Malinda Lo – Adaptation

For three of my WWE Challenges this year (Women of Genre Fiction, LGBT SF, and SF Authors of Color) I finally picked up a Malinda Lo novel. Unsure whether to pick Ash – a Cinderella retelling with a lesbian twist – or Adaptation, I did the smart thing and flipped a coin.

200479565-002ADAPTATION
by Malinda Lo

Published by: Little, Brown, 2012
Ebook: 416 pages
Series: Adaptation #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: The birds plummeted to the tarmac, wings loose and limp.

Reese can’t remember anything from the time between the accident and the day she woke up almost a month later. She only knows one thing: She’s different now.
Across North America, flocks of birds hurl themselves into airplanes, causing at least a dozen to crash. Thousands of people die. Fearing terrorism, the United States government grounds all flights, and millions of travelers are stranded.
Reese and her debate team partner and longtime crush David are in Arizona when it happens. Everyone knows the world will never be the same. On their drive home to San Francisco, along a stretch of empty highway at night in the middle of Nevada, a bird flies into their headlights. The car flips over. When they wake up in a military hospital, the doctor won’t tell them what happened, where they are—or how they’ve been miraculously healed.
Things become even stranger when Reese returns home. San Francisco feels like a different place with police enforcing curfew, hazmat teams collecting dead birds, and a strange presence that seems to be following her. When Reese unexpectedly collides with the beautiful Amber Gray, her search for the truth is forced in an entirely new direction—and threatens to expose a vast global conspiracy that the government has worked for decades to keep secret.

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I see what the author did there. Normally I don’t start with what I disliked in a book but since it’s the most prevalent thought on my mind right now, I have to break with that rule. My biggest problem with Adaptation is that it reads like an unnecessary prequel to a much better story. On the one hand, Reese is discovering that she is bisexual and dealing with her new feelings and the questions that come with them. But this isn’t supposed to be an “issue novel” which is why you also get government conspiracies, genetic manipulation, and alien experiments. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, this is where some editing would have helped.

adaptation reese

The story starts with a punch. Flocks of birds randomly fly into planes, causing them to crash all over the country. Other birds just plummet to the ground, commiting bird suicide. When airports are shut down, Resse, her debate partner David, and their teacher, rent a car to get back home from the national debates competition (which they lost) and madness ensues. This is exactly how a YA novel should start. Action follows action, but leaves enough room for setting up the characters, the tension between them, and giving them a life beyond what is happening right now. Reese and David end up in a hospital (read: secret government base) and are sent home after signing a non-disclosure contract forbidding them to speak to anyone about anything. So far, so interesting.

Once they are home, though, I would have expected them to at least talk to each other about the strange things that have happened to them. But no… they go on with their lives as if not much had changed. And this is when the tone of the novel flips to contemporary romance. Reese meets a girl named Amber and falls in love with her. The romance is well-written, no question, but during this middle part, all sfnal plot strings are abandoned in favor of just that: a romance. So Reese thinks she may be a lesbian, but she’s not sure because she’s had a crush on David for a long time. The obligatory talk with the mother is wonderfully drama-less and Reese can spend her time inspecting her feelings and what they mean. Only occasionaly does she think she should speak to David about what happened to them.

Again, none of this is badly written. I found the romance sweet and full of butterflies, but I picked this up because it is a science fiction book. The beginning promised all sorts of interesting ideas that are just put to the side because Romance Needs to Happen Now. After all, you can have a love life, and still try to figure out who the strange doctors were that magically healed your wounds without leaving a single scar, right? Right. Eventually, Reese does investigate, but things only get interesting again right at the end. In an exposition overload things are finally explained to her and David and the actual story is ready to start.

This is where my thought about editing came up. So many writers say that their first draft of any story is usually improved by chopping off the “beginning”. The story is supposed to begin when things get interesting, not wasting time setting it up for hundreds of pages. And that’s just the problem with Adaptation. I got the feeling that the real story begins where this novel ends. Everything that happens could be backstory, cleverly inserted into what will now be volume 2 of a series. Reese’s romance with Amber, her crush on David, their accident and regeneration… it would have made for excellent twists and reveals in a standalone book. Or flashbacks, if you’re into them.

But that’s just my wishful thinking. As YA novels go, this wasn’t bad. I suspect that, as a younger reader, I would have liked it much more, not spending so much time thinking of how to improve the story and just going with it. I’m not much of a romance reader and as such, I must say that I really enjoyed the little moments of tension – although I am getting mighty tired of the love triangle. At least this triangle is made more interesting in that it involves a heroine who has to choose between a boy and a girl.

Bottom line: Recommended, but don’t expect too much sci-fi.
Will I read the second book? Probably. You know… sometime.

RATING:  6/10  –  Good

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Wesley Chu – The Lives of Tao

It is officially December and that means the 2014 Sci-Fi Experience has kicked off. My first SFnal read is a book that has gotten a lot of love over the last few months. If it weren’t for the rave reviews, I probably would never have picked this up. The cover isn’t particularly appealing at first (it has grown on me since) and I don’t have a very good track record with Angry Robot titles. But I’m glad I gave this book a chance. It’s the kind of story that begs to be turned into a movie.

lives of taoTHE LIVES OF TAO
by Wesley Chu

Published by: Angry Robot, 2013
Ebook: 460 pages
Series: Tao #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: I once wrote “Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he.”

When out-of-shape IT technician Roen woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it.
He wasn’t.
He now has a passenger in his brain – an ancient alien life-form called Tao, whose race crash-landed on Earth before the first fish crawled out of the oceans. Now split into two opposing factions – the peace-loving, but under-represented Prophus, and the savage, powerful Genjix – the aliens have been in a state of civil war for centuries. Both sides are searching for a way off-planet, and the Genjix will sacrifice the entire human race, if that’s what it takes.
Meanwhile, Roen is having to train to be the ultimate secret agent. Like that’s going to end up well…

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This is a fun take on the voices-in-your-head trope. We first meet Tao and his host Edward during a mission and from the very first page, reading their quippy banter and snappy back and forths, I was in love. My first thought was I wouldn’t mind having a Tao in my head. Of course, that opinion changed a lot over the course of the novel, but Wesley Chu has written a fantastic beginning that does everything it’s supposed to. It grabs the reader, immediately makes Tao likable and even manages to break his readers’ heart a little.

Edward, Tao’s host at the beginning of the story, dies in the first chapter (which qualifies this as Not A Spoiler). I don’t usually read blurbs so I assumed that Edward and Tao were the protagonists and I would get to follow the dynamic duo on their secret agent missions. Ah, I thought wrong. When his host dies heroically, Tao quickly needs to find a new human to live in or else he will die. The only options are a dog and chubby Roen Tan…

Roen is the epitamy of a loser. He hates his job, he has one friend, no love-life to speak of, and he’s overweight. So Tao has quite a road ahead of him, getting his new host up to secret agent standards – and making sure he doesn’t go crazy from the voice in his head. Roen and Tao’s relationship evolves beautifully. Of course, Roen believes he is crazy at first, of course he doubts himself and everything Tao tells him about this alien civil war that has been going on for ages and ages, and of course he resists Tao’s request for Roen to get fit.

tao banner
But Roen comes around and his character development is so well done that I’m surprised this is a first novel. Even structurally, the book is beautifully done. The ending did feel a bit rushed and things fell into place a bit too neatly but that’s a flaw I can forgive. The one other thing that bothered me a bit was the love interests. Roen had no love-life and suddenly there are two girls interested in him. So far, so good for Roen (honestly, he deserves some happiness!). But while we get to know Sonya well enough through her interactions with Roen and her own Quasing, Jill remains very flat and mostly shows up on the sidelines. You can guess what girl I was rooting for.

But none of those things were truly important because Tao was my hero in this story. Sure, Roen goes through some amazing developments but Tao had my heart from the first page and just grew on me more and more as the story progressed. He is wise but can get moody like anyone, he has a bigger cause (getting of the planet to go home) but he never loses track of the humans he inhabits and interacts with. Tao is lovable through and through. Had this been a worse novel, I still would continue reading just for Tao.

It is a lot to take in. Conflict does breed innovation, but so does diversity and cultural development. Bringing people together to share ideas is just as powerful a catalyst.

And did I mention that Tao and Roen make a wonderful team? They complement each other, they both have a sense of humor that isn’t lost even in dangerous situations.

“Jesus, did he just shoot at me?” Roen turned the corner and ran north, passing by several rows of cars. Several more bullets hit cars and shattered more windows. “God, he’s trying to kill me!”
Doubtful, he is most likely aiming for a non-vital area.
“Every part of me is vital!”

The writing isn’t perfect. Just in that quote above, the descriptions are a bit clunky and repetitive, but while it may not reach poetic heights, the language flows and keeps you reading. The book mostly lives off dialogue, but let’s not overlook Roen’s inner conflicts. He has big shoes to fill and realising that this alien that is now living in his head will be there forever. Until Roen dies. And he can read all his thoughts. That was the point where I thought being a Quasing host may not be quite as fun as expected – apart from the rigorous training, shooting exercises, spying, stake-outs, and what have you. Roen goes through basic training and remains realistic and likable. Things are hard, he doesn’t excel at everything right away. In fact, at the end of his training, he excels at very few things and that makes him all the more relatable.

Except for the ending – which I dislike for a number of reasons – this was great fun. The Lives of Tao would work so well as a movie, I can’t wait for some big studio to pick it up and just do it. Since the events at the end of the book leave quite a few questions open and offer a lot of room for more conflict, I will be rejoining Tao soon in the ominously titled The Deaths of Tao.

RATING:  7/10  –  Very good

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Nalo Hopkinson – Midnight Robber

It is entirely thanks to the book blogging community that I have discovered Nalo Hopkinson. I have spent the last few months actively looking for female SFF writers that I didn’t know yet (thanks again to the WWE Women of Genre Fiction Challenge) as well as writers of color, stories about people of color and LBTQ characters. Because, as much as I read, there are very few non-American or non-European writers to be found on my reading lists and I wanted to remedy that. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech also served as an eye-opener and I found it extremely inspiring. There is so much diversity out there and I want to experience it. Nalo Hopkinson and Octavia E. Butler’s names kept coming up and all of their books sounded so good that there was no reason for me to wait any longer discovering them. Thank You, Internet!

midnight robber1MIDNIGHT ROBBER
by Nalo Hopkinson

Published by: Warner Aspect, 2000
ISBN: 0446675601
Paperback: 336 pages
Standalone

My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: Oho. Like it starting, oui? Don’t be frightened, sweetness; is for the best.

It’s Carnival time, and the Carribean-colonized planet of Toussaint is celebrating with music, dance and pageantry. Masked “Midnight Robbers” waylay revelers with brandished weapons and spellbinding words. But to young Tan-Tan, the Robber Queen is simply a favourite costume to wear at the festival–until her power-corrupted father commits an unforgivable crime.

Suddenly, both father and daughter are thrust into the brutal world of New Half-Way Tree. Here monstrous creatures from folklore are real, and the humans are violent outcasts in the wilds. Here Tan-Tan must reach into the heart of myth–and become the Robber Queen herself. For only the Robber Queen’s legendary powers can save her life…and set her free.

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Seven-year old Tan-Tan lives on Toussaint, a Caribbean-colonized planet, where she – like everybody else – is connected to the Granny Nanny Web through the nanomites in her blood. Being the daughter of the mayor of Cockpit County, she leads a happy life and wants, more than anything, to play the Robber Queen at the upcoming carnival. But the story doesn’t open with Tan-Tan. We first get to know her father, Antonio, who has his own troubles to deal with. A cheating wife, the constant surveillance of Granny Nanny, the lust for more power. When he catches his wife cheating on him and challenges her lover to a duel, his and Tan-Tan’s lives are about to change forever.

As soon as they arrive on the parallel planet of New Half-Way Tree which is used as a prison colony, the story really starts to kick off. Tan-Tan and Antonio have to learn how to survive in the bush of this new world. The local species, the douen, help them survive their first days and lead them to a human village where they try to make a new life. But as Tan-Tan grows older and starts looking more and more like her mother, Antonio commits a terrible crime that will haunt his daughter and turn her into the real Robber Queen of New Half-Way Tree…

midnight robberaWhen I picked up this book, the first thing I noticed was the language. I had never read anything written in Anglopatwa before and I admit it took a few pages to get used to. But after these few pages, the prose had a beautiful flow to it and told Tan-Tan’s story very organically. If the beginning puts you off, I urge you to keep reading. The style adds a layer of atmosphere to what is already a fantastic story, part science-fiction, part mythological fantasy. Personally, I loved every page and even caught myself thinking in patwa every once in a while. There are French words strewn among the English, the grammar is simplified, but there was never a moment where the language didn’t make perfect sense. It felt so natural that I couldn’t stop turning the pages.

quotes greyOne of oonuh tell me about junjuh mould. It does grow where nothing else can’t catch. When no soil not there, it put roots down in the rock, and all rainwater and river water pound down on it, it does thrive. No matter what you do, it does grow back.

Characterization and world-building are done phenomenally, not through info-dumps, but through action. We are never told how the ‘Nansi Web works but it becomes clear from the context and the interactions between characters and their earbuds. New Half-Way Tree is a whole new world to discover and because it is as new to Tan-Tan as it is to the readers, we are introduced slowly to its secrets. From the human settlements and their basic governments, to the flora and fauna of the place, to the culture of the natives, the douen, everything felt utterly vibrant and alive. It was a pleasure to discover this place! I particularly enjoyed the myth-like stories the narrator tells every once in a while. The origin story of New Half-Way Tree in particular got to me.

It ain’t no magic in do-feh-do,
If you take one, you mus’ give back two

After all this praise, I must say this was a strange reading experience. I would pick up the book, devour page after page, put it away and suddenly lose all urge to continue reading. I would pick it up again, wonder what was wrong with me, how I couldn’t want to read this fantastic book anymore. And so it went for a while. I really can’t tell you why that was. In retrospect, some passages feel a little slow or drawn-out, but while I was reading I couldn’t find fault with the pacing at all. Not a single part of the plot was boring and I did want to know how Tan-Tan’s story continued – so my conclusion is that it is just me. The reason I’m telling you this is simply because, if you feel the same about the book, don’t let it put you off. Continue reading, it really pays off.

Needless to say, I am incredibly happy to have disocvered Nalo Hopkinson. I can see why she is hailed as one of SFF’s best young authors. One thing is certain: This will only be the first of Nalo Hopkinson’s books I read, not only because the language showed me a completely new aspect of SFF fiction but because this book tickled all my soft spots. The mixture of science fiction and fantasy, mythology and survival story, a fantastic female protagonist and a fascinating alien species… I mean, what more can I want? That’s right, a good ending. Until it happened, I had no idea whether this would end well or terribly, and either way would have worked for this story. I found the ending satisfying in its half-open, half-resolved way. In fact, I could not have imagined a better way to end this book.

If you like original, fresh fantasy or science fiction, do yourself a favor and pick this one up.

THE GOOD: Great use of language, fantastic characters, beautiful world-building, and a fascinating alien culture.
THE BAD: Said great language may not be for everyone.
THE VERDICT: A highly-recommended book by an incredibly talented writer whose work I’ll certainly continue devouring.

RATING: 8,5/10  –  Absolutely excellent

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Rob Reid – Year Zero

Aliens are totally in love with our Earth music (all of it) and have been religiously pirating it for decades. Once they did some research into how human society works, they find out that they now owe us a fortune in copyright fees… Also, there’s a Napster alien on the cover. Who wouldn’t get drawn in by a premise like that? Here’s the book trailer.

YEAR ZERO
by Rob Reid

published: Del Rey, 2012
ISBN: 0345534484
pages: 384
copy: ebook

my rating: 8/10

first sentence: Aliens suck at music.

Low-level entertainment lawyer Nick Carter thinks it’s a prank, not an alien encounter, when a redheaded mullah and a curvaceous nun show up at his office. But Frampton and Carly are highly advanced (if bumbling) extraterrestrials. And boy, do they have news. The entire cosmos, they tell him, has been hopelessly hooked on humanity’s music ever since “Year Zero” (1977 to us), when American pop songs first reached alien ears. This addiction has driven a vast intergalactic society to commit the biggest copyright violation since the Big Bang. The resulting fines and penalties have bankrupted the whole universe. We humans suddenly own everything—and the aliens are not amused. (The blurb also says “In the tradition of the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”.)

After the dreadful Redshirts, I wasn’t expecting too much from this novel here. The promises on the blurb seemed too similar, too much like a wanna-be Douglas Adams. But when Tom and Veronica from the Sword & Laser interviewed Rob Reid on their show, I really liked the guy. And what he had to say sounded both smart and funny. So I gave the book a try. And thank the literary gods, it did live up to its promise and I had So. Much. Fun.

Nick Carter is visited by two aliens who mistake him for a Backstreet Boy and let him know that the Earth now owns all the wealth of the universe. Like, all of it. Because they have been stealing our music since Year Zero and only found out about copyright laws decades later. So Nick embarks on a journey to find a way out for the aliens and also save the Earth from assisted self-destruction.

If the premise doesn’t already make you smile, what is wrong with you? But it’s the writing that really makes this book great. Being compared to Douglas Adams is a dangerous thing, but I think Rob Reid actually pulls it off. Sure, he’s not quite as whacky as the Hitchhiker’s Guide author, but the humor is very similar and evoked equally loud bursts of laughter. At least from me. Reid jibes at the music industry, copyright law, humanity in general, and Windows computers in particular. You will all be grateful to learn that in this book, we finally find out why Windows sucks so much. There is actually a very good reason…

The characters are rather on the shallow side with Nick being the everyman kind of person who makes it easy for readers to identify. He’s a down-to-earth guy who just happens to work at an evil law firm. He also has a crush on his voluptuous neighbor Manda and suffers under the dreadful boss Judy. While these characters all have their own personality, this is not a character-driven book. And it doesn’t have to be. I loved Meowhaus the cat and I definitely enjoyed the insanity of certain alien species we get to meet. But let’s be honest, there was no emotional bond with any of the protagonists. And I really didn’t mind.

Our planet was previously visited by some [alien] kids on a joy ride during a time geologists call the Cryogenian period. The kids were looking for fun – but the only cool thing about the Cryogenian was that its name could be rearranged to spell things like Organic Yen, Coy Grannie, and Canine Orgy.

While full of jokes that range from laugh-out-loud funny to merely meriting a slight chuckle, the novel also offered quite a good plot. There was suspense, there was some interesting world-building and there was a nicely rounded story arc. Was it perfect? No, but I still had a hell of a lot of fun. I would have read this even if it didn’t have a plot and was just making jokes at the expense of musicians, aliens, human technology and law firm CEOs. I liked the beginning a bit better than the ending because we’re thrown into this world of brilliant and funny ideas and get to explore, Jasper Fforde style, by following our protagonist as he struggles to get a grip on reality.

A nice little extra are the footnotes that can be found in every chapter. These may be explanations of alien attitudes, little jokes, or just comments by the narrator Nick. But they are all hilarious and did what they’re supposed to do. They made this book an even richer experience. At the end of the book, the main characters each published their personal playlist, which is a nice touch and also made me laugh. You can check the lists out before you read the novel but you’ll only get the jokes once you’re finished.

Lastly, let me say that this is the first time that I’ve been Rickrolled by a book (and to pass on the favor, I hope I Rickrolled all of you, dear readers)… “Never gonna give you up….’

THE GOOD: As funny as the blurb says and then some. Great ideas, wonderfully evil jokes, a fast-paced plot and a mix of both intelligend and very silly humor.
THE BAD: The characters aren’t all great but I personally really didn’t mind that.
THE VERDICT: Highly recommended for fans of Douglas Adams or Jasper Fforde. Or people who’ve always wanted to know why Windows never works, who Simply Red’s biggest fan is and what the heaviest metal in the universe is called…

RATING: 8/10 Excellent fun!

Other reviews:

THIS IS AWESOME:

Rob Reid actually sent me a thank you e-mail after reading this review. Now I can’t (and won’t) change the rating of the novel but I will say that, first of all, it’s incredibly nice of a writer to take time out of his schedule to thank his readers. And secondly, we had a nice little conversation going that made me like him all the more. And I’ll be (even more) sure to check out anything he writes next. My friends tell me, Rob also frequently responds to tweets and generally has a very nice interaction with his readers going. That’s how you get true fans – and by writing hilarious books, of course.

Arkady & Boris Strugatsky – Roadside Picnic

This took me by surprise. If it weren’t for Luke Burrage’s Science Fiction Book Review Podcast (it’s great, you should check it out) and the new translation of this novel mentioned on io9, this wouldn’t have my next pick out of the SFF Masterworks series. But slim as the novel is, I picked it up as a sci-fi counterweight to all the fantasy and fairy tales I’m currently reading and I was more than pleasantly surprised.

ROADSIDE PICNIC
by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

original title: Пикник на обочине
translated by: Olena Bormashenko
published: Chicago Review Press, 2012 (1972)
ISBN: 1613743416
pages: 224

my rating: 7,5/10

first sentence: Interviewer: I suppose that your first important discovery, Dr. Pillman, was the celebrated Pillman radiant?

Red Schuhart is a stalker, one of those misfits who are compelled, in spite of the extreme danger, to venture illegally into the Zone and collect the mysterious artefacts that the alien visitors left scattered around. His life is dominated by the place and the thriving black market in the alien products. Even the nature of his mutant daughter has been determined by the Zone. And it is for her that he makes his last, tragic foray into the hazardous and hostile territory.

I can’t say I’ve read many first contact novels. This novel is kind of a roundabout way of being “first contact”. Aliens have visited the Earth but they didn’t stay. Instead, they left all manner of alien artifacts lying around in what is now called the Zones, areas where strange things happen ever since the visit. The laws of physics seem to go haywire, there is strange slime left scattered about, and TV antennae seem to have grown fine, electrically charged hair.

We start the story a few years after the visit happened with Redrick “Red” Shuhart working for the International Insitute that studies alien artifacts and the effects of the Zone. He is one of the stalkers who go into the zone, risking their lives, to retrieve whatever it was the Aliens left behind. There are so many great concepts and ideas involving the Zones, I was taken in immediately. The Strugatsky brothers’ description of a so-called “empty” still leaves me baffled. And yet, not being able to describe it properly himself, they managed to draw a picture in my head.

Red’s ventures into the Zone were edge-of-your-seat suspenseful and even though he warns us readers about who has already died in the Zone, the moments in that Zone we spend with him and his small crew were terrifying and reminded me more of a thriller than a sci-fi novel. I was absolutely gripped and feared for Red’s life on more than one occasion. In such a small novel, I consider this quite an impressive feat. Some authors don’t manage to build up this much suspense on a lote more pages. But the Strugatsky brothers didn’t leave me hanging.

Ever chapter can almost be seen as a story of its own, a little vignette, if you like. We change perspectives, usually returning to Red in one way or another, and get to see what happens at the Institute, on the black market, and in the town of Harmont where these aliens decided to land and have their “roadside picnic”.

My greatest compliments to the translator – I don’t speak Russian (not even a little) but the language felt natural and had a nice flow to it. Characters use the occasional swear-word and except for a few too many repetitions (especially about lighting a cigarette or “lighting up” and “taking a sip” which happens on every other page) I didn’t feel like ever putting the book down. The terror of the Zone left me wanting more, discovering – just like the Insitute – what it is that these aliens left on Earth and especially, why they didn’t stay themselves.

The ending let me down a bit. I loved seeing the reverberations of the Zone on local people and on the stalkers especially, who spend a considerable amount of time within the Zones, touching all manner of strange things and having horrible accidents. While there is a finished story arc, I would have wanted more closure at the end. Or maybe a sequel…

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this enthralling and quick read and the SFF Masterworks series continues to grow in my esteem.

THE GOOD: The story sucks you in, scares the shit out of you and leaves you wanting more. Great descriptions, building up atmosphere within very few pages.
THE BAD: Kind of loose ending. Even though it goes with the overall theme and tone, I was hoping for something more.
THE VERDICT: Highly recommended sci-fi novel that keeps you guessing and entertained until the very end.

RATING: 7,5/10  Very good book (leaning towards excellent)