Quietly powerful: Ursula K. LeGuin – The Left Hand of Darkness

Last year, through no reason at all, I started reading a newer book and an older book at the same time. There are still so many SFF classics I need to catch up on and, somehow, combining and older and a newer read worked really well. It led me to this amazing book, which led me to a LeGuin shopping spree.

THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS
by Ursula K. LeGuin

Published by: Gateway, 1969
Ebook: 336 pages
Series: The Hainish Cycle #4
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.

Genly Ai is an ethnologist observing the people of the planet Gethen, a world perpetually in winter. The people there are androgynous, normally neuter, but they can become male or female at the peak of their sexual cycle.They seem to Genly Ai alien, unsophisticated and confusing. But he is drawn into the complex politics of the planet and, during a long, tortuous journey across the ice with a politician who has fallen from favour and has been outcast, he loses his professional detachment and reaches a painful understanding of the true nature of Gethenians and, in a moving and memorable sequence, even finds love . . .

A while after I started reading this book, I discovered that it was part 4 of something called the Hainish Cycle. Don’t let that scare you away. I haven’t read any of the other books and this one stands quite well alone, although it gives you glimpses of what the other books may be about.

The story is set on Gethen, a winter planet populated by an androgynous people who can become male or female when they reach a certain time in their sexual cycle. They may become male once, female the next time, but the rest of the time they appear neuter and thus, all equal. This may seem like an obvious choice for a feminist writer to make a point about gender equality and it could have come across as a cheap trick – but with someone of LeGuin’s caliber, the people’s gender identity (or lack thereof) grows naturally from the story.

Much like other aspects of the culture Genly Ai discovers on Gethen, the world-building itself is done so effortlessly, by showing instead of telling. While the gender thing may feel complicated to someone like Genly – who is male and always looks male (which makes him appear as constantly at the peak of his sexual cylce to Gethenians, or constanlty aroused) – Gethenian politics and social norms seem even stranger. This is just one aspect that made this book so great. It introduces you to a humanoid people on a planet that has similarities to ours, except it’s always cold, always winter. But the social structures, the genders, the sexual identity of its people are just different enough to give you the same sort of culture shock Genly must be feeling.

There are other things that I had a lot of fun discovering with Genly and trying to piece together in my mind. Oracles, prisons, tensions between nations… but those are just things that happen on the sidelines, between the actual plot. And that, although one might say not very much happens, is just as thrilling. Genly is on Gethen to observe, to let the people know that there are others out there in the vastness of space, that they are not alone but rather welcome to join a greater unity of people. One of the people Genly has to do with on Gethen is Estraven, whom he does not fully trust and who we, as readers, also can’t really put our finger on until the story progresses.

Genly Ai may be the offical protagonist of this novel, but it was Estraven I kept wanting to follow, to learn more about. Through their adventures together, the reader gets to know both of them better as they get to know each other and each other’s cultures better. What LeGuin does here with language is just beautiful. There are no long expositions, no explanations even, simply us readers quietly watching Genly and Estraven and the planet Gethen doing what they do and learning through them. The descriptions of the eternal ice and the winter landscapes were lovely, but it was the relationship that builds up over the course of the novel that really intrigued me.

I could read all sorts of things into this book and that makes it enjoyable even after having finished it. It’s the sort of book you should read with others, to discuss afterward, to see what others saw when they read it. I suspect every reading will give you a different experience (although I have yet to try that out myself) and every person will get something different from the book. But despite having only read it once, I understand why it won all sorts of awards and why it counts as a classic of science fiction. It is a truly remarkable work of fiction.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

My Favorite Books of 2018

It’s been very quiet around here. Life required almost all my attention most of this year so I didn’t have much time for blogging. What time I could snatch away from work, I used for reading or spending with loved ones. BUT I did read, I even reached my Goodreads challenge goal, and I discovered some amazing books. And because it’s that time of the year, I want to share them with you.

Female authors: 66,1%
Male authors: 33,9%

My favorite books published in 2018

Catherynne M. Valente – Space Opera

I love everything Cat Valente writes but I especially enjoy when she tries something new. Space Opera, while still clearly penned by Valente, is so damn funny! It’s like that Rick and Morty episode where Earth has to prove it’s worthy of staying alive by winning a music contest. But with aliens that come out of Valente’s incredibly creative brain, a washed-out rock star as a protagonist, and the most hilarious “Hey, I’m an alien and yes we exist and also you better find a great musician to compete in intergalactic Eurovision” speech you could ever imagine. I laughed until I cried, it’s that funny. But the book also has a lot of heart and will simply leave you a happier person after reading it.

Naomi Novik – Spinning Silver

I didn’t love this as much as Uprooted but it does count among the best books published this year that I read. I felt Novik didn’t do a great job distinguishing the voices of her characters and I don’t see why so many needed to have POV chapters in the first place. But the three protagonists all grew rather dear to me, in their own way, and I adored the conclusion to the story. It may start out as a retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin” but it takes pretty epic turns and grows into something much bigger. Again, I much preferred Uprooted, but Novik’s fairy tale retellings, even when they’re not her best, are still better than most others out there.

Brandon Sanderson – Skyward

I haven’t loved everything by Sanderson so far. What I’ve loved I adore, but there are some books that I just didn’t feel (Steelheart, White Sand, I’m looking at you). Skyward however, is one of his books that you want to eat up in one sleepless night, following Spensa pursue her dream of becoming a pilot like her father. It does everything a good YA science fiction novel should do. A fast moving plot, secrets within secrets (because it’s Sanderson, let’s not pretend there are no seriously surprising plot twists on the way), and have I mentioned the talking space ship?

R.F. Kuang – The Poppy War

I’m still reading this (I’m about one third through) but it is already so damn good that I just know it will end up on this list anyway! Rin is such a compelling character and the world is a pleasure to explore. I have some idea of where the story is going, but mostly, I’m clueless about the bigger picture and I love it. The setting is something you don’t often see in fantasy and I’m surprised that martial arts can be fun reading about instead of watching. But it totally works and as soon as I’m done writing this, I’ll go back to reading the book.

 

My favorite books published earlier but read in 2018

Katherine Arden – The Girl in the Tower

The follow-up to my favorite book of 2017 (The Bear and the Nightingale) had a tough job keeping up with its predecessor. But Katherine Arden didn’t let up but delivered a more than worthy second instalment in ther Winternight Trilogy. Vasya’s journey continues and takes her to the big city. Her relationship with the mythical beings she can see grows, the world suddenly seems bigger, politics are more and more important. Where the first book happened mostly in Vasya’s village, this one opens up. With that new setting come new wonders to discover but also new threats and dangers. I loved this almost as much as the first book and I already pre-ordered the final instalment, due in January!

 

Ursula Vernon – Digger

This massive graphic novel took me a long time to get through. My hardback edition is… let’s set rather unwieldy. At almost 900 pages, it’s not the kind of book you read on a commute. But Digger crawled into my heart nonetheless and now I don’t know what to do with myself, comics-wise. It’s the story of a wombat who digs herself a tunnel that leads to unexpected places. On her quest to find the way back home, she meets hyenas, monks, a spirit child thing (it’s adorable!) and gets mixed up in the politics of a god that is also a statue. Plus, there are prophetic snails, lots of wombat jokes and Ursula Vernon’s trademark practical characters. I just love how pragmatic Digger is and how she tackles problems, makes friends, and is just so lovable all the time. The ending made me cry on several occasions because these characters grew so dear to me and I didn’t want to let go. I do want more Ursula Vernon books however.

T. Kingfisher – Bryony and Roses

Here’s the second Ursula Vernon (writing as T. Kingfisher) book to make this list because she is just that awesome. This is her retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” and it is everything I had hoped for. Bryony – a practical young gardner – stumbles upon the Beast’s castle, figures out pretty quickly there’s something wrong, and does her best to break the curse. The two protagonists develop a bond that is believable and the solution was quite original, nothing I’ve read in a Beauty and the Beast retelling before. I also have to mention Bryony’s sister – who only appears very shortly but is one of those characters I wish I could meet and have a long chat with. And then hug.

Patricia A. McKillip – The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

This year, I took the time to catch up on some older SFF because usually, new releases get all the attention and I miss out on all the great stuff that’s been there for a few decades. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld blew me away. It’s a quiet but powerful story about Sybel and the mythological beasts who live with her, isolated on her mountain. When a human child is thrust upon her, everything changes. She learns to love the child, but him being the son of one of the kings  vying  for power, it is clear that young Tamlorn will be pulled into a war. This book is powerful not so much because of its surface plot but because of what isn’t said. The way her animals react, the way Sybel bases her decisions on things that happen to her, the way the characters’ emotions toward each other change and grow over time – it was a delightful read and, as my first McKillip book, makes me want to read much more by her.

Robin McKinley – Deerskin

I read a lot of fairy tale retellings this year because in stressful times, we go back to what is most comforting. The previous McKinley book I’d read didn’t exactly convince me (maybe it was because I’d seen the Disney movie of Beauty and the Beast too many times or because I read it during a bad time, I don’t know), but I gave her a second chance and – boom – she made it straight into my favorite books of the year.
Deerskin is a tough book to read. If you know the fairy tale it’s based on, “Donkeyskin”, then you know that bad things happen to the protagonist early on. McKinley managed to get through those parts without ever being gratuitous but that didn’t make them any less horrifying to read. But the bulk of this book is a journey of healing for protagonist Deerskin. The bond between her and her dog was beautiful to read, and way more intense than the slowly growing romance between her and the prince. As hard as the reading experience was, I loved everything about this. The way Deerskin has to fight hard every day to keep living, the way magic was inserted into the story, the way it ended. This is why I give authors second chances – I would not want to have missed out on this gem of a retelling.

Ursula K. LeGuin – The Left Hand of Darkness

I don’t know why I didn’t read more LeGuin sooner. Maybe because, much like with McKinley, I didn’t totally love Earthsee and therefore kind of avoided other LeGuin books. What a mistake!
I didn’t really know what to expect of this book and simply dove in without much research. And again I was rewarded. What impresses me most is how much substance LeGuin managed to put into a book that is relatively short. World-building and politics happen almost by themselves without much description or info dumping. The focus lies on the characters (which is probably why I loved it so much), but you still get such a vivid feeling of the surroundings, the political setup, the wider world that’s out there. I kind of expected difficult prose and a slow read, but I raced thorugh this in a few days because it was so very compelling.

My favorite books that were everyone’s favorites last year

There’s a reason I love SFF book awards. They draw my attention to books I may have missed or that didn’t catch my eye with their covers and descriptions but may well be worth a read. I spend a good part of this year catching up on last year’s top books, award nominees, and other bloggers’ favorites.  A very rewarding undertaking.

Sam J. Miller – The Art of Starving

What a strange and yet utterly wonderful book. I read it on the beach in Greece but my mind was totally with Matt and his starving-induced superpowers. This book does not (!) glorify eating disorders – quite the opposite. I loved Matt’s voice, the way he is clearly lost in his own skin but so sure that has all the solutions. I don’t want to give too much away, but I enjoyed every page.

Sarah Rees Brennan – In Other Lands

Oh my god, what a delight. This is Fairyland as I’ve never seen it before – through the eyes of Elliot, a young boy with no interest in becoming a Fairyland warrior whatsoever. He is sarcastic, always gets himself in the most trouble he possibly can, and somehow still keeps his two friends (at times frenemies) throughout his time in magic school. Again, this book focuses on its characters, the fantasy setting is just sprinkles on top, although Elliot does have a weird obsession with mermaids. Although he is infuriatingly dumb at times, I loved Elliot so very much. Sometimes you want to take him by the shoulders and shake sense into him, but his flaws make him all the more lovable. I also love that this is a standalone novel that you can read, enjoy, and get the full story without commiting to another 10000 pages.

Philip Pullman – La Belle Sauvage

It came as no surprise to me that I loved the first instalment in The Book of Dust, featuring a baby Lyra and Malcolm Polstead as protagonist. Pullman just has a way with words that makes you fall into a story. The characters are charming, the plot intriguing, the connection to the original His Dark Materials trilogy is there, but not so overwhelmingly that it takes away from Malcolm’s own story. This was another feelgood book and  I can’t wait for the next in the series.

Theodora Goss – The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

Everybody raved about this book last year and now I see why. I have been a fan of Theodora Goss’ writing since reading In the Forest of Forgetting but this being her first novel, I didn’t know what to expect. Rest assured, Goss found a cast of characters with charming and distinct voices (voices that frequently interrupt the story to comment on it) and she managed to write a mash-up of classic SF stories in which women take the lead. Dr. Jekyll’s daughter, Frankenstein’s second creation, a woman created by Doctor Moreau…. they all come together here to form a sort of found family and solve a series of mysterious murders. Okay, Sherlock Holmes helps a little.
Although it is completely different, I felt similarly happy while reading this as when I read The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. It has that feeling of belonging despite being an outsider. I loved it.

What I still Want to read from 2018

There are – as there are every year – several books published in 2018 that I didn’t get to but really want to read soon. Here are the ones at the top of my list:

  • Tasha Suri – Empire of Sand
    Everybody is raving about is, including people whose opinion I trust, so it needs to go on my TBR asap.
  • Natasha Ngan – Girls of Paper and Fire
    Everything about this screams “read me”. The cover, the synopsis, the fact that I got a gorgeous hardcover copy here at home.
  • Anna-Marie McLemore – Blanca & Roja
    I’ve been meaning to read McLemore for a while (I have like five of her books here, all unread) but this is the one that screams the loudest to be read soon. Plus, it’s a fairy tale retelling.
  • Rebecca Roanhorse – Trail of Lightning
    This is a book I would never pick up normally but the way the entire internet is going crazy for it makes me want to try it for myself. Covers like this (urban fantasy with weapon wielding girls) usually put me off. But the synopsis sounds good and I’m pretty sure that everybody whose reviews I read can’t be wrong.
  • Mishell Baker – Impostor Syndrome
    I loved the first two books in this series and I need to finish it soon. Although no more new books with Millie will make me very sad.
  • Theodora Goss – European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman
    Obviously.

That’s it for my 2018 reading year. I hope you had a good one as well and may we all have an excellent reading year 2019!

Excellent but kind of unfinished: Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Winterglass

I can’t resist a good fairy tale retelling, especially if it comes wrapped in a cover like this! And at 130 pages, this promised to be a quick read which is good to keep motivation for reading challenges up.

WINTERGLASS
by Benjanun Sridunagkaew

Published by: Apex Book Company, 2017
eBook: 130 pages
Standalone (?)
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: On the night of Nuawa’s execution, she saw the Winter Queen for the first time.

Winterglass is a sci-fantasy about one woman’s love for her homeland (Sirapirat) and her determination to defeat the Winter Queen who has overtaken the land.
The city-state Sirapirat once knew only warmth and monsoon. When the Winter Queen conquered it, she remade the land in her image, turning Sirapirat into a country of snow and unending frost. But an empire is not her only goal. In secret, she seeks the fragments of a mirror whose power will grant her deepest desire.
At her right hand is General Lussadh, who bears a mirror shard in her heart, as loyal to winter as she is plagued by her past as a traitor to her country. Tasked with locating other glass-bearers, she finds one in Nuawa, an insurgent who’s forged herself into a weapon that will strike down the queen.
To earn her place in the queen’s army, Nuawa must enter a deadly tournament where the losers’ souls are given in service to winter. To free Sirapirat, she is prepared to make sacrifices: those she loves, herself, and the complicated bond slowly forming between her and Lussadh.
If the splinter of glass in Nuawa’s heart doesn’t destroy her first.

This book was both a bit of a rush and a pleasure cruise. In the prologue alone, so many details are introduced that don’t make sense yet. The protagonist, Nuawa, just a little girl, is sent into an execution device called a ghost-kiln. But her mother – who is to be executed with her – gives her something to swallow, something sharp and icy, and Nuawa survives.

Nothing much makes sense at first, but throughout the story of (now grown-up) Nuawa, readers get to explore this strange science-fantasy world, in which human souls are used to generate power, where the Winter Queen has conquered formerly lush and warm places and turned them to ice, where nobody seems powerful enough to defeat her. And of course that is Nuawa’s goal. To kill the Winter Queen, who is not only responsible for turning her home into a cold place but for killing her mother as well. But Nuawa is the embodiment of patience. Many assassin’s have failed but Nuawa doesn’t plan to be one of them.

I found this a strange reading experience because it was at once a slow read, focused on character development, and at the same time things happend very quickly, rushing you through the plot to the end – which didn’t really feel like the end of the story, merely a first chapter of something bigger.

But let’s start with the story’s strong points. I loved the world building, maybe even because the reader gets thrown into it and we have to figure things out for ourselves. For Nuawa, having grown up in it, her world is self-explanatory. For us, there are many strange things and customs to discover. It’s a beautifully diverse world, filled with weird little details that enrich the story greatly. In a fight, Nuawa can slice through her oponent’s shadow, inflicting pain (and even death) on them. Sexuality seems very fluid, as well as gender identity – there is a variety of pronouns used for different characters. There are methods, appearing magical but presented as a sort of science, to protect your body against harm, and I found this all highly original and interesting. So discovering this world definitely whetted my appetite for more.

My favorite part, by far, were the characters. Although Nuawa is not exactly someone who warms the heart, her determination and strength mader her into an intriguing protagonist. She pursues her goal at any cost – there was one particularly harrowing scene which demonstrates just how far she will go. It sent shivers down my spain and made me question if I should even like Nuawa. Equally interesting was General Lussadh, the Winter Queen’s best soldier and lover. I could have read a whole book just about Lussadh!
When Nuawa and Lussadh meet, there is an instant spark – which is probably due to them both having one of the Queen’s mirror shards in them, but I like to believe that there’s also a bit of regular old attraction mixed into it. Either way, reading about these two not so different characters was the absolute best.

The story itself is pretty straight forward. Nuawa enters a tournament and wants to battle her way to the top, to become one of the Winter Queen’s soldiers. She hopes that getting close to the Queen, she will get a chance at killing her, ending her country’s enslavement to winter once and for all. And battle, she does! I will not go into detail here, but I found the fight scenes pretty awesome, especially because they show the science-fantasy quality of the book so well.

If you’ve read anything by Sriduangkaew, you know that she’s got a firm grip on language and knows how to use it to great effect. She describes scents and sounds so beautifully to make you feel like you’re there, at the place she’s talking about, standing just next to the protagonist. You can just fall into the story, which is no easy feat when the story is so short. To create a full world on such a little amount of pages is something few authors can do.

But the ending… if you can call it an ending. I do not know, at this point, if this novella is meant as the beginning of a trilogy or series but I sincerely hope so. There is a story arc here, without a cliffhanger. But the story is far from finished. Both Nuawa and Lussadh’s relationship  as well as Nuawa’s quest (and it is a quest!) simply stop at the end of this book, without even a hint of being resolved. My rating of this book depends a lot on whether it is the first part of a series or meant as a standalone. Reading this was pure pleasure but I just want more! If there is more, you can go ahead and add a full point to my rating.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

Second opinions:

Sad but beautiful: Adam Silvera – They Both Die at the End

I suppose everybody has their own coping mechanisms when it comes to loss and grief. That reading is one of mine may not be a surprise but I was myself a little weirded out by the fact that I found myself actively looking for books about death or people dying. Having already read The Fault in Our Stars, this one came to mind because everybody was talking about it and I really liked the cover. So, I tackled this adventure (if you want to call it that) and I got pretty much exactly what I expected. And for what it’s worth, it helped.

THEY BOTH DIE AT THE END
by Adam Silvera

Published by: Harper Teen, 2017
Ebook: 384 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Death-Cast is calling with the warning of a lifetime—I’m going to die today.

On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today. Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called the Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure and to live a lifetime in a single day.

Mateo Torrez gets the dreaded call that everybody will get some day. He knows from the ring tone that Death-Cast is on the line, informing him that he has less than 24 hours to live. Death-Cast knows when people die. They don’t know how or when exactly, but within a 24-hour-frame, they know and let you know so you can make arrangements.

The synopsis (and title!) should have prepared me for at least some of what was to come but those very first pages already hit me in the guts hard. Many people don’t know when they die and they won’t be informed in a timely manner so they can say their goodbyes, maybe write a will, or give away their beloved dog to someone they trust. But with my own recent loss, it went somewhat similar. Doctors informed us my grandmother had “not much time left” – without science-fictional/magical companies – which are never explained, btw – that’s as close as we get in the real world. Everybody got to say their goodbyes, talk about what was going to happen after she was gone, she got to give away her stuff to her preferred people.
And just a few weeks later, I find myself reading about someone, an 18-year-old kid, with his dad in a coma and his mother long dead, in the same situation my grandmother was. Except he didn’t have a lifetime of memories to look back on. In fact, Mateo is such an anxious teenager that he didn’t leave the house much and lived more through internet forums, games, and books than through his own experiences. As a fanatic reader and a big fan of the couch myself, I can relate.

The other of the titular “both” is Rufus Emeterio, and his entrance into this story is a little misleading as to his character. He is in the process of beating his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend to a pulp when his own phone rings with that terrible, dreaded ring tone. Recently orphaned himself, he only has his found family – consisting of his best friends and ex-girlfriend – to say goodbye to, but even that goes wrong. Rufus may be way more outgoing and open than Mateo, but the loss of his parents and sister left deep scars and changed who he was in a matter of heartbeats. Discovering who these boys were and what made them tick was the one part of the book that could be called fun, although the dark cloud of their impending death hangs over everything.

In a world where some big company knows when everybody dies, there is also an app for Deckers (people who already got the call) to make their last day count. The Last Friend App is supposed to connect people, have a last adventure, have a last night of wild sex, do whatever they please so they don’t have to be alone in their final hours. I kind of loved how touching this idea was, and how it uses technology for something good. But Adam Silvera has been on the actual internet and gives us glorious examples of all the messed up shit that can be found literally everywhere. When Mateo first tries the app, he gets messages that range from careless and insulting to immoral and disgusting. People looking to score cheap furniture from the soon-to-be-dead, others looking for sex without consequences, some looking to sell drugs, and yet others that just seem to be intrigued by the idea of chatting to people who are about to die – it’s all there and it’s all sickening.

But, as the cover suggests, Mateo and Rufus do connect via the app and, after getting to know each other a little and checking off Mateo’s to do list, they actually become friends. Mateo’s goodbye from his best friend Lidia and her daughter Penny made me cry more than anything else in this book. While Rufus tells his friends immediately that he is going to die and wants a funeral (while he’s still here) with eulogies and goodbyes and everything, Mateo keeps it secret, not wanting to burden Lidia or ruin their last day together. But that’s the thing about people who truly love you: they know when something’s wrong.

I won’t go into the details of what Mateo and Rufus do on their last day because the things themselves are actually meaningless. Sure, there’s a little VR adventure, going out of their comfort zones in different ways, opening up about their secrets, and talking about their lives and the ones they’ll leave behind. What really matters – and we all know this already, deep down – is the people you love. Thinking about death and dying, I mean really thinking about it, is hard enough, but doing it when you’re only 17 or 18 is just heartbreaking. Five stages of grief aside, it just feels so unfair! There wasn’t enough time to experience so many things. And I don’t mean big stuff like travel the world or see your grandkids grow up. Even little things like fall in love for the first time, get your first kiss, graduate from school, have sex. Plus, all of the more individual stuff, no matter how silly. If I died tomorrow, I would never find out how A Song of Ice and Fire Ends which may well be the least of my worries, but still!

It’s a bit slow to start but once the book finds its footing, it is a powerful story that hurts a little more with every new chapter. Apart from Rufus and Mateo’s point of view chapters, we get others from side characters. People the two boys meet on the street, their friends, people who work at Death-Cast… They are short chapters, but they flesh out the world a bit and remind us that Rufus and Mateo aren’t the only ones in it and not the only ones suffering. Many others got the call the same night they did, and someone had to make those calls. Famous people die too. Money does not equal happiness. People react very differently to finding out they’re about to die… Lots of small in-between chapters make this novel more accomplished, more than “just” the story of two teenagers who are about to die. They also give more meaning to Rufus and Mateo’s last day because they show that little things have an impact on others, whether it’s giving money to a beggar, smiling at someone on public transport, or any of a million other tiny things you might do without even noticing.

I half-expected this book to be cheap, to use teenage death, which is obviously a big tear-jerker, as a selling point. But I doubt that the author intended that because of how delicately he handles the topic. The boys’ last day doesn’t go perfect. They don’t get to do all they wanted to. They get to do some of it. They even get to experience new things, discover something about themselves, grow so much in such a small amount of time. And the more I read about them, the more I found myself hoping (just like they did themselves) that the title was just there to mislead us readers. They were going to make it, somehow. Death-Cast made a mistake, they can change their apparently pre-destined fate. And I won’t tell you what does happen at the end, whether the title is true or a lie, because I think that little bit of uncertainty, that sliver of hope, is not only what made this story richer. It’s also what keeps us going every day.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Second opinions:

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Catherynne M. Valente – The Refrigerator Monologues

It is a good year when a new Valente book comes out. This year, we are extra lucky because in September, we’ll get another new Valente novel which is about the Bronte children and the fantasy world they made up together – so exactly the kind of book you’d want from Cat. In The Refrigerator Monologues, Valente leaves her usual turf of fantasy, myth, and fairy tale and delivers something new, fresh, angry, and beautiful. Although it may lack the emotional punch of her fantasy tales, it will leave you uncomfortable and thoughtful in the best of ways.

THE REFRIGERATOR MONOLOGUES
by Catherynne M. Valente
illustrated by Annie Wu

Published by: Saga Press, 2017
Hardcover: 160 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I’m dead. The deadest girl in Deadtown.

The lives of six female superheroes and the girlfriends of superheroes. A ferocious riff on women in superhero comics

From the New York Times bestselling author Catherynne Valente comes a series of linked stories from the points of view of the wives and girlfriends of superheroes, female heroes, and anyone who’s ever been “refrigerated”: comic book women who are killed, raped, brainwashed, driven mad, disabled, or had their powers taken so that a male superhero’s storyline will progress.

In an entirely new and original superhero universe, Valente subversively explores these ideas and themes in the superhero genre, treating them with the same love, gravity, and humor as her fairy tales. After all, superheroes are our new fairy tales and these six women have their own stories to share.

In Deadtown, the underworld, whatever comes after death, six women meet to talk about their lives, their involvement with famous superheroes, and what led them to Deadtown (read: killed them horribly) anyway. With superhero movies still going strong, the trope of the refrigerated woman has become quite well known – it’s when a superhero’s girlfriend, wife, or even a villainess is brutally murdered for the simple reason that our hero needs a kick in the ass to make his own story move forward. Whether it’s to avenge a beloved (and now very dead) girlfriend or whether the girl is just a pawn in the boys’ superpower games, it’s never about her and she doesn’t get a voice. Cat Valente gives these women that voice.

Framed by the women meeting in Deadtown – which, although the book doesn’t spend much time on world building, a really cool place to read about – each gets to tell her own story. And – surprise! – it turns out they all had a story before whichever superhero entered their world. While all heroes and heroines, villains and the six women themselves have new and original names, anyone who has read a comic book or seen a few Marvel or DC movies will recognise most of them immediately. There’s your Gwen Stacy and your Harley Quinn, Mera (whose name I had to look up because all I knew about her was that she was Aquaman’s wife, which goes to show just how important this book is.) and Phoenix, as well as the original refrigerated woman from Green Lantern.

Each gets to tell her story in turn and here’s where my love for this book begins. Because it may be fun figuring out which superhero you’re reading about, but it is even more fun how every woman tells her story in her own voice. Pretty Polly (the Harley Quinn of this universe) talks just like you’d imagine she would. Kind of sweet-ish and girly, with a fair bit of madness added to the mix. Blue Bayou sounds angry, Paige Embry is just totally endearing, and Julia Ash (whose villain’s is aptly named Retcon) felt kind of resigned. The voices always fit and the stories these women have to tell are engaging and intriguing for more than one reason. First of all, they’re just interesting stories. Secondly, they would have fit so beautifully into their respective universes – why isn’t there space in a Spider Man movie to show Gwen Stacy as more than just the hero’s girlfriend. She had a life before him and she had a life with him, just like all the others. Their demise was incredibly heartbreaking, although obviously we know from the start that they die and if you remember the original comic books how they die. To me, that’s just another sign of how amazing a writer Valente is. If you know what happens and how it happens, and all she does is give you a little background info, give the character who is about to die a little agency and personality, and it hits you deep in the guts anyway, then yeah… that’s a great writer!

Other than the stories themselves, I loved what little we get to see of Deadtown. Like everything that is there has to be completely dead in the world of the living. So Deadtown citizens eat extinct animals and only get to read books that are gone from our world. And I loved the little aside how Deadtown is never gonna get Harry Potter. Because despite the dark subject matter and the inevitable horrible deaths of the protagonists, there is also a lot of humor in this book. At 160 pages, it runs very short and I would have loved to get more of the same (then again, when I talk about a Valente book, when do I ever not say that?), but I urge you to buy yourself a hardback copy anyway because the stories are accompanied by beautiful illustrations by Annie Wu. Each character gets an illustration of her own and the style is just perfect. Like an old comic book but with amazing character design. The book itself is also a lovely object that will sit proudly on any shelf. I know I’m a broken record but CAT VALENTE IS THE BEST AND I LOVED THIS BOOK WITH EVERY FIBER OF MY BEING!

My rating: 8/10 – Excellent!

Second opinions:

 

I love Murderbot: Martha Wells – All Systems Red

Let me talk to you about Murderbot, the delightful protagonist in Martha Wells’ novella All Systems Red. If you’ve been reading a surprising amount of tweets professing their undying love for something called Murderbot, and asked yourself what the hell was wrong with people, I can assure you everything’s fine. We are simply all completely enchanted by a fictional character, who is also a robot with human parts and feels awkward in social situations. You see, it all makes sense.

ALL SYSTEMS RED
by Martha Wells

Published by: Tor.com, 2017
Ebook: 144 pages
Series: The Murderbot Diaries #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites.

A murderous android discovers itself in All Systems Red, a tense science fiction adventure by Martha Wells that blends HBO’s Westworld with Iain M. Banks’ Culture books.
In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.
But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.
On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.
But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

If you manage to read that opening line and not continue, you have more willpower than me. You are also about to miss out on a great story with a stand-out protagonist. I haven’t read a lot of books narrated by an artificial intelligence (if any), but if I had to pick a favorite AI, Murderbot is definitely it. The moment it realizes it is no longer bound by its usual restrictive software – which basically forces it to do its job and nothing else – it uses this newfound freedom not to go on a rampage, but to download thousands of hours worth of soap operas. Because why not?

After the lovely introduction to my new favorite robot hero, it’s time to learn a bit more about the science fiction world of this story and the mystery that kicks off the plot. Murderbot is a security unit, there to protect a group of scientists on a mission to check out a new planet. Murderbot has all sorts of opinions about its humans, and the mix of fondness and awkwardness makes it all the more relatable. Sure, it’s a machine, but there is definitely something human there as well. I can’t really describe it, you simply have to read it yourself, but Murderbot felt so very real to me. If you’ve ever been at a party where you only knew one person and suddenly you had to make small talk with complete strangers but aren’t very good in social situations, you know what Murderbot feels like. Never mind the fact that it’s got weapons that could kill the entire room in a matter of seconds.

The mission is interrupted by an unexpected attack by… something. As the scientists try to scout out new areas, they find out that their maps aren’t complete and maybe even false. Something is definitely not right and Murderbot is doing its best to help figure out the mystery. The pacing of the plot is spot-on, going effortlessly from Murderbot’s introspection (and its hope for a few quiet hours to continue watching its entertainment) to action scenes. I also loved that the world building was done so well. No info dumps, just some tidbits here or there, leaving the reader to put the pieces together for themselves.

While Murderbot is the heart and soul of this novella, the human cast was pretty interesting as well. It’s not just about figuring out why things are going wrong with the mapping system, it also asks questions about free will, trust, and what makes a human human. Murderbot is mostly machine but capable of human emotions, of preferring some people over others, because it finds them more likable. And the people it’s assigned to become aware of that, they see that it’s not just a machine and have to make decisions accordingly. You wouldn’t feel any emotional attachment to your coffee machine (unless you’re as dependent on caffeine as I am) but a walking, talking machine that watches TV shows and protects human lives of its own free will, that’s a different story.

Since this is a very short book, the mystery is solved quickly and I wondered what kind of ending Martha Wells had chosen for this story. As lighthearted as it feels, this is a complex read that asks many questions and lets the readers reach their own answers. The ending could have messed it all up (spoiler: it didn’t). I am already giddy with excitement for the next instalment of this series and I hope we’ll get many more adventures with Murderbot. Because I love Murderbot!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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Brain-breaking… in a good way: Yoon Ha Lee – Ninefox Gambit

I’m going to tell you what everybody says and that’s the reason I stuck with this book at all. Stick with it! The first few chapters are confusing as hell and you may break your brain trying to understand what the hell is going on. But if you push through, it will all make sense and the book will teach you how to read it as you go along. Seriously! Stick with it!

NINEFOX GAMBIT
by Yoon Ha Lee

Published by: Solaris Books, 2016
Ebook: 384 pages
Series: The Machineries of Empire #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: At Kel Academy, an instructor had explained to Cheris’s class that the threshold winnower was a weapon of last resort, and not just for its notorious connotations.

To win an impossible war Captain Kel Cheris must awaken an ancient weapon and a despised traitor general.
Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics. Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics. Cheris’s career isn’t the only thing at stake. If the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next.
Cheris’s best hope is to ally with the undead tactician Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress.
The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own. As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao–because she might be his next victim.

I must admit to you guys that I did a thing. I had read about half of this book when Hugo nominations were about to close and… well, I nominated it. Without having finished the book! But as much as I felt I was doing something wrong (although, who was gonna stop me?), I can now happily report that I don’t regret it a bit. This book’s second half turned out to be, if possible, even more amazing than its beginning.

As mentioned above, don’t let the first two or three chapters put you off. It’s fine if nothing makes sense, it’s okay not to get what the hell that whole formation thing is about and what people mean when they say calendrical rot. These things are vital parts of the world building, but you don’t have to understand them right away. Just think of it as magic and go along until everything becomes clearer.

What carried me through the rather steep learning curve of this incredibly original story was the relationship between the protagonist, Kel Cheris, and the personality of prisoner/mass-murderer/potential psychopath Shuos Jedao that is implanted in her brain. Cheris is an object of her own education and while none of the things that baffle us as readers are new to her, it’s still intriguing to discover this world through her eyes. Plus, her conversations with Jedao help a little in making sense of the world, as he has been in prison torture hibernation for centuries and doesn’t know everything about the state of affairs.

So Cheris is in charge of a quest to win back the Fortress of Scattered Needles which has fallen to rebels. The calendrical rot that has gripped the Fortress threatens to take it out of control of the Hexarchate. I could tell you so many little details about the world, but learning them by yourself, bit by bit, putting puzzle pieces together in your head and getting that aha moment, is such a big part of why this novel is fun. Don’t get me wrong, it’s violent and tragic and mysterious, but the reading experience as such can only be described as utter fun. Cheris and Jedao make an excellent team, even though Cheris can never be sure if Jedao is manipulating her for his own purposes – whatever those might be. And this constant dance on the sword egde, in addition to the potential conspiracies going on outside of Cheris’ head, make this book very hard to put down.

Of the many things that are fascinating, Jedao was probably my number one reason to keep turning the pages. I love characters whose motives and secret plans are never quite clear, who could be either good or evil or a bit of both. Paired with Cheris, who is – to put it in very simple terms – really good at maths, who tries to do the right thing, but who is guided by her programming as much as the next Kel, a dynamic is created that is stunning to watch. Cheris knows she can’t trust Jedao, but what if he gives great advice? What if that advice only appears to serve Cheris’ plans while actually furthering his?

It took me quite a while to read this book, although it is relatively short. But this isn’t something you can read on a train during your morning commute. This story demands your full attention, and not just because the world feels so utterly crazy, so far into the future that the functionality of weapons is dependent on a calendrical system. So I recommend you savor it, you give every chapter the attention it requires, and you read it as a mystery on many levels. Between figuring out how this world works, how society works, and what Jedao’s motives are, there is still the main plot to follow, which is military science fiction at its finest.

I am beyond happy that this book is a Hugo Award finalist, although it makes my choice on how to vote that much harder. Whether it wins or not, I am looking forward to the sequel (which will come out in June) and to anything else Yoon Ha Lee writes. And thank you to the interwebs for telling me over and over to stick with the book despite those first chapters. Without these assurances, I wouldn’t have discovered this book which is quite unlike anything I’ve read before.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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Nnedi Okorafor – Binti: Home

I was far from the only one who fell in love with Nnedi Okorafor’s novella Binti two years ago. Now, the long-awaited sequel has finally arrived and almost lives up to its predecessor. When I started reading it, I thought it would be a sort of standalone novella, but it’s not. In fact, it ends in the middle of the plot, which is the main reason why I didn’t love it as fiercely as I did the first book.

HOME
by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Tor.com, 2017
Ebook: 176 pages
Series: Binti #2
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: “Five, five, five, five, five, five,” I whispered.

The thrilling sequel to the Nebula and Hugo winning Binti.
It’s been a year since Binti and Okwu enrolled at Oomza University. A year since Binti was declared a hero for uniting two warring planets. A year since she left her family to pursue her dream.
And now she must return home to her people, with her friend Okwu by her side, to face her family and face her elders.
But Okwu will be the first of his race to set foot on Earth in over a hundred years, and the first ever to come in peace.
After generations of conflict can human and Meduse ever learn to truly live in harmony?

As the title suggests, this is the story of Binti coming home after spending a year at Oomza University. This homecoming is fraught with emotion, not only for Binti herself, but for her family, her hometown, and her entire planet.

Binti and Okwu may have found a way to live together in peace, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the world is quite as open to change. Seeing Binti in her new life as a student was pure joy. Seeing her come home, accompanied by Okwu as the first Meduse allowed on Earth, less so. On the one hand, Binti is still dealing with PTSD from the events that led to her friendship with Okwu and the end of an age-long war. On the other hand, Binti is now confronted with her clashing wishes – being part of her culture, making her family proud, being a Himba, but also wanting to continue her studies, see more of the world, find her own place.

I was a bit surprised that the tension left by Binti’s disappearance took so long to break. At first, her family are simply happy to see their daughter again. And then the shitstorm breaks loose and all the pent-up resentment, jealousy, and condescension rain down upon Binti. And that doesn’t even take into account her new “hair” which seems to have a mind of its own because of her bond with Okwu. In fact, I both loved and hated reading about the reactions to Okwu. You can tell that most people try to be civil, keep an open mind, but that in their hearts, they are either afraid, mistrustful, or straight up hateful toward the Meduse. It made the difference between Binti’s university life and her home town all the more stark.

Home was again filled with beautiful writing, especially when it comes to descriptions of Binti experiencing her home. Whether it’s walking through the desert, showing Okwu the lake, or using maths for meditation – Okorafor makes the most use of her words and manages to build an entire world in less than 200 pages. Skill like that always impresses me in writers. Conjuring up pictures in your readers’ minds is one thing, but doing it in short stories or novellas is quite another and Okorafor got that skill down!

Over the course of this story, Binti has a lot on her plate. At times, I felt like she was being torn apart trying to please everyone but not losing herself in the process. She also learns new things about herself, her family, where she comes from, and where she might want to go. Her travels with her grandmother were lovely to read and expanded the world Okorafor has created for these novellas. I don’t want to give anything away here because discovering these things with Binti was so much fun and you should all experience it for yourselves.

The ending is the one thing that I didn’t love unreservedly because, unlike the first instalment, this book ends on a cliffhanger. Sure, a part of the story is told and there is a definite arc, but just as something really exciting and dangerous happens, the book is over. Had I known this before, I would have waited for the third book to come out, so I could continue reading. But considering that my only gripe with this story is that it ended too soon and that I now have to wait for the sequel, that still leaves an amazing book which tackles big themes without sacrificing story or character. If you haven’t guessed it, I am now eagerly waiting for the third book, The Night Masquerade.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

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S. L. Huang – The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist

This week, a little special edition from Book Smugglers Publishing arrived at my house and made lying in bed all day a bit more bearable. I know it was a limited print run, but I still find it so charming that the Book Smugglers included a personalised thank you note and a bookmark. The story itself was also wonderful, although it took me a while to get into it.

little-homo-sapiens-scientistTHE LITTLE HOMO SAPIENS SCIENTIST
by S. L. Huang

Published by: Book Smugglers Publishing, 2016
Paperback: 70 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Dr. Alan Zanga is to blame for this.

A dark retelling of The Little Mermaid from the author of HUNTING MONSTERS

I suppose if this is going to be recorded somewhere for posterity, I should set the record straight. The ghostwriter will probably cut it all, but hey, it’s the principle of the thing.

Dr. Cadence Mbella is the world’s most celebrated scholar of the atargati: sentient, intelligent deep-water beings who are most definitely not mermaids. When Cadence decides to release a captive atargati from scientific experimentation and interrogation, she knows her career and her life is forfeit. But she still yearns for the atargati–there is still so much to know about their physiology, their society, their culture. And Cadence would do anything to more fully understand the atargati… no matter what the cost.

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If you’re remotely interested in fairy tales, you know that Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” doesn’t exactly end the Disney way. Most of us know that and expect retellings of this story to be just as sad. But knowing that going in can also make us blunt to retellings of this melancholy tale because… well, we know the mermaid won’t be happily married to her prince, so why even get emotionally invested, right? S. L. Huang found the perfect way to bring back all the horror and gravity of what the protagonist does to become someone else, as well as twist the knife she puts in your gut right at the end. I can’t say it was a happy experience but it was damn well done!

Caddie Mbella has one passion in life: the study of the atargati (don’t call them mermaids!), a deep-sea species that baffles scientists all around the world. Caddie happens to be very good at what she does. In fact, she is the only one who can sing the way the atargati sing and is thus able to communicate with the “mermaids”. But of course, the government sticks their fingers in what could otherwise be beautiful science, kidnaps an atargati and keeps her in captivity for further study (and who knows what else). Caddie can’t bear the thought o fit and frees the atargati, knowing that from now on she has to live the rest of her life on the run. She takes that risk gladly, except without her studies, without the atargati, she has nothing left. A quick visit to a witch doctor, some DNA-manipulation, and you can see where this flipped Little Mermaid tale is going.

little-homo-sapiens-scientist-cover

There were several things that made me absolutely adore this retelling and one thing that bothered me a bit. I loved that Caddie is a lesbian kick-ass scientist (in case any Puppies are reading this: although there absolutely doesn’t need to be a reason for Caddie to be gay, it is truly important for the story!) whose passion for her job shines through in her entire narration. At first, it may feel a tiny bit like a lecture, but then again Huang is introducing a whole new species to her readers, and a bit of background knowledge is totally appreciated. The fact that Caddie delivered it only helped to flesh out her character while doing that crucial bit of initial world building. And the atargati are fascinating! They resemble human females just enough to have earned the name “mermaid” in the wider world, but they are sight-less, genderfluid species who communicate through underwater song. I found learning about them as interesting as Caddie.

However, that introduction was also my one issue with the novella (or novelette?). Because we have to learn all this information at the beginning, I didn’t really connect with the plot that much. My interest was there, but there was no emotional connection to either Caddie or the atargati yet and that made the book feel somewhat slow at first.

That all changes, however, when Caddie frees the captive atargati, has to go on the run, and eventually finds that witch doctor who can turn her into a sort of mutated atargati – with an expected life span of a few months, at best. That was where the emotional hooks finally took hold of me and it was also the first time since I was a kid that I truly felt how gigantic the decision Caddie makes really is – and how equally big the original little mermaid’s decision was (I mean, giving up your species is pretty heavy shit). As it becomes clear that Caddie has lost her purpose in life she pretty much agrees to go on a suicide mission, paved with pain and loss, for one chance to see the creatures she loves so much, live with them and learn from them. Remember when the sea witch tells the little mermaid how every step will hurt like she’s walking on knives? Oh, and how she loses her voice? Those bits are brilliantly incorporated into “The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist” and the loss of the voice especially becomes one of the most painful things for Caddie to endure.

S. L. Huang does a wonderful job of describing the underwater world of the atargati. Considering that Caddie is now missing both her sight and her ability to speak/sing, you’d think there wasn’t much left to tell. But I found the descriptions of atargati society fascinating! It was also the part of the story that let Caddie shine as a character and even offered a sort of romance. And then the ending came and it absolutely broke my heart! Even though I knew it wouldn’t end well – at least if it was a faithful retelling –  it still hit me really hard, like a knife being turned in a wound. I may or may not have cursed out loud while reading it…

All things considered, I really loved this version of The Little Mermaid, how it is both simple and clever in the way it translates the old fairy tale to a near future world. Iliked the author’s Hunting Monsters stories but I loved The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist, and I am hoping very much she’ll give us more fairy tale retellings. So here’s my plea to the Book Smugglers and S. L. Huang: Please, can I have some more?

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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Jenny Moyer – Flashfall

You know how some books take a while got get going? How a boring or difficult beginning can be hard to read but then the pay-off makes it all worthwile? This is the opposite kind of book. Here, the beginning was the best part, and then it all falls into pieces and gets worse and worse. This will be a rather long review.

flashfallFLASHFALL
by Jenny Moyer

Published by: Henry Holt and Co., 2016
Hardback: 342 pages
Series: Flashfall #1
My rating: 3,5/10

First sentence: Caves make good hiding places.

Orion is a Subpar, expected to mine the tunnels of Outpost Five, near the deadly flash curtain. For generations, her people have chased cirium—the only element that can shield humanity from the curtain’s radioactive particles. She and her caving partner, Dram work the most treacherous tunnel, fighting past flash bats and tunnel gulls, in hopes of mining enough cirium to earn their way into the protected city.
But when newcomers arrive at Outpost Five, Orion uncovers disturbing revelations that make her question everything she thought she knew about life on both sides of the cirium shield. As conditions at the outpost grow increasingly dangerous, it’s up to Orion to forge a way past the flashfall, beyond all boundaries, beyond the world as she knows it.

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Orion and Dram are best friends and cavers. They live in Outpost 5 and their job is to go into a cave and mine for cirium, a substance that is used by Congress in the protected city of Alara for a protective barrier against the flash curtain. If that sounds convoluted and clichéd, that’s because it is. Don’t expect any of this to make sense. However, good-natured as I am, I decided to just roll with it and enjoy the story on a different level.

Orion, our protagonist, is your typical YA heroine, and she is also quite obviously in love with her best friend Dram. They make a kick-ass team and their trips into Cave Nine were thrilling to read. If the author had stuck with that idea and run with it, this could have been a great YA book. But Jenny Moyer apparently didn’t know how to spread out her ideas (or other people’s ideas) and threw in everything and the kitchen sink, without regard for the plot or world building. While the beginning of the book is well-paced, introducing the progatonists and some side characters, there came a point where everything went to shit.

For conflict, Orion has to get into trouble, and I am totally okay with that because that’s what makes great stories. But her and Dram get transported, imprisoned, escape, get imprisoned again, sent somewhere else, escape to a new place, come back, get caught again – so many times and in such quick succession that any dangerous situation feels utterly ridiculous after a while. There also isn’t any sense of real danger because they conveniently get saved by some poor schmuck sacrificing themselves for them.

This actually bothered me a lot. At first, side characters who got some introduction blindly sacrifice themselves for these two teenagers without any hint of their motives. Later, the author just didn’t care anymore and randomly introduced new characters only to kill them off a few pages later so Orion can survive. In some cases, the sacrifice is relatable, but I got the feeling that the author wanted Orion so very much to be Katniss, with the same level of fame and respect from a rebellion that doesn’t even exist in Flashfall. But Orion is really not that special and, much more importantly, her story isn’t broadcast across the nation so nobody knows that she’s sort of uprising. All she does is break a sign. Why should random people – ones she’s only just met – blindly walk into death for her? And the amount of times that happens is just mind-boggling. It’s cheap and it’s bad writing and it weakens the entire story.

Another aspect that showed bad plotting was how convenient things were. Not just character deaths but other things as well. Like a side character is introduced only to give one vital piece of information to Orion and then never be mentioned again (or die in the next chapter). The same goes for tricky situations. They get out of them so easily and so quickly. Every plan immediately works, and if it doesn’t, just throw a side character into their death. Either way, the action scenes rarely took more than a page or two which gave the whole story a weird sense of time passing.

What makes things worse is the terrible world building. Where do I start? Oh, I know, let’s start with the map. I love maps in books because they usually give you a bit of additional information for the story and help you navigate an invented world in your mind while you’re reading. Not so in Flashfall. If anything, the map made things even harder to understand. To be fair, if all the artist had to go on was the descriptions in the book, there really wasn’t anthing to be done. Look here (click to biggify):

I wasn’t the only person who had trouble with this map or the descriptions in the book. Because the working of this world is never really explained, I tried to piece it together myself. But none of it made any sense! The flash curtain is apparently this radioactive wall of fog that kills regular humans, called Normals. Subpars, like Orion and Dram, can withstand the radiaton. They live in Outpost 5, I’m assuming that dividing line is the flash curtain – and the privileged Normals live in the city of Alara protected by that weird dome-like wall thingy. At least I think that’s what it is. However, there are also Normals living in Orion’s outpost – WTF? Why don’t they get sick? What is even the point of having them there if they can’t go down into the caves to mine for cirium? Oh yeah, and cirium is needed constantly for that protection dome/wall… I have no idea why. If there’s already a wall why would they need more cirium? As it turns out, the rich people are evil (who could have seen that coming?) and use cirium for other stuff as well. No spoilers although, trust me, you wouldn’t mind anyway.

As I mentioned before, Orion and Dram “visit” lots of other places as well, some Outposts, some cordons, although the main difference seems to be the vicinity to the flash curtain. The vague and really cheap explanations as to why people are in the cordons at all didn’t help with the world building either. It appears the elite is also really stupid if their secret evil plan is doing what they’re doing. To make things more confusing, we later find out a bit more about Alara and its inhabitants. Like that they have drones and helicopters. Which don’t go with the set-up of the world AT ALL. Everything is jarring, nothing fits together, even distances don’t make sense. The speed at which Orion travels between cordons makes it feel like distances on the map aren’t very far apart. But that doesn’t go with the descriptions of the caves’ vastness.

Very little thought went into the world building. The most effort was probably put into substitute curse words which also don’t make sense. People curse with “fire” or “flash me” – at least “flash me” goes with the general world. The flash curtain is a menace, a danger, so using it as a curse is fine. But why would anybody curse with “fire” ? Fire doesn’t have special meaning in this story, it’s not like fires have to be avoided at all costs because cirium is super flammable or anything. I have no idea where it comes from and it threw me out of the story every time it came up.

But the saddest part was the plot. As I said, it started off so well. I didn’t expect a great work of literature here, just some fun adventure with a romance thrown in or something.  And at the start, the book really showed potential. We see Dram and Orion in action doing their job and being damn good at it, we meet their families and friends, the way they live. They go into cave nine, meet some dangers and get out of them by themselves and by being a great team. However, that seems to have been the only consistent idea the author had, because once the world gets opened up and she tries to show us the bigger picture, it becomes clearer and clearer that there is no plan. The world makes no sense, Orion’s fame makes no sense, the mindless idiots dying for her make no sense. Throw in some magical people – Conjurors – who can manipulate the elements, throw in weird sub-societies in different outposts and cordons, incredibly convenient hints for the protagonists to find, really lame plot twists and a story that, in terms of character development and world building leaves you exactly where you started and you’ve got a hot mess named Flashfall.

In the end, I have more questions than answers. What even is the flash curtain? Why is it a straight line on the map? Why do Normals live with Subpars in the outposts if Normals aren’t resistent to the radiation? Why would anyone work for the protected elite in the first place? How does the world at large work? Why is there magic, why are the powerful people trying to stop Conjurers from using it? Why would they not let scientists work on a cure or a protection against radiation sickness? None of it makes sense. What’s even the point of having outposts and cordons, especially if some of them seem designed only to kill people in ridiculous ways? Why would a city even be built that close to the Flash curtain if it’s such a straight, nicely contained line? Why has Orion never seen the sky? If everything’s so full of clouds and radiation, how do the Normals even survive? What the hell is any of this about???

The ending isn’t really any better. Things work out super-conveniently for Orion again and we get an incredibly cheese last scene but there wasn’t even an attempt to make readers want to read the next book in the series. I can only assume that the many favorable reviews were written by people who still have hope that it gets better, that all those questions are answered in the sequels. I do not have that hope and I feel no need at all to continue torturing myself with a series that is so self-indulgent, so unfocused, and by an author who so clearly doesn’t have a plan.

For a well-executed romance and the nice beginning I’m giving this a handful of points. For starting well and leaving me angry, it’s not a big handful.

MY RATING: 3,5/10 – Bad

P.S.: If anyone has read this and can explain any of the things that were unclear to me, please leave a comment or send me an e-mail. I am genuinely interested if it was just me being an idiot while reading.

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