Vonda N. McIntyre – Dreamsnake

Catching up with the winners (and finalists) of the Hugo Awards is a long-term project of mine. It’s been going mostly well, with some works that I disliked. Mostly I see the appeal, though, even if a book is not to my taste. Dreamsnake has won not only the 1979 Hugo but also the Nebula and Locus Award and so it was high up on my list of books I should really check out. It was one of the good ones. 🙂

DREAMSNAKE
by Vonda N. McIntyre

Published: Jo Fletcher Books, 1978
eBook: 288 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

Snake travels the land with her serpents, the rattlesnake Sand, the cobra Mist and the rare alien dreamsnake called Grass, whose bite can ease the fear and pain of death. But the blasted landscape of a far-future post-holocaust Earth is a dangerous place, even for such a highly regarded elite healer . . . especially when an unexpected death sends her on a desperate quest to reclaim her healing powers.

A haunting story of an extraordinary woman on a dangerous quest in a far-future post-apocalyptic world.

This is one of those books that starts as one thing and then turns into quite another. We first meet Snake when she is with a desert people with a very sick young boy. Snake’s work – and part of her character – are revealed to us through the healing of this boy. She uses her three snakes, Mist, Sand, and Grass to create a special kind of poison that will heal the boy. The dreamsnake Grass doesn’t deliver an antidote to Snake’s patients, however, but is rather there to calm them, to help them sleep, and – if the person is going to die – to ensure a serene end. Although Snake makes a friend during her stay with the desert people, she loses a snake! Without Grass, Snake isn’t a proper healer anymore so she decides to return to her people, confess the loss of her snake and hope for the best.

Dreamsnakes being incredibly rare – cloning doesn’t always yield results and breeding them just won’t work – Snake starts her journey in shame and worry. There are already too few dreamsnakes to provide every healer with one, and there are too few healers to deal with all the pain in the world. As we follow Snake on her trip, we encounter not only groups of people from vastly different backgrounds and cultures, but also get to explore this post-apocalyptic world and what has become of it.

This was such a cool book! It starts out reading almost like fantasy with Snake going through the process of making her snake produce an anti-venom to the little boy’s disease, and no mention of technology or modern living anywhere. But as soon as Snake leaves and travels from the desert to the mountains, we realize that this is not a medieval-ish setting but rather a futuristic one where alien contact has happened at least once. Because it’s the aliens who have brought, among other things, dreamsnakes.

Snake’s journey, and this book, was almost episodic but never actually felt like it. Sure, the chapters can be summed up as “where Snake meets that person” or “when Snake stays in Mountainside for a while” but she is always working towards her goal of somehow making the loss of her dreamsnake right. What she doesn’t know is that Arevin, the handsome man from the desert tribe who helped Snake with her healing treatments, is following her.
This was the first thing that impressed me in this book. Snake’s time in the desert with Arevin’s people is very short and the scene they share is even shorter. But McIntyre somehow manages to make the tension between them tangible. It doesn’t make sense but I immediately wanted these two to get together!

I was also surprised with the themes that came up in this book and how they were handled. Reminding myself that this book came out in 1978, I was happy to see diverse relationships depicted here. The sick boy from the beginning has several fathers, Snake meets a polyamorous trio on the road, and enjoys some casual sex herself.
Equally, through the lens of science fiction, the topic of euthanasia is raised. Snake states from the start that she wants to heal people, but even she knows that some diseases or wounds are too terrible to heal. And for those cases, Grass is supposed to help people die. It is never even questioned to deny a patient this treatment, which is why Snake feels so broken after losing Grass.

Until about the second third, this isn’t a particularly exciting book, plot-wise. But it is so intriguing to find out new tidbits about the world in every chapter, all organically through the plot and characters, that I was never bored. Snake is a great protagonist with a sense of responsibility, a good heart, and a strong mind. I enjoyed spending time with her, even though the mood of the book is mostly very bleak. Vonda N. McIntyre ramps up the excitement levels towards the end and delivers a pretty thrilling final “episode” that manages to bring everything together beautifully. I may have a ton of unanswered questions about this world and its history but those things aren’t important for this story to make sense and so they aren’t explained.

In the end, this is one of the books where I can’t really put my finger on why I liked it so much, I just did. The setting, characters, story, and writing all worked for me. It may be a quieter science fiction book but it gave me so much food for thought that I prefer it to an action-packed but ultimately empty sci-fi romp. Easily one of my higher up Hugo winner recommendations.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

First Contact With an Empire: Arkady Martine – A Desolation Called Peace

Arkady Martine had the hellish job of following her Hugo Award winning A Memory Called Empire with a book that was, somehow, supposed to keep up. To me, this second book set in the Teixcalaanli Empire didn’t quite live up to its predecessor but rather suffered from middle book syndrome. Nonetheless, I would still recommend it because although it fails to come up with much that’s new, it is still a very entertaining story told through fantastic characters.

A DESOLATION CALLED PEACE
by Arkady Martine

Published: Tor, 2021
eBook:
496 pages
Series:
Teixcalaan #2
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: To think—not language. To not think language.

An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.

Mahit Dzmare is back on Lsel station and people there are not happy with her. After the events of the first book, it was clear that the leaders of her home wouldn’t receiver her with open arms. For one, Mahit’s imago machine has been tampered with, leading to the tumultous events of the first book, and secondly, the secret of Lsel Station is now out as the Empire knows about imago technology and might want to use it for their own gain. So, needless to say, Mahit’s mission counts as failed. The question is, though, what they will do with her. Send her back to the Empire as an embassador? Unlikely. Have her disappear conveniently? Maybe. But thankfully, Three Seagrass and the alien fleet knocking on the Empire’s doors come to the rescue. Sort of.

I loved the introduction of some new viewpoint characters, especially Eight Antidote, the former Emperor’s 90% clone, currently an 11-year-old boy. His exploration of his city, the way he learns about the Empire, about politics, about how people work and how manipulative they can be, was just so much fun to read. Eight Antidote felt like a child but at the same time brought this immense wisdom with him. Most importantly, however, he has a good heart and quickly makes up his mind about what’s right and what’s wrong and everything in between. Through his eyes, we get to see what’s happening in the city of Teixcalaan and what’s up with Nineteen Adze.
But we also get to meet Nine Hibiscus, woh is commanding the Teixcalaanli Fleet currently fighting the aliens. Although I wouldn’t consider her a major character, her relationship with her most trusted friend Twenty Cicada carried most of the emotional impact of this book for me. Mahit and Three Seagrass, in the meantime, join up with the fleet in order to make contact with those aliens. If you ask yourself whether these two are truly the most qualified people in Teixcalaan to do that, you are right. But Arkady Martine explains that away pretty quickly. They soon figure out that, although it’s really nothing like human language and has… interesting effects on them, the aliens do communicate. As soon as they’ve worked out a way to communicate back (at least they think that’s what they’re doing), they go on a mission to see if they can bring peace to the Empire without having to engage in huge battles and losing thousands of Teixcalaanli lives.

“She hadn’t been doing nothing. She’d been trying to recover her balance, her sense of herself, the shape of a life—any life—that could encompass both Lsel Station and Teixcalaan, two Yskandrs and one of her and whoever they were going to be.”

Now here’s the thing. I had certain expectations for this book and I know that is completely unfair and the author must have felt a ton of pressure anyway. I understand that and I acknowledge it. But that doesn’t change that I had those expectations and many of them were left unfulfilled. You see, they weren’t even crazy expectations. What I wanted the most was deeper world building. I wanted to learn more about all those small aspects of Teixcalaan that we only got to see a little in the first book. It was fine to just get snippets of information in Memory because that book had its own plot and didn’t need to go off on a tangent about the Sunlit, for example. But this second book, with a much less straightforward plot, with multiple POVs and settings, was the perfect chance to tell us more about that.
We learn very, very little new stuff about the Teixcalaanli Empire in this book, and most of it has to do with how the military operates. I found that interesting, don’t get me wrong, especially the part about the Shards (no spoilers!). So there are new ideas here that fit well into this galactic empire but, compared to the first book, there’s not much to dsicover. The feeling of that sprawling, well thought-out world Martine gave us in the first promised more to come and gave the impression that the author knows much more about that world and just didn’t tell us yet. Well, she’s still not telling us I guess. Not everyone needs to be Tolkien and actually have an answer to every single world-building question a reader could have. But in a 500 page book, I would expect a bit more than just one science-fictional idea (and one that isn’t new, at that). That’s not too much to ask, is it?

But the Teixcalaan novels aren’t really about the sci-fi technology or the aliens. They are about culture and identity, about belonging somewhere and maybe wanting to belong somewhere else. And in that aspect, Arkady Martine excels yet again! Mahit Dzmare is still utterly in love with the culture that’s trying to suppress and even erase her own. She knows that’s not quite right but she can’t help herself. And her relationship with Three Seagrass doesn’t make things easier. The dynamic between these two has changed considerably since the first book. Where they used to be embassador and cultural liaison – a pair with a clear hierarchy and power structure – they are now more than that. Things got personal but that also means they are more complicated. Does Three Seagrass still think of Mahit as a barbarian? Even if she thinks this lovingly (“my barbarian”), can such a relationship really ever work out? Shouldn’t both people involved feel that the other is their equal? It’s questions like this that the book tackles and handles really well. Without giving any straight answers – because there aren’t any – Martine makes you think and ponder for yourself.

But in this book, another culture (or even species) enters the floor. And although these aliens aren’t super original either, they pose an interesting question for Mahit and the Teixcalaanli Empire. Because we know what the Empire does – it conquers and takes and grows. And, as is the case with Mahit herself, it makes its citizens love it for that. But what if you can’t even communicate with the beings you are fighting? Seeing them as animals or lesser beings is easy when you don’t share a language, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t living beings who deserve respect.

The weakest part of this was the plot. Spread out between multiple POVs, nothing much really happens. Because Arkady Martine is an amazing writer, I enjoyed the book and was never bored, but looking back at it, I can’t say it brought the story that much forward. This is very much a middle book that advances a handful of aspects but leaves us mostly where we started. And if it weren’t so damn well written I would have rated it much lower but the author already made me care fo these characters in the first book and I still care about them now. So although I think it isn’t anywhere as good or original as A Memory Called Empire, I am looking froward to the next book in the series and will continue to recommend it to everyone who likes science fiction that makes you think.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good

Prescient and Hopeful: Octavia E. Butler – Parable of the Talents

It’s probably not a good idea to read post-apocalyptic books when the very real-world pandemic has just passed its first anniversary but if you do, make sure you choose Octavia Butler’s post-apocalyptic books! Having read and loved the first book in the Earthseed duology, Parable of the Sower, recently, I knew this would be dark and I knew I would like it anyway. Much like its predecessor, it manages to be both terrifying and hopeful.

PARABLE OF THE TALENTS
by Octavia E. Butler

Published: Seven Stories Press, 1998
Hardback: 410 pages
Audiobook: 15 hours 26 minutes
Series: Earthseed #2
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: They’ll make a god of her.

Octavia Butler tackles the creation of a new religion, the making of a god, and the ultimate fate of humanity in her Earthseed series, which began with Parable of the Sower, and now continues with Parable of the Talents. The saga began with the near-future dystopian tale of Sower, in which young Lauren Olamina began to realize her destiny as a leader of people dispossessed and destroyed by the crumbling of society. The basic principles of Lauren’s faith, Earthseed, were contained in a collection of deceptively simple proverbs that Lauren used to recruit followers. She teaches that “God is change” and that humanity’s ultimate destiny is among the stars.

In Parable of the Talents, the seeds of change that Lauren planted begin to bear fruit, but in unpredictable and brutal ways. Her small community is destroyed, her child is kidnapped, and she is imprisoned by sadistic zealots. She must find a way to escape and begin again, without family or friends. Her single-mindedness in teaching Earthseed may be her only chance to survive, but paradoxically, may cause the ultimate estrangement of her beloved daughter. Parable of the Talents is told from both mother’s and daughter’s perspectives, but it is the narrative of Lauren’s grown daughter, who has seen her mother made into a deity of sorts, that is the most compelling. Butler’s writing is simple and elegant, and her storytelling skills are superb, as usual. Fans will be eagerly awaiting the next installment in what promises to be a moving and adventurous saga.

If, like me, you thought Parable of the Sower was depressing and hopeful at the same time, then prepare yourself for more of the same, except, you know, different. Unlike the first book, this one isn’t told just through Lauren’s diary entries and her Earthseed verses. You still get those, but they are framed by Lauren’s daughter’s first person narration as she reads her mother’s diary and the Books of Earthseed. Interspersed among those are a few written words from Bankole as well, turning this book almost into a little family history.
I immediately liked the mixture of new perspectives with the familiar narration of the first book, especially because the audiobook narration was done really well by all three narrators. (I went all out for this book, getting the gorgeous hardback copies of the duology plus the audiobook for this one.)

But that’s where talking about this book stops being easy. Much like the first book, it deals with many dark themes and comes with a lot of trigger warnings!
Lauren Oya Olamina and her now husband Bankole have been living in Acorn for over five years, the community they built with like-minded people. They support each other, they grow their own food wherever possible, they live together in trust and friendship. And of course, they live by Lauren’s religion Earthseed which has grown a lot over the years. In other parts of the country, people even know about Earthseed as “that cult”. Althought things aren’t exactly idyllic, life is mostly good for Lauren, Bankole and their surviving friends. It doesn’t stay that way…

I will say very, very, very little about the plot of this book. Not because there are so many mind-blowing twists or surprising moments that I don’t want to spoil, but because this isn’t the kind of book where the plot is all that important. Things do happen (and fast!) and they are exciting and terrifying and wonderful and horrible and everything you can imagine. Reading this book for the plot alone will not disappoint you, but that’s not the heart of this novel or, I imagine, any of Octavia Butler’s novels.
In Parable of the Talents, a politician is running for office with the slogan “Make America Great Again” and if that doesn’t send shivers down your spine already, this will: Some of his followers are wannabe Super-Christians who call themselves the Church of Christian America and of course they hate everyone and everything different from their own, narrow world view. Ring a bell? Remind you of anyone? Anyway, add to that a splinter group or a supposedly small, independent part of these Super-Christians, that isn’t satisfied with simply thinking and saying bad things about people of different beliefs, but who actively go after them, beat, rape, enslave, and kill them. It was incredibly chilling, reading about this Church of Christian America and how they try to justify terrible acts (which I can’t imagine any god would condone) in the name of keeping their country “pure”. It would have been chilling at any time, but in the current political climate, it was even worse, simply because what happens in this book doesn’t feel far-fetched at all! We may not have special technology electroshock collars that we use on people to enslave them, but we do have people in this world who believe everyone who doesn’t fit into their own narrow idea of personhood, doesn’t deserve to live. So this may be shelves as science-fiction and near-future but it didn’t really feel like it.

Clashing religions and political unrest aren’t the only themes in this book, however. This is still Lauren’s story and with a baby entering her life, things are about to change. Because we experience the book through flashbacks, we know that Lauren’s daughter grows up to be at least old enough to read her mother’s writing. What we don’t know is whether Lauren herself survives long enough to see her dream of an Earthseed society fulfilled.
I loved how Parable of the Talents approached the theme of family, both blood family and found family. I’m a sucker for found families and the entire duology is pretty much about that, on a large scale. It may start with Lauren building a small community that lives by what Earthseed teaches. But her plan is to convince the entire world that Earthseed is truth and that humanity’s future lies among the stars. Big dreams for a young woman, you may rightly think, but this book tells the story of how such dreams could be realized. Lauren’s approach to teaching her beliefs changes throughout the years and I really enjoyed watching her evolve as a person. I can’t say I always understood or agreed with her, but she is one hell of a fascinating protagonist to read about.

As for the writing style, I enjoyed it as much as I did in the first book. The three narrators each had distinct voices, which was even more obvious in the audiobook than in the paper copy because they were actually narrated by three different people. But I believe if I opened my book at a random point and read a few lines, I could easily tell whose narration I was reading.
I also appreciate how Octavia Butler describes the horrors that happen in her story. It might be tempting for a writer to go into gratuitous detail in the torture or murder scenes, just to elicit emotions from the readers. But Butler went a different route. In fact, the most terrifying events, aren’t described very much at all. They are mostly stated as fact, something that happened, but that we don’t want to dwell on. Considereing this is Lauren’s first person narrative, it makes even more sense to do it that way, because who would recount a traumatic event in vivid detail when they are still under shock?
That said, the sparse descriptions of the various horrors doesn’t lessen their effect at all. I may even have been more shaken by the simple statement of “Yesterday, my friend was raped.” than I would have been if some long-winded description had foreshadowed it. But be aware when reading this book, that although Lauren has a support system now, that doesn’t mean her life gets easier.

The ending of the book came a bit fast compared to the rest, but I found it very fitting and believable. Just like in real life, some things work out the way we hope, and others don’t. Some plot strings lead to nowhere, others aren’t quite resolved, yet others lead to a completely different destination than we had expected. And since I have to stay vague in order not to spoil anything, I’ll just say that I found the way this story wrapped up altogether satisfying. It kept the tone of these books perfectly, showing us that this is an imperfect world with many, many problems, but that there is always hope. And hope can start as the smallest thing. Like a thought in the mind of a young girl, written down in her diary, and tended to until it grows into something so big it might just change the world.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!

Tropey Romantic Fun In Space: Everina Maxwell – Winter’s Orbit

Boy am I glad every time one of those overhyped books turns out to be actually good! Tor went all out on this one – I swear there wasn’t a single space on the internet that didn’t bombard me with how fun and tropey and perfect this book would be long before it even came out. While the book was far from perfect, it was definitely fun and I wholeheartedly recommend it to people looking for a bit more romance in their SFF.

WINTER’S ORBIT
by Everina Maxwell

Published: Tor, 2021
Hardcover: 423 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: “Well, someone has to marry the man,” the Emperor said.

Ancillary Justice meets Red, White & Royal Blue in Everina Maxwell’s exciting debut.

While the Iskat Empire has long dominated the system through treaties and political alliances, several planets, including Thea, have begun to chafe under Iskat’s rule. When tragedy befalls Imperial Prince Taam, his Thean widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with Taam’s cousin, the disreputable Kiem, in a bid to keep the rising hostilities between the two worlds under control.

But when it comes to light that Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and that Jainan himself may be a suspect, the unlikely pair must overcome their misgivings and learn to trust one another as they navigate the perils of the Iskat court, try to solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war… all while dealing with their growing feelings for each other.

This is it, the book that was hyped up like crazy for being originally an AO3 story that happily embraces its tropes, such as “there’s only one bed” and “forced marriage”. While I don’t exactly understand that marketing approach, I can tell you that, yes, these tropes are there, but they are neither the strongest parts of this book, nor the most important ones. Everina Maxwell can do way more than just use tropes effectively. I do, however, appreciate that this book may help certain people see that starting (or even staying) in fanfiction is not a bad thing and that it says nothing about an author’s skill or originality.

So, what’s this all about then? Prince Kiem is called to the Emperor who tells him that he is to be married to the recently widowed Count Jainan of Thea because politics. In just a few weeks’ time, a new treaty will be signed between the Iskari Empire and all its vassal planets and for that to work out smoothly, all alliances must be in place and an auditor must be convinced that the alliances were made of free will. The political background is thought out well enough, but as you can guess, it’s not the focus of this story.
Kiem and Jainan are married pretty quickly, and then comes the difficult part: getting to konw each other, getting along, and finding some way to live together, as happily as possible. And this is where Maxwell got to shine.

I loved both Kiem and Jainan, although Kiem stole my heart a lot faster. He is a chaotic, big-hearted, stumbling, talkative guy who seems to never get things right, never be on time, but somehow remains loved by most people and especially by the press. His time is spent mostly at parties and with the press, trying to smooth out whatever went wrong at said parties. Where there’s a scandal, Prince Kiem is usually not far off but he is clearly an adorable guy who means well enough. His personal assistant Bel was also an immediate hit for me. She’s the kind of stoic yet competent person Kiem needs in his life but you can tell right from the start that her cool exterior hides true affection for her boss. She loves her job and she does it well and damn but I love reading this type of character! Also, the world needs to appreciate its assistants more.
Jainan, being quiet and drawn into himself, was a tougher nut to crack. I liked him as well, but his personality took longer to show itself. For a long time, he says almost nothing and even in his POV chapters, all we learn is that he just wants to stay out of Kiem’s way and have the least possible impact on his life. He also lacks confidence and comes across as a bit of a wallflower. Until he gets to talk to someone about engineering, that is. So yeah, Jainan is never unlikable, but he’s so passive that it took a while for me to warm to him. There are reasons for this, just as there are reasons for his behavior, and while it all makes perfect sense, this is the part where you could see that the characters had to bend a little in order to fit certain tropes into this story.

This was the one problem I had with the book. Certain things just dragged on beyond the point of suspension of disbelief. It’s fine that the protagonists misunderstand each other and thus both behave in ways that only make the misunderstandings worse – but only up to a point. Kiem knows that Jainan’s husband died only a month ago and so assumes that Jainan is grieving and that’s his reason for being so quiet and subdued.
Jainan on the other hand believes that a man as well-loved and socially gifted as Kiem couldn’t possibly find him – Jainan – to be an acceptable husband. He feels like he’s not good enough and therefore just stays quiet, hoping not to inconvenience Kiem too much.
It’s a totally okay setup for a slow burn romance but when “slow burn” really means “standstill” for half the book, I just lose interest. For a while, the fact that these two newly married men  barely speak to each other can be explained away. But after a third of the book I started getting annoyed at the ridiculous ways in which they continue to misunderstand each other. It’s like they’re doing it on purpose just to drag the inevitable out a little longer.
Seriously, after weeks of living with another person and seeing how they react to you expressing your opinion, wouldn’t it be natural for you to undertand that it’s okay to keep expressing your opinion?? Actions speak louder than words and humans communicate way more through body language than spoken words. And yet Jainan insists on behaving as if Kiem would freak out whenever they disagree on something, although Kiem has shown him over and over what kind of a person he is.
The author went out of her way to create situations that draw out the moment of truth for the sake of… I don’t know, keeping the readers at the edge of their seats? That part failed for me because as much as I like romantic tension, I still want my stories to be believable, even if they are set on a different planet with futuristic technology.

But around the middle of the book, things finally get going and not only in terms of the romance. The mystery and various other plot threads have been set up nicely in the first half of the book and they are all coming together to create a rather exciting third act. I especially liked how – although they finally did talk to each other and realize that, hey, the other guy also has feelings for me – neither Kiem nor Jainan are suddenly different people. They both still suffer from the same insecurities they had before, but now they each have some hope that there’s someone out there who cares about them and who thinks highly of them. Whether that’s Jainan realizing he is entitled to his own opinion or Kiem understanding that he is, in fact, not stupid or useless, just a bit disorganized, I thought it was really well done and shows character growth in a believable way.

I also quite enjoyed the world building and side characters. Again, the focus of this novel is the relationship between Kiem and Jainan, but these two don’t exist in a vaccuum. I loved learning a bit more about how this galactic empire is set up, what Kiem’s home planet is like and what cultural differences there are between the two protagonists.
I admit I’m not super sure what the Resolution and its auditors are all about or how exactly the larger universe works in this story, but that’s not necessary to understand and enjoy the book.
The revelation of all the secrets, the way the mysteries get resolved and the ending all worked really well, even though I prefer mysteries that give me all the necessary pieces in advance and only fit them together at the end. You know, the kind that makes you go “oh man, I should have seen this all along”. In the case of Winter’s Orbit, there is no way you can guess the solution with the information you are given so the payoff isn’t as satisfying as it could be.

But I am not judging this book on being a great mystery novel, I’m judging it on whether it entertained me and delivered the space romance it promised. And in that respect, I really can’t compalin. Apart from the drawn-out part of wilfully misunderstanding each other, the relationship between Jainan and Kiem was well done. I cared about both of them (and Bel, don’t forget Bel!) and I wanted them to realize that they are both good people who can have a wonderful life together.
For people who read more romance than me and whose expectations may be a bit higher, there is only one romantic scene in this book and it’s not particularly steamy. This romance is more on the sweet side, not the hot and sexy one. So depending on your mood, this may work for your or not. Do I think this is a groundbreaking or award-worthy book? Well, no, but neither was it silly or too light on the world building (which could happen when the focus lies too heavily on the romance). I had a lot of fun reading it and I’m interested to see what Everina Maxwell comes up with next.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

 

Star Wars Anthology – From A Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back

This Star Wars anthology retells the events of The Empire Strikes Back from different points of view. That much is clear from the title and – if you’ve read it – its predecessor, but for me this was a first foray into the world of Star Wars anthologies. I had read a few novelizations many, many years ago but other than that, I just re-watched the original trilogy a lot. To get stories from minor, sometimes VERY minor side-characters is such a cool idea that I couldn’t resist. The result was mixed but the positives outweigh the negatives.

FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
by various authors

Published: Del Rey, 2020
eBook: 561 pages
Series: Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View #2
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….

From a Certain Point of View strikes back! Celebrate the legacy of the groundbreaking Star Wars sequel with this exciting reimagining of the timeless film.

On May 21, 1980, Star Wars became a true saga with the release of The Empire Strikes Back. In honor of the fortieth anniversary, forty storytellers recreate an iconic scene from The Empire Strikes Back, through the eyes of a supporting character, from heroes and villains to droids and creatures. From a Certain Point of View features contributions by bestselling authors and trendsetting artists.

This is quite a big book and no way am I going to tell you about each single story and how I liked it. As with any collection of short stories, especially ones by different authors, I liked some, loved others, disliked a few and felt meh about a handful. I’d say that’s a pretty normal reaction to a piece of writing that is made up of 40 different people’s ideas and styles. Nobody is going to like everything, but then again, there will be something for everybody.

I admit I picked this up primarily because I wanted to read Cat Valente‘s story about the exogorth (that worm thingy in the asteroid field) called “This Is No Cave”. I had heard wonderful things about it and those early reviews weren’t wrong. It is astonishing that Valente manged to make me feel for this creature that gets a full 5 seconds of screentime and whose backstory never really crossed my mind. But she gives Sy-O a backstory and it totally worked. I watched Empire again just yesterday – I knew so many side stories now, after all, and wanted to see if I recognized all the characters from this book (I didn’t) – and I felt a bit of a twinge when Sy-O appeared because now I had seen that part of the story from their perspective. And things aren’t as simple as they may seem.

But, and this is as surprising to me as it is to you, the Valente story was not my favorite in this anthology. In fact, three stories tied for my first place and they are all pretty different.
Django Wexler wrote “Amara Kel’s Rules for TIE Pilot Survival (Probably)” which delivers exactly what the title promises but with layers! Amara Kel is an Imperial pilot who knows how to stay alive. So far, at least. She lets us know her rules for survival not just by making a list but by telling us stories for each bullet point, stories that paint a picture of her life, her hopes and dreams, the woman she loves, and, almost as a side note, the events of Empire that happen to be going on at the same time. I loved everything about this story. The voice is lighthearted and funny, the protagonist is super easy to like, despite working for the Empire, and the story has a well-rounded ending. It got 4.75/5 stars from me.

Bildergebnis fĂĽr faith in an old friend star warsJust like this next story, although for different reasons. “Faith In An Old Friend” by Brittany N. Williams is told from L3-37’s perspective, a droid-turned-part-of-the-Millennium-Falcon and for that alone, it feels more like a real part of Star Wars history, rather than just an aside to Empire. I had to look L3 up to remember exactly who she was but it honestly doesn’t make much difference whether you remember her or not. This story witnesses a few key events from Empire and while it was fun to watch Leia’s heartrate increase when Han is around, all while she pretends to dislike him, the heart of this tale was all about L3. Her history, especially with Lando, her consciousness, and her alliance with the rest of the Falcon’s droid brains. This story really touched me and it did a fantastic job of tying in movie scenes and quotes. Another 4.75/5 stars.

Lastly, “The Whills Strike Back”, the very last story in this anthology, ended up as my third favorite. It’s about the opening scrawl and that’s really all I want to say. It was hilarious and self-aware and made watching the movie again all the more fun.

So these three were my absolute favorites, but there were many more stories that I liked a lot. My overall problem with many stories in this anthology was that they were rather unimaginative. However, in the hands of a great writer, even a not-very-original story can be impressive. I’m thinking of Seth Dickinson’s “The Final Order”, a story which doesn’t exactly hold any surprises in store but which completely blew me away with its writing. I seriously have to read The Traitor Baru Cormorant soon if this is what Dickinson always writes like.
Charles Yu’s “Kendal” similarly impressed me, as did “Against All Odds” by R. F. Kuang. That wasn’t a surprise because Kuang is amazing but it’s still worth mentioning.
“A Good Kiss” by C. B. Lee was one of the few stories that stood well on its own. It’s about Chase Wilsorr, a human on Hoth who runs errands and feels like a loser because he’s not as heroic as, say, Luke Skywalker. He also has a crush on another man. Lee tells a full story here that happens during the evacuation of the Rebel Base at Hoth and while I didn’t think the writing was overwhelming, I loved how fun and altogether nice this story was.

I don’t want to focus very much on the stories that didn’t work for me. But I was a bit surprised to find some authors I knew among my least favorites as well as others that I hadn’t read yet but had been looking forward to. Mark Oshiro’s story wasn’t for me but I’ll probably still try one of their novels. Mackenzi Lee has written The Gentlemen’s Guide to Vice and Virtue which I found entertaining enough. Her short story for Star Wars left me cold and unimpressed.

Generally speaking, I enjoyed this anthology. Reading a story or two before bed was quite nice, even though some stories were better than others and even though at one point, I felt like we’d never get off Hoth. The stories are arranged in chronological order to fit the events of the movie. But given the amount (or lack) of side characters in any given scene, there are about a billion stories set on Hoth, hundreds on Imperial ships and in Cloud City, and a mere few set in different places. I understand why that is but I think that with a little creativity, more could have been done. I mean, there is a story here from the point of view of the cave on Dagobah! And remember Sy-O, the exogorth? Or the Millennium Falcon’s droid brains? Oh well, you can’t have everything I guess.

So would I recommend this book? Sure, if you like Star Wars. With most of the stories, I had no idea who exactly I was reading about but whether I ended up liking a story or not, it put me in a mood to watch the old movies again. I discovered some new authors that I’d like to read more of, and I enjoyed having a book to read in small increments. So unless you hate Star Wars, you can’t go wrong picking this up.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

 

Uninspired Feminist Space Story: Stina Leicht – Persephone Station

Man, this is not a good start of the reading year for me. I had been looking forward to this book so much and yet here I am, trying to find the words for another negative review. I’m running out of ways to express my disappointment…

PERSEPHONE STATION
by Stina Leicht

Published: Saga Press, 2021
eBook: 512 pages
audiobook: 11 hours 55 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 5/10

Opening line: The clatter of heavy power-assisted armor echoed off the rocky hills as the corporate mercenaries lined up behind Serrao-Orlov’s latest representative. 

Persephone Station, a seemingly backwater planet that has largely been ignored by the United Republic of Worlds becomes the focus for the Serrao-Orlov Corporation as the planet has a few secrets the corporation tenaciously wants to exploit.

Rosie—owner of Monk’s Bar, in the corporate town of West Brynner—caters to wannabe criminals and rich Earther tourists, of a sort, at the front bar. However, exactly two types of people drank at Monk’s back bar: members of a rather exclusive criminal class and those who sought to employ them.

Angel—ex-marine and head of a semi-organized band of beneficent criminals, wayward assassins, and washed up mercenaries with a penchant for doing the honorable thing—is asked to perform a job for Rosie. What this job reveals will affect Persephone and put Angel and her squad up against an army. Despite the odds, they are rearing for a fight with the Serrao-Orlov Corporation. For Angel, she knows that once honor is lost, there is no regaining it. That doesn’t mean she can’t damned well try.

Let me start with the thing that started out as something I didn’t even notice all that much, then turned into something that became annoying and finally into the One Thing That Drove Me Absolutely Nuts every time it came up. And that is the way Leicht writes dialogue and – to some degree – how audiobook narrator Maria Liatis reads it.
We all learn in school (early on!) that you don’t start every sentence of a story with the same word. We also learn that not every piece of dialogue has to be accompanied by a “he said/she said”. Well, Stina Leicht and her editors must have skipped that lesson because, oh boy, the amount of “she said” in this book is staggering. And I’m sure if I’ve read a phyiscal copy I would’t have minded so much because the brain mostly skips over these parts and doesn’t read them out each time. Maria Liatis, reading the audiobook, did however, and that reading aloud of the dialogue showed just how terrible it is. Leicht also has this quirk of ending one line of dialogue with “Angel said” and starting the next sentence with “Rosie said:” which puts two “she saids” right after each other and made me want to rip my hair out!  And don’t get me wrong, it’s not only the “she said” parts, it’s also what people say and how they say it. In case you’re worried that I’m just weird and this is a very “me” nitpick, I hear ya and I have brought examples.

“You okay, boss?” Enid asked.
“I’m good,” Angel said. “Check on Lou.”
“I’m trying,” Enid said. “The ship is a real mess.”
“Fuck,” Angel said.

That’s one lone example you say? Let me add another one and trust me, there are many more where that came from, I’m just choosing the ones that don’t contain any spoilers for the purpose of this review.

“Sukyi?” Angel asked. “Damn it! Report in!”
“Enid?” Lou asked over Kurosawa’s com system. “You ready?”
“Yes,” Enid said. “Try not to let them start another fire.”
“Doing the best I can,” Lou said.

You see, it’s not just a ridiculous amount of repetiton, it’s the exact same pattern of “word” she said “some more words”. I don’t know if that’s a stylistic choice or a matter of taste but I absolutely hated it. Sure, others may not care as much, but this took me out of the reading experience (which I can’t imagine the author wanted) and made me think about bad writing instead of the story at hand.

As for the plot, I’m sad to report it’s thin and the action sequences are badly told. Persephone is a backwater planet about which we don’t know very much. In the town Brynner lives crime boss Rosie, who runs Monk’s Bar where all the crime families gather and Rosie makes sure they behave themselves and don’t start a war among the people of Persephone. I actually liked Rosie, even though we don’t get to see enough of her!
Because of an alien POV we also know there’s an indigenous species living on Persephone. A species who will be exploited and used by Vissia Corsini, head of the evil Serrao-Orlov corporation if someone doesn’t do something against it. Vissia wants something from the alien Emmisaries that they don’t want to give so, naturally she plans to destroy them instead. Rosie has something to say about that and hires Captain Angel de la Reza and her ragtag crew to protect the Emissaries and fight against Vissia, even if going against her huge corporation is a suicide mission…
There’s also a side plot

This is marketed as a “feminist space opera” and, yes, almost all the characters are female, but I personally think there’s a little more to feminism than leaving out men and putting women or nonbinary folks everywhere. In fact, no matter what their gender, I find it most important that an author makes me care about their characters and Stina Leicht made hers unfortunately flat.
The biggest problem is that we just get to know so very little about them. The author slaps a marker on each and that’s the thing that defines their personality. Angel misses the military since she’s been kicked out, Suyki is dying of an Old Earth disease, Lou is the quirky, chipper pilot, Enid the quiet, sarcastic sniper. Rosie is the only one whose values and reasons for doing what they do came out a bit. Although their motives take a while to be fully revealed, it’s clear that their heart is in the right spot and they see the evil being done (or threatening to be done) by the powerful people of Serrao-Orlov.
And to be fe fair, you do get to know snippets of some other characters’ lives over the course of this book but mostly they are just cardboard cutouts whose hopes and dreams, whose fears and worries and plans for life remain unknown to the reader. What little we do learn is told through heavy-handed exposition. And that’s a shame because I really looked forward to falling in love with the crew of Kurosawa. I ended up liking Lou anyway because, come on, what’s not to like? She’s a super tropey character and we’ve all seen the likes of her a billion times before, but that’s just because it’s such a popular character type. I like a girl who sits in the pilot’s chair of a ship, looking at an impossible flying maneuver with her tongue sticking out between her teeth while everyone else expects to die in the next few seconds. Even if that’s all there is to her.

Another problem I had with the audiobook – and this is really audiobook only and doesn’t change my opinion of the story or characters – was the way Maria Liatis read the characters. I generally enjoyed her voice and narration but she is not good at voicing distinct characters. Which may be partially the author’s fault for making everyone talk the same way. Rosie and Enid get a slightly deeper voice and I could usually tell when they were speaking. Lou gets a slightly more high pitched excited tone, but all the others – and that leaves quite a few of them, some alien, some human – sound exactly the same. Apparently, Liatis tried to make Suyki sound distinct by giving her a case of occasional British-like accent. I swear, that accent is there one sentence and completely gone the next, sometimes it appears and dissapears within the same line of dialogue, sometimes the narrator seems to have missed a “Suyki said” while reading and accidentally not said the line with the accent… I don’t know what but it was a mess.

Now I feel bad enough for having said so many negative things about this book, so please let me share the positives! The main ideas of the plot and the characters aren’t new or original, but Stina Leicht put together some interesting themes and SFF ideas that made the world of Persephone more intriguing.
Probably most interesting to me was the way AI and AGI were incorporated into the story. The ship Kurosawa is intelligent and communicates with its crew, but much cooler than that is the  AGI Kennedy Liu whose consciousness isn’t in a ship or a computer but rather in a human body. Which is totally illegal but does give her some cool powers that regular humans (obviously) don’t have.
I also liked Angel’s Combat Assistant which can enhance her fighting by releasing adrenaline into her body, or giving her calming medication when her heart rate is too high, etc. I was a little surprised that so few characters had a CA because even without using it for battle, that seems like a very useful futuristic gadget to have. So I loved that idea but would have liked to see it incorporated more into the world.

Spending more time with – or at least learning about – the Emissaries, the indigenous species of Persephone, would have been great as well. Through some rather clunky exposition, we do learn some aspects of them and that was enough for me to like them and stand behind Rosie’s mission to protect them. Apart from the fact that humans came to their planet and now want to force this peaceful people to do things they do not wish to do, the Emissary characters we get to know better were very likable. Maybe even a tad romanticized.
But I loved little ideas like them being able to change their shape (so they can look human when talking to other humans) but generally not being human-shaped. They also communicate by smell, which I’ve never seen done before in an SFF story. Oh yeah, and they have some great abilities which I won’t spoil here but obviously the bad guys want that knowledge for themseves, which kicks off the entire meagre plot.

I think the author just took on too much for a single book. The world building has potential but we never get quite enough of any of its aspects. Rather than obsessing with diversity rap, I would have liked to get to know just a couple of characters better so I could care about them. There’s also a distinct lack of interpersonal conflict. Sure, friendships (especially among women) are wonderful, but everyone is just so damn nice all the time and these supposedly grimdark crime people always do the right thing. I never really believed that we were on a seedy underbelly type of planet and the cast are all criminals. There was no moral ambiguitiy, no tough questions to answer, no conflict. The villain is bad, everyone else is pure good and that’s that.

2021 has started as a mediocre reading year for me, but let me contrast this not-great book with the really bad one I’ve read recently. The writing, although not my cup of tea, was worlds better and if it’s to your taste, this book is very readable. For a chunky novel, I did get through it quickly enough and I will probably try another of Stina Leicht’s books. Other than Alechia Dow’s novel (The Sound of Stars was… really not good), this felt more like a book by a talented author that could just have used some more editing and a bit more flesh to its plot. I thought most of my problems were a matter of taste but other reviews are also quite mixed… So while I wouldn’t recommend The Sound of Stars to adults, especially ones who read a lot of SFF, I would still cautiously recommend Persephone Station. Maybe read a sample chapter to see if you like it first, though.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Meh

Second opinions:

A Tropey Sci-Fi Romance: Alechia Dow – The Sound of Stars

I picked this up because I’ve seen it on a few recommendations lists and I haven’t read that many 2020 YA books yet. Plus, the premise sounded too good to pass up. A girl risking her life for books and an alien who secretly loves human music? How could I resist?

THE SOUND OF STARS
by Alechia Dow

Published: Inkyard Press, 2020
eBook: 432 pages
audiobook: 12 hours 23 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 3.5/10

Opening line: The invasion came when we were too distracted raging against our governments to notice. 

Can a girl who risks her life for books and an alien who loves forbidden pop music work together to save humanity?

Two years ago, a misunderstanding between the leaders of Earth and the invading Ilori resulted in the deaths of one-third of the world’s population.
Seventeen-year-old Janelle “Ellie” Baker survives in an Ilori-controlled center in New York City. Deemed dangerously volatile because of their initial reaction to the invasion, humanity’s emotional transgressions are now grounds for execution. All art, books and creative expression are illegal, but Ellie breaks the rules by keeping a secret library. When a book goes missing, Ellie is terrified that the Ilori will track it back to her and kill her.
Born in a lab, M0Rr1S (Morris) was raised to be emotionless. When he finds Ellie’s illegal library, he’s duty-bound to deliver her for execution. The trouble is, he finds himself drawn to human music and in desperate need of more. They’re both breaking the rules for love of art—and Ellie inspires the same feelings in him that music does.

Ellie’s—and humanity’s—fate rests in the hands of an alien she should fear. M0Rr1S has a lot of secrets, but also a potential solution—thousands of miles away. The two embark on a wild and dangerous road trip with a bag of books and their favorite albums, all the while making a story and a song of their own that just might save them both.


Oh well, might as well get my first bad book of the year out of the way right now. The Sound of Stars started out quite well. Janelle – Ellie – lives in an Ilori-controlled building where she and her family and friends are locked up and live under tough restrictions. They must not show emotions, all art is banned, and they are kept alive merely to be vaccinated with a strange vaccine as soon as it’s finished. Ellie’s father got an early test version of the vaccine which has left him like a shell of his former self. Her mother, in the meantime, deals with this situation by drinking (which is of course also illegal). 17-year-old Ellie keeps a secret library and loans out books to her patrons. If she is caught, she’ll probably be executed immediately…

M0Rr1s is an Ilori labmade commander who is working on perfecting the mysterious vaccine in order to be used on all humans. But he also has a secret: He loves human music and secretly listens to it. His fellow Ilori would decidedly not approve. When he finds out about Ellie’s library, he confronts her. Not to get her executed but to make her help him get his hands on more music! Naturally, a romance evolves…

In the reviews I’ve read, M0Rr1s is often described as a lovable softie and that’s not wrong. To me, he often felt more like a robot than an alien, to be honest. He’s a fish out of water, unknowing in the ways of humans or how to interact with them. His innocent and curious nature made him easy to like, yes, but I had a very hard time picturing him with a human body.
Which leads to my next issue. The aliens aren’t really all that alien. It’s a widespread problem in science fiction that alien species are just humanoids with maybe an extra limb or different facial features. In this case, the Ilori have a computer panel on their face that lets them communicate via their alien internet. To be more specific, there are two types of Ilori. The true ones (who are vaguely human-shaped blobs of some kind?) and the labmade ones like Morris who look almost completely human, with skin and blood all the usual body parts.
I get that it’s easier to write a romance between two human-shaped characters than it would be between two properly different species. But I was so hoping for the more complicated version of this Romeo and Juliet tale. Where are the books where people and aliens fall in love and the alien doesn’t happen too look like a cute, attractive human?

But my biggest problem with the Ilori was that are against emotions. That’s not a new idea in science fiction at all but I found it weird that a species that clearly feels emotions is so opposed to them. Why? And how would that even work? Feelings are a catalyst for so many things. Fear, anger, love, jealousy, greed – those keep a story going and the Ilori feel them as much as humans do. Pretending not to doesn’t change the fact that emotions inform their actions. So I just don’t see the point other than creating some bogus conflict that lets Ilori execute anyone who actually shows how angry they are instead of putting on a blank face while being angry…

This book is often praised for its inclusivity and I did like some but not all of it. Janelle is a young, fat Black girl who she suffers from anxiety attacks. None of those things felt in any way forced or used for a specific effect. They are just part of who Ellie is. When things get dangerous, and they do that a lot, her anxiety flares up and she uses her method of counting down from five for dealing with it. I don’t know how realistic that method is, but it certainly felt believable and made Ellie into more of a badass in my eyes. After all, who would run a forbidden library when being found out could mean execution? For someone with anxiety to take that risk takes even more courage.
She’s also demi-ace and explains to Morris what that means. In her words (paraphrased), it takes a long time for her to get to know and trust someone and then, maybe, she’ll develop romantic feelings for them. Gender doesn’t matter, but time does. This becomes important later and it’s also the part I didn’t like because… well, it stands in stark contrast to what actually happens in the book.

The bulk of the novel is about Ellie and Morris on a road trip to California (I had so hoped for a road trip in space, but we can’t always get what we want (song title reference totally intended)). They meet both people and aliens on the way, get into dangerous situations, and of course fall in love with each other in no time at all.
That would have been fine, honestly, if Ellie didn’t specifically make fun of this very trope and if it didn’t contradict who she says she is as a person! She snobbishly looks down on book heroines who fall in love after only one day while DOING THE VERY SAME THING HERSELF! What am I supposed to think about that? Look, I know it’s a stupid trope but I don’t mind it if I’m watching or reading a romance. If it makes for a good story, the trope can be forgiven. But using a trope and making fun of it at the same time just doesn’t make sense to me. Especially when it happens to a demi-ace girl who literally just explained how long it takes her to develop feelings!

As much as I liked Ellie at first, she does a complete 180 around the middle of the book and suddenly turns stupid. Morris and her get caught by some Ilori so Morris makes up a story on the spot about her being his prisoner – you know, to keep them both alive. While that is obviously a cover story, Ellie takes his suddenly changed demeanour at face value and starts instantly hating him. The girl who was so clever in the beginning and, by the way, reads books like others breathe air so who must have come across this trope before, can’t figure out that Morris isn’t really suddenly evil but just trying to save her ass from being executed or vaccinated? I just don’t understand that story decision. The plot would have worked just as well if Ellie had played along (and made her look much better), but I guess there had to be some “relationship conflict” that would lead to a fight, so the love birds could come back together dramatically.

Speaking of the relationship. This book is HEAVY on the romance and spends most of its middle part repeating the same pattern over and over. Morris and Ellie are on their road trip, they meet humans and/or Ilori, get in trouble, get out of trouble, sit in the car and talk, and the same thing happens again and again with slight variations. Not only does that get boring pretty quickly, but I also didn’t find their relationship development in the least interesting or believable. As I mentioned, Ellie falls in love way too quickly but there’s also never any real chemistry between the two. Their shared love for books and music only goes so far that she drops book titles and he talks about the artists he likes, and they agree on them being great.
Actually, the worst part of their shared love for the arts is how Ellie SUMS UP some of the best books out there for Morris. What self-respecting book lover would sum up Jane Eyre in their own world?! Don’t you want Morris to experience the pure beauty of that story for himself? And sure, you’re in a tight spot now but it’s all super hopeful and you’re saving the world so WHY SPOIL THE BOOK FOR HIM?

Oh and about those road trip stops. They always work by the same pattern but some of them are definitely more stupid then others. One time, Morris and Ellie are imprisoned (separately) and a human toddler comes along and sings “If you’re happy and you know it” with Morris. The mother, when she finds them, is naturally shocked. After all, her son is standing very close to one of the aliens who are suppressing her entire planet and are killing people left and right. However, because Morris and that kid had a nice little song together, the very same mother then decides to help Morris. I mean, just imagine for one second that Morris wasn’t a good guy but a different Ilori who actually means humans harm. What mother would be stupid enough to trust a complete stranger just because he sang a children’s song with her son?
But all the dangerous situations are like that. Ellie and Morris aren’t completely useless but they always end up being saved by a third party.

Oh and let’s not even start about that deus ex machina ending. It was sooooo ridiculous. The last third of the book is mostly “I love you more” “No, I love you more” “You are the highlight of my day” “I never want to be parted from you” but in between cheesy and way over the top declarations of undying love, the author must have remembered that novels also need a plot. In order to resolve hers, she throws in something that solves all the problems easily and at no cost to the protagonists. And for Ellie and Morris’ further adventures (please don’t write a sequel), Ellie’s parents stay conveniently out of the way and her best friend is suddenly not that important anymore. Because Morris is the center of her universe and that’s really all this book is about.

Audiobook specific thoughts:
It drove me absolutely up the walls that the male narrator (who is doing a brilliant job narrating as such) kept pronouncing M0Rr1s’ name as Em-zero-one-is. Like, I get that that’s his alien name but there’s a reason the author made it look like a name that humans can pronounce. The same goes for most other alien names and titles which mostly just switch out the letter “o” for a zero and the letter “i” for a one. That said, I did love Christian Barillas’ reading in general, and the way he did different voices and accents. He did a great job and I would absolutely listen to more audiobooks narrated by him.
Joy Sunday, who reads Janelle’s parts of the story, didn’t work so well for me. Her tone always sounded annoyed and kind of aloof. She made Janelle sound like she felt she was better than everyone else, although that doesn’t fit the way her character is described at all. I also wasn’t a fan of Sunday’s intonation or the way she pronounces the “g” at the end of every word ending in -ing. It sounded like she said “I was thinkink” or “what are you doink“. I don’t know if that’s something they teach you in narrator school but it annoyed me. A lot.

Look, it always pains me when I pick up a book by a Black debut author and then don’t like it. But this book, honest to god, reminds me of my own first (and very unreadable) book that I wrote when I was 12 years old. This read like a first draft and I cannot understand how it went through the entire editing process without anyone mentioning the flimsy world building, the lack of excitement, or the discrepancies between how the characters describe themselves and how they act.
Every author whose first book I dislike gets a second chance. But much like Kalynn Bayron last year, Alechia Dow will really have to blow me away with her next book. Otherwise I’ll just have to admit that her writing is not for me. I expect more from the books I read, especially in a time when YA has grown so much and can do way more than tell a cheesy plot-less romance.

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Quite bad

P.S.: This was on my list of five star predictions which goes to show that synopses and blurbs can only go so far… I’m a little bummed out right now and hope my next prediction turns out more accurate.

A Drawn-Out Yet Epic Conclusion: Marissa Meyer – Supernova

Ah, Marissa Meyer, you writer of my guilty pleasure books. Since I was on such a roll catching up and finishing the book series I had started, I thought I’d pick this one up at the end of 2020, just to end the year with something breezy and fun. Spoilers for Renegades and Archenemies below.

SUPERNOVA
by Marissa Meyer

Published: Feiwel & Friends, 2019
eBook: 560 pages
Series: Renegades #3
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: Everyone has a nightmare.

All’s fair in love and anarchy. . .

‘Supernova’, the epic conclusion to ‘New York Times’ best-selling author Marissa Meyer’s thrilling Renegades Trilogy, finds Nova and Adrian struggling to keep their secret identities concealed while the battle rages on between their alter egos, their allies, and their greatest fears come to life. Secrets, lies, and betrayals are revealed as anarchy once again threatens to reclaim Gatlon City.

Supernova starts just where Archenemies left off, with a gravely injured Max, a captured Ace Anarchy, and not a single resolved problem. Nova’s secret identity is still somewhat safe, but Adrian has revealed his being the Sentinel to his closest friends (not including Nova, despite their boyfriend/girlfriend status). The moment I’ve been waiting for since the first book – the unravelling of secrets, the speaking of truths, the resolution of this brewing war between Renegades and Anarchists – must finally happen. Buuuuut Marissa Meyer takes her sweet, sweet time with that.

To be honest, keeping the ruse going for two entire (not small) books already felt like a bit of a stretch. After all, we know that once the secrets are out, there is still a lot of work to do if the protagonists want to unite Renegades and Anarchists and actually make the world better. The issues around which the war is built are serious ones – not just who gets to decide who’s a hero and who’s a villain but also civilians relying too much on prodigies and thus not learning important skills. If there is always a healer prodigy around, why study medicine, after all? Both Nova and Adrian see these problems and while they want to make things better in their own way, they don’t seem to grasp that simply killing a certain group of prodigies (Renegades or Anarchists) won’t magically change the system.

Marissa Meyer spends hundreds of pages in this book with mostly useless stuff. What I really wanted at this point was for the secrets to come out, for Nova and Adrian to work out their issues – lying to each other for months while at the same time falling in love makes things a bit difficult, after all – and for the prodigies of Gatlon City to figure out this war and where to go from there. But what we get is banter between the Renegades team, reminders of things that happened before, Adrian hating Nightmare, Nightmare hating the Sentinel, the Renegades not listening to differing opinions, the Anarchists not listening to differing opinions, and basically more variations of everything that we’ve already read in the previous two books. It gets tedious, let me tell you.

When at one point, it truly seems like Nova’s game is over, I felt a glimmer of hope. But nope, Meyer and her protagonist decided to hold on to their ruse and keep milking it for as long as they could. What was exciting in the first book became ridiculous at this point. Seriously, I didn’t even care anymore if Nova was found out because the plot would just conveniently contort in a way that makes everyone believe Nova’s lies despite the overwhelming evidence against her.
Adrian’s secret Sentinel identity lost its thrill as well. Let’s face it, he may have broken some Renegades rules but he did in fact mostly save lives and help people. So where’s the huge problem with him coming out with the truth? Sure, people will be disappointed that he lied to them but in the end, the Sentinel is a good guy who just has a problem with authority.

There are glimpses of the deeper themes of this story. Two factions who are sworn enemies aren’t actually all that different from each other and some of the issues the Renegades raise would find nothing but agreement in the Anarchist camp and vice versa. This whole idea of there not being any “villains” but just people who fall on different areas of a value spectrum was a great one and I would have loved if it had been explored in more depth. I commend Meyer for using show-don’t-tell to make her readers think for themselves but the most important part – the characters – still seemed rather rigid in their beliefs, even after figuring out for themselves that “hero” and “villain” are arbitrary definitions that don’t really say much.

The introduction of Agent N – the neutralizing chemical that can strip any superhero of their powers forever – was a major plot point in Archenemies and I loved (from a storytelling point of view) the implications it raised. Now the Renegades want to use Agent N on all the convicted villains who have been imprisoned since the Age of Anarchy, and it is mostly Nova who raises the question of whether rehabilitation shouldn’t be attempted first, before taking away someone’s powers, something that defines them as a person. Many of the “convicted” villains didn’t even have a trial, they were simply branded evil by the Renegade High Council. When you look at this kind of “justice system”, it’s easy to understand Nova’s continued hatred for the Renegades, but it also kind of makes her Renegade friends look like idiots. Who in their right mind would condone such a system?

Although it takes ages to get there, the truth eventually does come out. And not just about Nova and Adrian’s respective secrets but also about some other questions that have been posed in the very first book. We know how Nova’s family died and how she was saved by Ace Anarchy and raised by the Anarchists. We also know how Adrian’s mother died, although not who killed her. The revelation of the latter was actually pretty cool and surprising and that’s all I can say without spoiling or giving hints that are too obvious.
Nova has also held on to her father’s bracelet since the first book and the magical “star” jewel that fits into it since the second book. Any reader will know that these items must have some significance – and they do! I didn’t find this revelation to be quite that original but it made for an exciting ending at least.

The ending as such was pretty epic, with battle scenes, switching loyalties, and more dark secrets revealed. I enjoyed reading it because that’s what I’d been hoping for all along. A clash between Renegades and Anarchists, between Nova and Adrian, between all the other prodigies who think they must choose a side. I’m not spoiling anything here but I found that after a story that took so many pages to show that there is no pure good or evil, things fell into place rather too neatly. We all knew it had to come down to Nova’s decision on whether to betray her uncle and the people who raised her or the Renegades and the friends she’s made. With a last minute cheap twist and an over-the-top villain, this decision was made super easy, taking away the moral and psychological conflict that would have existed otherwise. It just felt cheap! Epic and fun to read action sequences, but still emotionally cheapened.

I’m not sure if there is a sequel planned but the epilogue certainly still holds a little twist in store and sets up a potential new story in this world. As much as I adore Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, I don’t know that I’ll be reading another book set in the Renegades universe. I do like Marissa Meyer’s develpment as a writer. Her characters may still be rather two-dimensional but the stories she tells show way more depth than, say, Cinder did. Ah, who am I kidding. I’ll read whatever else she writes, because despite the books’ flaws, they are always fun, with original ideas, and cute romances. And sometimes that’s exactly what I need.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

My 2020 Five Star Predictions: How did they hold up?

In January, I dared to make some five star predictions about books that I thought I would end up loving. This was brave insofar as I often don’t even read the books I plan to, despite having an entire year to do it. But I did surprisingly well, not only in reading the books but also in predicting my own rating. Not all my predictions turned into five-star-reads, but they were all books I enjoyed.

5 STARS: Rivers Solomon – An Unkindness of Ghosts

So much yes! This was the book I was most unsure about so it made me even happier that it blew me away from the very start. Rivers Solomon is such an inriguing writer. They create vivid characters, do worldbuilding effortlessly, and manage to deal with a myriad of topics all while telling an engaging story. This generation ship story has so many layers and one of the most interesting protagonists I’ve ever read. Go pick it up!

4-ish STARS: Mishell Baker – Impstor Syndrome

This might have been a five star book, had I read it sooner. Waiting as long as I did between books 2 and 3 was definitely a mistake. It took me a long time to figure out who was who and what had happened before so my enjoyment was delayed for at least a third of the book. Then my mood may also have contributed to this only being a good read, not a great one.
I still wholeheartedly recommend this trilogy, however, only with the caveat that you read them closer together than I did. The first two books were standout novels which both got five stars from me. This one ended up with four-ish.

5 STARS: Laini Taylor – Muse of Nightmares

I have to admit, I was worried for a second, that this would “only” turn out to be a four-star-read. The beginning of the book takes its time, re-establishing the events of the first book, letting readers get back into the world, but once the plot kicks off, it goes non-stop until the end. And yes, this did end up getting five stars from me because this book was so close to perfect, it broke my heart. I was constantly close to tears, I cared so much about the characters, and I couldn’t see any way for the story to end well. I’m not telling you how it did end, but whether good or bad or bittersweet, the ending was satisfying and fitting. I love it and I want more Laini Taylor NOW!

5 STARS: N. K. Jemisin – The Stone Sky

Oooooh, how daring of me, predicting I will love an N. K. Jemisin novel… I admit, I was playing it rather safe, both with Laini Taylor and N. K. Jemisin, but this was the book I was most certain would end up getting 5 stars. And it did.
I did take a while to find back into the world of the Broken Earth but by the time I had remembered all the little world building tidbits from the previous books, I was highly engaged again and hoped along with Essun, Nassun, and the others that there would be a way to save the world and themselves. The ending was such a beautiful thing, bittersweet and magical and bringing all the elements together. I can say very little without spoiling but this trilogy is simply mindblowing and deserving of all its Hugo Awards.

??? STARS: Marlon James – Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Here’s the outlier. I have read exactly 50% of this book and found it highly interesting and immersive. But the world James set up isn’t exactly a happy place and the characters are complicated beings whose motives aren’t immediately understood. Plus, the plot is difficult to follow, the language is demanding, and just everything about this book makes it a Hard Read.
Now, I’m always up for a challenge and I plan to finish this book eventually. It may even still turn into a five star read but only if I pick it up at the right time. Pushing myself to finish it just so I can say I did will not help my enjoyment. So I’m waiting until the mood strikes to dive back into this African-inspired dark tale of mythical beings, kidnapped children, mysteries and magic.

And that’s it! This little experiment was actually a lot more fun than I thought so I’m now going to prepare the next round. For 2021, I’ll be a little more daring and even choose books by authors I don’t already know. After all, it’s easy to predict a five-star-read from a favorite author.

Depressing and Hopeful at the Same Time: Octavia E. Butler – Parable of the Sower

After the amazing Kindred, I knew I had to read more Octavia Butler books this year. I had steered clear of the Earthseed duology because… well, I had heard that it is depressing and lots of terrible things happen in it. But I also got myself a gorgeous hardback edition of these two books this year and it was picked as a book club read for the Sword and Laser podcast. What I’m saying is I had no more excuses.
And it turned out that, while a lot of bad, bad things do happen, the book didn’t actually leave me feeling depressed but rather filled with hope.

PARABLE OF THE SOWER
by Octavia E. Butler

Published: Seven Stories Press, 1993
Hardback: 332 pages
Series: Earthseed #1
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: I had my recurring dream last night. 

Parable of the Sower is the odyssey of one woman who is twice as feeling in a world that has become doubly dehumanized. The time is 2025. The place is California, where small walled communities must protect themselves from hordes of desperate scavengers and roaming bands of “Paints,” people addicted to a drug that activates an orgasmic desire to burn, rape, and murder. When one small community is overrun, Lauren Olamina, an 18 year old Black woman, sets off on foot, moving north along the dangerous coastal highways. She is a “sharer,” one who suffers from a hereditary trait called “hyperempathy,” which causes her to feel others’ pain as well as her own.

Parable of the Sower is both a coming of age novel and a road novel, set in the near future, when the dying embers of our old civilization can either cool or be the catalyst for something new.

Lauren Olamina lives in a walled community on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Her family and their neighbors work together to protect themselves and each other from outsiders. Because outside the walls, chaos reigns. The poor are constantly looking for opportunities to steal food or water – an expensive commodity – and the new drug “pyro” makes people light fires everywhere because watching them gets them high. Lauren’s life is mostly safe and she loves helping her mother out teaching at their little neighborhood school. But Lauren knows that life can’t go on like this forever. Always worried, constantly vigilant, going outside as little as possible… there’s no future in that. In her diary entries, she writes down these feelings she has, along with her unfocused ideas for a better society and how to find god in such a miserable place.

This book follows Lauren as she grows up in a broken world where she nonetheless inhabits a relatively safe place. As you can imagine, things don’t quite stay that safe but rather get worse and worse. Lauren is forced to leave the only place she’s ever called home and venture out into the dangerous outside in search of a better future. As water is supposed to be cheapter up North, that’s where she goes. Along the way, she picks up a handful of companions from the many, many people walking the roads, trying to survive. But even though the people who come with her appear to be friendly, nobody can be trusted when people are starving and stealing is often the only way to live through another day.

I’m not going to lie, this is a damn bleak book. For a long, long time, nothing good happens at all. One tragedy follows another, misery strikes in every chapter, and I would have understood if Lauren had just given up at some point. But that doesn’t make for a good story and it also doesn’t fit who Lauren is. Despite her hyperempathy – a condition that lets her feel other people’s pain – she stays brave and always tries to do what’s right. Even if that very thing is considered madness. Like sharing your food with a mother and her child simply because they need it. This is not the kind of world where people share, this is the kind of world where you hide what you have so nobody robs and kills you at night to get that one apple you’d been saving. But Lauren quickly learns that there’s strength in numbers. When you have people you can trust you can watch each others’ back, you can set up guards. And boy, are the guards necessary.

This book comes with a ton of trigger warnings. Physical violence, rape, cannibalism, murder… it’s all there. And while Octavia Butler doesn’t describe any of these things gratuitoulsy, they add up to the general level of dread the characters feel. This is not a comfort read, it’s not a book that’s fun or relaxing. Much like Lauren, I was constantly worried that something terrible would happen, that they would come across a group of looters, that the children among them would be kidnapped and sold as prostitues, that their guns would be stolen and turned against them.
Strangely enough, despite these very uncomfortable emotions, I always looked forward to picking the book back up. Because Octavia Butler managed to somehow describe the worst possible world with the worst, most selfish people in it, and keep a shimmer of hope on the horizon.

Lauren’s diary entries are mostly straightforward recounts of her days. She spends little time on making her language sound pretty because that’s just not practical. This is a story about survival, about finding a family when everyone has lost theirs, about growing up constantly afraid, and about learning to love nonetheless.
I didn’t find the Earthseed aspect of the book to be particularly religious in nature, although that’s what it appears like at first. Lauren has these ideas that she’s putting into verse (and which we get to read at the beginning of each chapter) and they usually have to do with the nature of god. But the message of these verses is clear and simple: This is how humanity should be if it wants to continue; this is the future! Earthseed is a slowly growing rule book for how the world could work, how humanity can survive, how a sliver of happiness can be found even in these dark and dangerous times.

There were so many intriguing ideas here, starting with Lauren’s hyperempathy. Just imagine having to shoot at someone to protect your own life and feeling that person’s pain as the bullet hits them! So Lauren is always in more danger than everyone else because even self-defense could knock her out and leave her helpless and unprotected in the street.
I also found the idea of company towns quite interesting, although the story doesn’t go into too much detail about that. I suspect they will come up in the second part of this duology. The same probably goes for the drug “pyro” and the supposedly safe and water-rich areas up north. I had to remind myself that this was published in 1993 because it feels so contemporary at times that it hurt. Octavia Butler clearly had a keen eye for humanity and its flaws and she spun a tale of the future that we should try to avoid at all costs.

While by the end of this book, the bigger story of Earthseed  is far from finished, I did find the conclusion satisfying. This chapter of Lauren’s life is finished and there is hope for another, better one. One with less death and loss, one without so much fear, maybe even one where the ideas of Earthseed take root and help a new society to grow. I’ll be sure to find out.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!