A Prayer for the Crown-Shy – by Becky Chambers (Review)

Monk & Robot #2

Scifi, Novella

Tor.com; July 12, 2022

160 pages (ebook)
3hr 53m (audiobook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

7.5 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Tor.com, MacMillan & NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

The second installment of Monk & Robot finds Sibling Dex and Mosscap wrapping up their tour of rural Panga, before setting their collective sights on the city. While Mosscap has been sent as an envoy from the robots, carrying a very important question to the humans, Sibling Dex is after something more. Right now, they have their wagon, their tea set, and a traveling companion, but once Mosscap has finished its mission—well, what will they be left with.

Tea?

Sibling Dex isn’t sure they want more tea just yet.

Mosscap is struggling with a problem of its own. It has carried its question to the humans—and has asked many of them what they need, and how it can help, but has begun to notice a trend. These people don’t want for much, and what they do want can generally be easily provided. So then, what should Mosscap do now?

In a world where people have what they want, what more can it offer them?

I generally enjoyed the first Monk & Robot—A Psalm for the Well-Built—as it seemed to deliver the questions (and occasionally even answers) lacking in a post-Wayfarers world, while not getting quite as in-depth or existential as that same world turned out to be in its first several installments (pretty much every one but four). A light, interesting read that nonetheless raised questions about sentience, worth, and humanity—confronting the tough questions while still maintaining an air of lightheartedness and humor.

While I’m glad to report that Book #2 continues this theme, it doesn’t try much anything else, leaving the series still a bit short of perfection.

The questions are still there. Within Mosscap and Sibling Dex’s own can we find ourselves. Maybe we’re unsure. Lost. Questioning. Or even just struggling to understand. Regardless of the cause, the reason, these questions find us—as they find our protagonists in the tale. It is thus that Becky Chambers confronts these questions: by raising them as part of a story, a tale with a very clear (and yet very unclear) message. What do you want?

The main problem with this story is, well, the whole “story” part. There’s not a lot going on. In terms of the overarching plot. Sibling Dex and Mosscap are just wandering on their way, tackling themselves as much as they do their rather vague quest. Such was the way in the first story (the wandering, at least), though it certainly had a discernible plot: robots haven’t been seen in centuries, now one is, and they come with a question for humanity. A Prayer for the Crown-Shy simply carries this over from the previous story, adding nothing of note on its own. While this runs its course, the plot is content to wander amiably along, letting the protagonists guide it as they may. This strategy has worked quite well for Chambers before—as she’s really very good at it—and this time is no different. Except.

Except that this format doesn’t really relate very well to a wandering adventure. I’m not sure why a novel-length story of the same type works better—it just does. Maybe it’s because there’s more space to grow, more time to ask, more room to fit everything in. This novella doesn’t have much time to spare. At 160 pages, it can’t bring up the important questions, issues, and possible solutions, while still providing a complete adventure. Instead, it just ends up feeling… incomplete.

Still, there’s more than enough here for me to recommend. For the questions she raises; the real sense of being, of living, of wondering and wandering she instills—I’d pretty much read anything Becky Chambers wants to write on the matter, be it in a full-length science fiction novel or a haiku scrawled on a restaurant napkin. And everything in-between. It’s not the perfection that I found from Closed and Common Orbit or Spaceborn Few, but neither is it of the quality as Galaxy and the Ground Within. A Prayer for the Crown-Shy is something else entirely, while retaining the format that you know and love. Just don’t expect it to be something it’s not—nor to have all the answers. It’s just a scifi novel, not a sentient grimoire of power.

As before, I thought Em Grosland did an exceptional job bringing this story to life. In fact, even better than in the first installment! They nailed the intonation and tone, while still imparting a certain worth and substance into their narration. While I’m not entirely sold that they’d make any book more enjoyable, I’d listen to any Chambers book they decided to read in a heartbeat!

A Psalm for the Well-Built – by Becky Chambers (Review)

Monk & Robot #1

Science Fiction, Novella

Tor.com; July 13, 2021

160 pages (ebook)

Goodreads
StoryGraph
Author Website

4 / 5 ✪

A Psalm for the Well-Built, the sixth book I’ve read by Becky Chambers, left me with some of the most lasting messages I’ve ever had from a book—although were maybe not the ones that she intended to. Let’s get into it.

Countless years before, the robots of Panga gained their sentience. They didn’t speak, didn’t kill their former masters—they simply laid down their tools and walked out of the factories, disappearing into the wilderness beyond the bounds of human civilization. Since then, no one has seen or heard from them, and life has carried on.

Sibling Dex serves as a monk of Allalae, the Summer Bear. Driven by something they can’t explain—a thought, a feeling, a longing for something more, something different, not to mention a distinct longing for the sound of crickets—Dex abruptly changes their focus to that of a tea monk wandering the outer villages on the frontier. It’s a big change from life in the City: an ox-bike and a wagon instead of their usual quarters; a life lived without the hustle and bustle, without the press of buildings, and crowds of people; the bounds of civilization giving way to the wilds of nature.

But there are no crickets.

Spurned by this, Sibling Dex abandons the hinterlands for the expanse of the outer wilderness in hopes of finding one of the lost orthopterans. It is here that they meet the robot.

The robot that is seeking humans. More specifically, their answer to one very important question: “What do people need?”

Unfortunately this is something that changes depending on who you ask, and when. Thus the robot will need to ask it a lot, all the time. Starting, obviously, with Sibling Dex.

Without constructs, you will unravel few mysteries. Without knowledge of the mysteries, your constructs will fail. These pursuits are what makes us, but without comfort, you will lack the strength to sustain either.

The story of this was something that hit close to home for me, as I’m sure it will for so many of my generation. So many people who are feeling lost, or are longing for something more, something different. After all this is one of the reasons why people are quitting their jobs nowadays to live life on the road, one day at a time, simultaneously looking for something simpler yet something more. After reading the first chapter I spent a sleepless night simply wondering over my life, my choices, and what the solution to it all might be. Honestly, I feel like it’s this message—rather than the one that emerges from the plot at the Well-Built’s conclusion—that has stuck with me. This quest for… something, that Sibling Dex finds themselves on. But then that’s not entirely unexpected; it’s a theme prevalent in so much of Chambers fiction—a search for meaning.

Once we get into the plot a bit more and the story starts to unfold, however, there’s a new theme. A philosophical one I’m seeing a lot more of lately. One that flaunts conventional religion and belief and custom as old-world. While I won’t get into my own particular (and odd, variable) beliefs on the subject, I will say that I found it just a bit too preachy for my tastes, whether or not I share the author’s belief. (Again, I won’t get into that here. Feel free to email me if you’re interested, want to argue about something, want to piss me off, or you’re just bored, I guess.) Because I read books for fun—and any particularly judgy tone never helped.

Other parts of the philosophy I didn’t mind—such as the urge to fix the planet before it’s ruined from climate-change and the like—but is sure to alienate others. And other bits that came across as jokes but might not have been, or vice versa.

“Is this typical of people, to apologize to things you kill?”

“Yeah.”

“Hm!” the robot said with interest. It looked at the plate of vegetables. “Did you apologize to each of these plants individually as you harvested them, or in aggregate?”

“We… don’t apologize to plants.”

“Why not?”

See, laugh if you want, but this is one of the reasons I’m not a vegetarian.

TL;DR

I did enjoy the jaunt through nature, seeing and feeling the world that Chambers’ has built—both those of the robots’ and humans’ making. The story itself was good but a little underwhelming in its conclusion. Now I know it’s a novella, and there is a promise of more in the future, but still I would’ve liked the story to leave me with more of a lasting imprint than the question: “What am I doing with my life?” But given how late the robot enters the story, I’m not surprised we didn’t get much. Still, I enjoyed the leads, especially Sibling Dex, and would certainly spend more time with them. I loved the world, and the ideas, and the peace that so much of the text instilled (interspersed with snippets attempting to convince me my life was a lie, which weren’t something I could fully discount, so…) Overall… I’d definitely still count it as a win. Something I’d recommend. Something I’d like to see more of.

With an ebook price of $11 (or £7.40 if you live in the UK, 9,40€ in the EU) and a length under 200 pages, this isn’t something I would recommend buying, just to read it. If you read it and want to own it—great! Knock yourself out. Otherwise, maybe get it on sale or something. I picked up a copy from my local library, which is also a good idea. I think you can also get it through Scribd, which I’ve only just discovered, so I’m unclear exactly. Personally I wouldn’t recommend paying the Tordotcom price for an ebook, but hey, it’s your money.

The Wayfaring Covers – Beautiful World of Books

We’re deep into Scifi Month by now (something I keep forgetting exists when I schedule these things)—so I figured it’s time for an actual science fiction series to make the covers round here. And what better series to feature than the new master of the genre, Becky Chambers?

To Be Taught, If Fortunate

My Review of To Be Taught, If Fortunate

While this isn’t a Wayfarers’ book, I decided that it was close enough, taking place in a totally new solar system and dealing with some hard issues not often addressed in space opera. Also it serves as a good warm-up to the main event as while these two covers do show their differences up front, they’re much more similar than the other UK and US versions below.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Here we have three covers: the UK edition published by Hodder & Stoughton, the US edition courtesy of Harper Voyager, and the self-published original from CreateSpace. It’s clear how much the US covers take after the Selfpub one—a theme that will continue—while the UK edition goes in a much different direction, simply featuring a lone humanoid beneath the night sky.

A Closed and Common Orbit

These two are much closer, but still retain the original style of those before them, particularly where the title and colors are concerned. Think I prefer the UK one here, but it’s really a tough call.

Record of a Spaceborn Few

The third entry once again showcases two radically different styles, each of which are vibrant and noticeable in their own right. I don’t even have a favorite here. Even though I own the US edition, I’d happily have paid for the UK one instead!

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

My Review of The Galaxy and the Ground Within

Again, both eye-catching and noticeable despite the different styles. Where the US version once again goes with a variety of would-be spaceships, the UK sticks to what it does best—photos of the universe at night. Think again I prefer the UK version, but they’re both quite good. Unlike the story, which was the weakest by far…

And those are the covers for this week! Have a favorite? Don’t care? Have you read any or all of them? I’d mostly recommend this series (with the possible exception of #4).

To Be Taught, If Fortunate – by Becky Chambers (Review)

Novella, Standalone

Scifi, Space, Adventure

Harper Voyager; September 3, 2019

134 pages (PB)

4.9 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a novella by Wayfarers author Becky Chambers, set in a future Milky Way, where a small group of scientists have escaped the bounds of our solar system in the hopes of exploration and discovery. It’s a short yet sometimes dense read, with equal parts science and fiction, both of which shone brightly. While it doesn’t feature quite the same level of immersion featured in her core series, To Be Taught If Fortunate still managed to tug at my heart-strings, while occasionally sending a cascade of chills down my spine. But just because I loved it doesn’t mean you will too.

Ari is one of four scientists that make up Lawki-6, a extrasolar mission to Zhenyi (that dgen-yee, or jen-yee, if you’re interested) a fictional red dwarf system approximately 15 light years from Earth, sent to explore and document the four planets within the star’s habitable zone. Thanks to a revitalized space program, combined with a revolutionary method of engineering evolution, humanity can not only visit these worlds within one lifetime, but can also survive the experience. “Somaforming” uses slow-release biological mutations to subtly alter the human body so that it can survive exposure to these worlds. Sub-light engines reduce the flight time to 28 years, while suspended animation slows the aging process to just two. When Ari was born, it had been over 55 years since humanity sent anyone into space. Her generation sought to change that. And hey—why not aim big?

Ari, as the mission’s flight engineer, is assigned to recording the voyage and its discoveries for transmission back to Earth. The others—Jack (geologist), Chikondi (biologist), and Elena (astrophysicist)—have equally import missions, but all deal with the data. Ari helps out in each area, but her primary duties include tending the spacecraft and recording the story. TBTIF is essentially her story.

While TBTIF is in and of itself a story of adventure and discovery, it also represents a major trial for each of its characters. Imagine leaving Earth with the intention of returning—in 80 years. Everyone you have ever known or loved will be dead. The places you recognize, the foods you eat, the stories you enjoy might all be gone. Your team of four will spend most of the next century literally light years away from anything or anyone familiar. There will be wonders, yes—as you see things no human has ever set on eyes, set foot on extrasolar worlds, experience the new and the unknown in every waking moment. But there will also be hardship; struggle, loneliness, heartache, depression, more. Now imagine that even the people that sent you here—the OCA—might potentially have forgotten you. You are alone. Well and truly alone.

What would you do?

TBTIF features a heavy dose of science, too much for some people. When done in a casual, almost flippant style, it can be hard to take in—this is why I have so much trouble reading Alastair Reynolds or Carl Sagan; two people who definitely know what they’re talking about, only can’t seem to understand how to relay it to their audience. Becky Chambers takes the Neil deGrasse Tyson approach instead: simplifying down the language enough to try to explain it to those not versed in the more technical science, while likewise explaining it in technical terms. While I loved this approach (both of them, as in a past life I had thoughts of becoming a physicist), not everyone is going to. If you like your scifi science-light and fiction/action heavy, this might not be for you. It’s one reason I have trouble with military scifi—I like some innovation in my militia, and a decent dose of science in my science fiction.

The book is divided into four parts—Aecor, Mirabilis, Opera, and Votum—one for each of the four planets visited. There is an overarching plot, but the story itself is one of discovery. Both for and within the crew themselves. The adventure was a big allure, if I’m honest. I adored the descriptions and the exploration. The science, the struggle, even the plot. Not that the plot is bad, mind, it’s just a little more subtle and less-involved than some other stories. As the team visits each world, the story changes. What united them on one planet may divide them on another. But they are pretty close knit. Though the novella deals primarily with exploration and discovery, the plot centers around its characters. And the characters are truly its greatest strength.

I had only a slight issue with the beginning and end, but can’t get into it because of possible spoilers. It just wasn’t something I expected, let’s say. The only thing this did was ruin a perfect rating—nothing more.

TL;DR

If you like your scifi with a heavy dose of science, To Be Taught, If Fortunate may be the book for you. While the novella tells a story laced with exploration and adventure and scientific discovery, the plot focuses strongly on its characters. Ari—as the narrator—draws major screen time, but Jack, Elena, and Chikondi get more than enough that you’ll learn their strengths and weaknesses throughout the near-hundred and a half pages. You’ll see them at their best, and at their worst. You’ll exult at their elation, tear up at their despair. I did, at least. Hopefully y’all like it, too.

On Tap 5/30

Currently Reading

• To Be Taught, If Fortunate – by Becky Chambers

If some scifi stories are more fiction than science, To Be Taught, If Fortunate is probably more science than… well, a comparable amount of both science and fiction. An group of explorers travel somewhere no ‘man has ever been: an extrasolar system. What they find here is beyond their wildest dreams, but it’s what they left behind that may provide the biggest surprise at all. For what are people if not curious, and what would happen should that curiosity fade?

• The Bayern Agenda – by Dan Moren

The Bayern Agenda is the second Galactic Cold War book, and the first through Angry Robot who kindly sent me a copy. At about the quarter mark right now and it reads like a pretty standard military scifi thriller, but there’s still a ways to go.

• Eden – by Tim Lebbon

Eden is an eco-supernatural thriller about a future where the world has succumbed to climate change and global warming. In a last-ditch effort to combat this, the world established several Virigin Zones that were returned to nature. Jenn and her father are part of a team that race across these wildernesses, but this time they might’ve gone too far. Eden is the oldest and wildest of the Zones, and who knows what may lurk within?

• People of the Rainforest – by John Hemming

People of the Rainforest is my lone nonfiction read of the year, regarding the Villas Boas brothers and their exploration of the Amazon jungle basin. As with all nonfiction titles, this one boasts an incredibly long name, which I neither can remember nor repeat.

Up Next

• Age of Empyre – by Michael J. Sullivan

The sixth and final book in the Legends of the First Empire series, now we find out what two consecutive cliffhangers have set in motion. And whether or not Suri is the Heir of Novron. Or… right?

It’s been a scifi heavy month for me. Which is a wee bit odd, as I think it’s fantasy month everywhere else. But sometimes that’s how things go.

Obviously the world’s still not in its best place, but that seems the norm nowadays, sadly. Hopefully we get it together here soon. Otherwise, my little corner of nowhere’s been pretty quiet. Still sick, but it ain’t COVID, so that’s good. But it’s been stirring up lately with my allergies and my anxiety and reflux and everything, so it’s been tough to figure what I have, exactly. But it’ll get better. Anyway what’s everyone else reading? Anything I need to get to? Let me know!