Wormhole – by Eric Brown & Keith Brooke (Review)

standalone

Scifi, Mystery

Angry Robot; November 22, 2022

433 pages (ebook)

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5.5 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Angry Robot for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

The world has changed. A combination of climate change, overpopulation, and resource shortage has led to mass migration of humanity and the need to explore outside the bounds of Earth’s gravity well. Thus an expedition has been launched to Mu Arae, an earth-like planet and trip of about 80 years. The crew are to be kept in suspended animation for the duration, and expected to investigate the planet before deploying a highly experimental contraption as a means of creating a stable wormhole back to Earth.

London, 2190

Gordon Kemp is a former homicide detective, stuck investigating cold-cases as his career winds down. Assigned to a high-profile case named top priority, he and his partner Danni Bellini are surprised to discover that the main suspect—long since departed on the Mu Arae expedition—is not as out of range as they once believed. In fact, with the wormhole expected to be opened within the week, the Kemp’s superiors have instructed him to be ready to depart and retrieve the suspect at first convenience.

The suspect: Rima Cagnac, wife of the illustrious Sebastien White—one of the richest and most influential people on Earth. Accused of killing her husband, she was somehow allowed to leave Earth on the expedition, having been cleared of suspicion. For roughly a century, at least.

While what Kemp and his partner uncover while investigating this case may well change the course of history, what Rima Cagnac discovers on the distant Mu Arae will well shape the future.

Let’s start with the investigation. A cold-case into one of the most prolific unsolved murders in history, dismissed due to lack of evidence, the main suspect allowed to walk (to another planet no less)—and pretty much assumed off-limits afterwards. But instead of focusing on solving (or framing up) the crime that they had eighty years to perfect, they decide to half-ass it on the spot a week before the wormhole is set to open. The conspiracy—because obviously the new evidence is bogus—is so thin that it can be picked apart by two down-on-their-luck detectives and their hacker friend in about a week.

Despite this, the story is actually not terrible. Engaging, interesting (if not deep), and at least somewhat mysterious and immersive. While I developed issues with the plot somewhere around the three-quarters mark—and while I was never absolutely in love with every aspect of the story—it wasn’t a hard book to get into. A decent plot; there were problems with it, but they could be overlooked (early on). The characters, at least those of Danni and Gordon and Rima, were interesting and relatable. But when we stray from the main cast… the depth peters out in a hurry.

Enter Edouard Bryce: key story element and unrepentant chauvinistic ass. Unveiled as Danni’s love interest halfway through the story, he doesn’t change to attract the independent, modern professional that she’s portrayed as. Instead, she changes to suit him. I know it’s very much possible and realistic, but it was still frustrating. He’s probably likable to someone, but that someone was never me.

Okay, now let’s address the twist. It’s… well, it’s too much.

The main issue with Wormhole is that it tries to do too much. A detective story quickly becomes a space exploration—a planet exploration event with potential first contact. With a wormhole added as an afterthought. With a conspiracy that draws secrets from the plot that it can’t even know. There’s just too much going on, too much continually competing to be the center of attention, especially as we approach the latter half of the novel.

TL;DR

Wormhole is a mystery, exploration, adventure, thriller, that tries to appeal to all genres equally yet ultimately manages to succeed in none of them. The reason? It continually tries to do too much. A mystery becomes a space exploration, which becomes a scientific wonder, which begets conspiracy, revolution, dystopia, thriller, aliens, romance, memoir, philosophy… yeah, you get the idea. It’s a bit like Great North Road—the Peter F. Hamilton novel, only crammed into about one-third of the space. Too much, too hectic, not well-enough thought out or built or explained. While there is a decent story within, it’s not going to appeal to everyone. Think about any one element for too long and everything breaks down. All in all, a disappointment for sure.

My Favorite Scifi Books of 2022 (So Far) #ScifiMonth2022

So, as my first—and possibly only—contribution to Scifi Month 2022, here are my six favorite science fiction releases from 2022 (thus far). In no particular order, since I really do enjoy giving my top books of the year.

I would like to mention that there are several appealing books that I haven’t yet gotten around to reading this year. As opposed to links and titles, I’m just going to throw a bunch of covers up at the end.

“It is a supremely cruel thing to have your mind conjure a desire which it is functionally unable to realize.”

Upgrade is another Blake Crouch thriller—this one centering around Logan Ramsay, federal agent, and son of the most infamous gene criminal in history. Everything he’s done following his arrest has been to distance himself from his family’s shadow, and from the child he once was. But when he’s infected by what surely is the evolution of his late mother’s work, a virus that makes him smarter, faster, stronger, Logan must confront his past demons. And do it all while trying to keep the virus from spreading across the globe.

Training was one hundred percent about dying. I don’t remember them dedicating much time at all to staying alive.

Mickey7 is the sixth iternation of Mickey Barnes, the only expendable on the ice world Niflheim. His job is simple: do whatever dangerously stupid jobs still require a human, or those that are so insanely irresponsible as to void the insurance on any equipment that might break in the process. Which, as you might expect, means he dies a lot. Luckily, there’s a printer on-site ready to pop out another clone whenever Mickey fails to return from a mission. Unluckily, Mickey7 just returned from his latest mission to find Mickey8 in his bed—a mistake that could see both clones die painfully and for good, if anyone else ever finds out.

“My fellows are really not happy with you, Torquell.”
It’s such an understatement you blink. “Good?” you try.

Ogres are bigger than you. Ogres are stronger than you. And that’s why Ogres rule the world. From an idyllic corner of the world comes Torquell: precocious scoundrel, son of the headmaster, next in line to lick the boots of the overlords. But Torquell’s not in the mind to lick any boots. Not when he kills the Ogre in charge of his corner of the world. And no human kills a Master and lives. Indeed, Torquell may just be another footnote in the margins of history—or maybe he can rewrite it.

“The screens in the hall are all glitching red, and judging by the frantic way Miles and his father are assaulting their keypads, this isn’t a marketing stunt; it’s a breach.
We’re being hacked.”

18-year-old Sil Sarrah is the pride of the Mindwalker program—her perfect record a shining beacon to any would-be client, or a well-deserved shiner to any would-be competition—at least, until she fails a mission and is forced to go rogue. Now, alone and hunted, Sil must risk the only course that can get her reinstated: infiltrate the Analog Army—a terrorist group and the biggest thorn in Syntex’s side. The only hope she has of returning home is to find something—anything!—that will help take the cell down. And she’s working against a clock; no Walker lives past the age of 20, most die at 18 even. Lucky for her there are no complications and the assignment is straightforward and romance-free. Lucky Sil Sarrah. Lucky…

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

Prison of Sleep wraps up the Journals of Zaxony Delatree (at least for now), with a thrilling if yawn-inducing chase through the æther. One day, Zax was forced to watch a patient kill herself. He fell asleep covered in her blood. And woke up somewhere else. One thousand worlds later Zax has found true love, only to lose it—twice. While he’s no closer to discovering his own place in the multiverse, he does know his purpose. At least, the one he’s decided on: to help save the multiverse from the tunneling-horror trapped outside of time, and its legion of followers trying to free the great Worm once and for all. Zax just hopes he can have a nice, quiet sleep afterwards.

They gathered in doorways and crouched beside the dresser, and in the dead of night they came out and gathered around her beside like viewers at a funeral while she lay paralyzed.

A decade ago, Sean Wren had a family, a future, and a home. And then the Ministers came to Krystrom. A dozen years and one disastrous mission later, Sean is forced to once again confront these immortal aliens—albeit in a place where they’re not the most terrifying thing around. Probably don’t make the top five, even. Aboard an abandoned ship circling a dying star, Sean must do what no human has managed in the millennia before him: unravel the secrets of immortality. And he must do it before the star supernovas, something kills him, or the Immortality Thief comes to a close. Tall order, that.

Mindwalker – by Kate Dylan (Review)

standalone (?)

Scifi, Cyberpunk, YA

Hodder & Stoughton; September 1, 2022

320 pages (ebook)
10hr 42m (audiobook)

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8.5 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Hodder & Stoughton and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

I apologize in advance if this is a bit rougher and more… rambly (?) than my other reviews. I’ve been struggling with my headspace for months now, and it’s affected my ability to word properly.

Eighteen-year-old Mindwalker Sil Sarrah is the best of the best at what she does. Shame she’s due to die in under twelve months, when the supercomputer grafted to her brain burns out. But while she may die young, Sil is determined to go out on top.

The Mindwalker program: the pride of the Syntex Corporation. This secret program is dedicated to commandeering agents minds from afar (with the agents’ consent, of course) and using their Walkers’ supercharged skills and supercomputer intellect to extract the agents from whatever situation they’ve gotten themselves into. After ten years in the program, Sil retains a perfect record—not a single agent lost, not a single mission failed.

A record Sil’s determined to keep; a way to ensure that her legacy survives her.

Until she fails a redacted mission on the public stage, disobeying a direct order in the process. Forced to flee the company she’s called home for over half her life, Sil is completely cut off: no way to contact her friends, no reason to contact her family, and with no resources to bring to bear—though at least she still has access to her CIP (Cerebral Intelligence Processor), Jarvis. And at least she has a plan to regain her standing, and return home.

To do so she must infiltrate the Analog Army—the biggest thorn in Syntex’s side—and do whatever she can to bring the terrorists to justice.

But after a few days on the lam, Sil already has a mounting list of problems. Not the least of which is the cocky smile and good looks of Ryder, an AA cell leader. Though there’s also the conspiracy she’s stumbled upon. “Mindjacking”, so-called as it focusses on hijacking the unwilling minds of anyone connected to the net and wearing their body like a meat-suit. Which, in this enlightened future, is pretty much anyone at all. A conspiracy that apparently centers on the one place Sil can’t go—the Syntex Corporation.

Mindwalker came out back in September to rave reviews. While it wasn’t initially on my radar—or the radars of any of my friends or followers, really—after maybe a week of scrolling through the endless praise and comments, I knew I had to read it. Set in a dystopian world where a fractured United States (yeah, I know those terms contradict one another) rules only by outsourcing so much of their process to corporate contractors, the setting for this evokes a dystopian sphere, heavy with science fiction and cyberpunk themes.

Fresh into its pages I was immediately taken with the world—albeit… less so with the plot. While done in an interesting way, Mindwalker is essentially a new take on an old classic; a dystopian world where our corporate protagonist joins up with the ragtag rebels to expose a conspiracy and win the day! I mean, it’s not exactly breaking the mold here. That said, despite this far-from-unique model, and a somewhat lacklustre romance, Mindwalker is really quite a good read.

The setting makes the story, but the characters keep the focus—and Sil is far from the eminently hatable corporate rat that I initially took her for. Stubborn, distrusting, but somehow full of emotion and passion (no, not that kind), she makes a good lead, even through the romance which usually bores me. That said, the romance in this is only really heavy at the close, and even then it never takes the pace from the overarching story completely. Lena, Jondi, Miles, even Lin and Risler help set the plot up as believable, a world made up of human characters in a plausible setting. Before long this list includes Ryder and more, but never expands beyond the memorable handful of faces, leaving a sea of nameless, faceless masses without a story or purpose. Despite the world supposedly being massive, it doesn’t feel like it from the handful of characters. I’d’ve liked to see a few more (even) throwaway characters, or randoms. Instead, we get a few bullet-sponges, soon-to-be dead’uns, and nameless guards, that Sil—despite her decade in the program—doesn’t recognize. Neither does she recognize (or at least mention) any other Walkers beyond her two friends. So, to recap: characters—great main, good supporting, but anything after that is a complete wash.

All in all, I had little problem getting into Mindwalker and—despite the fact that it took me a month to read (which I ascribe more to the goings-on in my personal life than anything of the text itself)—was never of the illusion that I’d not finish it. Though my opinion of the book isn’t exactly the golden standard that I’ve seen set for this title, it does speak well to its success. Currently on Goodreads, only 13% of all ratings are under 4 stars (9% of these are 3). Which means that even the people who don’t absolutely love this really enjoy (or quite) it.

Where was I going with this? I guess that I’d recommend it? Because I would. Pretty good read.

The Immortality Thief – by Taran Hunt (Review)

Kystrom Chronicles #1

Scifi, Horror, Space Opera

Solaris; October 11, 2022

608 pages (ebook)

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9.5 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Rebellion, Solaris and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

A decade ago, Sean Wren had a family, a future, and a home. And then the Ministers came to Krystrom.

The mysterious, immortal aliens landed in Sean’s home city of Itaka, which had been recently been visited by the Republic, and razed it to the ground. Not content with simply burning the city, the Ministers marched through the streets, killing everyone they came across—every man, woman, and child—effectively transforming Itaka into a graveyard. Sean and his friend Benny escaped that day, now they’re all either has left.

After the last decade spent on the lam, the Republic has come calling again.

Sean’s now in a very different place than before. A refuge, criminal, and linguistic savant, imprisoned and left for dead, he’s given a simple choice—do the Republic a favor, or die behind bars.

Sent to an abandoned spaceship orbiting a dying star, Sean and his crew of four are to retrieve the Philosopher’s Stone—an experimental data set intent on and rumored to unlock the secrets of immortality. Return with the data before the star goes supernova, and he’ll be free to go: record wiped clean, and five million dollars richer.

There’s a problem though. The “abandoned” ship is a bit less abandoned than they’d thought. Inhabited by nameless terrors and dead men, it’s really not the best place to explore. Nor is the nameless ship “forgotten” either. A fact that Sean learns first hand when both the Ministers and more Republic soldiers arrive seeking the data. Now, surrounded by both his worst enemies and an entire ship full of monsters, Sean must find the Philosopher’s Stone, translate the data, unravel the mystery of what happened on the ship, and live long enough to escape before the entire thing vanishes beneath the surface of a dying star.

Simple, right?

The Ministers had turned off their lights, both collar and flash. I could hear them moving around, the soft scrape of boot against the ground, the swish of fabric, or a sword coming free. And something from far off to my right snarled.
That wasn’t a Minister.

The Immortality Thief was an amazing read in a spot I really didn’t expect much out of. Second week in a month I’d covered my big name releases already, this debut science fiction horror story took the zero expectations I came in with and absolutely shredded them.

The setting was a great first start. A “lost” spaceship orbiting a dying star. Only the star is dying quite a bit faster than we’d expected, and the spaceship wasn’t nearly as lost as we’d been told. It was, however, haunted by most of the things that go bump in the night, plus several more no one even had names for yet. Where I’d expected a small, cramped spacecraft to give the story a claustrophobic feel, the resulting behemoth left me awed and more than a little skeptical. Luckily, my fears were assuaged. With tight and crumbling spaces, random walls, pitch black corridors, and a massive assortment of terrors lurking almost anywhere, this was the perfect setting.

The beam of Benny’s flashlight abruptly terminated at a solid wall. He stopped short. “Sean. What is this?”
“It’s a wall, Benny.”
“I know what a wall is, asshole. Why is there a wall in a hallway?”

I often say that it’s the characters that make a story, and again the Immortality Thief got off to a bad start. See, my first several impressions of Sean Wren—the lead and sole POV—were that he was an annoying asshole. A bad thief with a “heart of gold”. A charismatic conman and savant that needed someone else to do the dirty work for him. But upon finishing the novel… yeah, I still kinda agree with this initial assessment. And yet I still came around to Sean somewhere during the tale, enough that not only had I stopped actively rooting for him to die, but also that I almost felt bad for him when he was constantly forced into terrifying situations. Which he was—a lot. I’d feel like this was a spoiler, except it’s a horror novel filled with monsters—what do you expect?

Let’s see… characters, setting, world—all good. Let’s touch on the plot. Solid enough, a simple smash-and-grab takes a twist, and all of a sudden we’re forced to work with our two worst enemies in order to survive. With the secret of immortality at stake. Sounds good, right? Well, you won’t be disappointed.

The humor/horror ration was also a winner. I’m not a huge fan of horror, unless it’s atmospheric and relies more on good story building and less on trying to make its readers actively afraid. In my book this was good horror: creepy, not actively terrifying, but with a tense atmosphere and excellent world-building.

Not much more to rave about, really. The Immortality Thief is the start of a series, so hopefully there’ll be more to fawn over in the future, though! I completely adored my introduction to Taran Hunt and expect great things from her in the future.

TL;DR

In short, the Immortality Thief is a stunning debut from author Taran Hunt. It’s atmospheric horror at its very best. A science fiction story set on a massive spaceship in orbit to a dying star, Sean Wren must recover the Philosopher’s Stone before the sun goes supernova. Unfortunately, literally everything on the ship is out to kill him. It’s a tense, immersive, and thoroughly enjoyable tale, one that you probably don’t want to miss out on. Read it today, read it tomorrow, read it next week, read it for Scifi Month—just pick up a copy if you love science fiction, atmospheric horror, or space opera. Whole-heartedly recommended!!

Station Eternity – by Mur Lafferty (Review)

Midsolar Murders #1

Scifi, Mystery

Berkley Publishing; October 4, 2022

336 pages (ebook)

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6.5 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Ace, Berkley, and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

Mallory Viridian is a walking death-trap. For as long as she can remember, death has followed her, often striking those closest. Her first kiss, her first boyfriend, her college professor, even her uncle. Adjacent to three deaths in her early years, Mallory solved her first murder shortly after, a crime that baffled the police.

But detectives were not impressed. Soon, Mallory was a suspect in not only that murder, but an entire string of them—some even going so far as to accuse her of being a serial killer. While she continued to solve these murders, it did little to help her case.

After one particularly bizarre and traumatic double-murder, Mallory had had enough. She left Earth behind, seeking asylum aboard Station Eternity, a sentient space-station not far from Sol. A station that bans humans. Her plan: to stay as far away from other humans as possible; if she’s not near them, they won’t die.

When the station agrees to allow human visitors, Mallory is nearly catatonic. But before she can run, a tragedy befalls the human shuttle prior to its arrival. And when the survivors are finally brought aboard, bodies continue to drop. Not to mention Eternity, who’s in the middle of a full-blown panic attack. And Mallory must rush to solve this case before humans and aliens alike are killed.

“It’s a small base. Shouldn’t be too hard to find that guy who ran.”

“Yeah… this is the part you’re really going to hate,” Mallory said, wincing. She’d been trying to figure out how to drop this bit of information, and she hadn’t come up with a good opener, so she just told him,” You won’t find him. He’s been abducted by aliens.”

Six Wakes was one of my favorite releases of 2017—a mystery set aboard a vessel in the depths of space, where a murdered crew must find the perpetrator before they kill again. Five years later, Station Eternity aims to replicate its success, to nominal results.

See, Six Wakes succeeded because it was isolated, claustrophobic, and tense. A classic whodunnit, with a twist: clones, spaceships, and a secret worth dying for. Likewise, Station Eternity is a whodunnit, with a different twist. Mallory knows where the murders will happen—after all, they follow her around—she just doesn’t know when, or why they do so. And in solving one, she just might discover it all.

But it’s not only the setup that has changed between these two stories, but also the tone. Where Six Wakes was tense and thrilling, Station Eternity attempts to be light and comedic. At least, at first. Later it has a go at introducing some tension, to mixed results. Neither did the tone immerse sell me on this, not the way the author’s earlier works managed. That said, it’s still an entertaining mystery. The setting is interesting—a sentient space-station in a universe that is still wary of humanity—as is the the mystery. And while nothing is as simple as it seems, neither is it as immersive. While I enjoyed the characters, I didn’t love the conflicting threads. While I liked the mystery, I didn’t love the plot. And when it all came together, I’d argue that everything was just too convenient, too readily explained—in the way that only sentient space-stations and hive minds can get away with.

Additionally, there was one remaining loose end to this mystery, one that annoyed me upon reaching the final wrap-up. It was (probably) a meaningless detail, but still—if you’re going to explain everything else via a hive mind, it makes no sense to overlook this.

TL;DR

As much as it pains me to admit, Station Eternity and Six Wakes are just two different beasts. While I loved the latter, the former filled me with mostly indifference. The most recent Lafferty release attempts a different tone, a wider setting, a less immersive experience but with on a grander scale. And it… I guess kinda works? An entertaining read, if not an amazing one. A decent mystery, if not a repeat of the last one. All in all, Station Eternity ends up being a little meh, much to my disappointment.

Abandoned – by W. Michael Gear (Review)

Donovan #2

Science Fiction

DAW Books; November 27, 2018

436 pages (paperback)

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9 / 10 ✪

Please beware spoilers for Donovan #1—Outpost.

Welcome to Donovan.

Supervisor Kalico Aguila has been on fragile terms with Port Authority since she decided to remain planetside, rather than inverting on the Turalon. Rather than join the settlement and perpetually butt heads with the council, Aguila has chosen to carve out a mine in the wilds—one the wilderness is slowly but surely reclaiming. The trees take a more active approach on Donovan, often rootching forwards, covering miles in a single day. To make matters worse, a murderer is hanging out in Aguila’s camp, one pushing Dan Wirth’s agenda. As if Donovan wasn’t enough.

Mark Talbot is a dead man walking. Marooned in the middle of the bush, he’s alive at all solely because of his armor, which thus far has survived every threat Donovan has thrown at him, from quetzals, to nightmares, to death-fliers. But what it can’t do is feed him, or—something that’s his larger issue—keep a charge. The battery packs were tested and maintained for combat; somewhere around 1000 hours. So far Talbot’s has seen twice that, and the cells are slowly depleting. So when he sees his first sign of human habitation, Talbot has no choice but to throw himself on their mercy. What he’s confronted with, however, are three scientists with a flock of children—and the quetzal that one of them has bonded.

Lieutenant Deb Spiro is losing it. A marine with a head for taking orders but not giving them, she has been suddenly thrust into command, a position that sees her instability and lust for violence take center stage. In Port Authority she sees everything that’s the problem with Donovan, especially one Talina Perez. And Spiro isn’t great at talking through her problems.

Talina Perez has made mistakes. In this case it’s the woman whose husband she killed during her time as the supervisor’s assassin. A mistake she’s desperate to atone for. But she’ll have to do far more than that if she wants to survive what Donovan has in store.

For when Spiro makes a mistake that might just threaten to kill them all, Perez will gamble everything on an outcast, an alien, and an infection in her TriNA. As sides are chosen and tensions run high it becomes very clear that the two sides can’t live together. But with Donovan mounting an offensive, neither might survive at all.

On Donovan, only humans are more terrifying than the wildlife.

“At this rate, how long before the forest reclaims the whole farm and smelter?” Kalico asked woodenly.

“Maybe a couple months?” Ghosh hazarded. “But that’s just a guess. I’m not a biological science kind of guy.”

“Remember how you laid out a line of that toxic smelter waste?” Ituri gave her a sidelong glance. “I don’t know what to say except this is Donovan. The trees never even hesitated. Radioactive or not, they just rootched their way across.”

“Rootched?”

“That’s what we’ve been calling it. Sort of a mix between roots and ruts and wiggling through the ground.”

A great return trip to Donovan, Abandoned tells an excellent followup story to the science fiction debut, Outpost. Turalon has departed. The planet is once again on its own. It’s up to the people to band together—us against them—and survive all the planet has to throw at them.

Only, people are, well, people. They don’t always get along. Honestly, I feel like this is an understatement. Just look at the history of humanity: I don’t see why it should be any different on an alien world.

And neither, it appears, does W. Michael Gear. Humans are the most terrifying part of Donovan, though the planet tries hard to give them some competition. A conspiracy of quetzals, on a molecular level. A horde of death-fliers. Trees that eat people, spaceships, and, apparently, toxic waste. And yet even in the face of all that, the humans continue to squabble and kill one another.

The problem, such that it is, is Dan Wirth. The best villain you love to hate. And yet NOT the villain of Abandoned. I guess the author thought it was too early in the series to put a bullet in the bastard’s head. A shame, that.

Anyway, instead of Wirth, we’re given Spiro, who is a bit one-sided as villains go. Or indeed, as people. Now, I’m not saying Spiro is poorly written, as I’ve met a number of marines I feel could encapsulate her perfectly. Suited to violence, good at taking orders, but little else. And no, this is not me saying that all marines are psychos—just some of them. Some very, very few of them. The point is that Spiro, while being a bit boring as a villain, isn’t a bust as a character. Nor is she poorly written. Just I think we could’ve done better.

Spiro aside, I flew through this book! I loved the addition of Talbot (especially given his circumstances), the return of Talina and Trish and Kalico and others. I binged the final 250 pages in a night, and had to resist going immediately to the next one as it was 6am and I needed to sleep. But I wanted to go back to Donovan. And that’s what I’d recommend you doing; don’t just GO to Donovan, go back, time after time. I sure hope this series continues to deliver like I expect it to!

Ymir – by Rich Larson (Review)

Standalone

Science Fiction

Orbit Books; July 12, 2022

391 pages (paperback)

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7 / 10 ✪

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

A dark, otherworldly retelling of Beowulf takes place on a dystopian ice-world where the company owns and tells all. A tale of two brothers separated by time, space, and bad blood. Yorick hunts monsters—specifically the eyeless grey terror known as the grendel, that lurk beneath the earth on many company worlds. He left home early, after a spat with his brother that cost him his jaw.

And now he’s back in the one place he hoped never to be again: the ice-world Ymir.

Thello is a mystery. In Yorick’s mind, his homecoming would coincide with his brother’s apology—that or a fight to the death—but upon landing Yorick finds neither. In fact, he hasn’t seen Thello at all, instead greeted by a company man Dam Gausta, his former mentor, the woman who ushered him into the company; and a hulking red clanswoman, Fen, who clearly wants to gut him at first sight. At first Yorick thinks that she must know him—but no, he’s been gone decades, and the Butcher that Cooked the Cradle must be assumed to be well and truly dead by now.

Without his brother, there is only the hunt that matters now.

But this grendel is different than the mindless killing-machines Yorick has dispatched in the past. Beneath that cold, clammy skin there is definitely a very alien mind at work, but there is also something disturbingly human to it as well, something Yorick recognizes and knows all too well.

Thello.

Written in the style of Takeshi Kovacs, Ymir takes a fast-paced, minimalist story designs of Richard K. Morgan and applies them to a Beowulf inspired tale, complete with nordic themes and terrifying grendels. A dark, gritty tale takes place on both sides of the ice of Ymir, even plunging deep underground in pitch-black tunnels where only those desperate or alien live.

The pacing itself is strange, but it is what the story makes it. It’s the way the story is told; in glimpses—with chapters so short we might as well be visiting the story as opposed to spending a book’s length with it. We jump from action to action, spending just enough time to progress the plot—but no more.

While I loved the dark, gritty feel of the ice-world Ymir, there was never enough of it to go around. When you’re only spending one to five pages in the same place, it’s hard to get a real sense of worth from it. Thus, instead of a full-body immersion, this was like a bath taken in quick dips, where you get a shock of cold that eventually builds up into a deep freeze, but only after a long period. It was an interesting way to tell a story—and not one I entirely enjoyed.

I thoroughly enjoyed the narrative between the two brothers, though it didn’t last as long as I’d’ve expected, coming to a cliffhanger well before the close that felt like a foregone conclusion rather than a mystery by the time it was resolved at the end.

TL;DR

While there was more than enough to like about Ymir, very little about the tale wowed me. It did prove a great read and a good story besides, as well as an interesting and unique retelling/tale based heavily on the epic Beowulf. But there was just too little there: too little time spent in any one place; too little depth on any of the supporting characters; too little backstory on the company, the grendels, Ymir itself, anything of the world to make it feel real. Overall, while I enjoyed pretty much everything I saw from Ymir, I’d’ve liked to have seen more of… pretty much all of it. For what is a tale told in glimpses than no tale at all?

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)

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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!

Upgrade – by Blake Crouch (Review)

Standalone

Scifi, Thriller

Ballantine Books; July 12, 2022

352 pages (ebook)

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8 / 10 ✪

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

When Logan Ramsay was young, his mother was engaged in the greatest mass gene-editing in history. If successful, it had the power to save millions from famine and starvation. Miriam Ramsay was one of the greatest minds of her generation; her son’s hero and idol. Until she failed.

And instead of saving billions, the project killed millions.

Miriam Ramsay didn’t survive that failure, taking her own life some months later. Logan did a stint in jail, imprisoned due to his mother’s mistake. The only reason he wasn’t put away for life was that he couldn’t’ve known what his mother was engaged in. For you see, Logan was the son of a genius cursed with an average mind.

Now Logan is an agent with the GPA (the Gene Protection Agency), an organization devoted to keep history from repeating itself, and the son of the most famed mass-murderer in history is trying desperately to atone for his past.

Until his past catches up with him.

A typical day for the GPA: an informant, a threat, a raid. Only this one goes awry, and Logan is caught in the crossfire. He awakens in the ER—confused, feverish, infected with an unknown virus. But as soon as the fever comes it dissipates, but Logan is kept under observation. Only then is he told the truth: the virus was not intended to make him sick, but to alter his genetic structure.

And Logan begins to notice a difference.

He’s faster, stronger. Smarter. The very definition of upgraded. But he’s also the GPA’s greatest threat. And that’s just the start.

I didn’t live in a world where any of my dreams were possible anymore.
And the hardest truth—the one that had been eating me slowly from the inside for most of my adult life—was that even if it was, I didn’t possess a fraction of the raw intelligence of an Anthony Romero or a Miriam Ramsay.
I had extraordinary dreams and an ordinary mind.

It is a supremely cruel thing to have your mind conjure a desire which it is functionally unable to realize.
No one teaches you how to handle the death of a dream.

Upgrade is the typical Blake Crouch thriller—immersive, plausible, addictive. A great read, start to finish. It has the same grasp of science featured in Dark Matter (plausible and streamlined) but without all of the muddy time-travel issues. It’s the same post-humanism of some of his shorter fiction (a world in flux, a new era looming), only in a longer format. It takes a similar approach to Wayward Pines (mystery on the run, a lone wolf mentality), but without all the messiness in the following books.

Simply said, Upgrade is the distilled version of all Crouch’s books to date. In a word: perfection.

Except, no. It isn’t.

While the story is strong on its own and the plot deep and often mysterious, the story takes place in a bubble. While world events are relayed through Logan, I never really got a feel for the outside world—how the world was before its fall, and after it; how it was dealing with the events of the present, where the chips fell in relation to the future—it just seemed… muted. Like the story was taking place in a bubble, everything else is viewed through the swirling haze of the waters around it. This certainly works—to a point. But with the bubble comes a disconnect: an uneven pace, a disconnect from reality, a lack of importance. Instead of banking the tension when it comes, Crouch ups the pace instead, and we go from a slower, technical build to an all-out race to the finish.

Despite this, Upgrade is still a good read. It just works—on the same level that all of the author’s thrillers work. It was quite readable throughout, even when the pacing was strange or the scientific terms and jargon threatened to overwhelm. The story never loses its way, always manages to stay front and center. The post-humanism drank me in and kept me, even through the end. The ending itself was good, twists and turns at all the requisite times.

TL;DR

Overall, Upgrade is an enjoyable thriller, perfect for those summer nights you just don’t want to end. And when the night turns to day and the moon sits high and pale in the morning light, you find that you’re still hooked—lost on the prospect of what happens next. Upgrade is like that; a lovely thriller that makes you think, but keeps on so that you don’t get lost in your own mind. While the plot kept going on and on, the pacing and informationism did its best to keep out of its own way. Something that it… more or less manages. I never felt overwhelmed by information, though sometimes it was a near thing. The story always keeps rolling just in the nick of time, so that nothing ever gets to dry or dull. And while it delivers in the way that all Crouch’s thrillers manage—Upgrade just doesn’t seem as polished, despite the name.

Annex – by Rich Larson (Review)

The Violet Wars #1

Scifi, Dystopian, Aliens

Orbit Books; July 24, 2018

317 pages (paperback)

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7 / 10 ✪

Peter Pan meets Independence Day in Annex, where aliens isolate a small city and attach clamps to the necks of all adults over the age of 16, essentially turning them into zombies—called “wasters” by the Lost Boys that still run the streets. But few of these waifs remain free. The rest of the children have been rounded up and collected into warehouses, where they are implanted with parasites and kept drugged, waiting for whatever nefarious plan the new overlords have in mind.

When Bo escapes from the warehouses, he wants nothing more than to reunite with his sister. Instead, he finds the Lost Boys—or rather they find him.

Violet—a transgender girl—is our main link to the group, led by influential Wyatt and his followers. Unlike Bo, Violet isn’t disappointed the world ended. In fact, she feels liberated. The world ending changed her life—but for the better. And she’s never going back. In this new world she does what she wants, when she wants, as the person who she wants to be. And yet her struggle isn’t complete. There’s still something for Violet out there—and her path to it leads through Bo.

And so these two and the Lost Boys must confront the apocalypse before it’s too late, and before the aliens complete whatever it is they’re up to.

So what do I have to say about the aliens, about the characters, about the world? Not much, to be honest. Other than Violet and Bo they’re pretty much a wash. Wyatt and Bree are the only other characters of note, and both of them are chaotic—though in different ways. Though as the two leads define sooo much of the story, essentially they’re everything important about it. Which is both good and bad. On one hand it’s disappointing that the characters suffer so much of a drop-off from primary to secondary, but on the other, at least the important characters have their shit together. The world and the lore are both equally disappointing. Neither do we know or discover much about throughout the entire story.

Luckily the story itself was entertaining. A no-nonsense plot about alien invaders and the fate of the world, science and action, atmospheric tension and subtle horror—I mean, there’s not a whole lot to complain about. Or analyze. Or… write more words for.

There are a few holes in the world-building that does exist: such as the electricity being out for months though the characters constantly seem to forget it and expect something different. And I really hate the: “it was just a few days, but felt like a lifetime ago”. It’s overused and ridiculous.

TL;DR

Annex is an entertaining read, if a bit of a far-fetched one. Full of action and mystery, deep lead characters, an engaging plot and interesting story—the book is one that certainly starts out on the right foot. But a flawed premise, one-sided secondary characters, and more than a few missteps along the way slow it up. Annex is definitely an example of world-building in a bubble, as the known-world is very much trapped in a bubble. While this can heighten the suspense, it also limits the scope and weight of the story. And as little is ever revealed about the world outside our little bubble of reality, the mystery and suspense can only deliver for so long. When the end comes, it brings with it a sense of fulfillment of the plot and character arcs, but little of the fate of the world itself. All because the world never much seemed in danger—only a piece of it did. All in all, I’d definitely say that the good outweighs the bad and recommend this for anyone who’s a fan of dystopian or young adult, alien invasions or science fiction—particularly where deep issues exceed particularly deep scientific lore or world-building.