Just A Bit of Light Murder (With Clones): Sarah Gailey – The Echo Wife

If the last few years have taught me anything, it’s that Sarah Gailey reliably publishes original and cool SFF. I have yet to read their American Hippo novellas, I wasn’t a huge fan of Upright Women Wanted but I have adored all their novels so far, even the one where people try to get away with murder and you’re rooting for them to succeed…
The Echo Wife has a bit of murder as well, although it’s much more about when is a person a person and what does that even mean.

THE ECHO WIFE
by Sarah Gailey

Published: Tor, 2021
eBook:
256 pages
Standalone
My rating:
8/10

Opening line: My gown was beautiful.

“When they said all happy families are alike, I don’t think this is what they meant…”

Evelyn Caldwell’s husband Nathan has been having an affair — with Evelyn Caldwell. Or, to be exact, with a genetically cloned replica.

After a morning that begins with a confrontation and ends with Nathan’s body bleeding out on the kitchen floor, the two Caldwell wives will have to think fast—before sharing everything includes sharing a jail cell.

The Echo Wife is a non-stop thrill ride of lies, betrayal, and identity, perfect for fans of Big Little Lies and Killing Eve.

Evelyn Caldwell is a highly driven, super successful scientist who has just been awarded a prize for her work creating clones. As much as she enjoys her success, she also has a secret. Her very freshly divorced ex-husband has been cheating on her (thus the divorce) but he isn’t just your average cheating dude. No, he was apparently almost happy with Evelyn as his wife. She just wasn’t quite perfect enough for him. So it only makes sense that the woman he’s been cheating with is a clone of Evelyn, slightly altered to be just a bit nicer, a bit more of a family person, a bit more accommodating and friendlier, a bit better than the original Evelyn…

With a premise such as this you can only imagine what kind of a story Sarah Gailey can weave. I simply adored this book because, like all of the best novels, it has layers than can each be enjoyed individually or as a whole that comes together beautifully. On the surface level, this book is a thriller. Nathan’s new-and-improved (maybe, maybe not really?) wife Martine ends up stabbing the guy and being a big secret herself – obviously you can’t just clone people willy-nilly – she calls th eonly person who knows of her existence and is still alive: Evelyn. Evelyn really, really doesn’t want to help Martine. The fact that she exists and is such a blatant image of everything that Nathan felt was wrong with Evelyn is just too much! But if Martine gets found out, it will cause a scandal which might threaten Evelyn’s further research and besmirch her reputation… So the two team up and try to get away with murder. Which is exactly as difficult as you think, and then some.

But on a deeper level, Gailey explores so many themes that make this more than “just” an SF thriller. Starting with Evelyn herself, who doesn’t at all fit the clichéd gender norms people might still have for women. First of all, she’s a scientist and she burns with passion for her job, although that passion may not look the way you’d think. She doesn’t hold great speeches, but she simply adores what she does, she’s exact, she’s strict with herself, she sticks to the rules (always double up on the gloves) and she doesn’t accept mistakes. Which is why her lab assistants usually flee after a few weeks… Except for Seyed who seems completely resilient to her moods and does the work admirably. Their relationship isn’t exactly warm, but it is a great partnership that works for the job they’re trying to accomplish.
Then there’s the fact that Evelyn, unlike her husband Nathan, has no desire to have children. Ever. I’m seeing this more and more in fiction and I love that it is represented as a simple choice, not something wrong with a woman. Evelyn is rocking her career and has never felt particularly motherly, so why should she feel the need to have a child simply because she is female?

Possibly the most intriguing character, though, is Evelyn’s clone Martine. The fairly obvious question of whether Martine “counts” as a human or not is only one of many that I asked myself while reading this book. Since Evelyn isn’t a very likeable character, Martine is represented more as a product or a thing rather than a human woman, even though – for all intents and purposes – she is exactly like Evelyn, if Evelyn had had different influences in her life. And perfect skin because it was only made last year…
But Martine’s character is about much more than just her human-ness or inhuman-ness. I had no problem seeing her as a person with her own wishes and desires, but then comes the question of where those desires came from. Are they something that she simply wants, like some of us simply want to pursue our hobby, be taht playing a musical instrument or, say, reading. Or are her desires simply what has been programmed into her brain. And how does that make her different from any of us, who may not have been programmed by another human but who are also influenced and guided by the world and people that surround us, by our experiences?

I have no answers for those questions and The Echo Wife also doesn’t try to give you one either. Rather, it nudges you to think for yourself, to ponder these ideas, to look at humans and science for what it can achieve and whether just because you can, you should (yes, I totally have the Jurassic Park line in my head right now).

Sarah Gailey has once more proved that they can write a damn good book about whichever topic takes their fancy. The tension arcs work really well here and whenever you think one mystery has been solved or one problem gotten rid off, there’s something new waiting to be excited about. I loved this book on every level. The storytelling, the plot, the characters, and the twists. The writing flows as it should in a thriller and makes it hard to put the book down. I am still unsure about the ending. On the one hand, I find it perfect, on the other hand, it leaves some things about the future open. I’ll have to think about that some more, but my overall reading experience was fantastic!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Third Time’s The Same Old Boring Stuff: Isaac Asimov – Second Foundation

My opinion of Isaac Asimov, his writing abilities, and his position as one of the greats of science fiction, wasn’t that great to begin with. But reading the Foundation Trilogy (which was later turned into a longer series) pretty much makes me question earlier generations and their taste in fiction. I also don’t get how publishers let Asimov get away with writing the same story three times and publishing it as if it’s something new…

SECOND FOUNDATION
by Isaac Asimov

Published: Harper Voyager, 1953
eBook:
227 pages
Series:
Foundation #3
My rating:
3.5/10

Opening line: The First Galactic Empire had endured for tens of thousands of years.

When the First Foundation was conquered by a force Seldon had not foreseen – the overwhelming power of a single individual, a mutant called the Mule – the second Foundation was forced to reveal its existence and, infinitely worse, a portion of its power. One man understood the shifting patterns of the inhabited cosmos. This was Hari Seldon, the last great scientist of the First Empire.

The mathematics of psychohistory enabled Seldon to predict the collapse of the Empire and the onset of an era of chaos and war. To restore civilization in the shortest possible time, Seldon set up two Foundations. The First was established on Terminus in the full daylight of publicity. But the Second, at the other end of the galaxy , took shape behind a veil of total silence.

Because the Second Foundation guards the laws of psychohistory, which are valid only so long as they remain secret. So far the second Foundation’s location, its most closely guarded secret of all, has been kept hidden. The Mule and the remnants of the First Foundation will do anything to discover it. This is the story of the Second Foundation.

Wow, I can’t believe this got published the way it did and that people actually ate that shit up… I have rarely read such an overhyped, totally undeserveing of its acclaim, classic as this.
Asimov spends pages upon pages re-explaining the same thing to us, over and over again. That thing is the Foundation, how it came to be, and its purpose. So basically the first chapter of the first book. You’ll get to read that crap in every single Foundation book and also have every character explain it to another character several times throughout that book. Which doesn’t leave all that many pages for, you know, an actual new story. And that’s because Asimov really doesn’t have a new story to tell, he just wanted to milk this idea he had for all it was worth.

This impression is only strenghtened by the fact that each book ends with a sort of cliffhanger. The follow-up book then adresses the rest of this story and only then starts a new larger story arc. Which, again, is finished only in the next book. So I guess Asimov wasn’t lying in his introduction, when he said he wanted to make sure they’d publish another book by him. He pulled the same trick (how very clever) several times to get book deals. Now if only he were a proper storyteller. Alas, all he can do is repeat himself.

So Second Foundation begins with the finale to the Mule story arc which made me angry in so many ways, and only then begins a new story, which actually has to do with the Second Fondation that Hari Seldon said he would set up “at the other end of the galaxy”. At this point, it really wasn’t clear whether Second Foundation was good because its people are a safety net for the first Foundation working the way it should, or whether Second Foundation was the enemy and needed to be defeated by the first Foundation so the first Foundation can take over the galaxy. And ultimately, as the goal is always and exclusively world domination, I couldn’t care either way and I hated the premise. I don’t want to root for anyone in these books because the characters all have the same personality anyway and nothing they do makes any difference.

The problem is that Asimov was so in love with this trope one of his that he turned it up to eleven making anything that happens essentially worthless. You see, when every chapter is one person being secretly so much cleverer than the other person and then, in the end, explaining how they tricked the other person, that can be fun once or maybe twice. That’s all the first book was, chapter after chapter. But if every chapter works that way, it gets old fast. And if – like in Second Foundation – you do this Batman Gambit within a Batman Gambit three times in a row, it really loses all value. What was the point of reading this story if none of what happened, none of the character actions, mean anything?Because it turns out, everyone who outsmarted someone else was in turn outsmarted by yet another player in the endless game that doesn’t even have stakes. Because remind me what the point of all this is? Building a Galactic Empire again in 1000 instead of 30000 years. In the meantime, people are living on various planets, science and technology are evolving, politics are politicking, and so on… And because Hari Seldon’s plan is basically infallible, nothing any one person does can change the course of history anyway. So WHAT’S THE POINT of telling meaningless “stories” set in this world??

Speaking of the world. I had to think of a certain Sad Puppy argument from a few years ago that, back then, science fiction still used to be about science and epic space battles, and sense of wonder and ideas. And I can now definitely say that they can’t have meant Asimov with that. Because there is no world building whatsoever. People are said to live on different planets but there is neither any difference between these planets (other than the fucking weather), nor is there anything much to travelling between them. Who needs science, after all? Distances in the galaxy? Just say “parsec” and “lightyear” a lot and it will sound spacey and sciencey… And then the whole premise of this book is a group of magicians threatening the Foundations. I’m serious, the Second Foundation, which is supposed to consist of nothing but psychologists, can basically mind-control people… with “science”. Don’t make me laugh!
And that doesn’t even take into account the convenient ease with which new inventions are brought about just when needed. Any character either just has had a magical gimmick all along or just quickly invents it because he needs it to defeat the current bad guy. Who will turn out to have been a good guy after all, controlled by the real bad guy. Who then turns out to have been outwitted by someone else. Does it seem like I’m a bit tired of the trope? Because I really am.

Seriously, the more I think about this series, the stupider it is. Asimov’s one cool idea basically ruined any story told within that world because it preempts the outcome. Just for a moment, when he actually made a 14-year-old girl named Arcadia one of the main characters, a proper protagonist in her own right, I got interested again. But the casual mysogyny and ultimate meaninglessness of Arcadia’s cleverness destroyed all pleasure I might have felt.
Oh and it’s not just mysogyny here. There is a tremendous amount of hate directed at all sorts of people. Old people, young people, and especially people with physical deformities. Neurodiverse people are called names and completely disregarded as if they’re not even human. I mean, the whole idea behind the Mule is that he’s too skinny and has a large nose and that’s why he was bullied and now wants to take over the Galaxy… And it’s equally terrifying that being physically unattractive is apparently bad enough in Asimov’s world to make someone a “monster” and a “freak” in everyone’s eyes.

So yeah, I have very little to say about this that’s good. I did honestly enjoy a part in the middle of this book when Arcadia went on an adventure, but as all that happened to her, turned out to have been for nothing, that doesn’t really save the book. And as in his third book, Asimov still hasn’t learned how to write a story, how to create characters or an interesting world, I don’t see much reason to continue this series. That said, the next book did win a Best Novel Hugo Award and it was written 30 years later. So I have the tiniest glimmer of hope that even someone as full of himself as Asimov may have learned a thing or two in that time. The hope is slim, however, so if I ever do read that fourth book, it will be a long time until I find the motivation for that…

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Bad

The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship: Becky Chambers – A Psalm for the Wild-Built

Although I’ve only read two of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer novels plus her fantastic novella To Be Taught if Fortunate, I was as excited as the rest of the SFF community for the first volume in her new novella series about a tea monk and a robot. Chambers’ trademark hopeful writing, delightful and diverse characters, and original world building are something I’m always in the mood for.

A PSALM FOR THE WILD-BUILT
by Becky Chambers

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
eBook:
160 pages
Series:
Monk & Robot #1
My rating:
8/10

Opening line: If you ask six different monks the question of which godly domain robot consciousness belongs to, you’ll get seven different answers.

In A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Hugo Award-winner Becky Chambers’s delightful new Monk & Robot series gives us hope for the future.

It’s been centuries since the robots of Panga gained self-awareness and laid down their tools; centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again; centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend.

One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honor the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of “what do people need?” is answered.

But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how.

They’re going to need to ask it a lot.

Becky Chambers’s new series asks: in a world where people have what they want, does having more matter? 

Dex is a monk whose life is missing something. They don’t quite know what it is or why, because technically they have everything they could want. Family, friends, a lovely home in the city… but one day, they get a longing for the sound of crickets that just won’t let up. So Sibling Dex decides to just pack up their stuff and become a travelling tea monk. Along the way, they eventually stumble across a robot which upsets not only Dex’s life but could also mean change for humanity as such. Because when robots gained consciousness, humanity ended up releasing all robots into the wild and they haven’t been seen since. Except, of course, for this robot named Mosscap, who is now in Dex’s path…

I’m pretty sure you already expect that this book is delightful, and you are absolutely right. Just like with Becky Chambers’ other books, this isn’t just a simple straight-forward story, but a tale with many layers. I’ll try to squee about them one at a time, lest this review turn into incoherent fangirling.

I immediately loved the tone of the writing which is a little bit different than expected. First of all, although the story takes place on a moon on which humanity has finally managed to live mostly in harmony with nature and each other, things aren’t all perfect. Or at least, humans aren’t. Our protagonist Dex who goes by they/them and doesn’t belong t oany gender has this strange feeling of dissatisfaction which kicks the whole story off. The way Chambers describes this emotion of feeling like you should be perfectly happy with your life but for some reason just aren’t, that was so damn relatable it hurt!
Very similarly, Dex’s journey to learning a new skill and taking on a new job, felt so utterly real it made me laugh. Dex thinks they know what a tea monk does and just… tries it. Their very first customer isn’t quite as pleased as she should be after visiting a tea monk and Dex quickly understands that there is way more to their new job than they expected.

You see, a tea monk serves tea to people who just need a break. I adore this concept and wish we had something like this in our world! Dex travels with their wagon (which is self-sustainable and super cool, btw) from city to city to village to city again, sets up their cushions and tables and chairs, and just listens to people. Whether it’s stressed out people, depressed people, or perfectly happy people who just enjoy the company, Dex is there for them and always has just the right kind of tea to make them all feel better.

It’s only after Dex has become really good at this whole tea monking thing that this strange feeling creeps up again, this sense that this is not enough. And that’s when they meet Mosscap, an actual honest-to-gods robot who’s on a mission of its own. Mosscap volunteered for the job of checking in on humanity and finding out what we need. Which, obviously, isn’t a question one tea monk can answer just light that. And so it’s decided that Mosscap will accompany Dex on their journey for a while, to learn about humans and our ways, and maybe to teach Dex a thing or two in return.

Oh, how I adore Mosscap! Mosscap not only teaches us interesting things about what robots have been doing all this time since they left humanity to their own devices, but it also brings this childlike joy at everything the world has to offer. Reading this book had a similar effect on me as watching a baby or toddler explore the world and being totally awestruck at something we adults take for granted. There is this sense of wonder at (to us) unremarkable things that make the world feel just slightly more magical.

Most of the second half of the novella is conversations between Dex and Mosscap, some more philosphical than others, dealing with all sorts of subjects and nicely showing that opposite opinions can still find common ground. There’s glimpses of super cool world building, and not just in the way cities are built or how humans live without destroying the nature that surrounds them, but also in terms of religion and tradition and the different types of monks there are. There is the friendship that’s slowly growing between Dex and Mosscap, although you can’t expect the bond to grow very strong in just one book (which I like – it’s like an insta-friendship antidote). But Dex does open up to Mosscap and Mosscap shows just how human a robot can be. This is clearly the beginning of a wonderful friendship and I for one can’t wait to go on the next adventure with these two.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Still Mostly Meh: Isaac Asimov – Foundation and Empire

Ages ago, I read the first Foundation book because it’s a sci-fi classic and on all the “Best SF” lists and all that other jazz. I found it okay then but now that the book series is being turned into a TV show, I wanted to both refresh my memory and finally continue the series. Turns out, my second reading of Foundation was exactly as middling as the first one. I did continue and read the second book, though, and that experience – although a teensy bit better – was similarly meh.

FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE
by Isaac Asimov

Published: Harper Voyager, 1951
eBook:
240 pages
Series:
Foundation #2
My rating:
5/10

Opening line: The Galactic Empire Was Falling.

WINNER OF THE HUGO AWARD FOR BEST ALL-TIME SERIES

The Foundation series is Isaac Asimov’s iconic masterpiece. Unfolding against the backdrop of a crumbling Galactic Empire, the story of Hari Seldon’s two Foundations is a lasting testament to an extraordinary imagination, one whose unprecedented scale shaped science fiction as we know it today.

The First Foundation survived two centuries of barbarism as the once-mighty Galactic Empire descended into chaos. Now it mist prepare for war against the remnants of the Empire as the Imperial fleet advances on their planet, Terminus.

Hari Seldon predicted this war; he even prepared his Foundation for it. But he couldn’t foresee the birth of the mutant Mule. In possession of a power which reduces fearsome opposition to devoted slaves, the Mule poses a terrible threat to Seldon’s Foundation.

This book is comprised of two stories. The first one is simply a continuation of what was done in the first book – namely a Seldon Crisis which is resolved by one dude being slightly cleverer than another dude, and also “fate”. Because Hari Seldon predicted the various crises the Foundation would encounter, and he also predicted that by the laws of psychohistory the Foundation has a super high chance of surpassing all those obstacles, there’s not really all that much excitement left. We know ahead of time the Foundation will continue to strive, no matter what kind of problem comes up next. So by creating Hari Seldon, Asimov made it harder for himself to build up tension.

The second, much longer, part of this book is called “The Mule” and it can almost be called a proper story. There’s multiple character POVs, we travel different parts of the galaxy, there’s a big threat to the Foundation, and there’s some new political stuff coming up. Again, a big problem for me was the utter lack of tension throughout the whole story. I knew the Foundation would come out on top because that’s the entire point of this series. So why should I worry that a mysterious conquerer who calls himself The Mule is apparently defeating Foundation forces left and right?

Asimov’s characters are still as bland and interchangeable as in the first book. It literally doesn’t matter who is talking to whom. You could literally exchange the people with talking cats and it wouldn’t change a thing about the story (well, it would make it more awesome). Nobody has a personality because this is not the kind of book that’s actually trying to tell a riveting story or make its readers feel empathy for its characters. It’s a vessel for ideas and, in my opinion, those ideas were transported well enough in the first book. I don’t need a second book to tell me the exact same ideas, slightly differently.
But – color me surprised – one of those bland characters is a woman! Who gets to speak!! And who even has a vital role in the tale!!! Never mind all the microaggressions, the sexist remarks, the obvious disregard for women in general, at least we have proof that there are women in Asimov’s galaxy. Despite this revolutionary development, I found that the whole Mule story dragged along unnecessarily and the twist ending was super obvious and lacked any impact whatsoever. Again, Asimov is his own worst enemy because of course the “good guys” win and the Foundation is safe.

Speaking of “good guys” – I find the entire premise of this series quite disturbing. When it was all about preserving humanity’s knowledge, it was one thing. But what it has always really been about is power and colonization and gaining control over everything through a massive galactic empire. Why the hell should I root for that?

I don’t think it’s all that surprising that many of the so-called science fiction classics didn’t age well. Asimov’s idea of psychohistory is still pretty cool, and the Foundation series doesn’t have much more to offer in terms of sfnal ideas (so far), but everything that surrounds it, every tiny little bit of worldbuilding or character work I could find in this rather mediocre story is really rather startling in its misogyny, blind love for the military and colonization, hunger for power for power’s sake, and totally casual hate towards neurodiverse people.

This book also makes me wonder at this so-called golden age of science-fiction. Sure, many of the ideas that came up at the time must have felt new and exciting, but didn’t people also care about storytelling? Because, as interesting as certain ideas may be, they are rather worthless if the story about them sucks. Having just re-read the first Foundation book and then going straight into this one, I did notice that Asimov’s writing style has evolved, although he continues to do the same thing over and over again, just slightly better told. At least now we get some descriptions of surroundings, of how a given planet works, instead of just two men standing in a room trying to outsmart each other.

I’m still going to read the third Foundation book just so I have finished what was then The Foundation Trilogy but I very much doubt I’ll check out the rest of the series. This trip to a distant past that many people seem to glorify is just not for me.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Utterly meh!

The Long Way to the Red Planet: Mary Robinette Kowal – The Fated Sky

Mary Robinette Kowal took home a well-deserved Hugo Award for her novel The Calculating Stars which put humanity into the uncomfortable position of having to look to the stars for habitable places, because Earth wasn’t going to last much longer. I both loved and hated that book – I loved it because it was really, really good, but it was also damn uncomfortable to read. The amount of sexism and racism displayed by some characters was staggering and the protagonist suffers from an anxiety disorder and gets kind of addicted to a drug… so yeah, a great book, but not exactly a comfort read. This second one starts out similar, but was much more fun to read. Prepare for lots of love and admiration for Mary Robinette.

THE FATED SKY
by Mary Robinette Kowal

Published: Tor, 2018
eBook:
416 pages
Series:
The Lady Astronaut #2
My rating:
8.5/10

Opening line: Do you remember where you were when the Friendship probe reached Mars?

THE SECOND IN THE NEBULA AND LOCUS AWARD-WINNING SERIES

One large step for humankind…
It’s 1961, and the Earth’s gaze is turning to Mars. The Moon colony is well established, but tensions are rising on Earth—both from those who see themselves being left behind on a disaster-laden planet, and those who don’t believe in equality for all.
But even with personal sacrifices and political tensions, Elma York, the Lady Astronaut, dearly wants to go on the first mission to Mars—despite everything that stands in her way.

Elma York has reached a major goal. She has not only become an astronaut – the Lady Astronaut, in fact – but she actually spends part of her year living on the moon! Piloting a shuffle from space station to the moon and back is great and all, but Elma yearns for the stars. So when the opportunity arises for her to join the first manned Mars mission, she can’t believe her luck. Except it also means at least three years away from Earth, away from her family and her husband Nathaniel. But this strain on the relationship is only one difficulty. The Mars team has been training for months already when Elma gets asked to join them. And entering an established team of people as “the new one” is not good for Elma’s anxiety. The fact that the mission commander is none other than Stetson Parker doesn’t help either…

I adored this story! It goes through several phases, all of which have different layers to offer for readers. On the one hand, there is the very straight forward story of a woman joining the mission to Mars. She goes through training, she gets on the ship with the rest of her team, she lives on that ship with the team for a long, long time. There’s maintenance work, lots of mathematics, space ship mumbo jumbo, and of course interpersonal tensions when people are crammed into limited space for such a long period of time.
But this wouldn’t be a Lady Astronaut novel if it didn’t also have lots of social commentary. Kowal did such a fantastic job of showing how far humanity has come since the last book – women astronauts are almost not noteworthy anymore – but how much there is still to do. Here, this means mostly fighting against racism, both overt and more subtle in nature. It’s one thing for Mission Control to send the best people up into space and “the best people” happens to include men and women of color, but it’s quite another to also show these people in ads and to put them center stage when reporting on the IAC’s work. Nobody on the crew is unaware of these issues but they also don’t have an easy fix for it. Watching these people – who are all, in a way, good people who sometimes make mistakes – felt incredibly real to me.

So you can expect a story similar to The Calculating Stars but also something new. Everybody’s reading experience is different, of course, but for me TCS was a tough read, one that made me angry with all the injustice it showed, and even angrier for reminding me how realistic it all is. As brilliant as the novel may have been, it wasn’t a very enjoyable experience watching a protagonist you care for sliding deeper into anxiety, becoming dependent on a dangerous drug, facing sexism every single day, and all of that still made her one of the luckier ones in the book. The Fated Sky still shows plenty of sexism and racism, but with the mission crews being rather diverse and living together very closely, even the strongest biases start to crumble a little. Things aren’t perfect by any means but it warmed my heart to see how these people went toward each other, tried to empathize and take care of each other, appreciated the others’ work and abilities, and didn’t care all that much about race or gender. Even sexuality is a topic, albeit one that only comes up a little, but I also thought Kowal handled it really well. As much as we’d like to think of Elma as a super progressive woman, she is still living in the early 1960s and gay or transgender people aren’t all that visible. So even though it’s not a big plot point, I liked the inclusion of it and the reminder that there have always been gay people.

Mary Robinette Kowal does another pretty amazing thing in this book. She manages to take a character that I absolutely loathed and turn them into someone sympathetic, someone who may be far from perfect, with lots of ingrained sexism, but someone who feels like a human who is actually trying to better themselves. I wouldn’t have thought that I could ever end up liking this character but by the end of the book, I was really quite fond of them.
But as this development robs us of a sort of antagonist, Kowal steps up and delivers a character we can hate with a passion in DeBeers, the South African who is so overtly racist that it almost feels like a joke. The guy goes out of his way to be hurtful to his BIPOC colleagues, people he knows are just as capable as he is (if not more so) because otherwise they would not be on this mission. Maybe DeBeers is a bit overdrawn but I was perfectly fine hating him throughout this book and hoping the others would just lock him up somewhere during the trip…

I don’t want to spoil any of the plot, but it’s a nice mixture of character focused parts and action-y bits. They are traveling through space, after all, and let’s just say there are a lot of things that can go wrong with a space ship. Some may be more serious than others but that doesn’t make it any less exciting. Have you ever thought about a toilet misfunction in zero G? Neither have I but it was fascinating (and a little bit gross) to read about.
I loved the little Hunger Games reference the author managed to sneak into the book. 🙂 It has no impact on the plot whatsoever, it’s really just a tiny little aside, but it made me giggle and give the book an imaginary bonus point.

I’m a quite surprised that this “middle volume” of what is currently a trilogy didn’t get more love when it came out. The third book in the series, one that deals with a different protagonist in a different setting (the moon), is nominated for a Best Novel Hugo and the entire trilogy made it onto the Best Series shortlist but somehow, I didn’t see lots of mentions of The Fated Sky when it was new. I actually liked it more than the first book, even though the first one is probably objectively a better book. But while I don’t particularly want to revisit Elma’s struggles from The Calculating Stars, I can easily see myself re-reading this one. It definitely made my ranking of Best Series much harder. We’ll see how I like the doubly Hugo-nominated The Relentless Moon.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!

Identity, Freedom, and Body Horror: Rivers Solomon – Sorrowland

I have come to absolutely love Rivers Solomon’s writing, whether it’s about a neuroatypical woman on a generation ship, mermaid-like creatures with the weight of history on their shoulders, or this creepy, haunting science fiction tale about a young mother searching for freedom. Solomon is a brilliant voice in SFF and I can’t wait to see whatever they come up with next.

sorrowlandSORROWLAND
by Rivers Solomon

Published: MCD Books, 2021
eBook: 368 pages
Audiobook: 12 hours 2 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

Opening line: The child gushed out from twixt Vern’s legs ragged and smelling of salt.

Vern – seven months pregnant and desperate to escape the strict religious compound where she was raised – flees for the shelter of the woods. There, she gives birth to twins, and plans to raise them far from the influence of the outside world.

But even in the forest, Vern is a hunted woman. Forced to fight back against the community that refuses to let her go, she unleashes incredible brutality far beyond what a person should be capable of, her body wracked by inexplicable and uncanny changes.

To understand her metamorphosis and to protect her small family, Vern has to face the past, and more troublingly, the future – outside the woods. Finding the truth will mean uncovering the secrets of the compound she fled but also the violent history in America that produced it.

There’s something about Rivers Solomon’s writing that just grabs me. Out of the books I’ve read by them, this was by far the most uncomfortable. There is violence, body horror, religious fanaticism, and all sorts of other things that make me queasy. But if I’ve come to learn something about Solomon as an author, it’s that they don’t shy away from difficult themes but rather face them head on, exploring them and turning them into fantastic stories. Sorrowland is no different.

The book begins with Vern, a young girl (although it took me forever to figure out just how young), who is running through the forest. She’s running from some unnamed fiend that we will learn about later. She’s also super pregnant and about to give birth to twins. Without help or medication, without any other humans, Vern gives birth to her two boys Howling and Feral, and the little family proceeds to somehow live in the forest, always in hiding, constantly vigilant.
Vern has grown up in Blessed Acres, also called Cainland, a religious compound that may have gotten started by noble ideas but has definitely drifted off into exactly what you’d expect. One powerful man gets to say what happens in Cainland, all the others have to follow. For what began as a place for Black people to live in peace, independently of white people’s economy and society which always puts them at a disadvantage, is now a strict religious cult whose leader one day decided that Vern is just the kind of girl he’d like to marry. Never mind that she’s still a child herself and has no interest in men generally or him in particular. Through flashbacks we get glimpses of life in Cainland, of Vern’s mother, Vern’s best friend, and everything that Vern has run away from.

To be alive meant to lust after connection, and better to have one with the enemy than with no one at all.

You’d think being on the run with two newborns, living off the forest, and simply staying alive would be enough for a novel. And you’d be right, but Rivers Solomon is full of ideas and they don’t write easy stories if they can write very complicated ones. So in addition to raising two children in the forest by herself while reguarly being hunted by the fiend, Vern’s own body is changing in strange ways she doesn’t understand. It starts as an itch here, a skin thingy there, but over time, it becomes clear that something is happening to Vern that she can’t control and that doesn’t happen to people normally. Finding out what that is, what caused it, and what it means for Vern’s future is part of what makes this book so intriguing.

But there is so much more happening in this book that I can’t tell you about because it’s such a pleasure reading it for yourself. Pleasure may not be the right word, as this happens to be a very dark tale with no guaranteed happy ending, with many difficult situations, tough decisions, and quite a bit of body horror added to the mix. But it’s not only the changes in Vern’s body or the sometimes graphic descriptions that make this a tough read. Vern is a young Black lesbian whose gender identity doesn’t fall into a binary system. She is called “she” throughout this book and she gives birth right at the beginning, but other than that, she doesn’t much hold with gender roles. She even meets another character who goes by she/her pronouns but who may not have sexual organs that fit perfectly into a male/female binary.
In recent years, I’ve read more and more books with a range of diverse characters written by diverse authors, but I’m always happy when I get to meet a character who teaches me something new or shows me different aspects of the world. I didn’t spend all that much time thinking about Vern’s gender or sexual preferences (she is into women but that’s also not a 100% rule) but I found it super interesting to read about these aspects of her character as well as the way she explores her own sexuality throughout the book. Because as science fictional, occasionally dystopian, and survival-focused this story may be, it is also a coming-of-age tale.

It’s super hard to talk about it without spoiling things, so let me just repeat that Solomon tackles dark and difficult themes head on. They don’t sugar coat anything, they don’t try to make their heroines look pretty or keep their hands clean so it’s easier for us to like them. Vern isn’t the kind of character that I always agree with or even understand, but she reads very much like a real person! I loved following her on this crazy journey, finding out snippets of her past, seeing how she’s raising her children (“unconventional” is a huge understatement, as you can imagine), and how she falls in love and learns to trust people. The science fiction aspects of the story simply added a layer of awesome and made sure we get a few cool action scenes that keep us at the edge of our seat. But, like Solomon’s previous novels, deep down it’s a very personal tale about one young woman finding her place in the world ancd coming to terms with who she is.

I can’t say this was always fun to read because the subject matter is so dark at times, and things seem so hopeless and terrible at others, but I loved the book anyway. And if it hadn’t already been the case, this would have cemented Rivers Solomon’s place on my list of auto-buy authors. Whatever they write next, I’m here for it.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good!

What The Hell Did I Just Read: Tamsyn Muir – Harrow the Ninth

I know I’m in the minority with my not very positive opinion about Gideon the Ninth and Tamsyn Muir’s writing style and if it had just been me, Harrow the Ninth would have existed happily without me ever picking it up. However! My fellow Hugo award nominators have spoken and as I am quite fond of them and trust their opinion, I did pick it up. And now, although it was not an easy read at all, I am kind of happy with the fact that I did. I am now pretty excited for next book, even. Huge thanks to the Tor.com Gideon the Ninth re-read which caught me up on everything I had forgotten in the most hilarious way.
No spoilers for Harrow but MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR GIDEON THE NINTH BELOW!!!

harrow the ninthHARROW THE NINTH
by Tamsyn Muir

Published: Tordotcom, 2020
eBook: 512 pages
Series: The Locked Tomb #2
My rating: 7.25/10

Opening line: Your room had long ago plunged into near-complete darkness, leaving no distraction from the great rocking thump—thump—thump of body after body flinging itself onto the great mass already coating the hull. There was nothing to see—the shutters were down—but you could feel the terrible vibration, hear the groan of chitin on metal, the cataclysmic rending of steel by fungous claw.

She answered the Emperor’s call.
She arrived with her arts, her wits, and her only friend.
In victory, her world has turned to ash.

After rocking the cosmos with her deathly debut, Tamsyn Muir continues the story of the penumbral Ninth House in Harrow the Ninth, a mind-twisting puzzle box of mystery, murder, magic, and mayhem. Nothing is as it seems in the halls of the Emperor, and the fate of the galaxy rests on one woman’s shoulders.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, last necromancer of the Ninth House, has been drafted by her Emperor to fight an unwinnable war. Side-by-side with a detested rival, Harrow must perfect her skills and become an angel of undeath — but her health is failing, her sword makes her nauseous, and even her mind is threatening to betray her.

Sealed in the gothic gloom of the Emperor’s Mithraeum with three unfriendly teachers, hunted by the mad ghost of a murdered planet, Harrow must confront two unwelcome questions: is somebody trying to kill her? And if they succeeded, would the universe be better off?

Harrowhark Nonageismus is a Lyctor now. Well, a baby Lyctor who still has a lot to learn. She and Ianthe Tridentarius accompany the Emperor to the Mithraeum where they shall be initiated into Lyctorhood, learn what that’s all about, and also meet their teachers Mercymorn and Augustine, veteran Lyctors with a history. The first thing that will strike anyone picking up this book as that it’s narrated in second person, the second thing is a suspicious absence of Gideon’s name. Seriously, Gideon sacrificed herself to save Harrow and also helped her turn into a Lyctor in the first place but the narration seems to have forgotten that ever happened…

Harrow the Ninth has a huge advantage compared to its predecessor in that it gets its hooks into you right away. From the beginning, you know something is very wrong, you just don’t know why. The more you read, the more you realize that Harrow’s mind may not be in the healthiest of states, that her memories might not be trustworthy, that the story is told in second person and you don’t know who‘s telling it. But whoever they may be, this narrator could also have an agenda of their own and we have no way of knowing whether what they tell us is true…
Oh yeah, and there’s also the fact that, apparently, the Emperor is about to be assassinated, given how some chapter titles have the helpful title “x months before the Emperor’s murder”. And thirdly, Harrow left herself some letters, each to be opened only under very specific circumstances (some of which are delightfully weird, others are plain impossible) and, trust me, you want to find out what’s in those letters! Plus, there are flashback chapters which take us back to the events at Canaan House, except… let’s just say they’re not how we remember. So you see, lots of riddles to solve, mysteries to unravel, and clues to discover.

But much like its predecessor, this book takes a long time to get going. Or rather, it spends too much time on repeating things that may not tbe all that important, and drags out the revelations too long. When three quarters of your book leave you pretty much clueless as to how any of the things happpening are possible or how other things can make sense, or whether what you’re reading is even the truth, that can get frustrating. While I was reading the book, I wasn’t ever really bored, but now that I’ve finished it, I absolutely believe that it would have worked just as well if it had been 150 pages shorter.
But since Harrow had a much smaller cast than Gideon and actually gave them, you know, a personality, I didn’t struggle as much this time around. I like being left in the dark, as long as I’m also being given clues that could make me figure out what it all means. Or as long as there are characters I enjoy following and whose relationships I’m invested in.

Tamsyn Muir is really not that good describing settings or training montages – or maybe she just doesn’t want to. She chooses obscure language over pragmatic words to tell her story. I swear, if had had to read the word “nacreous” one more time, I would have exploded. THINK OF A DIFFERENT WAY TO DESCRIBE PEOPLE’S CLOTHING! And for fucks sake, when you have the urge to say “affrighted” just go with “afraid” or “frightened” – it’s much less pretentious and actually fits into the rest of the narrative.
Given that we don’t get much information about the actual surroundings people are in, I didn’t give that much of a crap about how nacreous the clothes people were wearing when they got affrighted, anyway. We’re told they’re on a spaceship and a space station, but other than the fact that some doors are automatic, there are electric lights, and there’s something called plex (like plexi glass), we really don’t know what anything looks like. Okay, fine, not every book needs to have an immersive setting. I’m much more of a character reader anyway and if you say “space ship” I’ll just make something up in my mind.

Now the characters were actually much, much better than in Gideon, mostly because there aren’t 20 personality-less ones of them but rather only a small group of people who each get to be distinct. I can’t say I liked any of them as people but at least they were all interesting. And I developed a strange fondness for some of them. Like I enjoyed reading about them but I would stay far away from them in real life. Whether it’s Ianthe, Harrow’s fellow baby Lyctor who goes through training with her, or their mentors Augustine and Mercymorn, both less than thrilled at their job of teaching the new ones the ropes. Or the Emperor himself, who appears strangely passive, sometimes like a confused old man, sometimes like a wise father-figure, sometimes like a helpless idiot… Like I say, not exactly likable but definitely interesting! And of course Harrow, our dear befuddled heroine who throws up when she touches her sword, who remembers things all wrong, who struggles to fully become a Lyctor and also has to try and survive someone trying to kill her… She grew on me. I find her and the entire Ninth House as weird as ever and I don’t think that part of the world building makes much sense, but I was definitely rooting for Harrow.

Can we all agree that Tommy Arnold’s cover art is amazeballs?

What kept me reading (and wanting to pick up the book again every day) was the mystery. Or I should rather say, mysteries, plural. First of all, my most pressing question: What the hell happened with Gideon, is she living inside Harrow somehow, is she really dead dead, can they communicate, and what about her mysterious birth/past, I want to know all the things?!? Secodly, the flashback chapters we read about the events that transpired in Gideon the Ninth are very different from what actually happened, mostly in that Harrow remembers going to Canaan House not with Gideon as her cavalier but with Ortus. Yes, the Ortus who died at the very beginning of Gideon the Ninth. So either the entire first book in this series is a lie or Harrow’s brain is seriously fried. But either way, I wanted to find out what was going on and how things could possibly fit together. Tangentially, I also wondered what the hell Lyctors do all day, and apparently, one part of that is “make soup”. 🙂 Tamsyn Muir had her claws in me but she also took on the great responsibility of delivering a satisfying ending/twist/resolution to the very myserious goings-on in this book. The build-up piled up more and more so the ending really needed to be mind-blowing!

Now about those twists and revelations and solutions. There were several super cool moments in this book, some involving intriguing uses of necromancy, others to do with epic battles, but the coolest were definitely the many (!) revelations at the end. As slow as the first three quarters of the book are, everything happens at once in that last quarter. I had to re-read a lot of lines to see whether I was still following because not only are huge things revealed, life-changing, world-shattering things, but of course they are revealed in such a way as to be maximally confusing and impossible to understand immediately. But self-congratulatory use of fancy vocabulary aside, the gist of it was pretty damn awesome! I honestly didn’t think Muir could make up for the complete and utter confusion she created but a lot of things fall into place and just… make sense!

Mind you, the very ending makes sure you’re out of your depth again. It’s not only a big cliffhanger that leaves you hanging pretty much mid-scene, it also adds a new mystery to the story that has spawned people on the internet coming up with crazy theories. Yes, I am guilty of staying up way too late to read up on some of those theories and I am invested! The thing is, reading this book felt like work as much as it was fun, but it did offer lots of clever twists and turns, it had characters that I suddenly could root and care for or at least characters I could love to hate. It made me feel things and guess things (my guesses were all way off, btw) and got me screaming “WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON” every other chapter. If Muir’s writing style were different, this owuld have been a five-star-read!
As deliberate as it may be, I just don’t jibe with her showy verbose prose. To me it always felt like the author is just trying to show off her skills using a thesaurus, but the fancy words she used didn’t build any atmosphere, they actually clashed with much of the rest of the prose, and they also didn’t fit a particular character’s style of talking. So keep your “affrighteds” and your “necrous” and just tell me what happens next, please. I’m serious, I want to know. Alecto the Ninth is on my wishlist now and if you’ve read my review of Gideon the Ninth, you know that that’s a huge accomplishment for this book.

MY RATING: 7.25/10 – Damn confusing but also very good!

Post-Apocalyptic Pollyanna: Catherynne M. Valente – The Past is Red

I was lucky enough to get an eARC of this new novella so I’ve been sitting on these feelings for months. I am so happy to finally be able to scream into the world just how brilliant and clever and heartbreaking a novella Cat Valente has written. It comes out tomorrow and you should all read it!
Thank you to Tordoctom and Netgalley for the ARC. It made my spring infinitely better.

the past is redTHE PAST IS RED
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
eBook: 160 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: My name is Tetley Abednego and I am the most hated girl in Garbagetown.

Catherynne M. Valente, the bestselling and award-winning creator of Space Opera and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland returns with The Past is Red, the enchanting, dark, funny, angry story of a girl who made two terrible mistakes: she told the truth and she dared to love the world.

The future is blue. Endless blue…except for a few small places that float across the hot, drowned world left behind by long-gone fossil fuel-guzzlers. One of those patches is a magical place called Garbagetown.
Tetley Abednego is the most beloved girl in Garbagetown, but she’s the only one who knows it. She’s the only one who knows a lot of things: that Garbagetown is the most wonderful place in the world, that it’s full of hope, that you can love someone and 66% hate them all at the same time.
But Earth is a terrible mess, hope is a fragile thing, and a lot of people are very angry with her. Then Tetley discovers a new friend, a terrible secret, and more to her world than she ever expected.


The attentive Cat Valente reader will notice that this novella’s title goes really well with a short story of hers called “The Future is Blue” and if you liked that story, you will be happy to know that this book is actually a sequel to it. The novella’s first part is a reprint of said short story, but part two is all new and continues the story of Tetley Abednego, the most hated girl in Garbagetown.

As with many of Valente’s books, I don’t quite know where to begin my gushing. There will definitely be gushing because although she has been my favorite author for a number of years now, she still proves that she can get better with every book, no matter how short. I had hoped for a big chunky novel from her this year, but if we get two great novellas instead (the second one that’s coming out is called Comfort Me With Apples and sounds super creepy), I’ll be more than happy.

Tetley Abednego lives in Garbagetown, a heap of garbage approximately the size of Texas, that floats around on the Pacific. Tetley was born as the elder of twins in Candle Hole. Her house is made of wax, her early childhood is defined by the smells of the scented candles that make up her neighborhood. But Garbagetown has a lot more to offer, if you have an open heart and Tetley’s surprisingly sunny disposition. To her, it’s the best place in the world. Granted, that’s not too difficult to achieve when the rest of the world is… well, ocean. You see, many years ago, humanity from before – appropriately called Fuckwits – majorly fucked up the planet and now everything’s dead and submerged and all that’s left is Garbagetown and maybe a few Misery Boats.

There are some things you just can’t ever get back. Years. Gannet birds. Hubands. Antarctica.

Tetley grows up in Garbagetown and we get to witness the most formative of her experiences, like catching her name (I absolutely adored that piece of world building!), kissing a boy for the first time, discovering that even in Gargabetown, there’s still something like classism, and of course, the Thing that leads to her becoming the most hated girl in Garbagetown. It’s the reason she wakes up every day to a new slur smeared on her door, to people beating her up, it’s the reason she has to just take it and even thank her violator. The short story just on its own is already brilliant. Filled with clever world building and deep insights into human nature, it draws you in with this mystery, jumping back and forth between times, and on the sly delivering some highly quotable lines – as Valente always does.

The second part, The Past is Red, continues Tetley’s story and uses the same flashback/flashforward style as did the short story. And while it’s always clear and obvious what time setting we are currently in, this storytelling device is so well employed that it provides a few good twists along the way. Valente builds up certain expectations, or at the very least suspicions about Tetley’s past – like her mentioning she was married but isn’t anymore, or her talking to someone called Big Red, or the fact that she now lives on a boat – but the blanks filled in by the reader aren’t necessarily the whole truth. Discovering what really happened was such incredible fun and made me go “Oh thaaaaaat’s why” a few times. There was gasping and grabbing of the head. There were moments that left me open-mouthed and even more moments when I told my boyfriend “This is so gooood”.

Apart from the amazing world building, which is all the more impressive considering it’s achieved in a matter of about 50 pages, I have to talk more about Tetley as a character. She’s not stupid, not at all, but she has a naive sort of love for Garbagetown and everything about her way of life. Her parents don’t really love her – all their love goes to her twin brother with whom she shares a close bond – but Tetley doesn’t let that bother her too much. She adores her home, she loves her society, although she still sees its inequalities. She is the kind of person who is simply happy with what she has. No envy, no greed, just a pure, unadulterated joy for life. And if you think living on a heap of garbage is terrible (as did I), I promise Tetley will change your mind! She will make you love Pill Hill and Electric City, Toyland and her native Candle Hole. She will make you just as excited about discovering an old tape as she will make you care about her Oscar the Grouch backpack. It’s a strange world, Garbagetown, but after reading this book, I’m kind of taken with it.

Because there are several really great twists in this story, I won’t say anything about the plot. But I promise that, unlike some Valente novels, there is a plot. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, it is vastly readable, even funny at times, and always clever. For people who haven’t read the short story, even the end of that is a knife stuck in your chest and I believe everyone should have the pleasure of being stabbed in the heart (metaphorically speaking) by Cat Valente at least once in their lives. The second, much longer, part of the book offers some more twists, none of which I saw coming (yay!) and all of which hit me deep in the guts. Like all the best stories, this one sneaks up on you. It makes you love the characters without even noticing, and then it reveals things that change everything. Afterwards, just leaves you there, not quite knowing what to do with yourself. I’m not making this sound pleasant, but that’s actually my favorite kind of reading experience. The one where you can’t stop reading but you don’t want the book to end. And once you’re finished, you feel deflated and alone, like you just lost your best friend.

In a book set on a post-apocalyptic, post climate change Earth, mentions of how gloriously humanity messed things up are to be expected. But Valente doesn’t go the obvious route here, either. She never outright says what exactly happened – we all know how things will get that far, how our way of life can and probably will escalate. We just keep doing what we’re doing now and we’ll go down in Gargabetown history as the Fuckwits who broke the world…

Seems like someone should have thought of a rule that goes Do Not Fuck Your Only Planet to Death Under Any Circumstances. Seems like that should have been Rule Number One.

I wish I could tell you more about all the other amazing characters like Goodnight Moon, Mister, or King Xanax, but I want to give as little about this book away as possible. Let me just say that, despite my extremely high expectations, Valente managed to surpass anything I hoped to get from The Past is Red. It is a book that should be depressing but is utterly, utterly filled with hope. Its protagonist goes from cheerful Pollyanna to a much more mature adult who just can’t shake that hope habit of hers. She lets us in on a world that, although strange to us, is normal to the people who live in it, and she shows us that you don’t need much to achieve happiness.

Laslty, let me gush about that cover by John Hendrix. It is not only eye-catching and just plain gorgeous, it’s actually filled with a lot of detail that’s important in the book. I can’t wait to hold the paper copy in my hands!

MY RATING: 9/10 – Damn near perfect!

Addictive Bubblegum Space Opera: John Scalzi – The Collapsing Empire

The Best Series Hugo be praised or I would probably never have picked up this John Scalzi trilogy and that would have been a damn shame. As of now, I am still totally undecided how I will rank the Best Series finalists this year but wherever The Interdependency ends up, I’m glad Hugo nominators made me read it because this was so much fun, you guys!

collapsing empireTHE COLLAPSING EMPIRE
by John Scalzi

Published: Tor, 2017
eBook: 336 pages
Series: The Interdependency #1
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: The mutineers would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for the collapse of the Flow.

Does the biggest threat lie within?

In the far future, humanity has left Earth to create a glorious empire. Now this interstellar network of worlds faces disaster – but can three individuals save their people?

The empire”s outposts are utterly dependent on each other for resources, a safeguard against war, and a way its rulers can exert control. This relies on extra-dimensional pathways between the stars, connecting worlds. But ‘The Flow’ is changing course, which could plunge every colony into fatal isolation.

A scientist will risk his life to inform the empire’s ruler. A scion of a Merchant House stumbles upon conspirators seeking power. And the new Empress of the Interdependency must battle lies, rebellion and treason. Yet as they work to save a civilization on the brink of collapse, others have very different plans . . .

The Collapsing Empire is an exciting space opera from John Scalzi

I sometimes feel like voracious SFF readers are trained to expect certain things by now. Whether it’s the super slow burn political intrigue, the long set up for epic things to come later in a series, the unresolved tensions that are kept unresolved for volume upon volume – I am definitely guilty of having certain expectations. When those expectations are shattered, it can go either way. In the case of John Scalzi’s Interdependency, it worked brilliantly. Because although this is the first book in a trilogy, it starts at the end. With a bang.

The Interdependecy is a group of systems connected by the Flow, a wrinkle in space/time that lets ships travel faster between places than would otherwise be possible without FTL travel. It still takes several months from the central world Hub to the planet End (literally at the End of the Flow streams), but hey, trade between these places is possible and thriving. The planets, space stations, etc. connected by the Flow are all interdependent (ha!) which makes the central premise of this book a big problem. That premise is the very probable collapse of the empire and all that that entails. Entry and exit points to and from the Flow are getting whacky and the emperox – quasi-leader of the Interdependency – is dying with only his unprepared bastard daughter as heir because the original heir got himself killed in an accident. So to sum up: Things are pretty much fucked!

We see this drama unravel through several viewpoint characters, one of which curses a lot. I mean, a lot! Kiva Lagos doesn’t let a sentence escape her mouth if it doesn’t contain the word “fuck” at least once so if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing, beware. I found it hilarious, especially as we get to know her better. The cursing just goes with her no-bullshit attitude. She’s coldblooded, profit-hungry, and a little ruthless, but her heart’s in the right spot. I guess. It may only be a small heart, but it’s there and I kind of grew to like her over the course of this novel.
Much more sympathetic and easier to like is Cardelia, soon-to-be emperox and totally overwhelmed with it all. She’s mostly just a vessel to give us readers more information about the Interdependency, how everything works, how political factions interact and how ridiculous life in a palace can be. Either way, I liked her and I appreciated learning certain truths about the world alongside her.
Marce Claremont lives on End – the only planet where people can live on the surface, even though there’s not much there to get excited about. End is having one of its uprisings against the current Duke (there’s one or two rebellions every decade) but Marce, his sister, and their father are there for a different reason. Ostensibly, Lord Claremont controls taxes for the Empire or something, but in reality, he is a scientist with a mission. And if he’s right, his findings need to be taken to Hub immediately. The empire and humanity’s future is at stake!

There’s also the Space-Lannisters of this tale, the Nohamapetan family, which is one of the monopoly-holding families who make up the nobility of the Interdependency. What wealth they have is apparently not enough because they are scheming for more money and more power. They’re almost caricatures of villains, so they’re easy to hate until one of them shows signs of being human after all. Not big signs, mind you, but at least they’re not completely one-dimensional. Although it gets a little over the top at times, there’s something to be said for a villain you can just love to hate. Ghreni Nohamapetan is an adviser to the Duke on End, his sister Nadashe was supposed to marry the heir to the emperox (the one who died), so now their brother Amit is making advances on the entirely uninterested Cardenia.

That said, don’t except too much depth when it comes to the characters. Scalzi doesn’t spend much time making his characters multi-faceted or deep, but he does write a damn good story based on intriguing science-fictional ideas. The Flow was enough to get me hooked, the imminent collapse of this galactic empire sealed the deal for me. Add to that the political machinations, intrigues and trade agreements, uprisings and assassination attempts, and you’ve got a book that’s really hard to put down. I read it very quickly because I simply had to know what happnened next and if the assholes would get what they deserved. I also really, really enjoy reading about intelligent characters and The Collapsing Empire has several rather clever ones. It’s just such a delightful feeling when a bad guy thinks they won only to find out that they got outsmarted by the good guys. Cue my evil laugh! 🙂

I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t think I would like this book. I am, after all, a character-focused reader and all my favorite books have either phenomenal characters, beautiful language, or a combination of both. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy plot-driven narratives once in a while, especially when they have things to say about humanity. The language may not be pretty – as in using shiny polysyllabic words simply because they sound good – but it is super engaging. The chracters may only have one or two traits each but they’re easy to root for and fun to follow. And the story is just really good! Will I be thinking about Kiva Lagos or Marce Claremont in a year? Probably not. Do I want to pick up the next book with them inside? Hell yeah!

I was also pleasantly surprised by how satisfying the ending was. Don’t get me wrong, this is clearly the setup novel for a bigger story but enough plot lines were resolved to make me close the book happily. It doesn’t feel like you’re just left hanging there, mid-sentence (even though that would’t be bad as the trilogy is finished and you can jump right into the next volume), but rather gives you a story with beginning, middle and end. It just so happens that this story is set in a world that I want to explore some more because now the real problems are about to start!

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

YA Cli-Fi Done Right: Joan He – The Ones We’re Meant to Find

I was always going to read Joan He’s enxt book after the amazing Descendant of the Crane, even though this is a total departure from that book in content. I’m glad it has such a stunning cover because I believe that made lots of other people aware of this book as well and the more people get to enjoy this fantastic book, the better for everyone. Can you tell that I’m about to be all fangirly and gushy? Because I am.

ones were meant to findTHE ONES WE’RE MEANT TO FIND
by Joan He

Published: Roaring Brook Press, 2021
eBook: 384 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: I wake on my feet, wind tangled in my hair.

One of the most twisty, surprising, engaging page-turner YAs you’ll read this year—We Were Liars meets Black Mirror, with a dash of Studio Ghibli.

Cee has been trapped on an abandoned island for three years without any recollection of how she arrived, or memories from her life prior. All she knows is that somewhere out there, beyond the horizon, she has a sister named Kay, and it’s up to Cee to cross the ocean and find her.

In a world apart, 16-year-old STEM prodigy Kasey Mizuhara lives in an eco-city built for people who protected the planet―and now need protecting from it. With natural disasters on the rise due to climate change, eco-cities provide clean air, water, and shelter. Their residents, in exchange, must spend at least a third of their time in stasis pods, conducting business virtually whenever possible to reduce their environmental footprint. While Kasey, an introvert and loner, doesn’t mind the lifestyle, her sister Celia hated it. Popular and lovable, Celia much preferred the outside world. But no one could have predicted that Celia would take a boat out to sea, never to return.

Now it’s been three months since Celia’s disappearance, and Kasey has given up hope. Logic says that her sister must be dead. But nevertheless, she decides to retrace Celia’s last steps. Where they’ll lead her, she does not know. Her sister was full of secrets. But Kasey has a secret of her own.

I’m going to nominate this book for a Lodestar (the YA not-a -Hugo-Award) next year because it not only tells a great science-fictional story but also shows what YA literature can be. That it is so much more than love triangles, dystopian societies with random factions or tales of political rebellions led by teenagers. Not that I don’t like that kind of story, I do. But there is a lot more to explore than the same old themes that keep coming back. Joan He is an author who dares go there, who puts her characters through terrible ordeals that don’t necessarily have to do with physical obstacles, but rather with ethical or moral decisions. The Ones We’re Meant to Find was everything I had hoped for and so much more. Let me warn you, though: When you pick this up, expect to stay up late for the “just one more chapter” routine. Probably until you’ve finished the book.

We first meet Cee stranded on an island with no idea how she got there or even who she really is. She does know some things, however. She has a sister named Kay and she desperately needs to get back to her, so Cee’s island life consists of collecting scraps for building a boat to take her out to sea. Her dreams (or are they memories? Visions?) show her a city in the sky, her beloved sister, and a world in color, as opposed to her greyscale island existence. But occasionally, very very occasionally, flashes of memory come back to Cee and she’s hoping to unravel the secrets of her past and find the way back to her sister.

Kasey does indeed live in a city in the sky but life hasn’t been the same since her sister Celia disappeared several months ago. Kasey isn’t exactly what you’d call an emotional person and that very fact makes her feel guilty, different from the others. She loves her sister, so why doesn’t she cry when it’s a near certainty that Celia is dead? Why didn’t she cry when their mother died years ago, for that matter? Kasey’s only really passionate about science and while she knows the odds are ridiculous, she keeps looking for her sister, for any sign of life, or at least for closure. In the process, she discovers some secrets of her own. Things Celia kept hidden, people she knew, and memories she lived.

This is one of those twisty books that’s super difficult to talk about without spoiling, so I shall tread carefully. I loved many, many things about it, starting with the most obvious: the mystery of Celia’s disappearance, life on the island, and what exactly happened in the girls’ past. In addition to a missing sister, Kasey has another secret, one that “took science away from her” and it’s a good while before that bit is revealed. But there are enough intriguing questions right from the start to glue anyone to the pages and make them ignore reasonable bed times. There are hints everywhere but Joan He did a fine job holding just enough back to keep her readers guessing.

Unravelling slowly, the world building was one of the coolest I’ve ever read. I’m not a big cli-fi reader (yet) but I found the ideas presented here very interesting. People – well, some people – have retreated to floating cities in the sky where they are not only somewhat protected from the Earth’s terrifying climate (tsunamis galore, earthquakes, poisonous air and water, you name it) but where they are also taking measures to not make things worse. That involves spending a considerable amount of time in virtual spaces, lying in a tank. There are many more details to discover, like who gets to live in a floating city in the first place, how people are ranked (because of course they are) and what the implications of such a system are. Technology is much advanced from our standpoint and society functions differently, all of which are aspects that you discover kind of on the side while following an exciting story. There’s also the problem of much of humanity still living outside such cities and the climate getting worse and worse…

illustration by Eduardo Vargas

Although this book is gripping from the very first page, there are clear kick-off points for both Cee and Kasey’s stories and they each involve the appearance of a boy. Now don’t go thinking you’ll get half a sci-fi book and half a romance. That’s not how Joan He rolls and if you’ve read Descendant of the Crane you’ll know. But whether there are romantic feelings involved or not, meeting someone and maybe kind of befriending them opens entire new worlds to them. For Kasey, it’s a boy named Actinium (or so he says, his personal data is clearly hacked and fake) who can help her find out more about Celia’s past and why she went missing in the first place. He also appears to be just as driven by logic and perceived as cold as Kasey herself is.
Meanwhile, Cee’s lonely existence (well, except for the little robot) is interrupted by a nameless boy who has even less of a clue how he got to the island than her. On the one hand, that makes them kindred spirits, on the other… let’s just say it’s not entirely clear what his deal is.

Very similarly to her debut novel, I loved, loved, loved the characters and the immensely tough decisions they have to make and the way they grow over the course of the story. Joan He effortlessly shows us who her characters are and makes us feel for them, even when they do stupid things or make decisions we wouldn’t agree with. It’s like a masterclass in writing three-dimensional multi-layered characters without ever telling us outright what kind of people they are. After reading this book, I feel like I know them and could tell you how they’d act in a given situation. And although I definitely don’t agree with them on certain things, I wanted them to achieve their hopes and dreams. I wanted the sisters to find each other, I wanted them both happy, I wanted them to magically find a way to save the world. But things aren’t that simple, even on a fictional Earth, and the shocking revelations keep on coming.

The ending was as perfect as it could have been for a story like this. I suppose I’d call it dramatic and emotional and that will get across what it’s like without giving you any hint as to whether things end well or badly or something in between. The Ones We’re Meant to Find cements my opinion of Joan He, namely that she is an author to follow closely, especially if you like YA but would like it to go in new and fresh directions. This book will be haunting me for a while yet. In a good way.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!