Jacqueline Koyanagi – Ascension

I’m having a good luck streak. So far, every book I’ve read this year has at least been good, but considering this is only the sixth story I read in 2014, there have been many outstanding ones. Ascension belongs on that list. This book does so many things right and gave me that Firefly-esque warm feeling in my belly of stepping onto a fictional space ship and coming home.

ascensionASCENSION
by Jacqueline Koyanagi

Published by: Prime Books, 2013
Ebook: 336 pages
Series: The Tangled Axon #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Heat buffeted my face, whipping my locs behind me.

Alana Quick is the best damned sky surgeon in Heliodor City, but repairing starship engines barely pays the bills. When the desperate crew of a cargo vessel stops by her shipyard looking for her spiritually advanced sister Nova, Alana stows away. Maybe her boldness will land her a long-term gig on the crew. But the Tangled Axon proves to be more than star-watching and plasma coils. The chief engineer thinks he’s a wolf. The pilot fades in and out of existence. The captain is all blond hair, boots, and ego . . . and Alana can’t keep her eyes off her. But there’s little time for romance: Nova’s in danger and someone will do anything–even destroying planets–to get their hands on her.

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Space Opera is an interesting subgenre, though not one famed for its diverse characters, its space-faring queer, disabled, polygamous, engineer women – or so I hear. Ascension presents a crew made up of some very underrepresented groups and I loved every single one of them.

Alana Quick is a sky surgeon (read: spaceship engineer) who has never left her home planet but dreams of the Big Black, of serving on a ship, going places in the universe, and not having to worry about the next job. She doesn’t just need the money for rent and food but also – even more – to pay medical bills.

If this novel has a theme, it is how oppressive a disease can be, especially an invisible one. Alana doesn’t seem sick but she knows that without her medication, her body will slowly wither away, her muscles will betray her until they stop functioning altogether. That’s a heavy load to carry around and I’m glad to say I have no experience with anything like that. I could ramble on about how brave Alana is and how she doesn’t let the disease take over her life. But honestly, I believe if I suffered from something as severe, I would go to pieces and I wouldn’t want people to judge me for it. More power to her for being as strong as she is, but I would have liked her every bit as much if she had wallowed in self-pity every once in a while.

Alana isn’t the only one with a medical condition. Take Marre, the Tangled Axon‘s pilot, whose body fades in and out of reality as she slowly, literally, is losing parts of herself. Captain Tev Helix lost a leg in an accident, the ship’s engineer thinks he’s a wolf and Alana’s sister Nova, while not considered ill in the context of the novel, is starving herself in order to reach the next spiritual level. Let’s just say these characters each have a life and backstory of their own. None of them are defined by their disease (maybe Marre, a little bit) and all of them show us page after page that not being “whole”, by society’s standards, doesn’t keep them from living their lives.

Now while you could say the plot is pretty straight-forward and not exactly original – Alana gets onto the Tangled Axon, bad stuff happens, the crew gets framed for it and is on the run, trying to figure out how to save their hides – this book isn’t about what happens, it’s about who it happens to and how these characters act in the situations they’re thrown into. Sure, dangerous situations arise and things go boom, and these moments are thrilling, but they aren’t what makes the novel great. Getting to know the characters and seeing them grow as people and grow closer together as a crew, that’s what did it for me.

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The book blurb gives away that there is romance on the Tangled Axon. I loved the romantic (read: steamy) scenes but I found some of the set-up a bit silly. For example, if you have the hots for a woman, and you’re already kissing her and telling her how badly you want her, why would you not also tell her some other vital information that may help her not feel like a piece of shit after kissing you? In general, Tev withholds pieces of information for no reason that I can see, that would have helped Alana understand better why the crew are the way they are. Oh well, it’s a small thing to nitpick.

But as much as Alana is falling for her new captain, the real romance is her love affair with the ship. The way Koyanagi describes Alana’s connection to this vessel read like a proper love story. The last time I read of such a beautiful love story between a human and a thing was in Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy (and those ships were actually alive, so it’s not quite the same). She feels the ship’s pain, she hears its humming, she loves every metal plate, every cable, every fiber of it. Koyanagi also shows off her best writing in the scenes describing Alana’s feelings about the Tangled Axon, going from simple language to almost poetic.

My biggest qualms are all about the ending. “Rushed” doesn’t begin to describe it. So much was crammed in last second, crazy things were revealed as if they meant nothing – they’re not all game changers but still, a bit of build-up wouldn’t have hurt – and the things Tev had been holding back came out all at once. There is a bit of an overload at the end that I would have preferred to see drawn out a bit or even cut completely. I was especially sad about the way Nova’s character arc was handled. She became one of my favorites in the book (I hated her at first, then ended up totally rooting for her) and to see her storyline done with in such a hurried way just sold her entire character short.

But there is something to be said about a book that tells the stories of an almost entirely female cast, of a ship’s crew that – while vastly different – reminded me of Serenity, in the way they stuck together as a team. I loved that a queer woman who has to think about getting her medication on time every single day, gets to be the heroine of this tale, I love how much depth even minor characters had, and if the future holds more stories for the Tangled Axon (pretty please?), I’ll be among its first readers.

RATING: 8/10  –  Excellent!

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Rachel Bach – Fortune’s Pawn

Do you know that feeling when you are incredibly thirsty and you finally get that ice cold glass of water? That moment of “aaaaah” afterwards. Yeah, that’s the feeling I was having while reading this book. It was pure fun and relaxation and I am so pleased that I have the entire Eli Monpress series by the same author still ahead of me.

œF$¿Æ‘$8Òò¤»däå¸R8BIFORTUNE’S PAWN
by Rachel Bach

Published by: Orbit, 2013
Ebook: 368 pages
Series: Paradox #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: “You’re quit­ting the Black­birds?” The shock in An­thony’s voice was at odds with the fin­ger he was lan­guidly slid­ing over my naked back. “Why? You just made squad leader last year.”

All her life, powered armor mercenary Deviana Morris has wanted one thing: to join the Devastators, the most elite armor unit on her home planet of Paradox. But it’s hard to get noticed on a planet of billions. To speed things up, Devi takes a job aboard the Glorious Fool, an trade ship so dangerous that one year of service on its security team counts as five anywhere else. The ship’s terrible record doesn’t worry Devi at first, but when the captain starts sending her into impossibly dangerous situations no trader should ever get into, she beings to suspect that the Glorious Fool’s problems are more than bad luck. But with her career on the line, Devi’s determined to keep her nose down, despite her growing concern about the captain’s strange missions, his creepy silent daughter, and the ship’s insufferably sexy cook, Rupert Charkov, who is definitely more than what he seems. Maybe even more than human.
With the mysteries piling up and life on the Fool getting more dangerous by the second, Devi’s knows she’s going to have to get some answers fast, before all the secrets send her home in a body bag.

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After a difficult book like Ancillary Justice (not oh-noes-we-are-too-dumb-for-this difficult, just making you think a lot difficult) this was exactly what I needed. A light, fun, acion-packed read with just the right amount of romance and one hell of a mystery that remains yet unsolved.

Devi is a heroine to my liking. She’s aggressive, she knows her life will probably be short and so she makes the best of it. If she likes a man, she doesn’t play around for long, if she wants a job, she does whatever it takes to get it. In this case, her ambition of joining the elite Devestators, this means working as a security guard for Brian Caldwell, a captain who is cursed with bad luck.

If you liked Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica, you will have no trouble following Devi on her crazy adventure. Apart from her being a wonderful character, I was stunned by how well balanced the different elements of this story were. On the surface, you get an action adventure complete with fighting aliens, awesome power suits, space travel, and living at close quarters with crew mates. There also happens to be a little romance but it didn’t overshadow the story until the end. Go deeper one level, and you will find quite a thrilling mystery. This being the beginning of a trilogy, not much is revealed and the ending is rather abrupt.

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Rachel Bach does a wonderful job of keeping her readers entertained. Action doesn’t just follow action. There are quieter moments in between, there is room for character development, and – my favorite part, in case you hadn’t guessed it yet – there are hints, here and there, to the bigger picture. I can’t really say anything here without giving too much away and spoiling your potential pleasure at reading this.

I’m not a big romance reader, but if you throw a love story into my fantasy or science fiction, I usually roll with it. The attraction between the protagonists  in Fortune’s Pawn is immediate and tangible. The descriptions of Devi’s feelings toward Rupert just pull you in and make you feel as giddy as a teenager. I thoroughly enjoyed those magic moments of tension and final relief. That said, I just didn’t buy the love story. It started as lust, which I can totally buy into, especially the way Rupert is described. But Devi and Rupert didn’t spend enough time with each other that – to me – justified their sudden outburst of One True Love-ness. Sure, you grow attached if you live on the same ship, but I was missing the scenes where the two of them just talk or bond or joke or do something other than eyefrak or kiss. Again, not that I minded the kissing…

That is a relatively small complaint, all things considered, and the second I finished this book – after shouting “What?! That’s where this ends?” – I found myself eager to continue. This is one of those books that could go on forever and you would neither notice nor mind. It has been compared to Battlestar Galactica and Firefly. While it has neither of those shows’ depth, it definitely delivers the fun, the action, and the sexual tension between two highly interesting main characters.

I can’t wait for part two, Honor’s Knight, which Goodreads tells me, is scheduled to come out in February 2014. I guess I can survive that long, but let me tell you – this is a book I will buy on publication day!

THE GOOD: A great protagonist, lots of action, powered suits that are beyond cool, aliens, battles, and a mystery that kept me guessing on every page.
THE BAD:
The “love” story never surpassed a lust story for me, the ending is not quite a cliffhanger, but feels like somebody chopped one story into shorter bits at a random point. Forgivable, seeing as the next book comes out in a few months’ time.
THE VERDICT: Highly recommended. A quick read that is just So Much Fun, and not a single boring page in sight.

MY RATING:  8/10  – Excellent

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Ann Leckie – Ancillary Justice

This debut novel is making waves on the internet like none I’ve ever seen before. It’s difficult to find a single negative review of this title, and – if you ask me – Ann Leckie is doing that whole promotion thing rather well. I came across her on many of my favorite online hangouts, doing interviews, guest blogs, tweeting and giving away signed books. But she always has interesting things to say, so buying the book was a no-brainer.
Boring as it may seem, I join the legions of new Ann Leckie fans. What a remarkable, memorable, thought-provoking novel.

ancillary justiceANCILLARY JUSTICE
by Ann Leckie

Published by: Orbit, October 2013
ISBN: 0356502406
Paperback: 432 pages
Series: Imperial Radch #1
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: The body lay naked and facedown, a deathly gray, spatters of blood staining the snow around it.

On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.
Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was the Justice of Toren–a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.
An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose–to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.

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Ancillary Justice
is a fantastic book for many reasons, and these reasons change throughout the reading experience. I can only tell you how it was for me, although what I’ve seen on the internet so far, other people are intrigued by the same ideas.

The first thing that baffled and excited me was not the idea of an artificial intelligence whose bodies include one spaceship, hundreds (sometimes thousands) of bodies, and a handful of bodies who really enjoy singing together. That came later. No, the first thing was Ann Leckie’s use of pronouns. There are books that intentionally leave a character’s gender unclear by never assigning them any pronouns. Leckie goes a different route. In Justice of Toren‘s language, gender is not an issue so this first-person narrative uses almost exclusively female pronouns, regardless of the character’s gender. Even a “he” would be called “she”.

This is not just a gimmick! I was incredibly surprised by the need I felt to know who was male and who was female (or intersex, or transgender) although it really didn’t matter. Still, I caught myself trying to guess, by the few descriptions given of a person’s physique or mannerism, whether I was reading about a man or a woman. Most of the time, it’s impossible to guess. Some characters that I was sure were female turned out to be male – and, again, it wouldn’t have made any difference had their gender been swapped. The story works either way, but Ann Leckie has succeeded in one wonderful, amazing thing – making her readers think. Making us question our own expectations and prejudices and our desperate need to put things – and people – in boxes. I loved the book for that reason alone.

ancillary justice cover

But fear not, there is more greatness to come. Apart from the pronouns and ambiguous gender of pretty much every character, the protagonist (whom I will call a “she” in this review, even though I really don’t know) is interesting enough to carry an entire story. So she is a spaceship and its troops. One of those troops, One Esk, has a fondness for music and collects songs over the centuries. Come to think of it, what would I do if I had 20 bodies? Singing together is pretty neat idea. Justice of Toren (the spaceship) is one mind, yet only one of her troops sings. That alone gives plenty of food for thought. How can, if the AI that is Justice of Toren and all her human bodies, only a few of these bodies have this particular hobby? Who, exactly, is this “I” who is telling us her story? Whatever the answer may be, just thinking about it is exciting.

Okay, that is two gigantic reasons why you should read this book. But – you guessed it – as the story progressed, and I got used to the pronouns, stopped thinking about who was male or female, still pondered Justice of Toren‘s idea of “I”, the plot took center stage. We follow two story lines, one in the present with the Breq (that’s what she now calls herself) on a deadly mission, one 20 years in the past, explaining what lead her to pursue said mission. Once everything that happened 20 years ago is told, it really kicks off. Ann Leckie didn’t take a single wrong step. Her pacing was fantastic, I read way too long into the night and found myself hoping it wouldn’t be over too soon.

Thoughts are ephemeral, they evaporate in the moment they occur, unless they are given action and material form. Wishes and intentions, the same. Meaningless, unless they impel you to one choice or another, some deed or course of action, however insignificant. Thoughts that lead to action can be dangerous. Thoughts that do not, mean lass than nothing.

I thought about things to critique but there really isn’t much. The only thing I noticed was the somewhat excessive use of people, especially Breq, “raising one eyebrow”. That happened about five times in one chapter. But, come on! Compared to all the things this book does right, that is absolutely ridiculous. For completeness’ sake, I have now mentioned it and you are “warned”. The other thing I could think of is that the worldbuilding could have been cleaner, but I got an intense feeling that Leckie knows a lot more about the world then she lets us see in this first novel. And I knew everything I needed to know for the story to work.

My ebook had a little bonus after the book – an author interview. It included little information that isn’t already on the internet (Ann Leckie has done her share of promotion for the title, after all) but I was very pleased to read that this is book one of a loose trilogy. If this means more Breq and Seivarden (holy shit, I forgot to mention Seivarden but I totally love her and am still stunned by her character development and my keyboard is already in pain because I’ve lost all sense of punctuation and am just hammering on the keys but Seivarden is all sorts of awesome and you should read this book now)… yes. That.

The Good: A gripping story told with almost all-female pronouns, featuring a unique protagonist, incredibly interesting culture and character development. All the love!
The Bad: Does “I wanted there to be more of the book” count?
The Verdict: Seeing as this is one of the most talked-about books in the SF community right now, I don’t think I need to tell you to read it. But go read it anyway. I’m already jotting the title down for next year’s Hugo ballot.

RATING: 9/10 –  Close to perfection
I need to leave room open for the next instalment, after all…

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Review: James S. A. Corey – Leviathan Wakes

I’ve been wanting to read a space opera for a long time but I never new quite where to start. When everybody started raving about author-duo Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham’s Expanse series and how accessible it was, my first space opera was chosen. It turned out to be fun but didn’t get to me on a deeper level.

leviathan wakesLEVIATHAN WAKES
by James S.A. Corey

Published by: Orbit, 2011
ISBN: 1841499889
Paperback: 561 pages
Series: The Expanse #1

My rating: 7/10

First sentence: The Scopuli had been taken eight days ago, and Julie Mao was finally ready to be shot.

Humanity has colonized the solar system – Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond – but the stars are still out of our reach. Jim Holden is XO of an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, “The Scopuli,” they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for – and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew. War is brewing in the system unless he can find out who left the ship and why.
Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to “The Scopuli” and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.
Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations – and the odds are against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.

dividerAs a Space Opera newbie, I have always understood the expression to mean a story that is pretty much universal and could take place anywhere but happens to be set in space, with space ships instead of cars or planes or boats, with interplanetary travel instead of just intercity travel, etc. Well, this is pretty much true for Leviathan Wakes. At its heart is a mystery story, wrapped in conspiracies, padded with lots of action. It would have worked just as well set on Earth – but let’s face it, inserting a space ship makes most things instantly cooler.

The story is told alternately out of Holden and Miller’s perspective. I liked Holden immediately but over time, his constant righteousness, his naiveté and sometimes downright too-goodness got on my nerves a bit. I still like him but surprisingly, Miller – who is a lot less easy to identify with  – grew on me over the course of the novel. Miller is this dark, brooding cop on Ceres station, a Belter to the bone, and dealing with personal demons galore. He may also be a little bit out of his mind but I thought his character offered nice layers of complexity. Figuring out what really made him tick was at least as much fun as unraveling the conspiracy.

Through our two protagonists’ eyes, we get to see quite a bit of the solar system that humanity has populated. In addition to Earth, Mars is populated, as well as the Belt, and to me that was the most interesting part. Terraformed Mars? Fine, show me the entirely new culture of Belters. People who are born in such an environment are automatically different from Earthers. Because of the difference in gravity, Belters usually grow extremely tall and (to our Earther eyes) very skinny. They also have their own slang, whic to me read like a mix of bad English, Spanish, and the occasional German mixed in. It gives the place a lot of character though and I had fun walking around Ceres station with Miller.leviathan wakes german

Holden lost a bit of sympathy over time but in general, I love the dynamic between him and his crew. It’s amazing that most of them never get to say very much (Alex) but still feel like proper characters. Maybe my brain also just inserted Firefly characters into the blanks… which reminds me. This book has been compared to Firefly and I honestly don’t see why. It is a fun and engaging story with space ships and battles and a big, evil conspiracy, but I just don’t see the parallels. Seriously people. Let it go. We’re all mourning the Serenity but not every crew on a space ship that banters back and forth is automatically our favorite of crews.

Plotwise, I thought it was solid. I never got close enough to the characters or stories to feel that pull. On the other hand, I looked forward to picking the book up again. This is one of those books that I enjoyed while reading but it didn’t make me want to read the next instalment right away. Maybe this year, maybe next, I’m in no hurry. But whenever I feel like an easy-to-read yet sprawling space opera again, I’ll pick up Caliban’s Hour. Overall, I liked Leviathan Wakes, but it offered only a few things that were new to me. Then again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with an action-packed detective story in space. Recommended for a fun and surprisingly quick read.

THE GOOD: Miller is a great character, there is almost non-stop action and an intersting mystery.
THE BAD: I would have enjoyed more politics, more world-building and character depth.
THE VERDICT: 500 pages full of fun, action, and a lovable crew – plus Miller’s own particular brand of crazy. It won’t blow your mind, but it’s a thorougly enjoyable read – like Annalee Newitz said on io9: “A Hollywood blockbuster in book form.”

RATING: 7/10 – Very good.

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The Expanse Series:

  1. Leviathan Wakes
  2. Caliban’s War
  3. Abaddon’s Gate

Expanse novellas:

  • The Butcher of Anderson Station
  • Gods of Risk