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.

The Awkward Black Man – by Walter Mosley (Review)

Omnibus

Short Stories, Fiction, Scifi

Grove Press; September 15, 2020

336 pages (ebook)

3.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Grove Press and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

I know it’s not usually my cup of tea, but I read general fiction on occasion. But there’s a reason I mostly stay for science fiction and fantasy. Parts of my younger life were an awkward mess, or ruined by bullies, or anxiety, or MORE anxiety, or whatnot. So while I enjoyed this collection, it reminded me too much of a time where I always sought an escape.

The Awkward Black Man collects the stories of Walter Mosley, an author who’s been telling stories of inner city African American men since before I was born. While I’ve read some of his science fiction, it’s his mysteries that have always drawn my attention. My dad introduced me to Mosley’s books about a decade ago, when he started me on the Easy Rawlins series. While i was never the fan that my father was, I enjoyed some few of Mosley’s books because of the culture that they referenced were so dissimilar to my own.

Most of the narrators are black men (unsurprisingly), and most of them are also awkward. You can glean as much from the title. While Walter Mosley doesn’t shy away from talking about the disparity of racism, neither does he neglect that the bigotry cuts both ways. But while the Awkward Black Man isn’t about race, but it’s also not not about race. Prejudice colors the undercurrents of many of the tales. While sometimes it’s overt, other times it’s casual. It was always depressing.

Mostly these are just stories about life. Not how to live, nor how not to live. Mostly just how to be human. The characters within are entirely human (save the science fiction), which is probably the best thing I can say about the book itself. It paints a realistic picture of life—one that could be anyone’s life, and might as well be.

Several of these stories were just depressing, though. Some even seemed pointless. Rufus and Frank both appeared multiple times, enough that I learned that I didn’t want their lives, even though they proved to be equal parts entertaining, exciting, depressing and super, super awkward. Another thing to note is that I’ve never been a fan of the author’s science fiction—mostly it seems too far out there, too unrealistic, even silly—and the few scifi reads within didn’t disprove this.

My favorite stories were: Almost Alyce, where a man’s life spirals out from under him, but he does his best to claw it back, while staying true to himself. Between Storms, when a disaster strikes, a man’s life takes an unexpected turn, but when it is pulled from the ashes, he must decide whether or not to own up to the fear that led him to the brink. Local Hero, about a boy who always idolized his cousin, and what happened when that idol was laid low. Reply to a Dead Man, which reminded me of several different movies, and yet fit none of them precisely.

TL;DR

The Awkward Black Man paints a realistic picture of life—be it through the eyes of an old, black man, dying in his bed; a young, white woman who is shallow but not awful; a young, black man that has the life he’s always wanted, even if it isn’t his own; and many more. There exists racism within, yes, but it’s a double-edged sword, one that proves horrid no matter which end you’re on. Walter Mosley has never shied away from the awkwardness of race—and why would he start now? But while some of these stories center around racism, few of them are defined by it. Some are depressing for the racism within. A lot are just depressing. Others are ridiculous. Some are even pointless. But most are at least humanizing. At the end of the day, these are stories about people being people. A decent read—even if several of them are really depressing.

Tales of Beedle the Bard – by J.K. Rowling (Review)

Hogwarts Library #3

Short Stories, Fantasy

Bloomsbury; December 4, 2008 (original)

Pottermore Publishing; March 31, 2020 (audio)

109 pages (HC) 1 hr 35 min (audio)

3 / 5 ✪

A quick little reminder about how cool Harry Potter was. And probably a subtle hint to buy more merchandise and hey maybe your friends would like some too, and hey you know that one family member who hasn’t read the series, you could gift them it now, yeah?

Remember Harry Potter? Dude, yay-high, lightning scar, glasses, wizard. No, no, not “wizzard”. That’s the other one. This is the Daniel Radcliffe one. He was also in that other thing that you probably saw but then regretted it as it wasn’t Harry Potter.

If you don’t remember Harry Potter, I think the first book is still free a bunch of places. If you’re interested, google it. But for the people that remember the Wizarding World, Tales of Beedle the Bard is a quick reminder of how much fun that world could be. Especially at times such as these—where some of us are stuck in, others are stuck out, and the rest are in the fantastic land of in-between—fun is badly needed. Enclosed within the hundred-odd pages there are four new tales from the world of Harry Potter and one tale most of us have probably heard before.

The Wizard and the Hopping Pot begins the Tales, a brief reminder of how those that hoard their magic will never find peace from it. The Fountain of Fair Fortune was my favorite of the tales, and teaches the lesson that if you think your life is bad, well, someone else probably has it worse. The Warlock’s Hairy Heart pushes the point that you can’t hide from your feelings without the consequences being impossible to live with. Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump shows that anything can be lovely, but some things you can’t afford “to fake it til you make it”, and consequences be damned. And the Tale of the Three Brothers—which was featured in the books—returns to stamp home the point that you can’t hide from Death, because… no, wait. Never mind—the last one has no moral.

TL;DR

So, five stories, four of them new, and four with morals. I swear that the Tales were used as some kind of history read in Harry Potter, so these folk tales with morals attached make little sense here. I guess it’s just a little lore that will remind you how fun and cool Harry Potter was and how much you should go back and read them now. For diehard fans (which I am not—I like the world and the story enough, but y’know, I like other stories too) (it’s not a Stormlight level of good, anyway), I guess it’d be a must-read. If you’ve Audible, it’s free, so the read was worth it. But otherwise… meh. Pretty light, nothing too deep. It’s mildly fun and interesting, though nothing special.

Audio Note: The narration was the strongest part. A star-studded cast feature, each reading a separate tale. Considering this was free, it’s incredibly well narrated.