Sisters Survive Through Fantasy: Fran Wilde – Riverland

In my yearly quest to be a conscientious Hugo voter and read ALL THE BOOKS, I have come to look forward to the Lodestar finalists a lot. If you read a lot of YA, you can get overwhelmed by the various hypes surrounding books with pretty covers or by famous authors and it gets easy to overlook the lesser known ones. I’m glad the Lodestar finalists offer a variety of  books for young people and not just the most popular ones. Even if this one didn’t really work for me.

RIVERLAND
by Fran Wilde

Published: Amulet Books, 2019
eBook: 352 pages
Standalone
My rating: 5,5/10

Opening line: “Once upon a time…”

When things go bad at home, sisters Eleanor and Mike hide in a secret place under Eleanor’s bed, telling monster stories. Often, it seems those stories and their mother’s house magic are all that keep them safe from both busybodies and their dad’s temper. But when their father breaks a family heirloom, a glass witch ball, a river suddenly appears beneath the bed, and Eleanor and Mike fall into a world where dreams are born, nightmares struggle to break into the real world, and secrets have big consequences. Full of both adventure and heart, Riverland is a story about the bond between two sisters and how they must make their own magic to protect each other and save the ones they love.

Eleanor and her little sister Mike live with their parents, go to school, and are generally normal kids. Except for the house magic, of course. House magic is when things get broken or disappear, new things magically appear to replace them. It is vital that the two sisters keep this a secret from the rest of the world because if you break the rules, bad things happen…

I knew before I started reading this book that it deals with domestic abuse and violence but this is also a fantasy novel, so it took me a while to figure out whether the whole concept of house magic was actual magic or just something Eleanor made up to explain how when her father breaks pictures on the wall or the TV, her mom simply goes out and buys new things to replace them. Generally, I like my magic ambiguous. Give me Pan’s Labyrinth all the way and let me make up my own mind whether to believe the magic is real or just a metaphor. But in this book, I struggled for some reason. I wanted to know what was real and what wasn’t, especially when elements that were clearly fantasy and clearly “real magic” came into play.

While certain aspects of this novel were enjoyable, many others left me wanting. The world building and plot are very weak and real, difficult  problems are resolved too easily. It made me wonder what all the struggle was for when things can just get better with a poof. But let’s start with the characters because that’ what a good story hinges on for me.

I liked both Eleanor and Mike and it was easy to feel their fear and the restrictions their family life puts on them. They have to make extra sure to stick to the rules, to not make their father angry, disobey, or draw attention to their family because otherwise bad things happen. Those bad things are usually described only by the loud noises the girls hear before going to sleep but it’s obvious their father is violent. He breaks objects around the house, he may beat his wife, and he’s definitely easy to annoy. Having some experience with a hostile environment myself,  I found Fran Wilde’s descriptions of the girls constant fear to be excellent. Even if their father’s isn’t aimed directly at the girls, they  see and hear things and their home is not the safe and happy place it should be!
But unfortunately, that is the defining characteristic of our two protagonists. Sure, it is mentioned once that Eleanor likes school and learning in general, and that she enjoys fantasy books, but I didn’t get the overall impression that she was a fully formed character. Mike is mostly portrayed as the adorable younger sister who sometimes blurts out things she shouldn’t. That didn’t keep me from caring for these two but I just wanted a little bit more.

My biggest issue with this book was the plot and world building, though. When the kids’ father breaks an heirloom “witch ball” – a glass sphere that used to be a fishing lure – the girls discover a magical Riverland by falling into a puddle under Eleanor’s bed. This is where the real magic starts and it had so much potential to be a great children’s portal fantasy. But sadly, the magical Riverland is small, boring, and peopled very sparsely. This magical river is the world of Dream where nightmares are horse-shaped smoke, birds can talk, and crabs try to fix leaks in the river. And that’s it. There isn’t any more to it, even by the end of the book.
I also didn’t like how comparatively easy it was for the girls to go in and out of this magical world. There are obstacles, of course, but  much like the issue at the heart of this book, these obstacles are overcome too easily and too quickly. That made it harder for me to believe that the River is actually dangerous and it took out all the tension from the more exciting scenes. If I, as the reader, don’t think anything can really happen to the protagonists, why shouuld I care?

That doesn’t mean that this is a bad book. Ironically for an avid fantasy reader, I preferred the parts of the plot that happened in the real world and had nothing to do with magic. El and Mike meet their grandmother for the first time and see that spilling some water doesn’t have to end in being shouted at. El also visits her best friend Pendra’s house – a chaotic place filled with noise, and pets, and love. These scenes helped show the contrast to their own family home beautifully and made me ache inside. They’re just two kids and they deserve a happy childhood, not one where they have to be constantly on edge and fear that their toys will be taken away, their  mother might get hurt, or they will be  punished for things children do.

So I’m on the fence. I think Fran Wilde took on a very difficult topic and tried to wrap it into a middle grade story by leaving the worst parts out. I appreciate that there is almost no description of actual violence – it’s all shouting and noises of glass breaking or plates being smashed – but it also makes things feel less bad than they actually are. I also loved how the sisters don’t just go and talk to someone. There are many reasons why victims of domestic violence don’t come forward (shame, fear, any number of things) – that felt realistic to me, even though I know that speaking up and confiding in someone would have probably made their life a lot  better. I had hoped that their trips to the magical River would serve as a sort of parallel of them finding their way in the real world but for that, the magic system and world building just weren’t fleshed out enough. And again, when the ending does come and things are resolved, it felt almost cheap.

The core message here is that someone won’t magically appear to help you out of your trouble. You have to save yourself! And in this case, it’ two sisters saving themselves and each other. I can’t find any fault with that message but I still think it could have been wrapped in a better story.

MY RATING: 5,5 – A little meh, but still kind of good

Shape-Shifter Space Adventure: Yoon Ha Lee – Dragon Pearl

Yoon Ha Lee is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting voices in SFF. His Machineries of Empire trilogy did things to my brain that I didn’t think possible. Going from this crazy complex SF story to Middle Grade is a big departure. While I think he did a good job and wrote a wonderful tale of adventure, it lacked that certain extra that made his adult novels stand out the way they did.

DRAGON PEARL
by Yoon Ha Lee

Published: Rick Riordan Presents, 2019
eBook: 312 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

Opening line: I almost missed the stranger’s visit that morning.

Thirteen-year-old Min comes from a long line of fox spirits. But you’d never know it by looking at her. To keep the family safe, Min’s mother insists that none of them use any fox-magic, such as Charm or shape-shifting. They must appear human at all times.
Min feels hemmed in by the household rules and resents the endless chores, the cousins who crowd her, and the aunties who judge her. She would like nothing more than to escape Jinju, her neglected, dust-ridden, and impoverished planet. She’s counting the days until she can follow her older brother, Jun, into the Space Forces and see more of the Thousand Worlds.
When word arrives that Jun is suspected of leaving his post to go in search of the Dragon Pearl, Min knows that something is wrong. Jun would never desert his battle cruiser, even for a mystical object rumored to have tremendous power. She decides to run away to find him and clear his name.
Min’s quest will have her meeting gamblers, pirates, and vengeful ghosts. It will involve deception, lies, and sabotage. She will be forced to use more fox-magic than ever before, and to rely on all of her cleverness and bravery. The outcome may not be what she had hoped, but it has the potential to exceed her wildest dreams.

This is exactly the kind of adventure story I would have loved as a kid. A young girl with magical shape-shifting powers runs away from home to find her brother who allegedly deserted his dream job at the Space Forces. Min knows that just can’t be true and she is determined to find her brother Jun, clear his name, and maybe even find that Dragon Pearl that could help terraform their dusty planet. There are all sorts of dangerous situations, new friends (and enemies) to be made, dark secrets to discover, and lessons to be learned.

But I read this as an adult and while I love YA and Middle Grade fiction, I need something more than just a good story. And Yoon Ha Lee did a pretty great job at adding layers onto this tale of wild space adventures. It begins with Min’s family being fox spirits. Based on Korean mythology, fox spirits can shape-shift into anything, even inanimate objects, and because of their powers (and the fact that they are said to suck the souls from humans) they are feared. So Min has been hiding her true self all her life, but it becomes necessary to use those powers and use them frequently on her quest to save her brother.
This led to several interesting developments. While making herself slightly older-looking to get past some guards is one thing, at some point she changes into a male body because the situation demands it. Now Min doesn’t dwell much on this, except for the occasional comment about suddenly having more stuff between her legs, but I found it intersting because it manages to talk about gender without really making it a big deal for the characters. There’s not really much discussion about Min’s identity – she’s always herself, no matter which body she currently wears. And one of the side characters is addressed as gender-neutral, which is also explained once and respected by everyone. The way this seamlessly just works within the story makes it easy to glance over it, but I think it’s an important message, especially for kids.

The world building was also quite interesting, although it’s one of the things that I felt needed more depth. Apart from fox spirits, there are also dragons, tigers, dokkaebi, and goblins – all with different supernatural powers. The Dragon Society is essentially rich people. Dragons can influence the weather and do most of the work when it comes to terraforming new planets. Jinju, Min’s home planet, got the short end of that stick and is still pretty impoverished and not exactly nice to live on. If only the mystical (and missing) Dragon Pearl were here, then it could help make Min’s planet more livable.
There are definitely great ideas hidden in the world building and I liked how Lee handled the class difference between different cultures or planets. But there’s not a lot of that and I felt like I had to make up my own ideas about the backstory if I wanted to know more. And I get why it is written that way – there is a lot of story to get through and adding more to the world building would have made this a much bigger book. And it’s meant to be for kids.

The characters ranged from well-developed and layered to flat and I don’t know how to feel about them as a whole. Min is a good protagonist, she’s clever and resourceful, brave and kind, and it’s easy to insert yourself in her shoes and live through her journey with her. Some side characters also showed surprising amounts of depth, like Haneul and Sujin, the two people Min’ befriends on a space ship. But others, especially the villain, remained flat until the end. Ooooh, I’m bad because I want all the power and I have no conscience and nothing will stand in my way. 
Of course that works for a children’s book because it’s easy to hate the villain and it makes the heroes’ decisions much simpler. Again, I understand why it was written that way, but I believe that kids can handle more nuanced characters just fine.

That all sounded very negative but I actually enjoyed reading this book because it does tell an exciting story with cool magic. I may have remained at arm’s length from the characters but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy space battles, dealing with ghosts, learning about the Space Forces, or watching Min trick others with her fox magic. This may only have been a good book for adult me but I just know that child me would have loved it. And while I can’t go back in time and give my younger self this story, I can definitely put it into the hands of other young people.
As science fiction for young readers goes, this is definitely one of the more interesting ones, not only because it mixes Korean mythology with a space adventure but because it shows a diverse range of people and genders. There’s not enough books like this out there and I have to say, I am growing ever fonder of the Rick Riordan Presents series!

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite Good

Getting Closer to That Tower: Stephen King – Song of Susannah

This is my year of finishing book series. I finished a few series already and it felt so nice to finally know the entire story, to get to that long-awaited ending, that I decided to pick up some of the series I had left on the TBR for way too long. Stephen King’s Dark Tower is one such series. I don’t even know when I read the last book but I have to credit King’s writing for me remembering everything really clearly, even after a few years. This is the sixth book in the series and I won’t spoil any of its plot, but there will by necessity be spoilers for volumes 1 through 5 below!

SONG OF SUSANNAH
by Stephen King

Published: Hodder & Stoughton, 2004
Paperback: 450 pages
Series: The Dark Tower #6
My rating: 5,5/10

Opening line: “How long will the magic stay?”

Roland Deschain, gunslinger, hero, continues his perilous adventures in search of the key to the quest that will define his life.
Roland’s loyal followers Jake, Father Callahan and Oy set out the break Susannah’s date with destiny in New York.
Meanwhile, Roland and Eddie brave the state of Maine in the summer of 1977. It is a frightful world where bullets are flying. A world inhabited by the author of a novel called ‘Salem’s Lot
Driven by revelation and suspense, this pivotal instalment in this magnificent epic will leave readers gasping to read the electrifying conclusion, The Dark Tower.
And the Tower is closer…

I did not expect to get back into this vast univese as quickly or easily as I did. While I have an old paperback copy of this book on my shelves, I treated myself to the audio version as well and this may have been part of the reason why I read it so fast. Sure, Stephen King’s writing style is great to fall into, his books are usually page turners for me, and the short sub-chapters make it all the easier to read “just one more” before bed. But I don’t think that’s all of it.

The story picks up right where Wolves of the Calla left off and if you’ve read that book you know that Susannah is pregnant with a weird monster baby and also has been behaving very strange lately… That and the book’s title make it fairly obvious what we’re dealing with in this volume. I’m glad Susannah’s pregnancy wasn’t the only plot thread we followed, however.
While she is battling Mia’s personality who has taken over her body (and on occasion Detta… who’s back), Roland and Eddie take a trip to Maine where they visit a certain writer of horror fiction.

As the synopsis already tells you who they find, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that King actually did it. He wrote himself into one of his books and it was the weirdest, most delightful thing I could imagine. It takes guts to do that, to neither glorify yourself nor paint yourself in too bad a light and, for me, King pulled it off. I had so much fun reading these passages and – whether that’s true or not – it felt like we actually got to meet the real Stephen King. A Stephen King from the 70ies who’s still a fairly new writer but still. It was my second favorite part of the whole book.
Meanwhile, Jake and Father Callahan try to save Susannah from whatever fate awaits her. There are action scenes, we learn a bit more about the Low Men (which some of you may know from Hearts in Atlantis) but in general, there was too little Jake in this book, at least for my taste. And I’ve never truly warmed to Father Callahan which is probably why Wolves of the Calla took me ages to read.

I may have flown through this book but I don’t think it was actually all that good. I was hooked, of course, and I wanted to know what happened next. But the ka-tet is split up and that’s no fun. And Susannah’s part especially felt a lot like re-hashing the events of The Drawing of the Three where her split personalities battled each other to become Susannah. As much fun as it was, it felt like we’d been here before. Mia who’s possessing Susannah this time around was interesting enough and I found her backstory both intriguing and sad. But overall, I didn’t think the characters were developed much and their arcs weren’t pushed forward in this book. I just need my ka-tet to be together, okay?

There is one thing, however, that made this worthwile for me, and that was the last chapter. Don’t be fooled, it’s a nice and long chapter. I won’t tell you what it is about and while it also doesn’t really push the gunslinger and his ka-tet closer to the Tower, I had so much fun reading it. Many of Stephen King’s books tie into the Dark Tower universe and he did a fantastic job in showing how that came to be. It’s also a nice reminder of just how many characters, names, and stories feed into Roland’s bigger story. That’s all I can say without spoiling. You just have to trust me that it’s worth it.

The fact that this was only a meh instalment in an otherwise great series will not keep me from reading the seventh and final book, of course (and then the eighth which goes chronologically somewhere around volume four). Many series do that thing were the novel before the last is mostly set-up for the big climax and while I think authors should strive to do better, I’ve come too far to stop now.

MY RATING: 5,5/10 – Okay

The Goblin Market Awaits: Seanan McGuire – In An Absent Dream

My track record with Seanan McGuire’s books is not great, but it is slowly getting better as I pick up more of her books and find I quite enjoy some of them. The Wayward Children series, however, has been a mixed bag, to put it nicely. And my biggest problem with the series remains – namely that we don’t get the magic but only the grief of having lost it – but there are moments of brightness. This instalment, I’m happy to say, is on such bright moment.

IN AN ABSENT DREAM
by Seanan McGuire

Published: Tor.com, 2019
Ebook: 187 pages
Series: Wayward Children #4
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: In a house, on a street, in a town ordinary enough in every aspect to cross over its own roots and become remarkable, there lived a girl named Katherine Victoria Lundy.

This fourth entry and prequel tells the story of Lundy, a very serious young girl who would rather study and dream than become a respectable housewife and live up to the expectations of the world around her. As well she should.
When she finds a doorway to a world founded on logic and reason, riddles and lies, she thinks she’s found her paradise. Alas, everything costs at the goblin market, and when her time there is drawing to a close, she makes the kind of bargain that never plays out well.

Katherine Lundy is a quiet, almost solemn, child who sticks by the rules and has learned not to mind the fact that she has no friends. Being the headmaster’s daughter is difficult but she retreats into a world of books. When one day, a tree appears in her path, and in that tree is a door, Lundy may hesitate, but she steps through – and into the Goblin Market. Before she comes out on the other side, however, there are certain rules to remember…

You will be surprised but not as surprised as I myself was that I really, really enjoyed this book! Finally, this volume shows what I had been hoping for from the beginning, by the description and marketing of this series. It shows a young girl who stumbles into a different, magical world, and then loses that world. You know that’s not a spoiler because the premise of all of these books is that it’s about people who have lost their portal world. But here, we actually get to see and experience it alongside Lundy and learn to love it the way she does. Here, we feel her pain whenever she has to go home again only to yearn for her return to the Market. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This particular version of the Goblin Market has very little to do with the poem by Christina Rossetti, except that everything has a price. So much so, in fact, that cheating someone becomes impossible. The Market regulates itself and ensures that fair value is given for every transaction. Whether that is a trade of goods, or a service rendered, if someone goes into debt, the Market does what is necessary to restore balance. In this case, it means you slowly turn into a bird… for a small debt, you may sprout some feathers, for a larger one your hands may turn into talons, and so on. I myself am also a friend of rules so, much like Lundy, I gravitated towards this magical world where doing good deeds will grant you good things in return. But despite all the logic and rules, there is still magic everywhere. Centaur unicorns, books that want to be tucked in at night, it’s all there and it’s all wonderful!
And I haven’t even mentioned Moon, the very first friend Lundy makes at the Market. Their relationship, while it could have been fleshed out a bit better, created another anchor for Lundy, another reason to stay at the Market forever and not return to a world where women are not listened to and fair value is rarely given.

The writing style varies but it’s mostly competent with moments of true greatness! This was the first book in the series that made me feel like I get to step into a fairy tale with its protagonist. Some of the descriptions came across like some wise old person was reading them to me, winking when appropriate. McGuire managed to paint pictures with her words and made me taste hot pies and berries fresh off the trees. Why isn’t everything she writes like this?

The one big problem with this book (and the series as a whole) is that we never get to be there when all the great stuff happens. When Lundy returns to our world for the first time, we have seen some of the wonders the Goblin Market can hold, but we are only told that a big event took place, one that even cost a character their life – except it’s a character we never got to know so this isn’t a spoiler. And because this character was only mentioned briefly by name but never properly introduced, Lundy’s grief had zero emotional impact on me. Apparently, she made another friend at the Market, and that friend died in an epic showdown with the Wasp Queen. But we didn’t get to be there! We don’t know that friend, we don’t get to experience the friendship and the consequent pain of losing that friend because it’s literally a throw-away line that lets us know this happened. Also, I would have been really interested in that Wasp Queen and that big battle…
The second time she returns home, the same thing happens. We’re quickly informed there was a battle against Something Evil that leaves Lundy with scars but, not having been there, the reader doesn’t ever get to feel with Lundy. I don’t quite understand why McGuire chose to do it this way. Surely she could have made up some other reason for Lundy to briefly return to our world, if only to get supplies with which to trade at the Market.
I guess this being  a series of novellas rather than full-length novels is partly to blame for that. There simply isn’t enough time to explore all these portal worlds in depth when you only have about 200 pages to do so. There was enough wonder for me to truly enjoy this book, but I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if we’d actually gotten to see all of Lundy and Moon’s adventures in full.

I won’t say much about the ending, except that I thought it was well done and made me feel for Lundy like I had never felt for any of Eleanor West’s wayward children before.

Now that all the gripes are out of the way, I have to say that this is the first Hugo nominated Wayward Children novella that I believe truly deserves its spot on the ballot. Down Among the Sticks and Bones was very good as well, but I didn’t enjoy the writing so much as to notice it. Here, in this novella,  I actually smiled to myself occasionally while reading. And sure, McGuire takes the emotional impact out of her own books on purpose, and this could have been a much deeper, much more moving work of fiction, but for its 187 pages, it got me emotionally involved enough. I don’t quite know where to place this on my Hugo ballot (it’s full of excellent titles) but at this moment, I see it somewhere in the top four.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Ursula K. LeGuin – The Farthest Shore

My reading of the Earthsea Cycle continues and I believe that I have made it past its most boring entry with this book. It’s not without merit – quite the opposite – but it’s a book that makes you work for it. The enjoyment isn’t right there on the page, you have to create it yourself. And, honestly, I struggled with that at times.

THE FARTHEST SHORE
by Ursula K. LeGuin

Published: Bantam, 1972
Ebook: 288 pages
Series: Earthsea #3
My rating: 5/10

Opening line: In the court of the fountain the sun of March shone through young leaves of ash and elm, and water leapt and fell through shadow and clear light.

Darkness threatens to overtake Earthsea: the world and its wizards are losing their magic. Despite being wearied with age, Ged Sparrowhawk – Archmage, wizard, and dragonlord – embarks on a daring, treacherous journey, accompanied by Enlad’s young Prince Arren, to discover the reasons behind this devastating pattern of loss. Together they will sail to the farthest reaches of their world – even beyond the realm of death – as they seek to restore magic to a land desperately thirsty for it.

Magic is disappearing from the world and young Prince Arren is sent by his father to Roke to ask the Archmage Sparrowhawk for guidance. Sparrowhawk, whom we know as Ged, of course, has heard similar tales of wizards losing their powers from different parts of Earthsea and takes young Arren on a quest to figure out what’s causing this terrifying development and how to fix it.

What follows are many very slow chapters that don’t offer a lot of plot on the surface but rather spend most time pondering about life, death, the meaning of ones actions, the need for a king to unify Earthsea, and all sorts of other stuff. Ged sometimes showers Arren in his wisdom and while the young man puts his loyalty into the older man, their relationship goes through a lot of stages before being truly comfortable. Watching them change from a sort of master/follower dynamic into something new was one of the aspects I liked about this book.
So these two men, one the Archmage who has restored the ring of Erreth-Akbe, the other a young prince with the weight of responsibility on his shoulders and no magic at all, travel on the trusty boat Lookfar to far places and devastated islands. They meet people who have been affected by the loss of magic and they see how differently they deal with this loss. Here, too, we got interesting glimpses into other places on Earthsea, but never enough to fully immerse myself. Whenever we’d reach a place and finally talk to someone, within a few pages we’d be gone again, off to the next island.

These were the parts of the novel where I felt I could (and maybe should?) read a lot into the story but I had no idea what the author truly wanted to say. There is a lot of talk about life and death, and how the two are sides of the same coin. But at the same time, this story is also about Arren growing up and learning that people he may idolize are just regular people as well, with flaws and quirks and a past. And while I appreciate these themes and I generally enjoy fiction that makes me think, in this book it was simply too much “let’s think hard about the meaning of life” and not enough adventure, magic, or getting to know characters. Or let’s put it differently, I wasn’t sure where things were going – were we going to fight some evil entity that sucks out all the magic from the world? Would there be an epic battle? Or would this story lead to a quiet, introspective ending where Arren has grown up to be a great, responsible man, and magic is returned because of the power of belief or something like that.

There were some passages that I found truly exciting. Ged and Arren meet a group of people who live on rafts on the open sea, never setting foot on land. Their culture and way of life was so interesting and I had so much fun getting to know them that this was probably my favorite chapter in the entire book. Similarly, I enjoyed their encounters with dragons, and the ending which, while not necessarily the kind of epic battle you’d expect, was moving and actually tied the whole book together neatly.

I feel like this may be the kind of book I will appreciate more on a re-read. It’s a clear departure from the first two novels which could be marketed as YA because I doubt children would have the patience for a story like this. It’s too slow-moving for that. And while I appreciate this work for what it says, I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed reading it very much. Mostly, it was a slog and I had to really work finding something to hold on to, something to care about. That makes it by no means a bad book and the ending made me want to continue the series even more, but as ratings go, I have to take pleasure into consideration. As middling as this may have been, I don’t think you’ll have to wait long for my next review. Tehanu is the Earthsea book I am most excited for!

MY RATING: 5/10 – Meh

 

Charlie Jane Anders – The City in the Middle of the Night

I have been looking forward to this book ever since it came out early last year. Now that it’s a finalist for the Hugo Award, I finally picked it up. It took me a lot longer than expected and it didn’t grab me as much as Anders’ debut novel did but – like most of the other finalists – it is a worthy entry in this year’s shortlist.

THE CITY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT
by Charlie Jane Anders

Published: Tor, 2019
Ebook: 368 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: This manuscript has been translated from the original Xiosphanti and Argelan into Peak English, which as Jthkyklakno points out [ref. 2327.288] has become “the language which everyone reads, but nobody speaks,” across several worlds and spacenodes.

“If you control our sleep, then you can own our dreams… And from there, it’s easy to control our entire lives.”
Set on a planet that has fully definitive, never-changing zones of day and night, with ensuing extreme climates of endless, frigid darkness and blinding, relentless light, humankind has somehow continued apace — though the perils outside the built cities are rife with danger as much as the streets below.
But in a world where time means only what the ruling government proclaims, and the levels of light available are artificially imposed to great consequence, lost souls and disappeared bodies are shadow-bound and savage, and as common as grains of sand. And one such pariah, sacrificed to the night, but borne up by time and a mysterious bond with an enigmatic beast, will rise to take on the entire planet–before it can crumble beneath the weight of human existence.

This is the story of a tidally-locked planet and the humans trying to survive on it. Told through Sophie and Mouth’s point of view, we get to see the strictly ruled city of Xiosphant – where life is completely dominated by time and being seen outside after shutters up is a crime – and we get to see the city of Argelan where time doesn’t matter and everybody lives by their own rhythm. But the planet January wasn’t empty when humans decided to colonize it many years ago… there are several native species living here, and other than the humans, they do so in harmony with the planet’s harsh nature.

The story begins with Sophie and her best friend Bianca, who live by the strict Xiosphanti rules but dream of revolution. Wouldn’t it be great if work could be divided more fairly among people? If missing curfew didn’t bring harsh punishment? If life could be a little more fun and a little less serious? Well, dreaming about these things is easy. When Sophie takes the blame for a petty crime however, she is sentenced to death outside the city walls. As one side of the planet exists in eternal night – and the terrible cold that comes with it, this sentence usually doesn’t take very long. But Sophie meets one of the native creatures, something the humans call “crocodiles” although they have nothing in common with actual crocodiles, and her life is saved.

Having survived, she now lives in secret with people she can trust, and can only watch her former best friend from afar, yearning for their friendship, hoping to just be able to tell Bianca that she’s still alive. But it isn’t until Bianca falls for a travelling trader’s scheme that Sophie shows up in her life again.
That travelling trader is Mouth who, along with her group of colleagues, transports goods from Xiosphant to Argelo and vice versa. But she also has her own agenda. As her own culture has been wiped out completely, she is desperate for an old artifact that is supposed to be in the Xiosphant palace. And she’s willing to go through Bianca to get it. But things don’t turn out as planned of course and Mouth, as well as Sophie and Bianca, soon make their way to Argelo and get to see a whole different side of this planet… and of each other.

Anders doesn’t spend much time setting up her world at first. So I felt quite lost for a while, not understanding either Xiosphanti culture or how life worked exactly in the small strip of January where night and day meet. There is mention of lightsickness, of how cold the night is, how the currency is actually a lot of sub-currencies (one for food, one for housing, etc.) and how important the rules of timefulness are. But there’s no bigger picture and no mention of other cities existing until later in the story. Only when we met Mouth did I realize that travel on this planet was possible – if rather difficult – and that a second city existed where humans lived. I don’t know if I missed that somewhere in the text or if it really wasn’t mentioned before but to me, it came pretty much out of nowhere.

Once I had figured out the set up and some of the world building, however, I really liked this book. But I liked it in a scientific kind of way, if you know what I mean. I appreciated the ideas, I loved the message and how it was conveyed, but I was only emotionally engaged a few times during certain scenes rather than throughout the whole book. Many things left me rather cold emotionally while I could still look at them with interest from an ideas standpoint.
For example, there are several key relationships in this book. The first one is between Sophie and Bianca. Sophie may feel more than just friendship for Bianca but Xiosphant is apparently homophobic, judging from Sophie’s hesitance to even admit to herself that she may be in love with another girl. When these two reunite after Bianca thought Sophie dead for years, their relationship is frayed to say the least and one sublot is them trying to regain that former trust, to become best friends once more. But each of them has changed in the meantime and they may not even want the same things anymore. Or be willing to make the same sacrifices.
The second intriguing relationship is between Mouth and… well, everyone really. There is the dynamic between Mouth and her sleep mate Alyssa. They are friends who banter a lot, there is a kind of master and apprentice thing going on there, but the more Mouth opens up about her lost culture – the nomad tribe that called themselves the Citizens – and how she desperately wants it to survive somehow, the more this dynamic shifts. Mouth becomes more vulnerable, Alyssa asserts herself more. And all of that is shown in small moments, in key scenes, through dialogue or action. I found it quite impressive how many nuances of friendship and love Anders managed to put on the page and without the slightest bit of info dumping. You read about these people and you just know that something has changed. You don’t have to be told specifically.

And as you can see, there were certain parts of the story that did get to me. First and foremost Sophie’s connection to the Gelet – the “crocodiles” – and how others immediately want to abuse it. Secondly, Sophie and Bianca’s relationship and Bianca as a person in general brought me close to tears on occasion. It didn’t quite make up for the long stretches of story where I didn’t much care but I was really impressed that these characters I thought I didn’t care about suddenly made me that angry.
This is also the story of an attempted revolution and all the messy shit that comes with that. Turns out ruling is hard and sometimes you accidentally sell your soul on the way to doing good. And sometimes what you think is good isn’t good for everyone. That’s all I can say without spoiling anything. Let’s just say that I found the characters believable in their actions and the consequences of those actions educational.

There was also something else that bothered me but I can’t quite put my finger on it. To me, it felt like while this book has a core theme and explores many other adjacent themes – colonialism, living with vs. opposed to nature, how to govern a society, etc – there were too many ideas for this one story. The differences between the cities of Xiosphant and Argelo, for example, were so crass they were almost caricatures. And there are frequent mentions of the Mothership, who contributed to it, what riots happened on it, and so on. So it’s a world rich in history but I never felt I got enough of it. Most of that history has little bearing on the plot but I couldn’t help but want to learn more. That’s super nitpicky and I don’t even know why it bothered me. It’s like I’m complaining that Charlie Jane Anders created a world that’s too interesting to just leave it at this one story.

My lack of emotional connection may also be more my own fault as the author’s. I took quite a while to finish this book, sometimes reading only one short chapter, other times reading a whole chunk of the book – and of course, the more I read in one sitting, the more engaged I was. So maybe if I’d just read this a bit faster with fewer breaks, I would have loved it more. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t love it but as I have to compare it to the other Best Novel finalists that are up for the Hugo Award, personal enjoyment is my number one reason for ranking one book above the other. And while this one got better and better toward the end, I think the beginning was too weak for a truly great rating. There were some nice surprises and twists along the way, I really enjoyed how the story ended, even though many plot strings are left dangling, but as it took so long to get going and there were parts that I didn’t enjoy all that much, this will end up somewhere in the middle of my ballot.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

 

Cool but Not as Cool as Expected: Mark Lawrence – Red Sister

After coming across this trilogy on numerous Best of the Year lists and fantasy recommendations, I thought it was time for me to finally give Mark Lawrence a try and see what all the fuss is about. While it was definitely an entertaining read with some cool ideas, I didn’t think this first Book of the Ancestor was all that groundbreaking.

RED SISTER
by Mark Lawrence

Published: Ace, 2017
Ebook: 469 pages
Series: The Book of the Ancestor #1
My rating: 6,5/10

Opening line: It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.

I was born for killing – the gods made me to ruin.
At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.
But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.
Stolen from the shadow of the noose, Nona is sought by powerful enemies, and for good reason. Despite the security and isolation of the convent her secret and violent past will find her out. Beneath a dying sun that shines upon a crumbling empire, Nona Grey must come to terms with her demons and learn to become a deadly assassin if she is to survive…

This is a difficult book to rate because it startet out so well, then went into a somewhat slumpy middle and then delivered an action-packed, cool ending. But was it cool enough for me to continue the series? I don’t know yet… And that says more than anything I’m about to write next because as much as I enjoyed this book, if I don’t really want to know what happens next, then at the very least it didn’t do its job as a trilogy starter.

Nine-year-old Nona is supposed to be hanged for attempted murder when the Abbess of Sweet Mercy saves her and takes her to be trained as a nun. We only learn short snippets about Nona’s blood-stained past and not all of those are always the truth but one thing is clear immediately: Nona is a damn cool protagonist. A young girl who can almost kill a gigantic, strong, powerful man? Who was sold by her own mother because the child was too violent? Well, sign me up to read more about her! Grimdark has offered more than its share of multi-layered shades-of-gray characters in the last decade or so, but a little girl like Nona is still a refreshing change to what I’ve read before.

In fact, figuring out just who Nona is, what her powers are, why her mother sold her off so easily, is part of the intrigue of Red Sister. The main part of the novel is about Nona’s training at Sweet Mercy and the friends (and enemies) she makes there, at least until somewhere around the halfway mark. Then a sort of threat is introduced and Nona and her friends have something to fight and something to protect. Plot-wise, it felt rather cheap to me, like a late addition because someone (author/editor?) noticed there should be a plot string that can be resolved in the first book. But despite its late introduction, it was thrilling to follow. And the book does have an overarching story as well – namely that of Nona’s almost-but-not-quite-victim who is now out for revenge.

My rating is very much due to expectations vs. reality. If I had gone into this without having read so many overwhelmingly positive reviews, my experience could have been very different. But because so many people spoke so very highly of this series, I had expectations of mind-blowing world building, cool action, and great character work. All of those things are there to some degree, but none of them really blew my mind or did anything new that hasn’t been done in the genre before.

The idea of what comes down to superpowers is not new. There used to be four original tribes whose bloodline is now diluted and only shows up – to varying degrees – in a few people. Depending on which tribe’s blood they have, they get either super speed, extreme strength, etc. On rare occasions, people are born with more than one of those traits and there is a prophecy (of course!) of a Chosen One who is supposed to have traits of all four bloodlines. Now it may be refreshing that protagonist Nona is not that Chosen One and that is made clear very early on, but other than that, it’s pretty standard fantasy fare.

The same goes for the catchy but ultimately irrelevant pitch of “assassin nuns”. The sisters of Sweet Mercy may be called nuns but what they really do is running a magic school. There are classes on poisoning, swordfighting, classes that help you use your magic, and so on. Because I happen to enjoy the trope of magic school, this was actually a lot of fun to read about. It’s definitely not the Harry Potter kind of school. There is no whimsy, everything is super dark and mysterious, but I enjoyed the ideas and the way Nona and her friends grew throughout their time at Sweet Mercy.

One of the most interesting and original things was probably the world building. The four tribes, whose blood gives people the aforementioned superpowers, landed a long time ago on Abeth. Abeth appears to be a planet that is only habitable on a thin strip – the planet’s equator. Everywhere else is ice and cold and death. And even the places where people can currently live are doomed because the sun is dying. That is such a cool idea that mixes science fiction with fantasy. I suspect that’s the big that Mark Lawrence saved up for the rest of the trilogy because while we get glimpses of this world and what may have come before, how it may all have come to exist the way it does, we never go into any depth. If I continue reading the trilogy, it will be to find out more! This is the one thing that I found really original.

So now I’ve ranted again and made it sound like this book isn’t good. That’s totally not the case! I enjoyed it a great deal, apart from the middle bit where it wasn’t sure where it wanted to go. Nona is a cool character to follow because she seems both ice cold murderer and true loyal friend and she doesn’t have the easiest time dealing with her past. The side characters sadly weren’t very interesting. None of them really stood out, not the friends, not the teachers, not even the villains. They do their job within the plot and they do it well but as for grimdark characters, I’d much prefer Joe Abercrombie or George R.R. Martin’s take on them. I won’t know until some time has passed but I susped that I will have forgotten most of the characters here within a couple of weeks.

I have reached the end of my ramblings and I still don’t quite know how to rate this book. It was an okay story with okay characters plus one truly great character. It had generic fantasy tropes but with a cool science fictional setting. The action scenes were well-written and kept me intrigued but I felt like the author was holding back on purpose to stretch out the ideas over three books. Maybe I’ll continue the trilogy one day, maybe I won’t. But one thing is for sure – this book was not good enough for me to immediately pick up the sequel.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Pretty Good

The Faerie PI Continued: Seanan McGuire – A Local Habitation

I have a strange relationship with Seanan McGuire’s books. Some of them I really hate, others I find okay, yet others show such amazing glimpses of potential that they make me want to read everything she’s ever written. I only started the October Daye series last year but that first book truly blew me away. So even though I’m about a decade behind, I picked up the second book and – while not as great as the first – was yet again entertained and positively surprised.

A LOCAL HABITATION
by Seanan McGuire

Published: DAW Books, 2010
Ebook: 400 pages
Series: October Daye #2
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: The last train out of San Francisco leaves at midnight; miss it and you’re stuck until morning.

October “Toby” Daye is a changeling, the daughter of Amandine of the fae and a mortal man. Like her mother, she is gifted in blood magic, able to read what has happened to a person through a mere taste of blood. Toby is the only changeling who has earned knighthood, and she re-earns that position every day, undertaking assignments for her liege, Sylvester, the Duke of the Shadowed Hills.

Now Sylvester has asked her to go to the County of Tamed Lightning—otherwise known as Fremont, CA—to make sure that all is well with his niece, Countess January O’Leary, whom he has not been able to contact. It seems like a simple enough assignment—but when dealing with the realm of Faerie nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Toby soon discovers that someone has begun murdering people close to January, whose domain is a buffer between Sylvester’s realm and a scheming rival duchy. If Toby can’t find the killer soon, she may well become the next victim.

I’m not well-versed in the realm of Urban Fantasy but I thought this story was such a cool mash-up. You get Fae and changelings and all sorts of mythical creatures, but you also get a sort of locked room murder mystery. Toby and her new teenage assistant Quentin are sent to the County of Tamed Lightning to see if Sylvester’s niece is okay. She hasn’t been calling and that’s unusual. When they arrive at Countess January’s computer company, things immediately turn weird. Not only are there very few staff for a building this size but they also seem to be hiding something. And January tells Toby that she’s got things wrong. It’s Sylvester who hasn’t been answering Jan’s calls. Something is definitely rotten in the County of Tamed Lightning.

This second Toby Daye adventure had a much slower start than the pilot novel (I’m calling it that now, because this feels like a TV show and I wouldn’t mind an adaptation). But all that somewhat tedious set up is for a reason. Not only does McGuire introduce a bunch of new characters, she also uses the time to foreshadow things and to lead her readers astray. I thought I was so clever when I figured out one little twist pretty early on. And I was right about that twist. But I also thought I had everything else figured out. Something or someone is killing off the people working at January’s company and I was sure I knew who the murderer was from the beginning. I’m glad to say I was wrong and McGuire did manage to surprise me!

We don’t only follow Toby and Quentin along on their investigation, though. That alone would have been fun because the two of them develop a wonderful dynamic. Toby wants to teach Quentin, but she’s also fiercely protective of him. After all, spending any amount of time with her usually leads to mortal danger and she does not want Quentin to come to harm because of her. But there is also something very strange about the murders. Normally, when Fae die, the Night Haunts come to take away the bodies. Fae don’t rot, so even though they’re immortal, when they die, humans would eventually notice the bodies. But these murders? The Night Haunts seem uninterested in doing their job. What’s even stranger is that the victims’ blood is “empty” – Toby can’t get their memories out of them and so she’s tapping in the dark for a long time.

There were a few things that frustrated me while reading this book but most of them can be explained away by “it’s magic”. I did feel like the reader is supposed to know a bit more than Toby but knowing – or at least suspecting – what I did, it annoyed me so much that Toby didn’t get it as well. She’s smart, damn it, and she knows way more about Faerie than I do!
The other thing, and that’s the reason I don’t read much Urban Fantasy, is the narrative tone. I’m not a particular fan of the smart, somewhat self-deprecating, sassy heroine who nonetheless overcomes a dozen injuries and can still kick ass. And Toby is exactly that. But, and that’s why I want to follow her further adventures, she’s also kind and a little lost and she’s got a sense of humor.

As slow as the beginning may have been, the book ramps up the stakes and delivers more and more action scenes the further you get along. The ending was great, although I could have done without the emotional villain monologue, and I was so happy that things turned out differently than I expected. McGuire managed to write a fun, exciting second novel in this series and if the next one is as good, she may yet turn me into a proper fan. Go, Toby!

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good!

My thoughts on The October Daye series:

  1. Rosemary and Rue

The Granddaddy of Cyberpunk: William Gibson – Neuromancer

It took me over a decade to finally find enough motivation and push through this classic of science fiction. I remember trying it when I was still in school, then university, then I put it aside for a long time. But this whole self isolation thing is doing wonders for my motivation to catch up on things I should have read ages ago. And now I have finally done it, I have read this classic SF novel that not only coined the term “cyberspace” but also kickstarted an entire subgenre. Did it live up to the expectations? Well…

NEUROMANCER
by William Gibson

Published: Gollancz, 1984
Paperback: 297 pages
Series: The Sprawl #1
My rating: 5/10

Opening line: The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Case was the sharpest data thief in the Matrix, until an ex-employer crippled his nervous system. Now a new employer has recruited him for a last-chance run against an unthinkably powerful artificial intelligence. With a mirror-eyed girl street-samurai riding shotgun, he’s ready for the silicon-quick, bleakly prophetic adventure that upped the ante on an entire genre of fiction.

I am so glad I finally read this book. Not that it was an entirely pleasant experience, mind you, but it was worth it for the feeling of accomplishment and for seeing where all those many ideas came from that I had encountered in books by other authors or movies or general popculture. Whatever I may think of his abilities as a writer of prose, there is no denying that Gibson has laid the groundwork for many other works of fiction, some of which ended up being much better than this.

Case is a depressed former console cowboy (read: hacker) whose last boss destroyed his synapses in such a way that Case can no longer jack into cyberspace. And without cyberspace, he’s just a drug addict with a death wish but not enough motivation to get the job done himself.  When a beautiful kick-ass lady named Molly shows up on his doorstep, offering him the job of a lifetime and his synapses repaired, he obviously says yes.
And so starts a sort of heist hacker story that has very little to do with plot or character and is all about ideas and technobabble.

You guys, the writing is so bad! I mean, maybe everything I disliked about it was intentional and it just doesn’t work for me but whether on purpose or not, it was just so bad! Let me elaborate.

The introduction of new settings or characters just happens. Suddenly people are there. They aren’t mentioned beforehand, the setting isn’t built up. It felt like any new and shiny idea that came to the author’s mind was promptly put on the page, without foreshadowing, without building things up, without even mentioning that something like this existed.
Mid-book, Case and Molly travel to a satellite city in orbit around Earth. Until that point, I had no idea that, in this world, there was a satellite, let alone one that is a sort of space Las Vegas. I was a bit stunned when Case got Space Sickness and had to backtrack a little to see if I’d missed anything. I hadn’t. Gibson just didn’t mention this teeny tiny bit of information until it was time for our heroes to go there. World building, you say? Who needs that?
The same goes for characters. On the one hand, I commend William Gibson for trusting his readers enough to understand what he’s trying to convey without having to repeat everything fifty times, but when you only mention a character by one name and then suddenly in a dialogue he gets called a different name we had never heard before, how am I supposed to know it’s the same guy??
The only distinguishing qualities the characters have other than their names is the way they talk. And oh boy, the dialogue was cringy. Not so much because of what was said but because how people talk. Molly, for some reason, needs to mention the name of whomever she’s speaking to in every single sentence. I kid you not, there would be lines like this (paraphrased by me)

“You’ve heard of him before, haven’t you, Case? Do you know how we will reach him, Case? Let’s just get outta here, Case.”

I am not exaggerating, this is how Molly talks. And don’t even get me started on the Rastafarian space ship pilot and the way his speech is portrayed. But seeing as the differences in speech are the only thing that give the characters something like a personality, I’m glad it was there. At least I knew who was talking…

Probably the scene that made me cringe the most and also gave me embarrassed giggles happened way at the beginning when Case had just met Molly and agreed to do the mysterious job with her. She waits for him in his room where they have a very short conversation and then suddenly, out of nowhere, they have sex. The scene goes literally from “oh, I thought you had a nice hotel room, why aren’t you there” to “she put her hand between his legs”. Thankfully, it was a short sex scene but it had me laughing nonetheless. Oh boy, it was so bad.

Which leads me to the characters as such . Because if there had been the slightest hint of a budding relationship, the protagonists getting together would have made perfect sense. But the characters are mostly cardboard and there is no chemistry between any of them. And not just romantic chemistry – there’s no sense of friendship or dislike or love or hate or anything! Gibson just didn’t put any focus on his characters and so I remained emotionally cut off from them. I didn’t much care what happened to them because I didn’t know them. Which takes a whole lot of tension out of the book, as you can imagine.
That’s not completely true though. There is a scene, later on in the book, that shows a bit more of Molly’s personality and that gives us some background about her life. That was literally the only instance where I found myself caring the slightest about someone.

I have mentioned characters and dialogue and lack of world building, but that’s not all. Because this being a Science Fiction Novel with Important Science Fictional Ideas, there has to be a lot of jargon. Well… if the technobabble the characters spew made sense in the 80ies, it didn’t make much sense to me now. In part, that is probably because some technology Gibson was predicting actually exists now, in altered forms, and others were ideas that never actual came to fruition. It’s not the author’s fault but this aspect does date the novel and makes it harder to read nowadays. Whatever his intentions, a lot of the time it just felt like he tried to sound super smart and tech-savvy without actually making sense. If you invent cyberspace for your novel, have the decency to at least make it work within your fictional world.

All of that said, there are some truly brilliant ideas in this book and the plot, once I started following it properly, was even somewhat exciting. I know, reading this now must be a vastly different experience from reading it when it first came out in the 1980s and I tried to be fair to the book and always keep in mind when the story was written. So I ignored mentions of a few Kilobytes being a lot and just rolled with it. That doesn’t mean I was any less annoyed with Gibson mentioning the size and position of every female character’s boobs. I mean, seriously. There are characters who show up once for a few lines and have no meaning for the plot, yet we just have to know that she had “small and high breasts”.
The idea of jacking into cyberspace must have been mindblowing then and I really love the idea of the Turing Police, which makes sure that no AI ever gained enough freedom and intelligence to do harm. He also mentions cryogenic sleep and tons of ways to modify your body – starting with Molly’s eyes that are covered by mirrors (like sunglasses) and give her all sorts of cool powers. These may all be things I’ve seen before but when this book came out, they were still new!

The plot takes a long time to get started but once it becomes clearer what the story is actually about, I really enjoyed watching it play out. The writing gets marginally better in the second half of the book but I can’t help but imagine what these ideas would have looked like if someone more capable or more careful had written this. Intellectually, I understand the importance of this novel and I respect what Gibson did for the genre as a whole. But there are plenty of older books that can still be read today and feel relevant as well as just readable. This is not one of them. And because I rate books based on my own enjoyment, I can’t rate it that highly. It may have been a groundbreaking piece of science fiction in 1984 but to me, reading this in 2020, it was first and foremost an example of bad writing.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Okay

Internet Friends Are Real Friends: Naomi Kritzer – Catfishing on CatNet

A few years ago, Naomi Kritzer won a Hugo Award for her short story “Cat Pictures, Please”. It was an adorable story that apparently inspired her to write an entire novel with a similar premise. This YA book is currently up for a Lodestar Award and (without having read all the finalists yet) I think it has a good chance of winning. What a heartwarming and exciting tale! I’m so glad enough people nominated this book because otherwise I would probably never have picked it up.

CATFISHING ON CATNET
by Naomi Kritzer

Published: Tor Teen, 2019
Ebook: 288 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

Opening line: My two favorite things to do with my time are helping people and looking at cat pictures. 

How much does the internet know about YOU?
Because her mom is always on the move, Steph hasn’t lived anyplace longer than six months. Her only constant is an online community called CatNet—a social media site where users upload cat pictures—a place she knows she is welcome. What Steph doesn’t know is that the admin of the site, CheshireCat, is a sentient A.I.
When a threat from Steph’s past catches up to her and ChesireCat’s existence is discovered by outsiders, it’s up to Steph and her friends, both online and IRL, to save her.

Who doesn’t enjoy a book with a lovable AI character? I mean, Murderbot anyone? AIDAN from Illuminae? I was pretty much destined to like this book simply because it has an AI character, and not the HAL kind but one who just wants to help people and do good in the world. With the entire internet as its database, it’s pretty easy to find out what people want or need and to make that happen. It’s not as easy, however, not to freak them out completely when it does…

My two favorite things to do with my time are helping people and looking at cat pictures. I particularly like helping people who take lots of cat pictures for me. I have a fair amount of time to allocate: I don’t have a body, so I don’t have to sleep or eat. I am not sure whether I think faster than humans think, but reading is a very different experience for me than it is for humans. To put knowledge in their brains, humans have to pull it in through their eyes or ears, whereas I can just access any knowledge that’s stored online.

 Admittedly, it is easy to overlook knowledge that I technically have possession of because I’m not thinking about it in the moment. Also, having to access to knowledge doesn’t always mean understanding things.  

I do not entirely understand people.

In this book, we don’t only follow the sentient AI that has created and administrates CatNet but also Steph, a young girl who only knows life on the run. Her mother keeps whisking her away from every new town before she can make friends, before she can finish the semester, taking her to a new and different place where she has to be the new girl all over again. The reason for this is Steph’s creepy stalker father who burned their house down when Steph was little. Because her father is crafty and charming, it’s up to Steph and her mom to be careful not to leave a trace. After all, nobody knows what he could do if he ever found them.

This book was about many things, but most of all it’s about a rootless girl desperate for a friend. Not that Steph doesn’t have friends, but all her BFFs are on CatNet and she has never actually met them in meatspace. But this book also shows that these friendships are just as real as friends you may see face to face on a regular basis. What with Steph’s need for privacy, her online friends may not know what she looks like, but they are there the second anyone needs help!
The plot begins with Steph and her mom arriving in yet another small town and Steph starting school as “the new one” again. Apart from having to read The Scarlet Letter for the third time (because changing schools a lot will do that to you), Steph meets Rachel, a girl she really wants to be friends with. But is it worth striking up a friendship when she knows she’ll be gone in a few months? And anyway, mostly she still wants to get out of this town and into one with a better school as fast as possible. As history has shown, when Steph gets in trouble (even for silly, childish things), her mom packs them up and off they go. So she and her CatNet friends devise a plan to hack the school’s robot which is supposed to teach Sex Ed. And… things happen from there.

I know I say this in almost every review, but I really don’t want to tell you too much about the plot. There is a mystery about Steph’s past, it’s not clear whether her mom is telling her the truth about her stalker father or what exactly happened when Steph was little, and my beloved AI character has to make a decision on whether to out themselves to the people they most care about. Without spoiling anything, I can promise you plenty of action, even if the start of the book is rather quiet. Naomi Kritzer managed to build up tension over time and delivers a fantastic action-packed ending that had me on the edge of my seat!

What I found so great about this book (and there are many things) was how it shows that online friendships are just as real as meatspace friendships. Sure, an online discussion can’t replace a hug by a person you care about, but it is its own kind of support network. And when you have a character like Steph, who never gets to call a place her home, this network can make all the difference. The book also shows the darker aspects of our technological world. Leave the GPS on your phone on all the time? Well, if someone really wants to, they can find you. They can find out where you spend your Saturdays, who you meet with, where you shop, and where you go to school! The entire opening chapter of this book shows all the little ways we use technology that could help someone with enough criminal intent to make your life hell. But Steph’s mom is a programmer and savvy enough to have kept them safe for years.

The book also offers a sweet little romance that I found beautiful not just because I really cared about the characters but also because it’s not what the plot revolves around. If every YA book needs a romance, let more of them be like this! I also appreciated how diverse the cast is. Steph isn’t sure about her sexual preferences yet, but many other characters are queer, trans, gay, or undecided. And all of them love and respect each other. This has become somewhat of a trend in recent fiction but I still can’t help but feel all warm and fuzzy inside when I read about a diverse group of friends who are simply there for each other, no matter what. If one of them wants to go by “they” instead of “she”, even only for a while, then why not respect that and let them figure out who they are? The guys on CatNet are like that, so it was really easy to like them. Their respect for each other doesn’t keep them from bantering and making silly jokes, however, which kept the story moving along nicely.

If you want to pick up a book with brilliant characters, a book about true friendships, but with a plot that still delivers twists along the way and gets super creepy at times (remember the stalker-dad), then please pick this up. I found it absolutely delightful and a really good book for the currenty times. The stakes may be high and a lot of scary things happen, but you can always rest assured that Steph’s CatNet friends will be there to catch her. I totally didn’t expect it, but this turned out to be a feelgood novel and one that I will proably rank pretty high up on my Lodestar ballot.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!