A Desolation Called Peace — A Sequel Deemed Magnificent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Interdependency – Interdependent Habitats, Planetary Dependent

Alright, I am finally ready to tackle a “review” on The Interdependency trilogy by John Scalzi. As much as I’ve wanted to review these books on their own, I feel the best approach to talking about these novels is at a series level. When I tried writing about them individually, I wanted to focus on a bunch of small things that felt off about the metaphor/allegory. I wanted to talk about how the books weren’t as funny as I expected, and how Scalzi wrote them wrong. The thing is, everytime I did it, I knew I was also lying to myself and anyone who would read the review. As a whole, the series is still a fun read, with easily digestible themes that make sense. I didn’t love the books, but I didn’t hate them. I really enjoyed The Collapsing Empire but liked the successive books less. I don’t really want the rest of the piece to be an attack. After all, I really like Scalzi as an author. He has this ability to make big, grand, sweeping ideas about the human condition and culture into accessible narratives about regular people in extraordinary situations. He never feels as if he’s talking down to the reader, and always feels like he’s having fun along with you. He always felt like he’s on the couch cracking jokes with you, instead of there trying to be the witty, funny man in the center of the room. That magic is still there in The Interdependency, but I feel as if sometimes I didn’t get to see the forest for the trees.

Interdependency

What is The Interdependency?

This trilogy (comprising The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire, and The Last Emperox) is John Scalzi’s take on climate change in the form of a political space opera. It follows a future humanity that lives in semi self-sustaining habitats among the stars. These habitats are spread out across dozens if not hundreds of different star systems, all connected by the Flow. The Flow is a bit confusing, but a simple representation would be to think of it as rivers in space. Some rivers lead from one system to another, facilitating trade between the different space stations. In the middle of all these streams sits the Hub, the seat of the empire through which all trade is channeled. At the end of the streams lies the planet End, a backwater where mostly criminals are sent and no real effort to build civilization has been attempted. End has many Flow streams in and only one Flow stream out, and it leads directly to the Hub.

To make full use of the Flow, The Interdependency was formed: a complex series of agreements that allows certain houses and families to monopolize one specific commodity and trade it throughout the systems. It creates a system in which everyone is dependent on each other to survive, given the vast physical distances between the systems that can only be reasonably traveled via the Flow. Faster than light travel does not exist, and ships are only stocked with what they need to get from point A to point B. However, this system is threatened when the Flow is disrupted, and streams start disappearing. Entire systems are about to be left stranded, and the empire known as The Interdependency is about to collapse.

The Worldbuilding

John Scalzi has built one of the more interesting, complex, and yet easily recognizable analogues to our climate crisis. There are a few places where there is not exactly a direct correlation, but it doesn’t really cause issues. He does a really good job of presenting it, though in some cases it’s a bit… easy? I’m looking at you Marce, giving the school kids a lesson as they’re on a field trip. But also that’s the point, it’s supposed to be easy; Scalzi wields a sledgehammer like a chisel and I love it. The first book feels expressly written to set up the Interdependency as an idea and show you the grander working theory without diving into too many details most people might get turned off by. He accomplishes this by building off of science fiction touchstones, adding his own flavor to it and making them more relatable to modern tastes. Specifically the house system within the Interdependency feels very much like Dune, but also very much like multinational Corporations in the real world, while also being its own distinct entity. There are rivalries and attempts to merge families for greater trade power, all in the name of supporting and propagating the system, keeping humanity going, while exclusively seeking profit. Scalzi does not do subtle, and in all honesty, this heavy-handed approach absolutely fucks. The best part is the first book ends with a question, what if the Interdependency is a lie? I mean he just sets this whole thing up and then straight up tells you, “yeah, it’s bullshit.” Part of me wants to be like “duh,” but he makes it meaningful. And even now, thinking about it I still get some chills because of how incredibly clear he is about what the Interdependency really represents. I don’t think he’ll win any awards for the mechanics of how his information is delivered, but man, he is not screwing around with his actual world. Some of this is unfortunately lost in the later books, but when Scalzi shows up, he shows up.

The Plot

The plot is fairly straightforward and follows three key figures: the newly anointed Emperox Cardenia, a shy, young, dorky Flow physicist named Marce, and the ruthless merchant named Kiva Lagos. Marce is trying to find his way from End to the Hub so he can alert Cardenia of the coming troubles. However, he is being stalked and hunted by the Nohamapetans, a house rival to that of Kiva Lagos. Lagos seems to be his only chance at getting to the hub intact with his data about the future of the Flow. The Collapsing Empire offers a rollicking good start as the story is centered around this data about the Flow, and the feeling that if it’s lost, bad things are going to happen.

However, beyond the first book, the plot starts to meander in a way I found frustrating. Cardenia spends most of the book internally questioning the legitimacy of the Interdependency while Marce is set off on a fact finding mission. Kiva spends her time maneuvering through trade politics, but without really revealing much about her or the Interdependency. The fact that Empire mostly felt like a build up to The Consuming Fire, and then Fire just feels like people sitting around waiting for Marce to get back from his adventure, did not quell my annoyance. It truly felt like a disappointment especially since there were a few trails that were left open by Scalzi.

While it was starting to feel thin in Fire, The Last Emperox really stretched out what was left of the plot to a herculean degree. There was a distinct lack of forward momentum going into the third book, and while the opening chapter was funny, it was a harbinger of things to come. It opened with a retelling of the second book, from two other characters not involved in the plot. And while it exhibited Scalzi’s panache for witty and charming dialogue, it just told me what I already knew. The rest of the book was not much different either as it just felt like three or four characters all going through the same events, but each telling their side of a political kidnapping. And it just didn’t do anything for me. There were no stakes. It just felt like I was watching a rehash of the second book but with Benny Hill music blasting in the background, and then someone comes in and tells you the ending in a monologue. It’s unfortunate. After some beautiful twirls, fancy flips and occasionally daring acrobatics, Scalzi failed to stick the landing.

The Characters

Okay, so I had trouble with the plot, but what about the characters? Well, in typical Scalzi fashion, his characters are charming as hell. Marce is probably my least favorite as he just doesn’t really have much to do beyond be dorky, and know things. It’s not necessarily a bad thing as he’s more sidelined by Cardenia and Kiva, but I wish there was a little more to him than “science boy” and “romantic interest to Cardenia.” It’s cute, and it’s a fun way to sideline a guy for the more powerful women, but considering he’s a major contributor to the plot, he was stuck in the middle and it made him awkward.

Kiva and Cardenia are an absolute blast, though, and they work well as cooperative foils. Cardenia is reluctant and unsure of herself, even as the most powerful person in the human realm. Kiva, however, is a titan of self assurance, even to her own detriment. She uses the word “fuck” like the word “the,” and while it can be annoying at times, there are a lot of shining moments from it that make her memorable. My biggest complaint is there isn’t any real tangible growth to either of them. They never feel like they could be wrong, nor are they ever wrong about anything. They’re not exactly one step ahead of their antagonists, they just end up doing better than them by trying harder and holding their cards ever closer to their chests – it doesn’t feel earned. It built a real dissonance in my brain as these likeable people just turned inwards from the reader as they tried to accomplish their goals. They’re not deep, but they’re fun in the ways they should be, and Cardenia is incredibly relatable. I just wish they had a little more to do.

The Allegory

Honestly, this was the biggest hook for me after, “Scalzi has another space opera.” It’s probably also why I felt mostly disappointed with the series as a whole, even though it was fun to read. Scalzi very pointedly makes it clear that these books are about climate change, and our inability to act since the system itself is outright causing the issue, and needs to be destroyed in order to prevent disaster. If he stuck the landing on anything, it’s setting this up so transparently in a digestible, interesting, and entertaining way, and it makes my little heart sing. However, where I take issue is that the follow through feels messy. My biggest problem with it stems from his inability to take the allegory beyond “it’s weird how everything is set up this way, huh?” In hindsight, it all makes sense, trying to parse through the metaphor, and seeing that there is no silver bullet to a problem of this scale. It’s not just getting the data and showing the world there’s a problem, if the system is expressly set up to be able to ignore it until it implodes and people die. But when I was reading it, I didn’t feel it. I didn’t get kicked in the teeth by the middle or ending of the trilogy, the way I did by the beginning. It didn’t point to the helplessness of individuals, especially those outside the machinations of power, nor did it really make fun of the Benny Hill style politics of people trying to take advantage of the situation. Instead, it felt like kicking the can down the road and installing a deus ex machina to shepherd humanity into a new age. It was just a different, longer silver bullet, and that made me sad and angry.

Recommendation

I’m not trying to tear down Scalzi. He was very easily one of the top reasons I really got into reading for fun. He has a special knack for making the BIG IDEAS of science fiction accessible, entertaining, and relatable in ways I only dream of. And he does it in a way that is not condescending. However, I think sometimes he gets lost in making people think, he forgets what they should be thinking about, or how they should be thinking about it. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing, I wish more writers had that knack for questioning our world, within their own worlds. But I also wish he questioned his own world a little more deeply and maybe found a better solution beyond deus ex machina. Because we’re running out of time in the real world too, and there really is no silver bullet.

Rating: The Interdependency 6.5/10
Alex

The Stars Are Legion – Brutal and Whimsical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: The Stars Are Legion 8.0/10
-Alex

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