital part of how soldiers are trained in the outer rim. But, you are also consistently shown that most combat at the beginning of the book is done with long-range guns that end fights in milliseconds. Thus I found myself wondering “why the heck do they care about swords so much when they have super guns.” Well, near the end of the book it is shown that resources are so thin since the AIs up and left that neither side of the conflict can afford to blow ships out of the sky. So, almost all space battles involve boarding maneuvers to attempt to capture other ships and repel boarders from your own. Thanks to the tight, cramped, and winding ship passages, mercury blades are the most powerful weapon a soldier can use. This turns out to be only one of multiple reasons the reader is shown that the swords are important, but I spent the majority of the book confused about their purpose.

The story itself poses as this massive galactic conflict – but it struggles to make you care beyond the confines of the leads… because the personal stories of the leads are so interesting. The First Sister feels indecisive if it wants to be telling you a macro, or a micro, story – so it tries, and struggles, to do both at the same time. I think the microstories were a lot stronger and the book would have been better served to stick with the smaller tank of the protagonist’s struggles over the fate of humanity.

Additionally, the themes of the book were interesting, but a bit too undefined. The role of the First Sister was fascinating, and her struggles to survive spoke volumes of commentary about the struggles that some women face in the modern world. Yet, the reader is never really given any justification as to why the inner planets have shipbound sex slaves in the first place other than “it would be a horrible thing that bad people would do.” The result is a theme that feels a little divorced from the book because to a degree it feels forced in and foreign to the ecosystem that Lewis developed. For example, we see tons of evidence that homosexuality is open and accepted in the book and gender is fluid. Yet, we are only ever shown women Sisters, even when there are examples of soldiers who desire men. This diminishes the impact of otherwise smart themes, and while I suspect that future books in the series will address some of the worldbuilding issues I had with The First Sister, I needed these answers now to fully enjoy the first book.

Despite its unfocused nature, The First Sister is a captivating read with interesting characters and new takes on thoughtful ideas. I wish Lewis would try to narrow down the scope slightly going forward, or expand the page count to let the multitude of ideas the book contains have room to breathe. The climax of the first book is fantastic and absolutely dug its hooks into my curiosity as to what happens next. Despite a couple of problems, I still recommend The First Sister as a strong debut and one of the better dark horses I have read this year.

Rating: The First Sister – 7.0/10
-Andrew

A Fire Upon The Deep – Golden Goodness

b000fbjago.lzzzzzzzA Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge, is a 1992 sci-fi modern classic that is getting a re-release this year from Tor. While it is not a golden age sci-fi, missing the era by about 50 years, it definitely feels like a tribute to the great classics. At the same time, it is highly regarded as one of the best science fiction novels to come out in the last 30 years. So, is this modern classic worth your time? Is the reprint something to look forward to? The answers are a resounding yes, so let’s dive into what makes this book popular.

A Fire Upon the Deep, on top of being written by an author with one of the coolest names ever, is an epic science-fiction story that explores a galaxy-spanning conflict that is being determined through medieval warfare on an unmapped planet. One of the best things Deep has going for it is, despite its size, the story starts off like a relay racer hearing a starter shot. The prologue begins with a human expedition exploring an archive/prison outside reality. Almost immediately, the group accidentally releases an ancient AI/consciousness with godlike powers. This universe is filled with beings that have ascended to higher planes of existence, so initially, this is taken as a mild problem – but then the being immediately starts to rapidly devour reality at an unheard-of rate. Realizing that this expedition has colossally shit the bed, they try to flee the being after grabbing a database containing methods left by the jailers to defeat it – only to get slapped massively off course and crashland on a primitive world with a species of dog-like alien. These aliens immediately kill most of the expedition and then rival sides in a medieval war capture the survivors (who are young children). Then (yes, after all this) things start to get interesting.

The book splits into three storylines. One is from the POV of the children who are trying to navigate a completely unknown world without advanced technology and get back to their ship. The second is from the POV of the dog aliens, who are trying to steal the technology that has fallen out of their skies, then learn to harness it to win wars. The third and final POV is a group of individuals trying to find this unmapped planet in order to recover the crashed archive to figure out how to stop this ascended being from destroying all of reality. The pacing is fast, the stakes are high, and the conflict is extremely gripping.

However, while the plot is great, where Deep really shines is its exploration of three key ideas in its worldbuilding. First are the zones. The zones are areas of space that represent different realities where the laws of physics change. High zones allow for much more flexible and powerful technology while low zones cause most tech to simply drop dead due to reality simply not supporting their functions. The planet where this archive has crashed is located in a very low zone, making it extremely hard to extract once it has been located. The second idea is around bootstrapping innovation. As the war between the sides of the dog aliens escalates, humans try to shortcut the growth of the species by showing them tech and skills they are eras from discovering. Thus, we get a thought experiment that represents Star Fleet’s worst nightmare: what could you achieve with a nascent species if you messed with their evolutionary path as much as possible.

Finally, the most interesting idea that Deep puts forth is how the minds of the dog aliens work. They are pseudo-hive minds and have a very creative form of intelligence. Each individual isn’t very smart, so they congregate in groups of 3-6 to bootstrap their intelligence by combining their minds. Each alien added to the group fundamentally alters the personality of the whole as their identity is incorporated into the collective. If the collective grows too large, the cohesion of the mind begins to fail. The aliens are constantly balancing improving their intelligence, keeping themselves sane, and not washing out their personality with unwitting pairings. It was a really original take on the hive mind idea and is absolutely fascinating to explore. There are tons more detail on how their minds work, but to learn more you will just have to read the book.

The character writing in Deep is above average, with almost every individual in the story representing a complex and deep combination of quirks and personalities. There is a surprising amount of character growth for a single book – but the story’s giant size makes that possible. The prose is also intense and powerful, resulting in a number of memorable quotes that will stick with you. Really my only complaint about Deep is that it’s a shame that all its narratives aren’t equally good. The two planetside stories around the children and aliens are always fascinating and engrossing as you slowly understand how these alien minds work and the gritty in-your-face conflict grows. The third narrative about a strike team trying to recover the archive and fight the big bad universe-eating being had a tendency to occasionally drag. There are some sloggingly long passages where it is just a group of people sitting in a traveling spaceship talking about things. It reeks of telling instead of showing and it can really break up the otherwise fast pace of the book.

I think it is fantastic that A Fire Upon the Deep is getting a re-release, as it is a great book that needs more readers. Deep’s modern ideas and old school feel make it appealing to a very wide range of sci-fi fans and will be sure to entertain anyone willing to give it the time of day. Make sure you don’t sleep on this winner or Tor will have to re-re-release it in another 30 years in an effort to give it the attention it deserves.

Rating: A Fire Upon The Deep – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Noumenon Ultra – Every Ending Is A New Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Noumenon Ultra – 9.0/10
-Alex

Unconquerable Sun – It Will Brighten Your Day with a Nuclear Radiance

It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I’ve never read a Kate Elliott book before. I didn’t even realize how prolific a writer she is until someone recently pointed it out to me. While I consider myself pretty adventurous, this definitely feels like a glaring blind spot. Absent literally any other segue, what caught my eyes about this book is it’s marketing tagline “gender-swapped Alexander the Great on an interstellar scale.” Normally, I don’t care for marketing, but something as simple and high concept as that will reel me in. Unconquerable Sun, by Kate Elliott, is a thrilling and intricate space opera that excels in worldbuilding and character development while delivering a relentlessly paced and heart-pounding plot. 

The book follows Sun, the current presumed heir to the Queen Marshall Eirene of the Republic of Chaonia. She just declared a major victory in a battle with one of the Republic’s oldest enemies, the Phene Empire, and is hoping to be announced as successor. However, her mother Eirene has other plans for her and sends her on a tour of the solar systems within Chaonian control. During this quasi victory parade/media relations tour, someone makes an attempt on Sun’s life, making her think a larger plot is afoot. Meanwhile, Persephone, a daughter of one of the major houses within the Chaonian court, is being roped back into the family’s political games after running away to the military academy. She doesn’t know what they have in store for her, and she wants no part of it as she becomes one of Sun’s Companions. As the intrigue of succession becomes more palpable, the Phene Empire and its sometimes friendly rival, the Yele League, plan for revenge to put the Republic of Chaonia back in its place. 

Let’s get this out of the way. Unconquerable Sun is a blast that glued my eyes to the page every time I opened it back up. Elliott spends an incredible amount of unwasted effort building the world her characters inhabit. She spreads a metric ass-ton of detail through the entire story, and does so with finesse, never bogging down the rest of the story. Elliott leaves no stone unturned as she describes everything from the military impact of a technology that enables interstellar travel, to the cultures that make up the different empires. Elliott adds a weight to the history of these galaxy-spanning empires I rarely experience, let alone find as captivating as the Republic of Chaonia and its struggle for autonomy. If I were to list everything I found cool about this book, it would take up several pages, but even that wouldn’t cover the effort Elliott goes through to make these little details add up and feel relevant to the story being told. 

Speaking of the plot, this book felt like riding a roller coaster while also spinning plates, and Elliott pulls it off. It’s bombastic, and constantly feels like the tension is rising. There are one or two moments of breathing room to allow the reader to digest everything happening, but I never felt that I couldn’t keep track of everything happening. Elliott really covers all the bases in Unconquerable Sun with political intrigue, chase scenes, one-on-one combat sections, epic space battles and powerful character dynamics that drive the emotional arcs of the main characters. On top of all that, the characters are wonderful to read, with more depth than I was expecting for something that already felt filled to the brim. I could lavish the rest of the review about Sun and Persephone and how fun and thoughtful the side characters were, but I’ll just say this: the characters are fantastic top to bottom in the book, and there are too many to really get in-depth about. 

Instead, I want to talk about Elliott’s writing, which is easily my favorite thing about this book, even after everything else I’ve mentioned. Her prose is not particularly flowery, but it is also more fleshed out than functional. Descriptions serve a purpose but add a little whimsy to everything to make it feel fantastical. However, her choice to tell Persephone’s story (and a few other side characters’ stories), through the first person, while telling Sun’s through a third person is absolutely masterful. I don’t know any other way to put it that is less gushing. It lent a human touch to Persephone and the people surrounding Sun while imbuing Sun with this mythic quality. The audience receives no inner monologue from Sun, dispelling any chance at understanding her doubts and fears. The reader is subject specifically to what Sun’s companions see, and what Elliott chooses to express in the third person. Because of that, Sun is an avatar of indomitable will, pure conviction, and ruthless cleverness. She will win, or die trying, and Sun does not try. Not only does Elliott manage to bestow this mythic quality on Sun, she tells you she is doing it, and got me rooting for her like some ecstatic fan all the same. 

Unconquerable Sun is not without fault, but the few issues I had were so inconsequential they were overpowered by everything I already mentioned. The book is through and through a delight to read. The world feels grounded but incredibly rich and new. The characters are enjoyable and easy to relate to, even Sun who always feels slightly distant. I cannot wait for the next book in the series, and I will definitely have to look at Elliott’s other books to fill the void. 

Rating: Unconquerable Sun – 9.5/10 

Sisters of the Vast Black – We’re Nuns, We’re Nuns in Space!

I’ve never been a religious person by any stretch of the imagination. Our family only went to church on Christmas, and that was about it. As a result, finding myself excited about the prospect of the Catholic Church in space was a weird experience for me. Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather scratched an itch I didn’t know I had (ARC provided by the publisher through NetGalley). Rather wrote an engaging novel about a small group of nuns learning the meaning of their faith in a galaxy reluctant to embrace the larger Catholic Church.

Sisters of the Vast Black takes place on a living ship, Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, and follows the sisters of the Order of Saint Rita as they travel to a new colony in distress. Along the way, they deal with adapting earthly church doctrine to spacefaring life in big ways and small. The Catholic Church, defeated years ago along with Earth in a war for control of the space born colonies, is resurgent and willing to test its new sense of power and reach. The sisters of the Order begin to feel the influence from the Church themselves, causing them to question their faith. Individuals’ secrets are brought into the light as pressure starts to mount and their loyalty to each other and the church is tested. 

The story itself meandered a little for the first half of the book. It didn’t feel like it had a lot of direction, and the narrative often takes a backseat to the worldbuilding. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but since it is a novella I was a little worried about where the story was going to end up. Fortunately, Rather pulls it in for a tighter second half. She uses everything she explored in the first half to hone in on the characters’ individual stories as they grapple with the tightening control from the Church and reignition of war. Any concerns I had about losing the thread were washed away in the succinct but open ending that focused on individual faith in the shadow of the Catholic Church. 

The narrative’s success depended on the characters themselves. Rather takes the time to develop the characters by giving them a weight that makes them relatable. I found myself enmeshed in their lives with the day-to-day of maintaining the ship instead of waiting for something to rock the boat so to speak. The daily repetitive tasks and the small conversations about church doctrine and coming changes helped to build the identity of the characters quickly without throwing a quick succession of  events at the reader. The hushed ways they whispered to each other about their lives, or rumors they have heard built a sense of community among them that set them apart from the world they inhabited. It was a really nice touch that made me care about who they were as people instead of just pieces to move the story along. 

The real star of the book, for me, was the setting. The world Rather created was subtle yet incredibly enticing. Not only did the church feel important to the characters, it felt like a living presence within the solar system. There was a history that felt raw and immediate, like an open wound that had not been properly tended. Rather wrote a distinct lack of finality to everything that made the world really come alive. There was also a lot of understated interplay between the characters and the setting, making the characters feel present within the world while also being very affected by it. I think that without the deft handling of the setting and its effects on the people living in it, this book would have fallen short. 

Sisters of the Vast Black is unfortunately brief, but it packs a punch. The themes of sin and redemption are cleverly explored through the characters and the world. Rather’s sense of history and ability to portray the longstanding effects of past events is admirable. I want more of this world, more of the people living inside it, finding their way in the dark. I want to watch it change in the small subtle ways that mirror the real world. Needless to say, I recommend Sisters of the Vast Black especially if you’re looking for something a little different that feels human at heart, and otherworldly in scope.

Rating: Sisters of the Vast Black – 8.0/10

Luna – When the Moon Hits Your Eye

Ever since I read Luna: New Moon, by Ian MacDonald I knew I was in for a ride. You can read my review here. I’ve been wary to talk about the next books for fear of ruining its astounding ending, even though it’s hard to write about a second book in a series without discussing the events of the first. While I’ve never written about a third book before, I can only imagine finding ways to deal with the first and second books is an even harder task. Instead of trying to pick apart each book and rehash the things I found enjoyable about each one specifically, I am going to cheat and just talk about the series as a whole, with a focus on books two and three. McDonald’s Luna trilogy is a realistic and cynical, but ultimately very human, story about the peak and subsequent destabilization of a society built for a few, but not all. 

Wolf Moon and Moon Rising continue the saga of the Cortas, one of the five families belonging to the elite class known as the Five Dragons. The characterization for which I lauded McDonald in my review of New Moon continues in the later books, but with a more metaphorical tinge. McDonald goes to greater lengths to portray the Corta family, along with the other Dragons, as much a part of the system as they are its creators. Throughout the second and third books, I never felt as moved as I was by Adriana’s story. However, I found that each character was portrayed with similar levels of depth through the series. Each member of the Corta family is given moments where they seem to ooze out of the pages, the words barely able to contain their personalities. The other families are given a greater spotlight as the series continues, showing how their philosophies and family dynamics project their own goals onto the development and maintenance of the moon’s society. McDonald blends it all well in a way where only a very select few people feel like villains, regardless of their relation to the Cortas. 

The setting remains just as vibrant and intricate as it did in the series’ first installment, albeit more delicate. If New Moon was about the system when it’s stable, Wolf Moon destabilizes it. I was blown away by how human the collapse of the political dynamics felt. The chaotic and sudden breakdown in the feudal system did not feel like a plot point that needed to be checked off. Instead, it was deliberately rocked to its core by the very people that built it, regardless of their intent to do so. Lunar society was already a fairly violent system as shown in New Moon, one that required residents to have a heads-up display installed in their eye to remind them of how many breaths of air one has left, or how many sips of water they had remaining. The events of the first book destroyed some of the foundations of the moon’s politics, allowing key players to disrupt the “natural” harmony of the five Dragons. While there was a sense of intrigue to the people in power, McDonald did not shy away from letting the reader know that everyone pays the price for the elites’ decisions, especially those at the bottom of society. Just as things seem to hit rock bottom, the author shows how such a society would try to right itself, and it is not pretty. 

With the lunar infrastructure pushed to its limits with the destruction of major industrial centers, McDonald takes the opportunity to take a step back and philosophically dissect the society in Moon Rising. The book questions the system it is written about. Who is it for? Who is in control? Who should control it? I was a little worried that it would devolve into lengthy discussions about different ways forward, but McDonald keeps the pace moving. He relies on his characters to pull the story with them, giving them agency when everything feels out of control. A lot of the character moments are spent highlighting how broken they are as individuals, leaving the reader to wonder how the problems were going to be solved. It kept me guessing, especially since there were a lot of smaller stories that made up the larger narrative. McDonald avoided putting the plot on rails by opting for a zigzagging approach to a murky finish line, focusing on character development instead of the plot. It made for a strong finish in an already powerful trilogy. 

The Luna Trilogy is an intricate set of books that rarely sacrifices style or substance in its exploration of a future lunar society. McDonald is magnanimous in his details, portraying the cruelest aspects of modern society through a broken and all-too-recognizable system, one designed and operated by the few who stand to benefit from its existence. It is an unflinching look at a social order that lives by the maxim, “there are no laws, only negotiations.” Despite all of that, there is humanity within it. McDonald makes you root for his characters who are as much victims of their own design as they are the rulers of it. I would never say it is an optimistic trilogy, but it lends a bit of hope. So do yourself a favor, and get to know the Cortas. 

Ratings:  Wolf Moon – 8.5/10
Moon Rising – 9.0/10
-Alex

Luna: New Moon – It’s No Twilight

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Hot off the heels of Gunpowder Moon, I just couldn’t help myself when it came to reading another book about the moon.  There is something so fascinating about that big, grey, dusty rock as it hangs in the sky. It captures me whenever I see it, so I will always look for a book to fill me with that same sense of foreboding wonder. I needed something that captures the majesty and terror of a place that is so desolate and barren. A story that highlights the moon’s complete hostility to human life, regardless of whatever technology is developed to colonize it. Luckily, I did not need to look very far– a book I have had on my  shelf looked all the brighter. Ian McDonald intricately weaves a tale of intrigue and consequences in Luna: New Moon, focusing on human characters living within a detailed and cruel society of their own making.

Luna: New Moon follows the Cortas, a family that counts itself amongst the five Dragons, the elite corporate families, of the moon. It does not center on a specific character so much as the family itself as they navigate the politics of life on the moon. The Cortas own most of the helium-3 refining business on the moon, controlling the ebb and flow of energy across habitats. Adriana Corta, the ambitious matriarch of the family, fought tooth and nail for the business, taking it away from another of the Dragons, the Mackenzie Metals corporation. As her influence begins to wane, the other Dragons smell an opportunity. All her family has to do is keep their enemies at bay while making sure they don’t destroy themselves from the inside.

McDonald’s characters are vibrant and interesting, if not entirely likable in the beginning. There are also so many that it was hard to keep track of them. I kept having to go back and forth to make sure I was not just continuously adding new characters of my own creation. After a few chapters of learning the intricacies of the family dynamics, though, they began to feel familiar. The Corta family’s choices and actions began to flesh out their personalities and general outlook. Lucas, Adriana’s second son, is manipulative and practical. He always feels the burden of maintaining the family and tries to protect it from what he sees as the messes that his hot-headed older brother Rafa creates. Adriana, the matriarch, is cold, calculating and singularly driven. Lucasinho, Lucas’ son, grew up in a life of luxury and is more carefree than the others. There are plenty more, each with a depth that I have rarely encountered in such a short span of pages. While McDonald wrote characters that were excellent examples of people thriving in a brutally competitive system, he made me care for their existence.

McDonald’s uncanny ability to advance the plot through his impressive characterization gripped me. Flashbacks– all to different times in Adriana’s life– were cleverly placed and brought so much depth to the story that they might be some of my favorites ever. The first one felt unfortunately jarring, as the reader must adjust from a third person narrative to a heavily informed third person retrospective following Adriana’s ascent to the moon. I normally do not like to point out specific parts of a book’s plot, but McDonald kind of broke me with Adriana’s flashbacks. Each one is presented as a story to remind the next generation of where the family came from. Rarely have I felt a character’s thoughts about their own past as distinctly as I did with her. The sheer indifference to her own emotions as she relentlessly follows her ambition was as commendable as it was painful. The ease with which she adapted to the harsh life of the moon was astounding, accepting struggle as the defining feature of her life. The second flashback sequence is where I felt for her most prominently, as McDonald details the choices Adriana made to build a monopoly and join the ranks of the elite. She cuts people out of her life to find the success she craves, and it is devastating. Even though she is often cold and calculating, you get the feeling that some of the decisions she makes early are tough, slowly becoming easier with each successive one. I honestly lost my breath at the end of her final recounting, astonished by her comfort with who she was.

While the characters were a strong part of the story, the setting was incredibly compelling. The moon is a neo-feudal state, nearly independent from the Earth. McDonald’s vision in this novel is terrifying, to say the least, but it is not unrealistic. The moon is essentially controlled by the aforementioned Dragons, five families who hold a specific monopoly on a different resource of the moon. This builds an intricate system of familial alliances for purely political ends. On top of that, everything is for sale on the moon. Things we consider necessary, like air and water, are commodities measured in breaths and sips. Everyone who travels there and hopes to stay has an implant on their eye to remind them how close they are to running out. Clothes are shredded and recycled, not washed. Only the richest are able to replace theirs and keep up with the latest trends. People with multiple PhDs can be homeless, out of work, and near death as labor competition is so fierce. Children of high-ranking families perform naked moon runs to showcase their strength and transition to adulthood. In a stunning portrayal of unimpeded capitalism, competition is everything, and there is no room for error.

McDonald’s writing only propels these ideas even further. He gets down to the details with nearly every piece of technology, showing how deeply interwoven it is within the culture. Technology is not just convenience on the moon, it is the one thing keeping everyone alive. Those who control it are considered gods, and if you displease them, they will swat you like a fly. The culture that develops on the moon is a very precisely-tuned machine, and disruptions are not tolerated. People are treated like parts to keep everything running. If someone is not as good as they need to be, they are scrapped for someone better. The Corta family plays a role of duality in this system. They are considered to be an upstart nuisance, even though they played by the same rules as everyone else. While they control the production and distribution of the fuel helium-3, they are an underdog in this starkly brutal system. They do not mean to upset the balance, only to profit from the system themselves. If others are hurt by their rise, it is only the natural ebb and flow of the society they exist in. Thankfully for the reader, the adage “it’s not personal, it’s just business” is never uttered, but it lingers in the air as if it is embedded in every breath.

Luna: New Moon is a stunning first entry in a series I will gobble up. McDonald has created an insanely intricate and monstrous system, filled to the brim with human characters, pushed to the limits by an unrelenting pace. It is a concentrated four hundred pages, but in my opinion worth it if you are at all a fan of space opera. The characters are vibrant, cruel and willing to do whatever it takes for their family. The drama is natural and relies solely on the characters’ ability to make decisions that affect the world around them. The novel is cold, unforgiving, stark, and beautiful, much like the full moon in a clear winter sky.

Rating: Luna: New Moon 9.0/10
-Alex

Noumenon Infinity – If Only There Was A Beyond

81yaaugbqhlIf Noumenon felt like the detached and cool but ultimately understanding older cousin, Noumenon: Infinity is your loving aunt who also happens to be a trained therapist. The first book took a more removed and neutral approach to its narrative style as well as the questions it posed about the nature of purpose and drive, but Noumenon: Infinity seemed to move towards an increasingly active narration that sought the answer to the first book’s questions. I enjoyed the first book’s presentation, but, I also appreciate the tack taken in Infinity, because it invites the reader to join in dissecting the answers to these complicated questions. Infinity has some pacing issues but ultimately carried the torch lit by Noumenon to a brighter future.

Infinity follows two separate storylines, one in line with the vignettes from the previous book, and the other a more linear story following a parallel project that launched after the original Noumenon fleet left for the stars. The vignettes follow the crew of the Noumenon as they set back out into space, hoping to determine once and for all the nature of the Nest, the structure they had found in Noumenon. The crew begins their return journey to the Nest, but along the way they separate. A small group of volunteers decides to follow the trail of a presumed extinct alien race while the bulk of the fleet attempts to finish construction of the Nest. The parallel story follows another team that is investigating more efficient ways to harness subspace dimensional travel when their experiment goes awry and sends the team to an unknown part of the galaxy.

At first, the separate timelines were a little jarring. The linear story about the experimental dimensional travel has chapters which are chronologically closer together, heightening the immediate character tension. The vignettes operate on the opposite end of the spectrum, nodding to the first book by employing large time jumps in order to smoothly process the grander story. Lostetter, refreshingly, relates very little of the first book, relying on the reader to have read Noumenon in order to fully experience the story. Her choice forces the reader to expend some effort, in the beginning, to keep the timelines straight and process the new cast of characters, but it feels worth. As the book proceeds, the separate storylines feel stronger, and the chapters begin to complement each other. I rarely felt frustrated that I was leaving one storyline for the other as Lostetter managed to balance the tension in two very different conflicts. Survival felt very real as the struggles within each narrative gradually became more threatening as each chapter ended.

One of my favorite things about the first Noumenon was how human the characters felt. I was engaged in the first story, but Lostetter made me feel deeply involved with the characters in Infinity. The original story of the clones, grasping towards the stars with their own imbued purpose, was still as riveting as ever. However, the author dialed it in so much more with the second storyline. She focused on people whose experiment was not to leave the solar system, but rather people with families on Earth who get flung across the universe in a seemingly freak accident. Lost, confused, and dealing with circumstances beyond their control or understanding, they eventually make the first contact with an alien species. Operating with no protocol for how to handle this event, as well as a dwindling amount of supplies, the crew had to desperately reach into the unknown hoping for a helping hand. The crew had to make real and immediate decisions that ultimately forced them to deal with the aliens or die alone in the dark.

One of the more interesting things Lostetter did with her parallel story structure highlighted the dualism of purpose and feeling of aimlessness. Often, events would occur that were out of the characters’ control and lead to bouts of horror and depression. A sense of direction needed to be reapplied after deliberation, as rash actions created a blindness to the future. Both stories produced this effect by examining this human tendency on different scales. This dynamic was shaky at first, but gradually a harmony was realized with the ramping tension. It is a nice thing looking back, and something I did not realize while I was reading. It gives me a sense of hope that someone like Lostetter can make her own writing feel it has a past of its own, which also forces the reader to question humanity’s own history as a species. This intricate dance of purposefulness and aimlessness within the story, as well as the melding of the two narratives, is a clever way to examine and present this idea.

As I mentioned earlier, I liked the slight tonal shift away from the feeling of a distant, neutral eye watching wayward children to the more active narration. It may have just been my reading experience, but Lostetter seemed to write with higher expectations of herself and her characters. The stakes felt higher than in the first book, all while feeling even more attached to the characters’ decisions. There was a sense that humanity could do better, and that individuals in or out of power, had a responsibility to do right. Accepting the way things are is not enough, despite what may have been the status quo for generations. It felt as if Lostetter was saying that purpose and the pursuit of it are both important and the examination of both is required. Lostetter has a gift for recognizing the beauty in people, or even a people, who are realizing their mistakes. Whether it was unleashing some horrible monstrosity or losing control of one’s own emotions in front of a close friend, pain, horror and regret were all handled with poise and renewed empathy.

All in all, Infinity is a tight sequel that expands on the themes from the first book. It is longer, but it also has more to say and more substantive material. Lostetter manages to heighten the terror of exploring the unknown while offering even brighter sparks of hope. The characters’ choices made are not made lightly, and the consequences are heavy enough to stick with the reader long after closing the book. Several scenes will probably stay with me until I die. But if there is one thing that Lostetter wants you to know, it is that though the universe might be a dark and scary place, full of monsters we might embody or encounter, we do still have each other. In fact, it might be all we ever really have, now and in the future. In a weird way, she makes it feel like hope if we are only willing to accept it.

Rating: Noumenon Infinity – 8.5/10
-Alex

Noumenon: Kant You See It?

32600718German philosopher Immanuel Kant explains the “noumenon” as a thing in itself or something that exists beyond the realm of human experience, whereas a phenomenon is something that can be explored and related to through our senses and emotions. Marina Lostetter’s Noumenon is a novel as intricate and thought-provoking as the idea from which it draws its title. In selecting such an ambitious title, Lostetter foreshadows that her story will explore ideas that cannot be explained by way of the reader’s human senses, which she achieves by asking provocative questions about the purpose of humanity in the universe at large. Lostetter’s successful attempt to explore a small culture of humanity imbued with purpose, combined with her purposefully neutral writing, makes for an intriguing and worrying look at a potential future of humanity.

Noumenon follows a crew of a hundred thousand clones spread across a fleet of nine ships that acts as a generational convoy. Because the story takes place over several hundred years and multiple generations, the narrative is told through a series of vignettes that offer different perspectives from the passengers. Everyone on the ship is a cloned scientist from Earth and has specific, prescribed duties on the ship. They are trained by the previous generation of clones, who in turn are aided by an advanced AI system that continues to learn throughout the journey. The short stories are set periodically throughout the ship’s journey, providing a larger picture of the mission as it is completed. Each chapter follows a different character and their view of society-changing events; this style allows for a deeper look at the growth of this community and their values over time.

Lostetter wastes no time when it comes to discussing ethics. From the very first chapter, she plays with reader’s sense of right and wrong. As the first chapter deals very heavily with the planning and construction of the project, Lostetter subtly appeals to the reader’s sense of an impending and extremely grand space exploration. Though in this future, cloning is mostly forbidden and looked down upon, it feels the perfect fit for a mission of this magnitude to avoid the genetic bottlenecking that would be caused by the limited population diversity within the generation fleet. While I did not realize it at first, this rhythm is used through the rest of the novel: a problem arises, a solution that is unorthodox is suggested with most of the surface arguments presented and analyzed, and the experiment is set in motion. Lostetter manages to make many things feel reasonable and predictable in the immediate future, only to have the actual long-term results be quite unpredictable.

The characters especially help to sell the ideas at play in the book. They feel incredibly human, if a little detached from the reader. Their lamentations and inner thoughts felt relatable as they opened up to themselves or others around them. Since the story lacks a unifying narrative structure between the vignettes, Lostetter allows herself some space to explore how to tell each story. By avoiding limiting her perspective to one character, each story – and in turn, the whole story – is told with maximum effectiveness. This diversity of voices affords the story some flexibility in tone as it jumps from the inevitable grandeur of planning new space exploration, to the quiet solitude of dealing with time dilation, to the curiosity of the AI as it deal with individuals. Each new story kept pulling me back in with its characters, even if the ending of the previous story felt defeatist or lonely. Every perspective had a way of coping that gave the reader something to connect to as the stories jumped in time, pulling the reader along for the ride.

While Lostetter’s protagonists were colorful, her language was plain. Despite that, her writing style is surprisingly one of the book’s strongest characteristics. While her descriptions are serviceable at best, they are never lacking. What I especially admire is her ability to remain neutral throughout the story without becoming passive. She highlights the pure emotion of a character witnessing or acting during an event, without commenting on the morality of the event or action itself. This vague feeling of the reader having to pass their own judgement grows through the story and invites them to question Lostetter’s intent with each successive chapter. Each narrator becomes unreliable as their goals become clearer, and they feel somehow tainted based on the actions of previous generations. Every time something morally questionable or reprehensible occurred, I found myself wondering how the author felt while writing about it because her neutrality felt so deliberate. However, this style was not immediately apparent, and only became more noticeable as the book progressed, and the society dives deeper and deeper into situations that feel taboo by today’s standards.

I did not feel Lostetter really wanted to say much about what she wrote, because her objectivity feels deliberate and active. She is neither unsure of her opinion nor defensively trying to avoid it; rather her approach felt more like she was asking the reader “what do you think?” in order to start a conversation. Admittedly, it is not a tactic that is emblazoned in neon letters, but I give Lostetter a lot of credit. It is a technique I have a hard time using normally, and would have an even tougher time if I decided to write with that mentality. Her adjectives were descriptive without carrying a pejorative or laudatory weight, except for when a character’s dialogue reacted to another’s actions or suggestions. The contrast between Lostetter’s own use of language and that which is used by the characters’ only highlighted the moral conundrums at play.

I will not pretend to really understand classical philosophy or the deeper nuances of Kant’s ideas, but I think Lostetter does a decent job of trying to encapsulate both in her book. As the reader, I do not exist within the story, nor have I grown up in the society portrayed. I will not know what it is like to be born with a specific purpose, and live to see that purpose realized and be perplexed by its ending. This to me is the essence of noumenon, and why the author’s deliberate neutrality is both successful and necessary. The book itself is the phenomenon. It allows the reader to engage the thing with their senses without them being the thing itself. By highlighting different stories instead of providing a stable character the reader can identify with, Lostetter gives the reader a chance to react and ponder the consequences for themselves by seeing how the protagonists exist within the story.

Recently, I have taken to reading the acknowledgements at the end of a book to get a feel for what is important to the author as they thank those who helped them, explain how the book helped them discover bits of themselves, or what their goal for the book has been. Upon reading Lostetter’s acknowledgements, I could not have been more wrong about her seeming neutrality and removedness. Every character feels imbued with her own experiences of sadness, shock, anger, ambition, hopelessness, and ultimately with her curiosity. The people she thanked and what she thanked them for find their way into her vignettes, adding humanity to the deep emptiness of space. Noumenon, while not perfect, turned out to be far more interesting to me than I expected, and I can not wait to read Noumenon: Infinity.

Rating: Noumenon – 8.0/10
-Alex