Prison of Sleep – by Tim Pratt (Review) + Blog Tour!

I absolutely love the cover—especially that of the paperback version that I completely failed to illustrate above. Its glossy, black background and golden cage, overlaid with bright blue tentacles works in a way that this picture just can’t convey. Huge props to artist Kieryn Tyler for the design!

Journals of Zaxony Delatree #2

Scifi, WORMholes

Angry Robot; April 26, 2022

261 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

8.0 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Angry Robot (#AngryRobot #AngryRobotBooks) for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

• Doors of Sleep Review •


“They invented multidimensional travel but they haven’t figured out how to make guns?”

At one time, Zaxony Delatree worked as a harmonizer in the Realm of Spheres and Harmonies. Then, following the death of a patient—who died in his arms, covering him in her blood—Zax fell asleep, only to awaken on another world.

About one month later, on his twentieth world, Zax met Ana. Less than a day later, he knew he never wanted to leave. Something that… could never be. So he fell asleep with Ana in his arms. And she travelled with him, through the place between, awake. Her mind couldn’t handle whatever she saw, and fled Zax immediately upon his waking. Though he searched for her, eventually Zax grew tired, and fell asleep—never to see her again.

On his 20th world Zax found love, only to lose it on the 21st.

Thirteen hundred worlds later, Zax found something impossible. He’d reunited with Vicki and Minna following the events of Doors of Sleep. The closest thing he’d ever had to a family was back together, even though he feared he’d never see them again. Shortly after, Zax found Ana.

Prison of Sleep skips forward a time from this meeting, so you’ll have to wait a bit to see how it went down. There are a pair of POVs within: Zax, who looks forward; and Ana, who looks back. We find Zax alone once more, traveling into the unknown. Only this time, while he may not have any idea where he’s going, Zax is following a specific path—a trail left by the Cult of the Worm.

The Cult worships the Prisoner: a god imprisoned in the place between worlds that can only whisper to its subjects as they traverse the place between. These followers it has gifted with the ability to Travel—done via a parasite injected into their bloodstream. It wants only two things from them: to Travel to new worlds and recruit further devotees who will do the same. The more Travelers, the more Wormholes in the ether. The more Wormholes, the weaker the stability of the Multiverse. Only when the Multiverse destabilizes completely can the Prisoner ever hope to escape.

When Ana found Zax she recruited him into a secret war against the Cult, one that he was only too willing to join. But now that he has, Zax is having second thoughts. Once more he’s lost Ana, Minna, and Vicki. He’s lost his new friends, his new home. But he has a plan—and while it may not reunite him with his friends, it may well save them all.



“What I’m hearing from you is that the Cult of the Worm is horrible and they suck.”

“They knew what they were getting into. When you declare war on everything, you have to be prepared for everything to fight back.”

Prison of Sleep explores one the biggest unanswered questions left by Doors of Sleep before it: what happened to Ana?

Ana, as it is known from the first few chapters of the first book, was Zax’s long lost love, first companion, and lost her mind after traversing the void while awake. When Zax and Ana are reunited at the end of Doors, we are promised the continuation of their story—but who would’ve guessed just how far the rabbit hole went?

While Doors was more of an adventure driven via exploration of its sole POV, Zax, Prison is more of a mystery, slow-paced thriller, and character driven title about the relationship between its two main protagonists: Zax and Ana. Now Doors does feature the same style of slow-paced thrill later on, so it shouldn’t be an entirely foreign concept. And… while I say it’s a “slow-paced” thriller, I guess it really isn’t. Both Doors and Prison are rather short books—running between two and three hundred pages—so once things start happening, they don’t have too long to lounge around before the story winds down. It’s more that these two stories feel more leisurely in their approach to telling. The stories were both good, immersive, interesting, highly entertaining, and no trouble to read whatsoever. It’s just that there… there aren’t a ton of heart-pounding thrills, pulse-racing action, or the like that you’d find in most good thrillers. Instead, it’s narrative driven; a tense, atmospheric adventure through the multiverse—on a mission to save the multiverse.

Prison of Sleep features a back-and-forth, alternating POV structure that I’ve seen before in books like the Boy With the Porcelain Blade, where the first perspective takes place in the present and the second takes place in the past—1, 2, 1, 2, in that order, until the end. Now, I have some qualms about this approach—as I’m not sure I’ve really read anything that deploys it very successfully. At a certain point what has happened in the past becomes clear in the present long before it’s time for the big reveal. Prison can’t escape this particular issue, as long before the end I had figured out what happened when Ana finally caught up to Zax, along with the aftermath. What I had NOT figured out, however, was that while I’d assumed this to be the big reveal, it um wasn’t. Instead, there’s a twist come Ana’s final chapter—one that caught me completely by surprise.

Otherwise, it’s more of the same exciting adventure from Doors of Sleep. Only Zax knows he’s not alone anymore. And instead of wandering aimlessly, he’s a man on a mission. While the mission itself feels a little forced, a little cliché—it’s still a great read. I really can’t object to anything too strongly or find much of a problem with any of this. If you enjoyed the first book, I’m fairly certain you’ll enjoy the second. If you were bothered by cliff-hangers, or empty threads in Book #1—well, #2 ties everything up quite nicely. No major issues, no problems getting through it, or getting immersed in the tale. I’d certainly recommend checking it out!

Agents of Dreamland – by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Review)

Tinfoil Dossier #1

Scifi, Horror, Novella

Tor.com; February 28, 2017

125 pages (paperback)
2hr 39m (audiobook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

6.5 / 10 ✪

Winslow, Arizona
2015

The events of the earlier week in Riverside still haunt the faceless agent known only as “the Signalman”, but he’s more worried about the woman he’s set to meet than any memories he could ever suffer. Still, the ranch house comes close.

Meanwhile, the disappearance of an interplanetary probe just beyond the orbit of Pluto hints at something more worrying. If the Signalman is lucky, the two are isolated incidents. Coincidence. But the government doesn’t believe in coincidence. And the Signalman wouldn’t consider himself lucky. Hence his presence at the meeting in the first place.

And with the two coincidences comes a third: a mysterious, pallid woman outside of time and place. With her, comes the Signalman’s greatest worry. But also—humanity’s last hope.

A confusing start eventually gives way to an intricate science fiction tale of spores, zombie fungus, invading aliens, but ultimately presents its reader a conclusion featuring more questions to ask than it deigns answer, at least before the second installment.

While I ended up relatively enjoying this title, it certainly did not start out this way. In fact, the first time I picked up Agents of Dreamland, I ended up DNFing it due to lack of interest: I couldn’t figure out what was going on, where the story was headed, WHAT the story was at all, and why I was supposed to care. In the audio version, while these were still very real concerns, I could focus on something else (in this case Cyberpunk 2077), while I waited for the plot to come together.

Fortunately, everything did gradually converge, as the two very different story threads were eventually tied together with a third POV joining the mix. I’ve seen this approach work before—quite well, even—but it was an interesting choice for this particular format. A full-length novel, or one longer, would be a good choice, because it allows ample time for world-building and/or character development. A novella, on the other hand… never has much of either. So, when the story finally comes together, not only is there only 30% or so of an already undersized book left, but neither does it really feel like we’ve accomplished much more than subtle hints at the greater whole.

I guess that it’s a good thing that when the plot comes together, it actually hints at something so promising, so interesting. I’ve mentioned that nothing really comes out of this story, but it sets the stage for something greater come Book #2. That it begs more questions than it answers. Obviously I can’t get much into what this is because of spoilers, but sufficient to say that it involves zombie fungus, aliens, and a world that has not yet come to pass. Between the subtlety and vagueness, there’s not much of substance in Agents of Dreamland. But the world that it hints at—I want to see. I NEED to see. Something on par with the Last of Us or The Last Man with its detail or immersion or depth of field.

Another point in Dreamland’s favor is the ambience of the story. Even from the first—a dust-choked town, a 2015 diner with 1940’s vibes, a mysterious lead known only as “the Signalman”—it’s all so atmospheric. Say what you want about the story or its characters, from the very first scene I connected with this world. I could feel the dust in my eyes and on my skin, the sweat drying on my back and armpits. I could taste the stale, tepid Dr. Pepper. I could hear the relative quiet of the desert, the click-clack of the train. I could picture the lit cigarette, dirty suit, 40’s diner, hazy twilight. I’m not sure what I have to say about the world-building of Agents of Dreamland, but it has nothing on Caitlin R. Kiernan’s ability to illustrate a scene. All the places we spent time in were as vivid as they were intricate and detailed. While I didn’t necessarily connect with the story, I connected so much with the world around it that it almost made up for it in the end.

TL;DR

Overall, Agents of Dreamland was an interesting, if not exciting beginning to the Tinfoil Dossier. The world itself is beautifully rendered, and hints at a deep, thoroughly thought-out plan for what’s to come in the series. Which is good, because the story of Dreamland itself fails to wow in any meaningful way. Only materializing with about a quarter of the text left, it does little more than introduce the reader to the world, before snapping the book closed on it. Despite this, I’m interested to see where the story goes from here. There’s promise of aliens, brain-fungus, and some sort of apocalypse in the future entry, Black Helicopters. That said, the reviews of Book #2 that I’ve seen are less than flattering, so it might well be all for nothing. Guess we’ll see.

When I bought the novella, it had the reasonable price of $4 for the ebook of a novella—though that’s now risen to $8. Which… ehhh. Not so great. I got the audiobook free, so that’s what I’d recommend doing if I were you. The 2nd entry in the series, Black Helicopters, is currently $7 for an ebook, which isn’t a lot better—though it IS about twice as long.

Stars and Bones – by Gareth L. Powell (Review)

Stars and Bones Universe #1

Scifi, Space Opera

Titan Books; February 15, 2022

352 pages (ebook)
8hr 28m (audiobook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

6.0 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Titan Books for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

When worst came to worst, the Angel stepped in to save us. Not an actual Angel mind, but super advanced aliens that stepped in in humanity’s last hour and saved it from destruction. So, kinda an actual Angel. Something that saved humanity. Or, rather, saved the Earth from humanity.

Now, cast out upon the stars, humanity exists on a multitude of great Arkships, where everything is provided and no one is left behind—a true paradise. And so the fleet wanders, knowing that the eye of the Angels will forever remain on them, and knowing that they can never return to Earth.

Eryn is a scout pilot. Together, she and her ship, the Ferocious Ocelot, scout the edges of the Arkships’ path as they wander through space. When her sister Shay disappears while responding to an alien distress call, Eryn insists on being part of the crew to find her.

Candidate-623 is a lonely rock, but harbors something both terrifying and deadly. Something that might spell humanity’s doom should it reach the Arkships. When the crew is attacked, Eryn races to warn the fleet, all the while dreading whether or not this certain something might have followed her home…

“Holy shit,” she breathed, “You are not going to fucking believe this.”

And she was right, I didn’t. At least, not at first. Because high above the atmosphere, something vaster and older than the Earth had reached down and snatched every ICBM from the sky, every torpedo from the ocean, and every tank shell, mortar round, and bullet from every battlefield on the planet.

And is was not at all amused.

Man, this was a weird one.

First off, if you’re put off by language, LGBTQ+ representation, and/or terribly done romance—maybe skip this one, eh? Otherwise, read on.

It started out like a house on fire: an extraterrestrial attack right out of the gate that quickly transformed into a desperate race against time. That transformed into a… mystery? Whereupon suddenly introducing several new characters and plot-lines around the third- or halfway mark. The last third read a bit like the latest Star Wars movies, where they just ran with whatever thing first came to mind (despite it making little sense in the overall narrative) and made sure to add plenty of action sequences.

Beware spoilers ahead for the romance! If you want to avoid them just skip the next paragraph.

The romance was… cringeworthy. What happens between Eryn and Li isn’t so much a will-they-or-won’t-they as it is a why-is-something-going-on-i-hadn’t-noticed. What starts out as a one-night stand (or, a not-even one-night stand) in the face of a certain-death mission, slowly resolves into… nothing. There are a couple of kisses, interspersed by long gaps where Eryn looks at Li like a guest, but a stranger. Seriously, they talk only a handful of times—and it actually equates to anything meaningful once. And yet I’m supposed to believe that they’re madly in love by the end? That Eryn is so smitten with the person she routinely describes as a stranger that she actually says “I realized that I was always going to love her unconditionally and forever” at the end. Now I realize that some people can go head over heels damn quick but… were they reading the same book I was, or did I just miss something? Because this romance seems so forced it literally made me cringe, and gape when they so unexpectedly ended up in love.

In addition to a truly cringeworthy romance, the conclusion to the story was a bit of a blur. By which I mean confusing. I’m not going to get into it because of spoilers, but… I spent half of the time lost and the other half either experiencing deja vu or wondering how it’d possibly come to this point. But despite all odds when the end actually came, all my questions had been answered. As far as I could tell, all major threads had been tied up. It was extremely odd, but extremely impressive.

Yes, there was a talking cat, no, I don’t want to talk about it.

Despite it all, Stars and Bones wasn’t bad. It had a solid story, so long as you overlooked all the tangents, pseudo-parenting, and the romance (ye gods, don’t get me going on the romance again). A race against the clock as humanity faces extinction. Where Eryn must do everything she can to save the human race, despite the fact that all of it should be so, so far over her pay grade. From an action and adventure stand point: it was a decent read; there was a lot of both action and adventure. As an existential crisis: it wasn’t bad; it tackled several surprising issues like the nature of love and friendship, parenting, existence, and perseverance. As a mystery: it was crap; a bit like playing pin-the-tail while ignoring any and all hints or clues—you’re bound to get it eventually, monkeys and Shakespeare and all. As a book though… Stars and Bones was certainly a mixed bag. It had a lot of strong points, but some weak ones as well. And there was a lot to unpack.

I believe that was the biggest problem I had with Stars and Bones: its identity. This is simply a case of trying to do to much. In its bones, this was a Science Fiction/Space Opera. But with a little bit of thriller thrown in. Political thriller too. Romance, as well. Mystery. Adventure. Allegory for life. Philosophical endeavor.

TL;DR

There’s a lot to love about Stars and Bones, partly due to the fact that there’s just so much going on in it. Too much, I’d argue. A science fiction/space opera by nature, the story tries to hit up every single genre on the way from start to finish. Thriller. Romance. Mystery. Philosophy. Existentialism. The list goes on. And in the end, there was just too much going on. Stars and Bones couldn’t seem to make up its mind on what it wanted to be. And while it pulled some of these transitions off seamlessly, others it definitely didn’t. The mystery and romance, to start. But either way a number was done on the pacing; what started out as a house on fire quickly transformed to a barnburner, then an… allegory for life? A decent read, but one that I just never could get a handle on. I promise you—there’s a good story in here somewhere, even if I could never find it.

Audio Note
I suffered a few burnouts reading this. I started it only to lose interest fairly quickly. Part of this could be down to timing—early March is a busy time of year for me, then I got the flu immediately after. But then these both happened in the early part of the story, when it’s all action all the time in Eryn’s POV, and we’re just learning the fate of Earth in Haruki’s. Eventually, I picked it up as an audiobook and read it to fruition. Rebecca Norfolk did a great job—most of the time. While her reading of Eryn and most other POVs proved excellent, whenever she contrived to do an accent it… just sounded ridiculous. Frank was passable; Sheppard and Ginet were decidedly not. The AIs were night and day; the Ocelot was great, while any others were flat and emotionless, even when they seemed to be expressing emotion.

Diablo Mesa – by Preston & Child (Review)

Nora Kelly #3

Thriller

Grand Central Publishing; February 15, 2022

368 pages (ebook)

Author Website
GoodreadsStoryGraph

3.0 – 3.5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to both NetGalley and Grand Central. All opinions are my own.

Yeah, there’s a reason I couldn’t land on an exact rating for this one. Read on to find out why.

If you’re not familiar with the series or wonder how we’ve gotten to this point, here are my reviews of the first two books:

Old Bones (Nora Kelly #1) Review

The Scorpion’s Tail (Nora Kelly #2) Review

Nora Kelly has a job to do—it’s just not the one she ever expected.

Former lead archaeologist at the esteemed Santa Fe Archaeological Institute, she is approached by Luccas Tappan, a wealthy and eccentric billionaire and incidentally the reason that she is “formerly” at the Institute at all. See, only hours before Nora was asked to lead a dig at the Roswell Site—perhaps the site of the single greatest conspiracy in American history. Unwilling to be mocked for the rest of her probably short career as “that alien archaeologist”, she refused. But then, the Institute wasn’t really asking at all. And Nora wasn’t backing down.

Enter Lucas Tappan, handsome and persuasive billionaire who’s ready to write Nora a blank check in return for her services. Yeah, a blank check. From a billionaire. And even for a successful archaeologist like Nora Kelly, it’s really, really hard to say no to that.

And so she leads the dig to uncover what really happened at Roswell. But she’s going to need some help.

After her initial excavations uncover a couple of murder victims, Special Agent Corrie Swanson is asked to investigate. But what she finds only begets more questions than answers. And after carrying on with her own excavation, Nora’s path does as well. But just what exactly is going on in Roswell? And is it really aliens? And is there really a government conspiracy that will threaten the lives of the entire team, or will the desert—and the little grey beings—claim them first?

What makes a good series? After starring as a mainstay in Preston & Child’s Pendergast series for several of the first ten books, Nora Kelly was granted her own spinoff, and given her own co-star, Corrie Swanson, who played second fiddle to Pendergast in several more. The premier, Old Bones, was pretty good, but far from captivating, falling especially flat in its last third. A few leaps in logic really ruined what could have been a great debut.

Three-quarters of the followup, Scorpion’s Tail, wowed me. But again, the final hundred or so pages were quite a letdown. It makes some rather large leaps of faith with little or no evidence or justification beyond gut-feeling behind them. It was still an interesting read—just not a great one.

Which brings us to Diablo Mesa.

This one started out interesting. An excavation of the Roswell crash site? A possible government conspiracy? A bit of danger, adventure, and romance thrown in? Yeah, sounds like a pretty great read!

Which it very much was—for the first 75%.

Then it crashed and burned. Much like the alien spacecraft—I mean, “weather balloon”. And also like the rest of the series before it; all failing at the same point in each book.

So what can I really say about it? As it turns out, not a whole lot. Until that three-quarters mark, I was pretty much captivated. It was a great read; despite the obvious government conspiracy, despite the alien buildup, despite the kinda ridiculous romance(s), despite all the technical terms and archaeological process (take it from a former archaeologist: it ain’t interesting. Archaeology is a bit like war—99% of it is incredibly boring).

And so when it failed—at the 75% mark, like I KNEW it would—it was a disappointment. And so much of one that that’s most of what I remember about it, nearly two weeks later. Not the plot, not the thrill, not the conclusion (that really tried to turn that failure around)—but the failure itself. This one collapsed for the same reasons as those before it: gut-instincts and ridiculous leaps of faith. The resulting chaos was a mixture of bad plans and terrible logic, and the resulting fallout almost unbelievable chance working up to a happy ending. Happy, so long as your favorite character wasn’t any of the bit parts. In other reviews I might clock these as spoilers, but they’ve been done time and again in this series (and the Pendergast before it, at that), so I’ve pretty much come to expect them. So when I say that Diablo Mesa is a solid 3 to 3.5 star book, believe me that no one is more disappointed by this than I am.

TL;DR

75% of Diablo Mesa was gripping, thrilling, and a middle-finger to those two books before it. Or to most of the last half-dozen of Preston & Child thrillers. It was going to succeed where they could not. Not make the same mistakes, not falter in the final stretch, turn the entire series around and finish out an amazing story. But then. A leap of faith. Impossible logic. Another ridiculous, underdog story and a plan that would never work on paper but somehow ends up doing just that.

I mean… it’s really frustrating. This one fails in the exact same spot as the two before it. And even though the ending is actually, legitimately good—it’s not chilling in the way it should have been. Upon finishing Diablo Mesa I had the same reaction that I have writing this review nearly two weeks later: disappointment. Because it could have been great. But it was ruined for the same reasons, at the same time as those before it.

Mickey7 – by Edward Ashton (Review)

standalone

Scifi, Cloning, Aliens

St. Martin’s Press; February 15, 2022 (US)
Solaris; February 17, 2022 (UK)

304 pages (ebook)

Goodreads
Author Website

5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to St. Martin’s Press, Solaris, and Rebellion for providing me with an ARC! This in no way affects my review. All opinions are my own.

Mickey7 is an Expendable, as was Mickey6 before him. And Mickey5 before them. All the way back to Mickey Barnes, a historian from Midgard with no options, no useful skills, and no other choice but to volunteer for his position on the expedition to colonize the ice world Niflheim. For Expendable was the only position he qualified for, the only one the expedition had trouble filling. For one would have to be insane to to volunteer for it. Insane, or desperate.

While an Expendable is the least desirable gig on a colonyship, it’s also a vital position. They can go where robots cannot—into the active core of a fusion engine. The can work systems meant for human hands—such as outside the radiation shielding on a spaceship. They can scout the deepest tunnels or highest mountains where a machine might otherwise be destroyed by acclimate weather or disaster. Not that an Expendable can’t be destroyed. They certainly can; it’s an integral part of the job. But while machines have advanced quite far by this point, an Expendable holds one key advantage over them: they’re cheaper.

Thus Mickey is scanned and reconstructed every time his predecessor dies—over and over til the expedition runs out of material to clone him or dangerous jobs for him to do. And it’s not likely they’ll ever run out of danger on Niflheim, where if the temperature doesn’t kill you, the insect-like natives probably will. But when Mickey7 falls down a hole into one of the deepest tunnels on Niflheim, he does the one thing his crew had never expected.

He survives.

And upon returning to base, Mickey7 comes across Mickey8—something no Expendable should ever see. For not even serial killers or child-rapists are loathed as much as duplicates, and if Mickey is discovered, then both of them can kiss their existence goodbye—something neither want, but what Mickey7 has gradually come to fear. For now he’s pretty sure that when his life ends, it won’t restart again when he’s Mickey9. After all, he can’t very well be Mickey8, can he?

But when the native species begins snatching humans from Niflheim, it’s up to the Mickeys to save the day by doing the one thing all Expendables are good for: dying.

He runs both hands back through his hair.

“I don’t know… I don’t know… they didn’t cover this situation in training.”

That’s the truth, anyway. Training was one hundred percent about dying. I don’t remember them dedicating much time at all to staying alive.

When I started Mickey7, I figured it’d be a nice diversion from all the fantasy that came in January, a quick read to start of the hectic month of releases February promises to be. But while I certainly got through it quick, Mickey7 left a lasting impression. In fact, it’s not only the best book I’ve read thus far in 2022, and one of the best science fiction novels I’ve read in some time, it’s also probably the best clone-themed book I’ve read, well, ever.

We follow Mickey’s POV throughout; he’s the one and only lead (told in third person). But which Mickey? That’s the trouble when dealing with clones. Which is the real one? Or are any “real” at all? Well, the book actually addresses this (and more) all while following one (or more!) Mickeys through their adventures within.

When talking about a science fiction thriller that specializes in cloning, the characters are really where you want to start. How are the clones as characters? Do they feel real, do they feel human? Now there’s almost always a sect in any given story that is against the idea of cloning. Usually religious or moral or philosophical. This is no different. The “Natalists” in this view clones as abominations, empty shells pretending to be human, and a mockery of all that God intended. For his part, while Mickey Barnes was never a natalist, by the point he reaches Mickey7, he’s not sure what to believe. And while most of the characters in this are quite strong, it’s Mickey7’s examination of his past and future states that make him so compelling.

Is he real? Well, certainly he can feel and die, so probably. But is HE Mickey Barnes? He can remember Mickey Barnes, along with all of his experiences as Mickeys 2 through 6, but only the parts that he uploaded to the cloning device. Otherwise, watching through his supposed memories from that time might as well be viewing the visions of a madman. An Expendable’s main duty is to die, and by the point that the text starts, Mickey7 has come to fear death. Over the course of the text, Mickey7 will share his current situation with memories of “his” past (via typically alternating chapters). While some of these did feel a bit like info dumps, the only time I was really bothered by this was toward the end, where I felt them sapping from the pace of the story. Otherwise they’re short or relevant enough that I didn’t think they detracted from the plot. In fact most often they added to it, and I actually came to look forward to them—be it either discovering what had happened as Mickey4 or 5 and how they died, or understanding just a little bit more of the lore surrounding the universe. One of my personal favorites is further on, when we discover just what makes duplicates so universally despised.

The supporting cast is also quite good. In a colony of 200ish, Mickey knows pretty much everyone’s names. But he’s not on great terms with them all. Especially given his job as an Expendable and all. Which makes total sense. If some dude dies all the time, you’re probably not going to be thrilled to spend a lot of time around him. But he’s got a girlfriend, a best friend, some acquaintances, and a whole lot of people who hate him. While not all the named faces get fulfilling roles, the named characters that Mickey does get on with (or very much doesn’t) have backstories, motivations, and ambitions all their own. Everyone has a different motive; which works well together in a story all about survival.

The story itself is fairly straightforward. Okay, so… there are two of us. Step 1) Don’t tell anyone. Check. No one knows—probably. 2) Keep anyone from finding out. Also check. One of us will probably die soon; Expendable and all. But with a crew of only a couple hundred and a small colony, there are only so many places to hide. 3) Don’t make it worse. No problem. In these science fiction thriller nobody ever makes any bad decisions. It’ll be fine.

So the story is all about mitigating and dealing with what follows, when things don’t go exactly to plan. Because when has anything ever worked out 100% like you thought it would—in real life, or a fictional dystopian world inhabited by ice monsters? As expected, Mickey7 blends excitement with humor. Very well, actually. It’s often dark humor, which I found paired quite well with the somewhat ominous tone of the story. Niflheim—as you might guess from the name (especially if you’re at least somewhat familiar with Norse mythos)—ain’t exactly a cheery place. So what follows is a tale of disaster mitigation that’s part comedy, mystery, thriller, adventure set on a scifi hellscape with hostile aliens and the constant threat of death—that’s also being deconstructed as part of a clone’s philosophical crisis. With… himself.

If nothing else I’ve said convinces you to try this book, I guess let it be the age-old question: will we get to see a Mickey9?

TL;DR

My average reading rate for a 300-odd book is about a week. It usually takes me time to warm up to the lead, the characters, the story, and really get into the swing of things. I finished Mickey7 in just over a day. That alone should tell you something. If not, maybe the clone questioning his humanity while trying to avoid actually, physically strangling himself trope will do it. Or that it has really very good ratings thus far. Or that it’s a story of damage mitigation set on an frozen world with hostile aliens where the entire environment is out to kill the colonists, but a multiple is the one thing that they can’t stand. Or that—in spite of how all of that sounds—it actually comes off as damn well realistic …should hopefully be enough to get you to give this a try. I loved it. I hope you do, too.

Discordia – by Kristyn Merbeth (Review)

Nova Vita Protocol #3

Scifi, Space Opera

Orbit; December 7, 2021

464 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

Beware spoilers for the Nova Vita Protocol Books 1 & 2.

Review of Fortuna (NV#1)

Review of Memoria (NV#2)

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Orbit Books and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

While I usually try to abstain from language in my reviews, some of the quotes below may contain some. If you foul language is a deal-breaker for you, maybe don’t read this book.

All I had to do was… absolutely nothing. But I couldn’t even get that right. It seems I’m always finding new and improved ways to fuck everything up.

The Kaisers return to space, after the events of Memoria leave them homeless. But while they are together as a family, they are not all together as a crew. Following his betrayal during the war on Nibiru, Orion is back, where he is more or less welcomed with open arms. Daniil, on the other hand, is less so. The former Titan Sergeant may be a war criminal, but his motives are not trusted—even by Corvus, who knows him better than anyone.

Likewise, the crew of the Memoria are not universally trusted or welcomed among the planets of Nova Vita. On Nibiru, the IA has declared them all fugitives and war criminals, despite their hero-status among most of the populace. On Pax, their documents are not accepted, and are still waiting for permission to land on the largely desert world. On Deva, they are… tolerated, so long as they have something to offer: mostly consisting of goods scavenged from Gaia and Titan—the two worlds where they are most welcome. But even that is about to change.

As the system readies for war once again, the Kaisers go from simple war criminals to something more, and are almost universally hunted. Only Pax (which still won’t let them land) isn’t actively trying to capture or kill them. All for the forbidden intel they’ve gathered on the Primus—knowledge that is worth far more than just their lives. But while this information may finally do them in, it may yet save them, and the entire system of Nova Vita as well.

I was more afraid to fight than I ever have been before, because I have never wanted to live more than I do today.

Discordia concludes the Nova Vita Protocol, wrapping up all major storylines with a nice bow and flourish, while leaving a return to the universe possible, if not evident. The story is definitely the reason to read this one, especially if you’ve been following it from Fortuna. I certainly had some issues with the book, but really none with the story itself. If nothing else, Kristyn Merbeth knows how to tell a story, and does her best not to leave anything out when wrapping it all up.

But while I’ve enjoyed the Nova Vita protocol thus far, it hasn’t exactly been perfect. In fact, one of my main complaints thus far has been that the planets don’t really feel like planets. As the Kaisers fly through the system, they visit each world, every time landing in the same city or port, and at no time really exploring anywhere else. Yes, there are a few exceptions to this rule—in Fortuna, we did visit two whole locations on Titan, but then were quickly removed from the planet entirely; in Memoria, there was a bit of roving around Nibiru, but it was mostly just the ocean, and there wasn’t any further description of anything else—but coming into Discordia, it seemed that there was but one city on every planet, and nothing else worth caring about. I am happy to say that this is not the case for the third book …to a point. When landing on Gaia and Deva and Nibiru, we still only land in the same city, but manage to explore a little more of the worlds themselves. But… just the area surrounding the capitals. A little. Pax actually features more than one city, though little description is given to either, so they might as well be the same. There hasn’t been any real effort made to make the planets seem like, well, planets. It more feels like we’re moving between three or four cities, while nothing outside their limits matters.

In fact, while Discordia does try to correct the issues I had with its previous installments, the attempts never seemed all that comprehensive. In fact, it tries to do some many new things, that it kinda gets in its own way. The exploration is one; there is an attempt to expand the worlds, but not all that much. There’re more glimpses into the history of expansion into Nova Vita, but not many. The non-romantic, non-familial relationships do take center stage early in the text, but then are never really revisited. All in all, there is an attempt at expanding the scope of the universe—but it’s a bit of a half-assed attempt.

The romance is another thing I’d like to address. Though Memoria may’ve cleared up Scorpia’s love-triangle, Discordia comes back with its own in the form of Corvus. Now, I’m not a big fan of love-triangles (or romance (as a genre), really), but Corvus’ was done extremely well. Whereas the continuing romance between Shey and Scorpia begins to feel a bit forced, the one involving Corvus is just the opposite. It is subtle and enigmatic, blossoming in the background over all the books, before really becoming something tangible in the latter half of the third. Just as Scorpia’s caused me to lose interest, Corvus’ reinvigorated it. (That said, I did appreciate the effort the author made to illustrate that the Scorpia-Shey thing was far from a storybook romance—that it took time and effort, went thing bad spells and indifference and anger and strife. At the end it did feel more real, though still a bit forced).

TL;DR

Overall… Discordia was quite the mixed bag. It’s certainly a must-read for anyone who’s reached this point of the series, though if you didn’t like the content of the books thus far, you’re not going to be any happier with the conclusion. While the final book in the Nova Vita Protocol did try to address some of my major issues with the preceding entries, it didn’t really try too hard. There’s a bit more exploration of the planets outside their one hub, but not too much and not too far. There’s a bit more detail and lore, but nothing important, and not all that much. The romance replaces one love-triangle with another—although this one is entirely more well done. It’s… urrrgh. Frustrating to describe. I’d recommend Discordia for fans of the series, or those who’ve gotten through Book #2 and want to see where it all ends. For those who’ve yet to start the series… while the story of Nova Vita is strong, it’s really the only thing that is. The rest isn’t bad, exactly… just maybe don’t expect too much.

Inhibitor Phase – by Alastair Reynolds (Review)

Revelation Space Universe
Inhibitor Sequence #4

Scifi, Space Opera

Orbit; October 12, 2021 (US)
Gollancz; August 26, 2021 (UK)

454 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Gollancz and many, many thanks to Orbit Books for providing me with a lovely, physical ARC! This in no way affects my partiality, or my cynicism. All opinions are my own.

Please Beware Minor Spoilers for the Revelation Space Universe.

224 years after the reappearance of the Inhibitors, humanity has become an endangered species, hiding in the galaxy’s darkest corners. Miguel de Ruyter lives on the airless world of Michaelmas—a godforsaken, pockmarked world at the edge of known space. Here, hidden in caves deep below the surface, humanity ekes out an existence. Three thousand people call Sun Hollow home, making it the largest known human settlement in space. Though for de Ruyter, it’s the only known human settlement.

But things are about to change.

When de Ruyter heads topside to destroy a colony ship—worried that the Wolves (the Inhibitors) will detect the presence of so many humans, the people of Sun Holloware prepared to destroy the newcomers before the they bring the Wolves down on Michaelmas—he comes away from the ship with a startling discovery. A lone sleeper casket, fortunate to survive the explosion. More fortunate still, the occupant, a woman known only as Glass, seems in good health if rattled by the experience. But when de Ruyter returns her to Sun Hollow all that changes.

It appears that Glass was not the desperate refugee that de Ruyter had taken her for. Within days of landing on Michaelmas, she has the colony on its knees, defenseless before her. They can refuse her nothing, but Glass only wants one thing from Sun Hollow: Miguel de Ruyter.

One man in exchange for the colony. And if de Ruyter agrees to go quietly, they’ll undertake the mystery that Glass came to Michaelmas to solve. The enigma of the Knights of Cydonia, a way to defeat the Inhibitors, a lost world known only as Charybdis, and the long-dead Nevil Clavain.

“Why’d you shoot it?”
I glared at him. “Would you rather I
hadn’t shot it?”
“I’d rather those other ones weren’t suddenly taking an interest in us.”

On the whole, Inhibitor Phase was an excellent read, just what I was hoping for for my return to the Revelation Space universe. I’ve only read the opening novel, Revelation Space, which only just hints at the wolves’ existence—but I still found this a satisfying continuation of the universe. Additionally, I think that new readers won’t have to hard of time of things. Inhibitor Phase doesn’t throw you in the deep end; instead building the universe from the ground up from the safety of an isolated haven before introducing the universe and history at large. If you’re a fan of the series you’ll probably know all these things already, but shouldn’t be too put off by the amount of hand-holding it does in the opening Part One.

Inhibitor Phase is written in first-person POV, and told over seven distinct Parts, which take place over a total of about 60 years. There’s a helpful glossary and timeline at the end, as well as a list of key characters and note on chronology. I used these all the time to square what I remembered with what I was being told—and it’s an incredibly helpful detail to have along. The events within are set after most of what happens in Absolution Gap (which I’ve heard is depressing), and while the tone isn’t completely positive, it’s certainly more so than not at all.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Inhibitor Phase! The story flows along really nicely after it departs Sun Hollow, and I had absolutely no problem getting along with the story. It reads quick and to the point, with a bit of flair, a bit of drama, and a bit of pace. In all honesty, I think it could get away with being 50% longer. I actually kinda felt that it glossed over some things in the interest of time; things that could’ve really become an adventure all in their own right instead of a footnote in another. But I know why it was done this way, and it’s really quite a good read the way it was written. But the best stories always leave you wanting more, and that’s what Reynolds does here. The plot flows quite nicely, with barely an issue—until the events of Part 6 (which will remain nameless in anticipation of spoilers). Then it takes some interesting license. And the story loses some of its cohesion. And don’t get me started on the ending. So… I know what they were trying to do. It all makes sense, in general, generally, on the whole. But explicitly… I have no idea what was going on. Everything just starts leaping all over the place.

While Inhibitor Phase is somewhat of a serious book—I mean, it has to do with the possible extinction or survival of humanity—it’s not without its fair share of humor. Which I found… good, I guess? Funny. Entertaining. Reynolds doesn’t do humor like Andy Weir. Or like Peter F. Hamilton. Or like Becky Chambers. Like so many other authors out there, he has his own peculiar brand of humor which you’ll either like or hate, either have to get used to or won’t.

“It isn’t as bad as it sounds.”
“You’re not stupid, and I’m reasonably sure you’re not suicidal. Explain how this helps us.”
“Good—at least you’re being open-minded. The fact is, we’re only considering a brief dip into the photosphere of the star: barely different to skimming the atmosphere of a planet.”
“Except it’s a star.”
“Don’t get too hung up on that. The photosphere is merely a transitional zone where the mean free paths for photon collisions undergo a large change. From
Scythe’s point of view, it will be no different to moving from plasma environment to a somewhat denser, more excited environment containing the same plasma.”
“Except it’s a
star,” I repeated.

TL;DR

Inhibitor Phase continues the Revelation Space Universe and Inhibitor Sequence Arcs in a very different way than the previous de facto concluding Absolution Gap (which, to be fair, I haven’t read but I’ve heard many things about—mostly that it’s depressing). Inhibitor Phase is a serious book, but there’s humor in it too. In fact, if the survival of humanity wasn’t at stake, I’d class it as a story about adventure, or a mystery to to solved. And solve it it does—to a quite satisfying degree over the course of its 7 separate Parts, 34 chapters and 450-odd pages. While a little artistic and scientific license is taken at the end, on the whole this is an immensely entertaining, satisfying read that I have no issue recommending to both old-timers and those new to Revelation Space. And I can’t wait to see where the series goes from here!

Iron Widow – by Xiran Jay Zhao (Review)

Iron Widow #1

YA, Fantasy, Scifi

Penguin Teen; September 21, 2021

399 pages (ebook)

Goodreads • Author Website

4.8 / 5 ✪

I did not pay for this book. I was very kindly granted an advance copy of it in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Penguin and Netgalley for the ARC! Hopefully the author will forgive me—especially after I post said review to Goodreads and/or Amazon with a rating;)

Iron Widow is the debut by author Xiran Jay Zhao. And if you don’t know how to pronounce that, don’t worry I’ve got you covered.

Here’s a crash course if you’re new to pinyin:

• ZH is pronounced like the ‘dg’ in “fudge”
• Z is pronounced like the ‘dz’ in “Adz”
• Q is pronounced like the ‘ch’ in “China”, only toward the front of the mouth
• X is pronounced like the ‘sh’ in “Shiny”, only toward the front of the mouth
• C is pronounced like the ‘ts’ in “cats”

Honestly, I could’ve just kept going, but these are the basics—let’s not go overboard. So now let’s butcher her name. If you guessed: something like “She-ran Jay Jow”—you’re on the right track. If you said it perfectly first time: nice! If you guessed: anything else—keep trying!

Right, the book. Iron Widow is a retelling of the Empress Wu Zhao who served as consort for the Tang dynasty and later seized control of the throne leading to the Zhou dynasty, during which she ruled unopposed. The book is the beginning of a retelling of her life.

Only with giant pilotable gundam-like chrysalises. And aliens.

Huaxia sits on the edge of extinction. The Hunduns—sentient mechanical aliens that have overrun the lands north of the Great Wall—have pushed humanity to the brink.

The remnants of the Han survive only through the grace of the great Chrysalises—huge husks made of spirit metal capable of transforming into fighting machines. When the two pilots—one a boy (nanhaizi 男孩子), one a girl (nühaizi 怒孩子)—combine their qi within the Chrysalis they are able to force it into metamorphosis, resulting in a huge fighting robot. Though this grants the pilots the power to repel the Hunduns from their land, it usually results in the death of the girls. This is seen as a sacrifice worth taking, in order to assure the survival of the human race. Plus, they’re only girls.

Wu Zetian is born upon the frontier, near the Great Wall itself. Should the Chrysalises fail, her family would be one of the first to fall. And she was born (and ultimately kept) in order to die.

As her sister did before her.

And so Zetian follows her elder sister (jiejie 姐姐) into the army, joining the ranks of Yang Guang’s concubines—who wait on his every whim, offer themselves to him freely, and are taken into battle with him, most often to their deaths. Again, as Zetian’s 姐姐 did before her.

But unlike her sister, Zetian isn’t here to make some sacrifice, noble or otherwise. Instead she has her heart set on vengeance—for her murdered sister, for thousands of dead girls before her, and ultimately for herself. For even should she live long enough to kill Yang Guang—what then? She’ll still only exist in a world set against her, one where she’ll carve a place for herself—in blood.

You are here to provide comfort and companionship to one of the greatest heroes of our time. From this day onward, you exist to please him, so that he may be in peak physical and mental condition to battle the Hunduns that threaten our borders. His well-being should be the most prominent subject of your thoughts. You will bring him meals when he is hungry, pour him water when he is thirsty, and partake in his hobbies with him with lively enthusiasm. When he speaks, you will give him your full attention, without interrupting or arguing. You will not be moody, pessimistic, or indifferent, and—most importantly—you will not react negatively to his touch.

This book is steeped in both sexism and racism. The misogyny of the classical world has been well documented of course, but here’s another crash course on China (zhongguo 中國), which take things a bit further. Being born a boy was a huge responsibility. You were the hope of your family, your bloodline. You were supposed to succeed in the exams, in life, marry into a good family and produce a (male) heir. You would then take care of your parents and manage their estates. If you were born a girl, you had to hope your parents didn’t kill you because they wanted a boy. If they let you live, you basically did whatever they wanted to ensure that you fetched a good dowry, which would be used to help your brother pay his way into a good family. Then you were someone else’s problem, but should never forget your parents/family should you somehow make it big. You were subservient to your father, then your brothers, then your husband, then your sons. At no point were you ever in charge of your own destiny. Maybe don’t google this.

“I’m so tired of being a girl.”
“Yeah, if you were a boy, you’d be ruling the world by now.”

Likewise, if you were Han, then you had a natural step up on the competition. If you were anything other than Han, you were a barbarian. Often even subhuman. If you were half-blooded or quarter-blooded non-ethnic Han you were often seen as inferior. Han nationalism is generally on par with white nationalism in terms of exclusionism. Of course, this is the only instance of racism ever in history, and therefore is quite notable. Seriously, DO NOT GOOGLE THIS—you won’t find anything remotely heartwarming.

The overwhelming sexism here takes center stage, while the racism is kinda glossed over. I hope that we get to it more later in the series, though. Xiran Jay Zhao doesn’t exactly paint a pretty picture for female life back in the annuls of history, but it’s probably pretty realistic. There’s a reason there’s a huge gender imbalance even nowadays—as the number of men heavily outweighs the number of women.

In terms of a fantasy book, Iron Widow is a damn good one. I mean, it’s a whirlwind of blood, tears and chaos, but one hell of a ride all the same. Zetian quite the character. I legitimately believe she’d bathe in the blood of her enemies. She’s got a bit of a demon in her; willing to do anything in order to achieve her ends. She also has a warm, sensitive side (though it’s a little overshadowed by the whole “demon” bit)—which she shows in touching scenes with Yizhi and Li Shimin. I’m honestly not sure what kind of a romantic she is. All in all, Zetian is complicated. She’s entirely human, but also a vengeful goddess born of pure chaos. As I said, quite the character.

The romance is a thing—leaving me undecided whether I bought into it or not. Despite her assertions that “the triangle is the strongest form of geometry”, I’m still not sure what it was that Zetian really wanted. It seemed to me that both male leads were head-over-heels, willing to die for her, while she was more “well, I like them but… meh”. Again, I hope that this is something that gets cleared up in Book #2.

The gundams—or chrysalises—are more like zoids than mobile suits. Or… a bit of a cross between the two. I envisioned them as gigantic seed-pods that could digivolve into mechanical fighting robots based on the qi of their pilots. Maybe more like a “Big O” kinda thing.

TL;DR

From gundams to aliens to emperors, there’s A LOT going on in this story. And while I didn’t love every minute of it, I loved way more than enough to recommend it. Wu Zetian is a monumental task of a retelling, but Xiran Jay Zhao has a winner here. For while it’s not all accurate, it’s certainly a perspective with a twist; a story that finds the future Empress as a poor farm girl with a taste for vengeance, blood, love, and ambition. An amazing coming-of-age tale that devolves into pure chaos and is somehow better for it.

Note: If you want a soundtrack while you read this book, the author suggests that you just go listen to the Pacific Rim soundtrack on a loop. An excellent idea:)

Outpost – W. Michael Gear (Review)

Donovan #1

Scifi, Space Opera, Aliens

DAW Books; February 20, 2018

442 pages (Paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.3 / 5 ✪

Welcome to Donovan.

One of the farthest worlds from Earth, Donovan is as far as one can get from civilization. A beautiful world of forest, it is truly a breathtaking planet, one that the locals adore and fear in equal measure. For while Donovan is gorgeous—paradise it is not. A truly hostile, alien world, everything is trying to kill them. From the quetzals and bems and other apex predators that camouflage themselves to hunt; to the sentient plants that wrap their roots or vines around someone and then garrote or engulf them in flame; to the slugs that burrow their way into people and eat them from the inside-out; to the disease, heavy-metal poisoning, and morale and attrition that affects every colony on the fringes—death lurks around every corner.

While the locals love it, the future immigrants aboard the colony ship Turalon might not agree. After two years crammed in a tin can, they are about to get their first peek at Donovan—and the world does not greet them with open arms. Even neglecting the flora and fauna, the existing pioneers are cold and untrusting of their Corporate counterparts. Even before the ship touches down, tensions arise, only to flare as the colonists get the first glimpse of their new home.

Kalico Aguila is an ambitious and cutthroat executive, sent to determine whether Donovan is worth salvaging. Though it is a world of bounty and treasure, the hostile nature of the place, along with its remoteness makes it a risky investment. That’s even before considering that the last seven resupply ships have gone missing around Donovan, never to be seen again. And so the Corporation have sent Supervisor Aguila—along with her Marine Sergeant Cap Taggart—to investigate and report back. That is, if they can make it back.

Talina Perez represents the hope of Donovan. One of the de facto leaders on planet, it’s up to her and her people to keep the colonists safe from the encroaching wildlife. A task that challenges them constantly. Shortly after the story begins, Talina and her understudy Trish Monagan have an encounter with a quetzal that has gotten inside the colony—an event that will change Talina forever. And when the change starts to manifest itself within her, it could save, or doom her world forever.

Would-be colonists like Dan Wirth just can’t wait to get planetside to start their new lives. But when the planet is Donovan… they might not want to stay very long. Not that Dan is worried. Not that Dan is his real name. A psychopath, “Dan Wirth” is ready to forge a new legacy on Donovan—one he means to pay for in blood.

But when the ship touches down, tensions explode, leaving the two sides at each other’s throats. And that’s even before the lost Freelander mysteriously appears in orbit—a ship that wreaks of blood and death and is stocked with little but bones.

You know the stories that take place on an alien world, or a colony on the edge of civilization, or a town in the middle of nowhere, or any other combination of mysterious, exotic, alien, strangeness and/or the unknown? I really dig those. The unknown—and more specifically what secrets and mysteries are lurking within it—has always fascinated me. It’s why I love science fiction and fantasy so much in the first place.

Enter Outpost, which combines so many of these and adds danger, murderous aliens, psychopaths and a death cult into the mix. And Donovan is such a great setting! I mean, actually Donovan is kinda a terrible setting—for the colonists, at least. But for the reader (and I guess the author), it’s a wonderland, a paradise of new and original ideas, each more wild (and terrifying) than the last. And with the existing colonists, the new would-be colonists AND the existing planetary inhabitants all together vying for control of the planet… well, it’s just a recipe for success. One that Gear delivers on with a fascinating tale of mystery and discovery! There’s even a group of former colonists that just took to the bush and somehow live in peace with all the dangers of Donovan. They’re not around much in Outpost, but look for them in the future, as they’re such an untapped potential.

In general, I loved Outpost! The characters are a great blend of authoritative, renegade, ordered, desperate, experienced vs. inexperienced that it’s great to compare their multiple POVs even when they’re not interacting. And add a wild card to the mix for Dan Wirth, the resident psychopath whose agenda essentially can change at the drop of a hat? It’s really well thought-out, well executed; a great read all around. The chapters are short but immersive. They all weave together quite nicely to form a tale of deceit and lies and mystery and love and adventure. I got major Edge of Tomorrow vibes—particularly with the indigenous life (especially the quetzals), and the struggle against a wholly alien enemy that isn’t well understood. Though I’m not entirely taken with it, it’s a pretty close thing.

Talina or Trish were probably my favorite POVs, with Iji or Tip thrown in as my favorite bit character. But there’s really no going wrong with any of them. Kalico Aguila was also quite strong. Dan Wirth I hated, but in all the good ways. Cap was a bit shallow, if I’m honest, for a POV—but he’s really my one complaint.

I do hate it when characters are killed off just to further the plot, however. Now, when a character dies or has to die over the course of the story, that’s fine. But when they die specifically to set up some kinda plot device—like a whodunnit scenario—it gets to me. Now I’m not saying who dies (and you really shouldn’t be surprised that SOMEONE DIES in this book—Donovan is a scary place, be prepared for everyone to die in this) in case of spoilers. Sufficient to say that someone does JUST to further/create a plot device which is just frustrating.

TL;DR

Outpost is a 450 page gambol (I love that word—it’s like a frolic) that goes by in a blink once it gets moving. I mean, there’s some action, yes. And maybe one or two alien species intent on tearing the humans to shreds. Also something about a death cult. A mystery of disappearing ships. Two factions—no, THREE factions—at one another’s throats. A dwindling crowd of people forced to work together or die divided on a world that seeks to expel them or drink them dry. So… pretty much just a nice frolic. I mean, if you’re into that.

The Alien Stars: And Other Novellas – by Tim Pratt (Review)

Axiom Universe

Scifi, Novellas

Watkins Publishing; April 27, 2021

238 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided with a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way alters or affects my opinion. Many thanks to Angry Robot and Watkins Media for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Fresh off my first Pratt novel Doors of Sleep, I decided to give his Axiom universe a go. This omnibus collects three novellas all set in said universe, and presents a debatably good intro to the series itself. Or does it?

The Augmented Stars

Delilah Mears joins the crew of the Golden Spider, a scout vessel on a hush-hush mission out onto the fringes of known space. To her, the Axiom are nothing more than a myth: a race of pseudo-Reapers that haunt the galaxy, laying waste to any civilization they come across. So when it turns out that the mission itself is to investigate a cosmic anomaly—one that may or may not be an Axiom death trap—she’s caught a bit off guard. But upon setting out, the mission parameters aren’t the only surprise in store for Mears. Space pirates, rogue A.I.s, and myths come to life feature in this action-packed novella.

…which was generally interesting—and served as a good intro to the Axiom universe, even though I’m told it contains spoilers for the books. The novella starts off on the right foot; an adventure to the edge of space, a mysterious captain with quite a sense of humor, an interesting new galaxy to explore. From here, we go to the equally mysterious anomaly, get boarded by space pirates—enough to tie off any adventure nicely. The ending was a bit of a letdown, and I do think Pratt could’ve drawn out the suspense (and length of the novella) a bit more, but all in all it was an enjoyable adventure told in a bite-size portion.

3.5 / 5 ✪

The Artificial Stars

A.I. and Trans-Neptunian Alliance President Shall receives a strange message from a past version of himself that he thought had been re-absorbed into his consciousness and destroyed. The request: come to the edge of the universe to see something important—if he doesn’t, the universe will be destroyed. So Shall convenes his cabinet to decide how to handle the threat before ultimately setting out to meet it.

I just could never take this one seriously. From the outset, it runs like a cheesy scifi series one-off. An AI splits his personality and it eventually gets away from him and decides that it is the real consciousness and he the copy, so we get the gang together and set out on a harebrained adventure to stop it. But first, the presidential cabinet rehashes some of their past adventures together, like a full-on knockoff of the A-Team. From there everything carries on predictably. This is something that fans of the series will ultimately probably enjoy, but I found it ridiculous, cheesy, and stupid.

1.0 / 5 ✪

The Alien Stars

Lantern, an important figure among the aliens known as “the Free” or “the Liars”, recounts a harrowing personal journey she undertook to confront her ghosts from her past, nightmares from the present, and specters that only the future could hold. The story is told via a number of letters sent to her star-crossed love and human friend, as she goes up against a threat to the galaxy—one that she is uniquely designed to fight, one that she fully expects to claim her life.

It’s actually quite touching, this one. Again, I felt like Pratt could’ve really drawn it out a bit more: heightened the tension, atmosphere, mystery—and that the story would’ve been better for it. As it is, the Alien Stars reads reasonably well, and ends much better than either of the others before it, but not before tugging a bit on the heartstrings on the way out. This one I found had the slowest build, but ultimately the best conclusion.

4.25 / 5 ✪

TL;DR

All in all, I would like to reassess my previous statement that this omnibus would be a good jumping-off point for the Axiom universe. The novellas all contain spoilers for the main series, so it’s probably not a good place to start if you think you’d like to read the Axiom trilogy. Also, while there’s a bit of hand-holding, this is more the type of thing that existing fans will enjoy more than newcomers. But for a newcomer like myself: one decent read, one good read, and one dud. I suppose it’d not bad, but if you’re really interested you should probably start with the Wrong Stars.