book reviews by Althea

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The Space Between the Stars – Anne Corlett **

I am a big fan of sci-fi and post-apocalyptic novels. This isn’t one. Sure, it LOOKS like one on the surface – but at the core of it, this is a whiny annoying book about a whiny annoying woman who is emotionally stuck in one of the most pathetic romantic relationships to be committed to paper. The outer-space setting is just veneer; and illogical veneer at that. It would’ve made more logical sense if the different planets were just New York and California, for example.

When we meet Jamie Allenby, she’s “taking a break” from her relationship, because she “needs some space.” (“Space,” haha.) She’s out working on a frontier planet, an isolated location, which is lucky for her, because a terrible virus rages through known space, and a quirk of the illness is that if you have contact with anyone else while you’re ill, you will definitely die. Those who are totally isolated have a chance of recovery. Jamie survives, and instead of bucking up, buckling down, and working on her uncertain future, develops an obsession with finding her estranged husband.

Through an unlikely coincidence, she manages to get herself on a spaceship heading her way, along with an assorted bunch of other eccentric survivors. But that is not the end of unlikely coincidences! Far from it!

I shouldn’t really say more, because, spoilers, but even with the author’s explanations, there are just too many coincidences in this book, all designed to give our protagonist plenty of opportunity to dredge up all the hurts and grudges of her past, moan about lost opportunities, fertility issues, and get a romance triangle shoehorned in there.

It feels like the book is aiming for being an insightful look into the human heart, through the lens of the “women’s fiction” genre, while picking up on the popularity of post-apocalyptic fiction. But, to me, it just felt shallow and rather unexciting. And annoying.

Many thanks to Pan Macmillan & NetGalley for the opportunity to read.

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Waking Gods (Themis Files #2) – Sylvain Neuvel ***

I finished “Sleeping Giants” really wanting to know what would happen next – so I was eager to pick up this sequel. Unfortunately, for me at least (I do see that other reviewers disagree), this continuation of the story didn’t really deliver what I wanted. Instead of discoveries and answers, enigmatic mysteries continue – and this installment felt less focused than the first. It has a broader scope, and less emotional investment in any individual character – and it’s already hard to be fully invested when the format the story is told in involves “official statements” and “after-the-fact interviews.”

The premise of the sequel is:
Well, remember that big mecha-robot of unknown origin that we discovered and began to learn how to use in the first book? Nine years later, an even BIGGER robot has just appeared on earth; and whoever owns it doesn’t seem to have ANY trouble using it. And they don’t seem to be friendly, either. Perhaps they’re mad that we messed with their stuff!

So, yes. Giant battlebots. Much destruction. The fate of humanity looks pretty much sealed.
The scenario is quite reminiscent of ‘The War of the Worlds.’

And yes, there’s going to be another sequel.

Fun stuff, but I wasn’t quite as enthused by this one as the first in the series.

Many thanks to Del Rey & NetGalley for the opportunity to read.

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Brimstone – Cherie Priest ***

Recommended for those with an interest in turn-of-the-century Spiritualism.
The setting of this book, Cassadaga, FL, has a real-life reputation as being the place to go if you somehow can’t get ripped off by a so-called psychic closer to home – but the history of the town being associated with the search for the paranormal dates back to 1875. (…)

In this novel, the ‘spirits’ are all-too-real – and not always benign.

Alice Dartle is a genuine medium. It runs in her family, but she doesn’t quite know what to do with her abilities. She’s terrified of being lynched as a witch, if anyone finds out about her powers. When she hears about the spiritualists at Cassadaga, she packs up and goes on a pilgrimage in the hopes of finding a community where she will truly belong.

Tomas Cordero has had a different kind of experience. A number of unexplained fires have been starting in his vicinity. He secretly hopes that these unexplained phenomena are a sign that his deceased wife is trying to contact him from beyond the grave. But as the events get more and more out of control, and tragedy strikes, he hopes to find help in Cassadaga.

I liked this book more than Priest’s recent ‘Lizzie Borden’ books, but not as much as her earlier Clockwork Century or Eden Moore books. It was more slow-moving than the story seemed to demand; and I think a novella length might’ve suited it better.

Many thanks to Berkley and NetGalley for the opportunity to read.

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Inherit the Flame (Scorched Continent #3) – Megan E. O’Keefe ****

I very much enjoyed both “Steal the Sky” and “Break the Chains.” “Inherit the Flame” did not disappoint, as it continues in the same vein as its predecessors with an action-filled, entertaining continuation of the story.

I appreciated Detan’s growth into responsibility – and liked that it didn’t come easily (or completely). Here, he’s trying to be a double agent – and to gain control over is potentially-deadly abilities. His schemes end up with him arriving back at his homestead, Hond Steading, having to face his formidable aunt with the fact that he’s engaged to be married to his worst enemy – and possibly the biggest threat to his homeland.

Of course, there’s more than one threat. The oasis of peace and civilization that is Hond Steading looks more likely than not to be ripped apart between them.

Fans of the first two books will find all their favorite characters here. There’ll be some moments of heartbreak as well as fun – but it’s a must-read if you’re following the story! If you aren’t – yet – I highly recommend picking up ‘Steal the Sky’ and getting into it.

Many thanks to Angry Robot for the review copy.

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The Chrysalids – John Wyndham ****

It seems wrong for the first adjective I’d use to describe a rather miserable future dystopia to be “nostalgic” but that was the mood this book swept me into. Not a nostalgia for the world described within the book, but rather for the style of writing. I read a great deal of fiction very similar to this in my early teenage years, but somehow, I believe I missed this one. Even if I had read it before, it would’ve held up to re-reading – this is quite an excellent book.

In a post-nuclear-war society, life is restricted by radioactive no-go zones. Physical mutations are common, but, at least in the strict, religious, patriarchal village that is all young David has ever known, mutants – animal, vegetable or human – are ruthlessly weeded out. He’s never questioned the morality he’s been raised with – until the heavy hand of the law falls upon a childhood friend – and he realizes that he himself may be a new (and unprecedentedly dangerous) kind of mutant. Not only that, but his young sister, Petra, may share his mutation. He is not alone – but will a small group of young people be able to survive in the face of the firmly-held convictions of even their dearest friends and family?

There are a few weaknesses to the book – the “wise uncle” character is a bit too good and knowledgeable to be true, and once our characters are on the run, the plot feels a bit rushed… but…

The book does a superlative job of exploring the psychology of hatred, including the motivations behind it, while making a cogent, compelling argument for diversity in all its forms: what makes us human is not the physical form of our bodies, our gender, or even how we think, but something deeper than that. However, any ‘message’ is delicately understated, and the ending brings a beautifully structured ambiguity to it: MAJOR SPOILER [David’s father, and the village, regard mutants as less-than-human, to be destroyed. But when the psychic mutants from across the radioactive wastes sweep in, deus-ex-machina-like, to rescue Petra, the children may be delighted – but the reader can see that these more-advanced people, in turn, regard Humanity 1.0 as mere animals. David and Petra are disturbingly ready to accept their justifications for actions that may seem to us completely ethically unjustifiable. We are left wondering what David’s – and even Petra’s – place in this promised brave new world will really be. (hide spoiler)] There are no answers – it’s left up to the reader to decide.

While that open-endedness is, in that way, thought-provoking, there is another open end, however, which cries out for a never-written sequel: Petra. [Her power is unprecedented, and the story sets up the fascinating tension of what an innocent young child with uncurbed power might be capable of in the defense of herself and her friends. But it never goes anywhere with the idea: she never actually does anything with it. (hide spoiler)] With that setup, there really should’ve been a followup to explore the issue, in my opinion.

Read for post-apocalyptic book club.

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Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation – Ken Liu, ed.

Introduction: Chinese Science Fiction in Translation

**** Chen Qiufan – The Year of the Rat
In an economically depressed near-future, college graduates are recruited to military platoons in order to fight genetically-modified rats. Intended as pets for export, the creatures are invasive – but show disturbing signs of intelligence. Although rat-catching is less than glamorous, the military trappings of the outfit go to the heads of some members of the platoon – and fellow humans may end up being the real danger. Nicely done. “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” goes MilSF?

**** Chen Qiufan – The Fish of Lijiang
Melancholy and dystopic. New labor laws require that an overworked and exhausted employee take a mandatory rehabilitation break in the famous, historic city of Lijiang. At first, a bit of R&R doesn’t seem like a bad thing – especially when he meets an attractive, friendly woman in town. But Lijiang’s been retooled into a paradise of artifice, and its saccharin flavor has a bitter undertone. There are unpleasant revelation about why so many workers are in need of rehab, and nothing is quite what it seems.

**** Chen Qiufan – The Flower of Shazui
Set in a near-future Shenzhen, the story follows a man who’s tormented by the secrets of his past. He suspects that his ‘clever’ plan to get ahead may not have worked out, in more ways than one. Seeking to atone, he comes up with yet another well-intentioned but perhaps overly-complex scheme.
After reading these three stories by Chen Qiufan, I’m definitely interested in reading the author’s novel, which Ken Liu is currently translating.

**** Xia Jia – A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight
Weird and elegiac. A child is cared for in an abandoned tourist attraction peopled by robotic ‘ghosts,’ containing the consciousnesses of people who had to sell themselves into this strange commercial servitude.

** Xia Jia – Tongtong’s Summer
Previously read in ‘Upgraded.’
Then I gave it three stars and wrote:
“A young girl’s grandfather comes home from the hospital, accompanied by a new & experimental home health care “robot.” The device is not actually a true robot, but a remote-operated device that allows a distant care worker to be ‘on-call’ as needed. The device ends up revolutionizing society, but not exactly in the way that was expected. The main idea here is a sweet but idealistic call to respect the elderly and to develop technology that will make them more able to contribute to society in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, the ‘call to arms’ overwhelms the actual story, and at times it crosses a line into feeling like a piece of government propaganda.”
Upon re-reading I’m downgrading to two stars, not because of the ‘propaganda’ aspect but just because the sentimental story is a thin veneer over the “ideas about the future of elder care.” It’s not that the ideas are bad, it’s just not very successful as a good work of fiction.

** Xia Jia – Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse
A decaying cybernetic beast walks slowly and aimlessly through a post-apocalyptic landscape devoid of humans. On its journey, it meets a talking bat that’s fond of poetry. More of a mood piece than a story; it didn’t really do it for me.

*** Ma Boyong – The City of Silence
An homage to 1984, which attempts to show how the technology that’s been developed since Orwell’s day might change (and exacerbate) the repressive techniques of an oppressive state.
“Technology is neutral. But the process of technology will cause a free world to become ever freer, and a totalitarian world to become ever more repressive.”
It has some interesting thoughts on how individuals, while despising the system, can simultaneously be agents of that system. But overall, I’m not sure how much it really has to add to Orwell (who did it well.)
Still, this is a genre that I love.

*** Hao Jingfang – Invisible Planets
An homage to Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities.” Much like the original, the text describes different cultures and interactions to illuminate the vagaries of human nature, each supposedly illustrative of a different planet. The anecdotes are intercut with dialogue between the storyteller and the listener, commenting on the nature and meaning of narrative. It’s well-done: both imaginative and thoughtful – but it’s not the first time I’ve seen it done.

***** Hao Jingfang – Folding Beijing
Previously read in Rich Horton’s “Year’s Best…”
Visually, the shifting skyscrapers of ‘Folding Beijing’ brought to mind the film ‘Dark City,’ but the mechanics of this scenario are all-too-human, and underlaid with a cynical observation that “they would do this if they could.” Europe has taken one approach to the ‘problem’ of automation advances making menial jobs practically obsolescent. Here, Hao Jingfang theorizes what China might do. This future city, a technological marvel, has a strict caste system, which the reader sees through the eyes of one waste worker, who’s willing to flout the law in order to try to earn some money to better his adopted daughter’s future. As we gain insight into the perspectives of people in each of three very different Beijings, the parallels with our real-life society become clear. And oh, it’s also a heart-wrenching tale, vividly illustrating how the scale of people’s dreams can differ exponentially, and how the few at the top sit comfortably on a throne crafted from the misery of the many.
The one thing, though, that made me feel positive about this story is that I couldn’t help seeing it as a sequel to Kelly Robson’s “Two-Year Man” ( I know, none of the details match, but it does have the lowly worker adopting a foundling, and well, the outcome here is undoubtedly better that it is bound to have been in Robson’s story!
I also think that any fans of Paolo Bacigalupi’s short fiction, especially, perhaps, “Yellow Card Man” will particularly enjoy Hao Jingfang’s offering.

*** Tang Fei – Call Girl
Previously read in Rich Horton’s “Year’s Best…”
A schoolgirl moonlights as… is it as a prostitute? Or as something much rarer and more strange? I hope to be able to read more by this author.

**** Cheng Jingbo – Grave of the Fireflies
Beautiful writing! Far-future sci-fi meets fairytale, in this story of a refugee girl, who, along with her mother the Queen, and all of her people, flees a region of dying stars through an ‘asteroid gate’ known as the ‘Door Into Summer.’
I would love to see more from this author.

*** Liu Cixin – The Circle
Previously read in “Carbide-Tipped Pens.” Re-read, as this was my favorite part of ‘Three-Body Problem.”
“Credited as an ‘adaptation’ of an excerpt from Liu Cixin’s recently-translated ‘The Three-Body Problem.’ I recently read the novel, so I was slightly taken aback when, after a different set-up, I suddenly found myself re-reading some very, very familiar passages.
The author is enamored of the idea of creating a non-electronic ‘computer’ using binary rules. After all, it’s just math, and not technically dependent on technology. The iteration of the idea found here may actually be stronger than the one in the novel.”

*** Liu Cixin – Taking Care of God
Original! Science fiction retreads a lot of ideas repeatedly, but this is a variation I haven’t encountered before. Earth is re-visited by our creators – an alien race who seeded our planet with life. Now, their civilization is in decline; their long-lived individuals senescent. Their mighty deeds are in the past; most of their knowledge forgotten. And they expect humanity, their children, to take care of them in their old age.
The story is by turns, funny, poignant and prescriptive, as the analogy of duty to ones elders plays out. More than any other selection in this book, I found this one to be distinctly culturally Chinese.

The brief essays included at the end of the volume give three of the authors the opportunity to air their thoughts on Chinese Science Fiction, its characteristics, and its place in the world and world literature. Interesting perspectives.

The Worst of All Possible Universes and the Best of All Possible Earths: Three-Body and Chinese Science Fiction – Liu Cixin
The Torn Generation: Chinese Science Fiction in a Culture in Transition – Chen Qiufan
What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese? – Xia Jia

Many thanks to Tor and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are independent and unaffected by the source of the book.

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Red Sister – Mark Lawrence ***

This book is really remarkably similar to Jay Kristoff’s ‘Nevernight.’ (…)

In that book, an orphan girl joins the religious order of the Red Church to be trained as a deadly assassin, and we follow her progress, learn about the painful secrets of her past, and see her deal with the more quotidian issues of coexisting with her colleagues as she works to attain an elite status in her religious order.

In THIS book, an orphan girl joins the religious order of the Sweet Mercy Convent to be trained as a deadly assassin known as the Red Sister, and we follow her progress, learn about the painful secrets of her past, and see her deal with the more quotidian issues of coexisting with her colleagues as she works to attain an elite status in her religious order.

Of course, there are differences. The main one is in tone. Nevernight was much funnier; this one uses a more classic epic fantasy style. I still think that a fan of one would like the other – although you may not wish to read them too closely to one another to avoid a sense of deja vu. I know many of the tropes are common to the genre, but the extent of the similarities is really quite a coincidence.

I personally like this kind of story; so I still thoroughly enjoyed reading it – although I do think it could have used a few more assassinations and a bit less ‘school story.’

Many thanks to Berkley and Netgalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Miranda and Caliban – Jacqueline Carey ***

It’s been a Tempestuous season, with the release of Margaret Atwood’s ‘Hag-Seed’ (…), and then Carey’s ‘Miranda and Caliban.’
The authors’ takes on Shakespeare’s tale couldn’t be more different, however. Where Atwood went for a humorous modern parallel, Carey’s tale is earnest.

The main viewpoint is that of Prospero’s young daughter, Miranda. Marooned on an island with her father, her life has been marked by isolation. She hasn’t questioned her father’s authority, or his agenda. But when the wizard captures the wild boy, Caliban, and imprisons him in their home as a kind of experiment, gradually the walls of everything Miranda has taken for granted will start to crumble.

The point of view shifts between the two young people, as they gradually get to know one another – and the emotions that one would expect to arise when you have two young humans alone together predictably develop. Unfortunately for young love, Prospero has other plans for Miranda. He certainly doesn’t plan to see his daughter wed to someone he considers a savage when he has plans to use her as a tool; a critical part of his grand scheme for personal revenge. And it’s hard to keep young love a secret when the unpredictable and resentful sprite Ariel is around.

It’s not a bad book, and I liked its focus on humanizing Caliban. However, I’m less enthusiastic regarding de-emphasizing the wonderful political scheming and mad twists and turns of the original Tempest in favor of a gradual and drawn-out love story. That’s simply a personal preference.

Many thanks to Tor and NetGalley for the opportunity to read.

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Dust – Hugh Howey ***

I loved ‘Wool.’
With ‘Shift,’ some cracks started appearing in the silo of my enthusiasm, but I carried on happily.
With ‘Dust’ – well, I felt that Howey was coasting on his momentum; using up the supplies that the previous stories had squirreled away in the storeroom.

It’s not terrible… but neither does it feel necessary. Moreover, I felt really disappointed with a major part of the resolution of the story. One of the things I really, really liked about Wool was that **MAJOR SPOILER** [well, I’ve read an awful lot of post-apocalyptic stories where survivors are holed up in their bunker, dome, fallout shelter or what have you, until they’ve forgotten why they’re there and how long they have to stay there. The VAST majority of these stories feature Our Characters discovering that the outside world is livable after all, and venturing out to live in it. Wool didn’t do that. Characters went outside – and they died. It was great. At the end of Dust, Howey does a 180 and… does it. Out we go to a beautiful new society! (hide spoiler)]As I said, disappointing.

In addition, a GREAT number of the details and plot points in Dust feel retrofitted; even more so than in Shift. It wasn’t all planned out in advance; Howey clearly never intended to go so far with this world. He wrote himself into a situation, and then kept coming up with more character intentions and technical details; trying to fit them into the already-published canon. Some bits work better than other bits… but it’s obvious. And some of the critical details that the plot hinges on really make very little sense.

It’s still quick-moving and entertaining… it just starts to crumble a bit if you stop too long to question the whys and wherefores. It would’ve been wiser to just not explain many of these things, and leave them as eternal mysteries, rather than come up with kludges.

I can’t help wishing, having finished it, that Howey had let this story stop at the end of ‘Wool’ – alone, it would’ve stood as a classic. 

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The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers *

The sequel to this was a Hugo nominee, so I figured I’d start with the first one, and requested it from the library. Well, maybe the sequel was a lot better, but unless I am assured of such a circumstance by a large and passionate crowd; I’m unlikely to bother to find out.

“The Long Way…” is a concept piece. It’s a reaction to traditional space opera. In a “normal” sci-fi adventure, the scrappy crew of the “Wayfarer” would end up getting pulled into some kind of conflict bigger than themselves; something with universe-spanning ramifications; and would team up to defeat the enemy against overwhelming odds; regardless of the traitor in their midst… (Think Millennium Falcon, Han Solo, Lando Calrissian.)

Becky Chambers has decided to make a point of telling a different story. One where no universe-shattering events happen; one where colleagues might be annoying but not actually evil; one where secrets turn out to be pretty mundane and have no meaningful effect when revealed. One where people spend most of their time worrying about things that aren’t really important and doing boring crap.

Now, I often very much enjoy stories that get “down to earth” and talk about what it’s like to actually LIVE as an ordinary person in an imagined society: character-driven stories. I see other reviews of this book raving about the characterization here. I wasn’t feeling it. I found the characters to be flat and stereotypical. The protagonist, Rosemary, didn’t intrigue me at all. The captain is a generic “nice boss guy.” Jenks is your stereotypical nerd guy. Lovey exists to show that AIs are people too. Some aliens and disabilities just to show that aliens and the disabled are people too. And let me not forget Kizzy the WACKY engineer gal who is (supposed to be) just SOOO ENDEARING! (God, I wished she was real so that I could literally strangle her.) And of course Corbin the biologist who’s the cranky loner who no one really likes ’cause he likes his privacy and isn’t wholly on board with the social lovefest that’s life aboard the Wayfarer. (I could relate, considering – but you’re not supposed to, dear readers! APPLAUD when he gets dragged into the fold and drinks the kool-aid, dammit!)

There is a scene with pirates in this book. Even the pirates are reasonable and fairly “nice.” Nothing much happens. There technically IS a plot device, but it’s utterly forgettable. I mean, I genuinely don’t remember what it was already.

If you work in an office, or live in a shared apartment with several roommates: imagine if someone wrote daily letters to their parents about your office politics or quotidian household drama; making sure to not include anything too upsetting or serious. That’s what reading this book is like. Chatty… and dull.

I initially gave it two stars, but upon consideration, after the fact, I’m downgrading it to one, because not only did I not enjoy the book; I object to it on principle. I want my gritty betrayals and world-smashing explosions, dammit!

Addendum: I see others comparing this book to both Ursula LeGuin (?!?!?) and Star Trek. For the record, I am an enthusiastic fan of both LeGuin and ST, and disagree strongly with both comparisons.