An Excellent Duology-Ender: Jordan Ifueko – Redemptor

I adored Jordan Ifueko’s debut novel Raybearer last year, so much so that I re-read the book this year just to be able to finish the duology in one go. I have also purchased a super shiny special edition of these books (I’ll post a picture below) and looking at it just makes me happy. The re-read was well worth it even though Ifueko brings readers up to speed quickly. But the emotional impact of what happenes in this book works much better when you don’t wait too long between Raybearer and Redemptor. BIG FAT SPOILERS FOR RAYBEARER BELOW!!

by Jordan Ifueko

Published: Hot Key Books, 2021
464 pages
Raybearer #2
My rating:

Opening line: My name was Tarisai Kunleo, and no one I loved would ever die again.

The hotly anticipated sequel to the instant New York Times bestselling YA fantasy about Tarisai’s quest to change her fate

For the first time, an Empress Redemptor sits on Aritsar’s throne. To appease the sinister spirits of the dead, Tarisai must now anoint a council of her own, coming into her full power as a Raybearer. She must then descend into the Underworld, a sacrifice to end all future atrocities.

Tarisai is determined to survive. Or at least, that’s what she tells her increasingly distant circle of friends. Months into her shaky reign as empress, child spirits haunt her, demanding that she pay for past sins of the empire.

With the lives of her loved ones on the line, assassination attempts from unknown quarters, and a handsome new stranger she can’t quite trust . . . Tarisai fears the pressure may consume her. But in this finale to the Raybearer duology, Tarisai must learn whether to die for justice . . . or to live for it.

At the end of Raybearer, Tarisay made a deal with the demons of the Underworld. They would no longer take Songland’s children as a yearly sacrifice but instead get a full Raybearer Empress in two years, when Tarisai herself plans to go dow into the Underworld and end her country’s grim reality forever. Except first she has to bond herself to all the rulers through her very own Ray and that bit might just be the tougher one of the two on her quest…

Following up a book as great as Raybearer wasn’t an easy task and Ifueko does an admirable job in showing both the aftermath of all that has happened so far, as well as bring some new tasks and characters to the table. Since the plot is a rather straight-forward quest whose milestones we know beforehand, the difficult part was creating tension and giving the story good pacing. In some parts, this worked well, in others…. not so much. It felt like Jordan Ifueko tried to cram just a little bit too much into one book, what with Tarisai dealing with her new role as Empress, the fact that she might die in two years, has to convince 11 strangers to love her (!), sees strange spirit children, deals with mental health issues and with the pressure of having to continue the line of Raybearers (meaning: having children), and then there’s also a revolutionary roaming one of the kingdoms, making life hard for the government. Oh, and let’s not forget the love triangle that just didn’t have to be there. Honestly, I thought Jordan Ifueko didn’t need that trope to be great.

But just because an author tries to tackle many themes and plot points doesn’t mean that can’t work. In the case of Redemptor, I thought some ideas were very well done. I was most surprised at how I cared for Tarisai’s new Council and its members. Many of these kings and queens were openly hostile against the idea of bonding with a young girl they didn’t know, but if there’s one thing Ifueko can do, it’s write characters in a found family whose love you can feel oozing off the page. Tarisai has a tough time convincing everyone, of course, and none as much as the arrogant, vapid, insufferable, and super handsome King Zuri who likes to flirt with Tarisai but doesn’t seem to take her seriously. The girl is trying to save the world, dude!
Equally lovely was meeting Woo In’s elder sister and ruler of Songland, Min Ja, as well as some existing characters who didn’t get to shine in the first book like Dayo and Tarisai’s council sister Ai Ling or a certain Songlander girl who made it thorugh the Underworld. Of course, there is more Dayo, Kirah and Sanjeet (although decidedly too little Sanjeet for my taste).

The plot gives you pretty much what you expect going into the story, but there are a few surprises and twists along the way and the ending is pretty epic, let me tell you. But many YA books have cool plots and killer endings. What makes Ifueko’s work so special is her characters, their diversity, and how it shows that doing the right thing isn’t alwas hard. There are some heavy topics in this book, first and foremost that of mental health and the need to ask for help. Tarisai is haunted by the spirits of (possilby) dead children who were Redemptors, asking her to avenge them, to make things right, to do more. The voices in her head are relentless and you don’t have to be super smart to read this as a metaphor for mental health.
Then there’s the recurring question of Dayo’s sexuality (or lack thereof, him being interested in people of all genders romantically, but not sexually) and how that goes with the Kunleo’s “job” of keeping their lbood line alive by making babies. If Dayo isn’t going to father children, that leaves only Tarisai. And although she is perfectly fine with sex, she is not at all sure if she wants children. Ever.

The part that was less well done tackles another important topic. The revolutionary called the Crocodile is fighting for freedom and justice for the common people and as such, something we can all get behind, even Tarisai who now lives an even more privileged life than before she was Empress. The problem with this sub-plot was less the intention behind it or the message it sends, but rather its execution. The Crocodile is mentioned in passing once early on in the book and then that side story disappears because there’s so much other stuff going on. When it is mentioned again and becomes central to the plot, it feels a little out of left field. A bit more foreshadowing would have been nice, as well as generally a bit more time spent on this subject. Revolution isn’t usually a sub-plot is all I’m saying.

I don’t believe it’s a spoiler when I tell you taht Tarisai does eventually go to the Underworld as per her bargain, but I’m not telling you anything of what happens there. Merely that it’s a well written part that holds more than one surprise in store for you. The ending of the book does this amazing trick of making everything fall into place and kind of work out, even when you thought there was no way to resolve these issues. I’m not saying this has a perfectly happy ending, but it does have a perfectly satisfying one that made me close the book with a big fat smile on my face. I may not have loved it as much as Raybearer but it has cemented my love for Jordan Ifueko’s writing in general, and her characters in particular. It’s also refreshing that this is a finished duology and I can now look forward to something completely new from a great new writer.

MY RATING: 7.75/10 – Very good, leaning toward excellent

Look at the gorgeous Illumicrate editions! They are even prettier in real life.

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

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

by Sarah Gailey

Published: Tor, 2021
256 pages
My rating:

Opening line: My gown was beautiful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Horror for Kids: Katherine Arden – Small Spaces

I’ve been a big Katherine Arden fangirl ever since I read The Bear and the Nightingale and my author crush only grew bigger as the rest of that trilogy came out. For the Magical Readathon, I thought I’d finally pick up one of Arden’s middle grade novels which all look delightfully creepy, yet adorable. I was not disappointed. This was pretty much exactly what I had hoped for and exactly what the cover makes you expect.

by Katherine Arden

Published by: Putnam & Sons, 2018
eBook: 224 pages
Small Spaces #1
My rating:

Opening line: October in East Evansburg, and the last warm sun of the year slanted red through the sugar maples.

After suffering a tragic loss, eleven-year-old Ollie only finds solace in books. So when she happens upon a crazed woman at the river threatening to throw a book into the water, Ollie doesn’t think—she just acts, stealing the book and running away. As she begins to read the slender volume, Ollie discovers a chilling story about a girl named Beth, the two brothers who both loved her, and a peculiar deal made with “the smiling man,” a sinister specter who grants your most tightly held wish, but only for the ultimate price. 

Ollie is captivated by the tale until her school trip the next day to Smoke Hollow, a local farm with a haunting history all its own. There she stumbles upon the graves of the very people she’s been reading about. Could it be the story about the smiling man is true? Ollie doesn’t have too long to think about the answer to that. On the way home, the school bus breaks down, sending their teacher back to the farm for help. But the strange bus driver has some advice for the kids left behind in his care: “Best get moving. At nightfall they’ll come for the rest of you.” Nightfall is, indeed, fast descending when Ollie’s previously broken digital wristwatch, a keepsake reminder of better times, begins a startling countdown and delivers a terrifying message: RUN. 

Only Ollie and two of her classmates heed the bus driver’s warning. As the trio head out into the woods–bordered by a field of scarecrows that seem to be watching them–the bus driver has just one final piece of advice for Ollie and her friends: “Avoid large places. Keep to small.” 

And with that, a deliciously creepy and hair-raising adventure begins.

11-year-old Ollie is great at math and used to be champion of her school’s chess club. But then she stopped participating about a year ago and doesn’t care much about school or grades or chess anymore. We find out the reason for that later in this book which forces Ollie to come out of her shell, realize how much life she still has left to live and how there are wonderful people out there who care for her. But I’m making this sound super tragic when in fact, the story is fast paced and fun to read.

When Ollie meets a distraught crying woman by the creek on her way home and keps her from throwing away a book (what’s wrong with people? You don’t throw books away, you donate them!) by promptly stealing it, her life takes a decidedly supernatural turn. The book called Small Spaces is a written account from a mother to her daughter about the tragic events surrounding her two sons. It’s exciting and mysterious and Ollie basically just wants to keep reading but school gets in the way. And not just regular school, but a trip to a local farm named Smoke Hollow, which definitely won’t allow her to sneak away for any reading time. Also, Smoke Hollow sounds an awful lot like the farm in Ollie’s stolen book and if it really is the same one, that means two men went missing many years ago under mysterious circumstances.

The kids spend an educational day at the farm, although people aren’t all behaving what you’d call normal and Ollie sees the occasional weird thing – like scarecrows appearing out of nowhere and a decidedly cryptic bus driver – but when they want to go back home, their bus breaks down. And that’s when the really creepy stuff begins…

I really adored this book. Ollie is a protagonist who’s easy to like even though she’s quite complicated. Ever since her mother died, she’s withdrawn into herself. We see her deal with grief in her own way, how annoyed she gets when people make the “sympathy face”, how certain things she used to love can’t be enjoyed anymore because the way her mom died makes that impossible. We also see Ollie’s relationship to her father who is really trying his best and whose delightfully unstereotypical personality made me cheer! Seriously, he knits and bakes and generally does things that cliché tells us are reserved for women and nobody bats an eye.
The side characters also show just how easy inclusion can be, how girls can be friends with each other even though the other girl might have the hair color you wish you had yourself, how you don’t have to follow tropes just because they exist. Brian is the school’s hockey star, tall and muscular and a lot of girls’ secret (or not so secret) crush. You’d expect him to run with the bullies and while some of his friends may be idiots, he himself stands out – and not just because he is the only Black kid in Ollie’s class. He’s no knight in shining armor either, but really a believable character with flaws of his own and a good heart (and no, I’m not jus tsaying that because he reads books, although yes, I do admit that it hit me in a very soft spot of my heart when I found that out).
And Coco, that tiny adorable strawberry-haired girl who cries too much, always seems to be in the middle of drama, and mostly annoys Ollie, turns out to have qualities nobody expected. I also loved that her frequent crying is shown to be a strength rather than a weakness!

As you can expect, Ollie, Coco and Brian have to team up to fight against the evil that’s lurking at Smoke Hollow and their adventure brings them closer together. Sometimes, quite literally, as the titular “small spaces” play an important role in this story. If you scare easily or don’t like reading horror, don’t worry. This is clearly a kid’s book and while I found the idea of the evil creatures cool, they’re not really scary and Katherine Arden doesn’t linger on their creepy aspects. And even if you found them scary, the chapters are so short that any danger is quickly over again and our heroes emerge victorious. I don’t think that’s a spoiler for a middle grade book. Things do get resolved, the mystery unravels, each of our heroes plays a vital role and Ollie gets to use her brain to save a whole bunch of people.

I was particularly moved by the ending, not only because these resourceful kids get out of a scary and dangerous situation alive and well, but because Ollie has grown as a character, she has learned to deal with her mother’s death a little better and she appreciates her father more. Plus, she has two new friends, whetehr she likes it or not. This ended the book on a high note for me and made me want to read the next one right away. If you like ghost stories for children and are looking for a book with a fall vibe, this is perfect!
I will definitely continue this delightful series (after the current readathon). It’s the kind of book I wish had existed when I was a kid that age. I would have loved it even more.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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

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

by Becky Chambers

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
160 pages
Monk & Robot #1
My rating:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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

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

by Mary Robinette Kowal

Published: Tor, 2018
416 pages
The Lady Astronaut #2
My rating:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!

Woodsy Folklore With Some Debut Problems: Ava Reid – The Wolf and the Woodsman

This was one of my most anticipated debuts of the year, alongside another wolf-titled book with a forest setting and a romance. I haven’t yet read the second book (For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten) but I liked this one a lot, despite its flaws. It’s not the right book when you want to be surprised by the plot, but it weaves layers of folklore and mythology into a fantasy story with a nice slow-burn romance. Debut problems aside, I enjoyed it.

by Ava Reid

Published: DelRey, 2021
448 pages
My rating:

Opening line: The trees have to be tied down by sunset. When the Woodsmen come, they always try to run.

In her forest-veiled pagan village, Évike is the only woman without power, making her an outcast clearly abandoned by the gods. The villagers blame her corrupted bloodline—her father was a Yehuli man, one of the much-loathed servants of the fanatical king. When soldiers arrive from the Holy Order of Woodsmen to claim a pagan girl for the king’s blood sacrifice, Évike is betrayed by her fellow villagers and surrendered.

But when monsters attack the Woodsmen and their captive en route, slaughtering everyone but Évike and the cold, one-eyed captain, they have no choice but to rely on each other. Except he’s no ordinary Woodsman—he’s the disgraced prince, Gáspár Bárány, whose father needs pagan magic to consolidate his power. Gáspár fears that his cruelly zealous brother plans to seize the throne and instigate a violent reign that would damn the pagans and the Yehuli alike. As the son of a reviled foreign queen, Gáspár understands what it’s like to be an outcast, and he and Évike make a tenuous pact to stop his brother.

As their mission takes them from the bitter northern tundra to the smog-choked capital, their mutual loathing slowly turns to affection, bound by a shared history of alienation and oppression. However, trust can easily turn to betrayal, and as Évike reconnects with her estranged father and discovers her own hidden magic, she and Gáspár need to decide whose side they’re on, and what they’re willing to give up for a nation that never cared for them at all.

Évike lives in her village as an outsider. The only girl her age who doesn’t have either of the three magic powers, she is constantly bullied and has nobody who really loves her. She lives with the village seer who treats her more like a maid than a surrogate daughter and when the Woodsmen come – as they do to take one magical girl to the capital – Évike is promptly shoved at them as a sacrifice. After all, they don’t have to know that this year’s wolf-girl isn’t actually magical…

What follows is part road movie, part romance, part folklore and mythology, and I liked parts of each of these aspects, but none of them were perfect. Évike soon has to team up with one of the Woodsmen, Gáspar, who thinkgs of her as a pagan who will go straight to hell. She, in turn, finds him uncomfortably attractive but is aware that their religious and cultural clash will never lead to anything. You see where this is going, don’t you? And I was all there for the romance, these two people who clearly have the hots for each other but are held back by convention and societal expectations and belief. There’s plenty of yearning, an excellent use of the “only one bed” trope, and some heart-stopping moments that made me ship them hard.

The plot is another matter. It starts off strong, then drfits off into an episodic travelogue, then tries itselfa t political court drama, but all of it is done a bit hamfisted. There doesn’t ever seem to be any one plot thread, the story doesn’t know what it wants to achieve. Is it a Romeo and Juliet like romance with two seemingly opposing religious groups? Is it about a mad prince who is conniving his way to the throne in a very un-subtle way? Is it about a young girl whose parents came from different cultures, learning about who she is and who she wants to be? Is it about a mythical bird that gives you immense power when you capture it? About Yehuli people being treated like dirt in the big city? It’s all of that but only ever a little of each, and only one after the other. To me, this feels like something that could have been fixed during the editing process. A bit of foreshadowing here, some world building there, less repetition and more in depth exploration of the cultures that oppose each other in this story… it would have gone a long way.

The writing was better, but also had its flaws. Ava Reid is perfectly capable of showing instead of telling and she does so a lot of the time. Except she doesn’t seem to trust her readers because after showing us something, she proceeds to also tell us, sometimes several times in a row. Both dialogue and narration were rife with repetition, sometimes using the exact same words. There’s no need to re-explain a scene we have just witnessed to us. Your writing is good enough – we got it the first time.
There were also continuity mistakes in the book concerning a missing finger. In one scene it is described as being on the left hand, but then it switches merrily back and forth between left and right throughout the book. That’s just an unnecessary mistake that took me out of the reading flow and could have easily been caught by an editor.
Lastly, I got the feeling that everything happend too fast. Our characters would get into trouble, facing some cool foe or being in danger somehow, and half a page later it would already be resolved. I enjoyed those scenes, the action-packed moments that usually meant confronting some mythological being and I would have liked actually getting into them. Maybe the author thought she should keep her word count down or maybe this is just the way she likes telling stories but it kept me from truly immersing myself in this world. I can’t believe I’m saying this but I also wouldn’t have minded more descriptions of the landscape and atmosphere, or making the world feel lived-in. I mean, the book starts with moving trees! Trees that pick up their roots and get out of there whenever Woodsmen come by. That awesome piece of world building, that really cool idea, is never mentioned again, has no impact on the world or story, and thus left me more than a little disappointed.

What was really well done – apart from the romance – was how folklore, myth, magic, religion, and culture are woven together. Whether it’s Évike telling an unwilling but taciturn Gáspar a story about her gods, or her learning about Yehuli life in the capital, I found all of these parts intriguing and magical in their own way.
I also enjoyed how Évike grows into herself. She is not particularly likeable at first. Sure, when your village sacrifices you because you’re their least valuable member, you have every right to be pissed. But she is bitchy and petty and annoying even shen she should be grateful or at least a little kinder. Then again, she’s also aware that she’s being petty and she actually reflects upon her actions and words and, you know, grows as a person! And as the story progresses and she realizes she isn’t actually all alone in this world, we get to see another side of her. One that wants nothing more than a family and a place to belong.

If I’m completely honest, this book has a lot of debut problems, there are mistakes that simply don’t need to be there. The plot is a mess, many things could have been done better, BUT it has a really great romance and a lot of heart – plus the use of Jewis folklore in fantasy is something I haen’t seen done before. For some reason, I didn’t mind the amateurish storytelling so much because the book has other strengths. And while it’s far from perfect, it makes me want to read more by this author. I have a feeling she has more stories to tell. With more experience (and a careful editor) I’m pretty sure the next book could even be a new favorite.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

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

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

by Rivers Solomon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 9/10 – Damn near perfect!

Really Good But Missing an Ending: Rebecca Roanhorse – Black Sun

This is the second book by Rebecca Roanhorse that I’ve read and although I enjoyed it more than the first (Trail of Lightning), I got the same feeling I did then. That Roanhorse is about 10 years too late for her ideas to feel fresh or new, but that she’s a great writer nontheless. And one that’s getting better over time.

black-sunBLACK SUN
by Rebecca Roanhorse

Published: Saga Press, 2020
eBook: 464 pages
Series: Between Earth and Sky #1
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: Today he would become a god.

The first book in the Between Earth and Sky trilogy, inspired by the civilizations of the Pre-Columbian Americas and woven into a tale of celestial prophecies, political intrigue, and forbidden magic.

A god will return
When the earth and sky converge
Under the black sun

In the holy city of Tova, the winter solstice is usually a time for celebration and renewal, but this year it coincides with a solar eclipse, a rare celestial event proscribed by the Sun Priest as an unbalancing of the world.

Meanwhile, a ship launches from a distant city bound for Tova and set to arrive on the solstice. The captain of the ship, Xiala, is a disgraced Teek whose song can calm the waters around her as easily as it can warp a man’s mind. Her ship carries one passenger. Described as harmless, the passenger, Serapio, is a young man, blind, scarred, and cloaked in destiny. As Xiala well knows, when a man is described as harmless, he usually ends up being a villain.

Black Sun is an epic fantasy novel just like they used to be, except it is inspired by South and Middle American cultures and religions. We follow three main POV characters plus one side character who occasionally gets his own chapters. First is Naranpa, the Sun Priest residing in the city of Tova where the four clans of the Sky Made live. Through Naranpa’s eyes, we learn a little bit of how their religion works, the different types of priests there are (one of them is literally assassin priests and I find that so cool), and why Naranpa is an unusual choice for a Sun Priest. Because in addition to the clans living on top the mesas that make up Tova, there are the Earth Born. Essentially, they are the poor people, living further down the cliffs, in the darkness.
Our second viewpoint character is the Teek woman Xiala who clearly likes to get drunk and sleep with beautiful women. This time, her partying got her into prison (not the first time, it turns out) and the only way to get out of trouble is to take on a crazy job sailing a ship across the open sea during a season when no sensible sailor would do that. But the prize is too good to pass up and so Xiala and her crew agree to take a man to Tova. For money and cacao and a ship of her own.
That man happens to be the third POV character and he is called Serapio. We actually first meet him as a young boy when his mother does something pretty terrifying to him because he has a great destiny. What exactly that destiny is becomes clear fairly early in the novel but I don’t want to give it away here. Serapio is blind and quite strange and he makes the crew more than a little uneasy…

As a fan of epic fantasy, I liked this book a lot but I must admit the story is mostly setup. With the exception of Serapio’s tale, the plot may advance but doesn’t really lead anywhere. We’re introduced to a rich world filled with many different kinds of people who speak different langauges (something I always appreciate in SFF books) and who have different cultural sensibilities. We also learn there’s quite a bit of magic in this world although not everyone seems to believe it to the same degree. Xiala’s people, the Teek, are said to be lucky sailors. Xiala can use her Song to quiet the sea or to control the waves a little bit. But she is also met with prejudice and suspicion.
The city of Tova has a lot to offer in terms of politics and religion so I was a little disappointed that we didn’t learn as much about that as expected. Every aspect of life in Tova that we learn about was intriguing and made me want to know more. Whether for pacing reasons or to reduce the word count, Roanhorse only gives us glimpses here and there, just enough to keep me hooked but never enough to fully satisfy my need to understand this world. Whether it’s the priesthood and their jobs, the way the city is setup, the dynamics between the Sky Made clans, or especially how the Earth Born fit into the whole system – I want to know more, more, more! On the one hand, this will ensure that I pick up the next volume, on the other, it’s dissatisfying when you’re only ever fed little tidbits of information.

I had the stranges time reading this book. Maybe some of you have read books that made you feel the same. It would go like this: I would pick up the book, read a few chapters, enjoy them so much that I wouldn’t want to stop. Eventually, of course, I did stop because life and such, and then I would… not want to pick it up again. I continued reading other books in the meantime, all the while not needing to know what happened next in Black Sun. The next time I did pick it up, the same thing would happen. I kept asking myself what my problem was. Why did I not feel the urge to continue when I put the book down? It was really great, after all! Well, I don’t have a clear answer, only a theory. And the theory is that while I enjoyed reading about these characters and this world, the story went along its merry way and didn’t offer much that was new or unexpected. I do so love to be surprised or shocked or delighted with a clever turn in the plot. And because so many people had praised the book so highly, I had expected more than “just” a very good but somewhat generic epic fantasy with a cool setting.

The biggest problem with this story is that it kind of spoils itself. Or, to put it differently, it raises certain expectations for the plot and then simply delivers on them. The first chapters tell you exactly what will happen (in one case it’s a flash forward, so there are no doubts) and then those things… happen. No surprises, no twists, not a story beat that couldn’t have been predicted from early on. Because Roanhorse’s writing is immersive and her characters compelling, that didn’t make the book any less fun. Only less of a standout in the genre. In the acknowledgements, Roanhorse writes that she was sick and tired of the endless quasi-European settings in Epic Fantasy and thus wanted to write something more diverse that shows how ancient peoples weren’t “primitive” at all but rich in culture, science, and religion. I’d say she succeded in that but I disagree with her assessment that Epic Fantasy is still mostly European-inspired. In the last decade, we have been blessed with so many diverse stories and interesting settings! SFF publishing has gone to many different places all over the world (not that there isn’t always room for more exploration) and Black Sun is simply joining what is already a vast selection of newer diverse epic fantasies. So I don’t consider it groudnbreaking – it would have been ten years ago! – but I do think it is a very good book.

My second gripe with the book, even though it’s a lesser one because I’m a seasoned fantasy reader, is that it doesn’t really have an ending. It feels very much like the first part of a bigger story and can not stand on its own. Serapio’s story is the only one that offers a proper arc, with some flashbacks, a capital-D Destiny, and a conclusion of a sort. Naranpa’s and Xiala’s stories simply stop smack dab in the middle with things having been set up but no satisfying ending, not even much advancement of plot, in sight. Again, I don’t mind that so much because (a) I am used to reading longer series and waiting (sometimes for years) for the next volume and (b) I am going to pick up the next part when it comes out either way. Despite my weird not-wanting-to-pick-the-book-back-up thing, I finished it with mostly positive feelings. There could have been a bit more world building, a bit more story for Xiala and Naranpa, more time spent on flashbacks or characters’ back stories, but I feel confident that I will get all of that in the next book.
If you feel like the comfort of good old epic fantasy but you want a more diverse cast and a non-European setting, pick this up.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good!

Addictive Bubblegum Space Opera: John Scalzi – The Collapsing Empire

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

collapsing empireTHE COLLAPSING EMPIRE
by John Scalzi

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

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

Does the biggest threat lie within?

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

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

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

The Collapsing Empire is an exciting space opera from John Scalzi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good