August 2021

To say we have a busy month is an understatement. This month is so packed with releases that I forgot about a few of the ARCs I’d received. I mean, there is NO WAY I’m finishing them all this month. Heck, I might not get to them all before the end of the year. So there will be some picking and choosing which to read—which is something I really like to avoid. But, oh well. Can’t avoid it sometimes.

ARC

The Godstone – by Violette Malan (8/03)

Untitled Series #1 / Standalone

Goodreads

Fenra Lowens has been a working Practitioner, using the magic of healing ever since she graduated from the White Court and left the City to live in the Outer Modes. When one of her patients, Arlyn Albainil, is summoned to the City to execute the final testament of a distant cousin, she agrees to help him. Arlyn suspects the White Court wants to access his cousin’s Practitioner’s vault. Arlyn can’t ignore the summons: he knows the vault holds an artifact so dangerous he can’t allow it to be freed.

Fenra quickly figures out that there is no cousin, that Arlyn himself is the missing Practitioner, the legendary Xandra Albainil, rumored to have made a Godstone with which he once almost destroyed the world. Sealing away the Godstone left Arlyn powerless and ill, and he needs Fenra to help him deal with the possibly sentient artifact before someone else finds and uses it.

Along the way they encounter Elvanyn Karamisk, an old friend whom Arlyn once betrayed. Convinced that Arlyn has not changed, and intends to use Fenra to recover the Godstone and with it all his power, Elvanyn joins them to keep Fenra safe and help her destroy the artifact.

Shards of Earth – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (8/03 US)

Final Architects #1

Goodreads

Idris has neither aged nor slept since they remade him in the war. And one of humanity’s heroes now scrapes by on a freelance salvage vessel, to avoid the attention of greater powers.

After earth was destroyed, mankind created a fighting elite to save their species, enhanced humans such as Idris. In the silence of space they could communicate, mind-to-mind, with the enemy. Then their alien aggressors, the Architects, simply disappeared—and Idris and his kind became obsolete.

Now, fifty years later, Idris and his crew have discovered something strange abandoned in space. It’s clearly the work of the Architects—but are they returning? And if so, why? Hunted by gangsters, cults and governments, Idris and his crew race across the galaxy hunting for answers. For they now possess something of incalculable value, that many would kill to obtain.

Devil’s Fjord – by David Hewson (8/05)

Faroe Islands Mystery #1

Goodreads

If the new District Sheriff, Tristan Haraldsen, thought moving to a remote village on the island of Vagar would be the chance for a peaceful life with his wife Elsebeth, his first few weeks in office swiftly correct him of that notion.

Provoked into taking part in the village’s whale hunt against his will, Haraldsen blunders badly, and in the ensuing chaos two local boys go missing. Blaming himself, Haraldsen dives into the investigation and soon learns that the boys are not the first to have gone missing on Vagar.

As Tristan and Elsebeth become increasingly ensnared by the island’s past, they realise its wild beauty hides an altogether uglier and sinister truth.

Paper & Blood – by Kevin Hearne (8/10)

Ink & Sigil #2

Goodreads

There’s only one Al MacBharrais: Though other Scotsmen may have dramatic mustaches and a taste for fancy cocktails, Al also has a unique talent. He’s a master of ink and sigil magic. In his gifted hands, paper and pen can work wondrous spells.

But Al isn’t quite alone: He is part of a global network of sigil agents who use their powers to protect the world from mischievous gods and strange monsters. So when a fellow agent disappears under sinister circumstances in Australia, Al leaves behind the cozy pubs and cafes of Glasgow and travels to the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria to solve the mystery.

The trail to his colleague begins to pile up with bodies at alarming speed, so Al is grateful his friends have come to help—especially Nadia, his accountant who moonlights as a pit fighter. Together with a whisky-loving hobgoblin known as Buck Foi and the ancient Druid Atticus O’Sullivan, along with his dogs, Oberon and Starbuck, Al and Nadia will face down the wildest wonders Australia—and the supernatural world—can throw at them, and confront a legendary monster not seen in centuries.

Bloodless – by Preston & Child (8/17)

Agent Pendergast #20

Goodreads

A fabulous heist:
On the evening of November 24, 1971, D. B. Cooper hijacked Flight 305—Portland to Seattle—with a fake bomb, collected a ransom of $200,000, and then parachuted from the rear of the plane, disappearing into the night…and into history.

A brutal crime steeped in legend and malevolence:
Fifty years later, Agent Pendergast takes on a bizarre and gruesome case: in the ghost-haunted city of Savannah, Georgia, bodies are found with no blood left in their veins—sowing panic and reviving whispered tales of the infamous Savannah Vampire.

A case like no other:
As the mystery rises along with the body count, Pendergast and his partner, Agent Coldmoon, race to understand how—or if—these murders are connected to the only unsolved skyjacking in American history. Together, they uncover not just the answer…but an unearthly evil beyond all imagining.

The Pariah – by Anthony Ryan (8/24)

Covenant of Steel #1

Goodreads

Born into the troubled kingdom of Albermaine, Alwyn Scribe is raised as an outlaw. Quick of wit and deft with a blade, Alwyn is content with the freedom of the woods and the comradeship of his fellow thieves. But an act of betrayal sets him on a new path – one of blood and vengeance, which eventually leads him to a soldier’s life in the king’s army.

Fighting under the command of Lady Evadine Courlain, a noblewoman beset by visions of a demonic apocalypse, Alwyn must survive war and the deadly intrigues of the nobility if he hopes to claim his vengeance. But as dark forces, both human and arcane, gather to oppose Evadine’s rise, Alwyn faces a choice: can he be a warrior, or will he always be an outlaw?

Twenty-Five to Life – by R.W.W. Greene (8/24)

Standalone

Goodreads

Julie Riley is two years too young to get out from under her mother’s thumb, and what does it matter? She’s over-educated, under-employed, and kept mostly numb by her pharma emplant. Her best friend, who she’s mostly been interacting with via virtual reality for the past decade, is part of the colony mission to Proxima Centauri. Plus, the world is coming to an end. So, there’s that.

When Julie’s mother decides it’s time to let go of the family home in a failing suburb and move to the city to be closer to work and her new beau, Julie decides to take matters into her own hands. She runs, illegally, hoping to find and hide with the Volksgeist, a loose-knit culture of tramps, hoboes, senior citizens, artists, and never-do-wells who have elected to ride out the end of the world in their campers and converted vans, constantly on the move over the back roads of America.

Inhibitor Phase – by Alastair Reynolds (8/26 EU)

Revelation Space Universe

Goodreads

Miguel de Ruyter is a man with a past.

Fleeing the ‘wolves’ – the xenocidal alien machines known as Inhibitors – he has protected his family and community from attack for forty years, sheltering in the caves of an airless, battered world called Michaelmas. The slightest hint of human activity could draw the wolves to their home, to destroy everything … utterly. Which is how Miguel finds himself on a one-way mission with his own destructive mandate: to eliminate a passing ship, before it can bring unwanted attention down on them.

Only something goes wrong.

There’s a lone survivor.

And she knows far more about Miguel than she’s letting on . . .

Ranging from the depths of space to the deeps of Pattern Juggler waters, from nervous, isolated communities to the ruins of empire, this is a stealthy space opera from an author at the top of his game.

Other Releases

Nolyn – by Michael J. Sullivan (8/03)

Rise and Fall #1

Goodreads

After more than five hundred years of exile, the heir to the empyre is wary about his sudden reassignment to active duty on the Goblin War’s front lines. His assignment to rescue an outpost leads to a dead-end canyon deep inside enemy territory, and his suspicion turns to dread when he discovers the stronghold does not exist. But whoever went to the trouble of planning his death to look like a casualty of war did not know he would be assigned to the Seventh Sikaria Auxiliary Squadron. In the depths of an unforgiving jungle, a legend is about to be born, and the world of Elan will never be the same.

Music

Not aware of any interesting releases this month, but I don’t follow music like I obsess about books—often I don’t pay attention to what’s happening until they’re already out. So here are a couple songs that came out last week. The first is by German alt-rock band Flash Forward, the second by Italian EDM-Celtic-Folk outfit The Sidh. While Syl is a good song and all, if you’ve never thought “what would happen if I added bagpipes to EDM” then Utopia is a must-listen!

btw I’ve noooo idea what’s going on in this video, so don’t ask me, eh?

Gaming

Still working on Disco Elysium as I had a system crash which wiped out all my saves from all my games and I had to start over from scratch. Which… not ideal. It’s taken me some time to get back into it. So four days into my first impression of Disco Elysium I had to restart it. “Disappointment” is an understatement. And not just for this game, but about 90% of my library on the PS4. I have a few online backups but for the most part it’s all gone.

Anyway, I’ve taken to some other Indie games to distract me—a number of which I’m working on posting something about, but we’ll see how it goes. I’ve been playing through Islanders, This War of Mine, Northgard, Fez and Hyper Light Drifter based entirely on what I feel like at any given time. Hopefully more to come on these later!

Currently Reading

The Godstone – by Violette Malan

So far this has been a good read—I’ve some issues with it, I must admit, but I’ll probably still recommend it (at least, judging by how it’s going right now I would). I’m at ~70% mark so probably no review out by the 3rd, though hopefully it won’t be too long a wait.

A Gathering of Ravens – by Scott Oden

This month’s audiobook is sure an uplifting one. A well reviewed grimdark fantasy, it’s something I’ve been after for a while now. Unfortunately, I’m not sure this is the right time for it. The world over here is looking slightly bleak, and this isn’t exactly going to cheer me up. But then, who says that’s what I’m after?

Life

Pretty apocalyptic out west. I’ll have to remember to include a photo later this week. There’s a major drought going on, and recently we’ve been plagued with the fires that have been running rampant in California since last year. The only reason it isn’t worst is that winter is a thing here. But as fire season rolls around in 2021 we find that fire season actually started a month earlier than usual and likely won’t be over any time soon. Maybe not even after the first snow—which I genuinely pray happens in August this year. Last year first snow waited til September 5th, but this year we need it more.

The smoke has been awful. In the unhealthy range straight for the last two weeks, it doesn’t look to be letting up any time soon either. Not a great time to work outside. But with half our staff leaving on August 1st, it’s just going to get busier. And I’m behind on reading as it is. With the nine releases this month I’m anticipating—all of which I have copies for—…well, it’s going to be a challenge for me to finish probably around three. At the moment I’d guess the Godstone, the Pariah and… maybe Paper & Blood? I’ve no idea. I guess we’ll see.

And I didn’t even mention COVID yet. Actually, I’m going to skip it. It ain’t looking good—enough said.

Any of these or other releases you’re excited about? Books, games, music, whatever really. How’s the smoke where you live? Anything else new—let me know!

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.

Fugitive Telemetry – by Martha Wells (Review)

Murderbot Diaries #6

Scifi, Novella

Tor.com; April 27, 2021

176 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.5 / 5 ✪

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 Tor, Tor.com & NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Warning: Contains spoilers for Murderbot Diaries #1-5

Fresh off Murderbot’s first full-length novel, Fugitive Telemetry returns to the novella format which takes place prior to the events of Network Effect, but after those of Exit Strategy. So just forget about all the things you’ve probably forgot about already and let’s get started.

When a dead human is left in the middle of one of the main corridors of Preservation, it’s up to Murderbot to find the culprit before they kill again. Or, you know, before more humans whine to it.

The first question: did Murderbot kill the human?

No, it didn’t. And if it did, it wouldn’t leave the dead human out in the open.

But—in a shocking twist—since Murderbot has the most experience with dead humans, it is tasked with helping the port authorities discover the real killer before they kill again.

I’d forgotten how much I missed this. It’s really hard to remember just what the first couple novellas really excelled at (as they both presented a likable, antisocial non-human, yet oh-so human lead) when there’s been no letdown. All the novellas were good, as was the feature-length novel. But Fugitive Telemetry exceeds all expectations. Here is a Murderbot in its native habitat—solving a mystery with some would-be allies who don’t trust it, stalking a shadowy killer before they strike again.

It gives the same vibe as All Systems Red or Artificial Condition—the first few novellas, back when it was still a Rogue SecUnit surrounded by enemies—but with more pert and polish to the writing, the story. For who could be the murderer? It could be anyone: GrayCris, come to finish the job; another rogue SecUnit, come to meet the legend; random humans, serial killers, aliens—it could literally be anyone. Except Murderbot. At least… it doesn’t THINK it did it, but how would it know? It’s named MURDERbot, after all. And if its human “allies” were to learn this, they’d probably suspect it to. And so it has to find the killer so it can go back to watching media in peace, without being interrupted for every dead human that turns up.

The last thing that I’m going to mention is Murderbot’s character arc. It went on quite the progression through the original four diary entries. From a nameless, faceless AI soldier to a rogue and killer. Then to a would-be savior, a freedom fighter, a mercenary, a consultant, then finally a trusted friend. Network Effect rather missed out on adding to this arc. Now, there’s some progression there, sure, but there’s almost as much regression. Fugitive Telemetry—set before the events of Network Effect—continues the original character arc, presenting a character more reminiscent of what appears in the later novel. And, as much as I’d like to know what happens after the events of the novel itself, I think Murderbot still has a bit more to tell before we come to that.

And yet, there’s an problem. I have one problem with Fugitive Telemetry. ONE. The price is ridiculous. $12 ebook, $18 physical for a 170 page novella is just stupid, no matter how good it is. Ebook prices being what they are… it’s not the time or place to get into this. Sufficient to say that $12 is too much for an ebook, a novella—even one as outstanding as this.

Network Effect – by Martha Wells (Review)

Couldn’t find who designed the cover. Help me out?

Murderbot Diaries #5

Space Opera, Scifi, AI

Tor.com; May 5, 2020

350 pages (Hardcover)

4.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I’d say to beware spoilers for the previous Murderbot installments, but you’re here, so I’m going to assume you’ve AT LEAST read some of them, so catch up quick. If you haven’t read any of them… I’m just going to assume your life is a complete waste. And at least this time I know it’s true.

Network Effect is the first full-length Murderbot novel, and hopefully—HOPEFULLY—not the last. Following the events of the previous four novellas, our lovable, totally not-awkward protagonist is living on an actual planet, dressing like a human, and doing many human-like things without actually being one. It is definitely NOT a human, can’t stress this enough. Anyway, since the previous novellas were so amazing, how much worse could a full-length story be?

When Murderbot departs the planet with a number of its humans, it’s sure that some trouble is going to befall them. Why? Because its humans—while generally decent, naïve meat bags—are naïve, stupid, and full of bad decisions. So when something goes wrong, it is there to say “I told you so”.

And also save them.

But the first wrong thing to go wrong may not be the last, and while the first is more than enough to deal with, any other problems that may arise are likely to become increasingly inconvenient. Or at least cut into its media-watching-time. And when an old friend shows up needing help, well, there might not be time to watch any media at all. But as its friends are few and far between, and it really has grown used to its humans (which would probably make a mess dying, anyway), it will do what it can for them—so long as it doesn’t have to talk too much or actually, like, share its feelings with anyone.

If so, they can burn in hell. Or wherever.

“Right.”

She flicked a startled look at me. I love it when humans forget that SecUnits are not just guarding and killing things voluntarily, because we think it’s fun.

What can I say about Network Effect?

I mean, I could just keep throwing out quotes until you read it. Or the other ones first, and then Network Effect. Or I could point you to other reviews of people that love it. Or I could rant and rave about the concept, or how much I love and relate with the lead despite the fact that they aren’t human, or how much I love the way the story is told and to what lengths Murderbot will go to avoid awkward human things.

But I’ll try to actually focus for a minute.

Overse added, “Just remember you’re not alone here.”
I never know what to say to that. I am actually alone in my head, and that’s where 90 plus percent of my problems are.

The characters are actually pretty solid, for being a bunch of squishy, emotionally compromised humans. I mean, the bots are all fleshed out nicely—more than I would’ve expected really, as they’re machines. I’m not going to get into the whole AI-Sentiency thing, but it’s nice to see a broad range of characters represented by more than their opposable thumbs. And since there’s not any more racism, sexism, specism, bigotry that I can see on one subject or another, I think we can just skip that discussion.

As for the world-building: it’s good, but honestly I think it could’ve been better. Each novella took us to a different place (often a different planet), which was painted its own vibrant color. Network Effect didn’t have quite as many exotic places, so maybe I just expected the ones it did have to be more vibrant than before. If so, that’s where I was disappointed. Just a little. Seriously, not much.

The mystery at hand was quite immersive. It was told in a strange, very, very orderly manner—with bullet points and subsections even within other subsections—but also with the same annoyed, awkward voice that I’ve come to love from Murderbot. Due to its annoyance at most things human there were a few sections that could’ve been clearer, some where I got slightly frustrated that it wasn’t focusing on details I might’ve—but those are also the moments where it stays in character where a human protagonist might do something else. It’s quite hard to fault that.

It’s also quite impressive at how far the characters of Murderbot have come in such a short time. Somewhere over the course of the… 900ish (?) pages they’ve built up quite the report together. That’s really like two, maybe three full-length novels, but it just feels like less. Especially when Murderbot complains about the humans so much in that time. The language is the best part of the series. And it doesn’t change. It’s still an amazing read and an amazing ride on the shoulders of an antisocial, lovable killing-machine.

Okay, back to raving.

TL;DR

Well, this is the end. Of the review. If you haven’t ditched it by now to go read the series, either (a) you’re not going to, and are okay with wasting your life, (b) you’re waiting til later, when you’ve like, eaten and slept, because, dumb reasons, or (c) you’ve already read and enjoyed and are totally on board with everything (ish) I’ve raved about thus far. What can I say except that this series is really good? The characters, the language, the story, the adventures and scifi and all—it’s totally worth reading. I can’t recommend it enough. I’m highly anticipating the next adventure.

The next adventure, Fugitive Telemetry, is due on April 27, 2021. While it’s another Murderbot novella rather than a novel-length entry, I’m still anticipating it highly enough that I’m really disappointed I haven’t read it yet. What have I ever done to you, time?

Every Sky a Grave – by Jay Posey (Review)

Both covers are good, though I probably prefer the UK’s

The Ascendance #1

Scifi, Space Opera, Fantasy

Skybound Books; July 7, 2020

384 pages (ebook)

4.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

A planetary assassin from an all-women sect that wields a forgotten tongue as a weapon, Elyth was taught that her actions save lives and protect the universe from conflict and evil. Her order, the House of Ascendance, have been taught the Deep Language since they were young. Combined with the Herza—soldiers that wield advanced technology—they make up the two arms of the Ascendance, which rule the galaxy as a whole. Over millennia they have honed it to root and strife and dissidence from within, protecting the Ascendance from threats.

Elyth is a true believer, one that will do everything in her power to serve the Empire’s vision, even if it means giving her life in the process. Fresh from a successful mission to quell a planet on the verge of sedition, Elyth is sent to Qel, a world possibly infected by the Markovian Strain—a corrupted version of the Language, thought to have been wiped out.

See, there’s a reason why only women are trusted to learn the Deep Language. Years prior, a man named Varen Fedic began using the Language for evil, attempting to dominate the Empire for his personal rule. Though it started on Markov, the strain soon boiled over to other worlds, and the corruption spread. Together, the Herza and House were able to defeat and destroy the Strain, but its legacy of terror remains.

And so Elyth is sent to Qel to investigate.

Unfortunately, nothing goes to plan. When her ship crash-lands on Qel, Elyth is hunted like prey, barely able to get a sense of the world she has come to investigate. But that which she does only builds her disquiet. For whatever is happening on Qel is truly strange and mysterious, but despite all the warnings she received regarding the corruption of the Strain, Elyth begins to suspect what the House taught her—while certainly its truth—perhaps wasn’t the full story.

As with many other reviewers I’ve seen, I was quickly impressed by the world-building. From the very first chapter (which gives a taste of both the Language and the Ascendancy), I had no trouble imagining and detailing the adventure unfolding. Posey does an excellent job building up the world (or worlds), the hierarchy of its empire, and the ancient—yet still enigmatic—Deep Language. While I was prepared for it to be just another attempt at blunt words-of-power magic, it somehow manages to convey something more, an intricacy that’s intertwined with the foundations of the universe. What follows is a curious blend of space opera scifi and sorcerous fantasy that I enjoyed on two levels, and think will appeal to fans of either genre.

Unfortunately, the world-building is not without its flaws. While early on we are treated to a decent history lesson on the foundations of the world, throughout the text there are references that made me think that the author was holding out on me. While the Markovian Strain plays a huge part in the story, the history of the Ascendancy itself felt lacking—as it was hard to tell just how old or noble they really were. Though it’s not absolutely necessary to the events on Qel, I really feel it would’ve been helpful to compare the evilness of the Strain to something. Being told something is evil isn’t always enough; it’s often important to relate how or why it’s bad. While it…. urrrgghh. Okay. While the world-building was excellent, it often felt as though the history of the Ascendancy as it related to the story was lacking. Or incomplete. Does that make sense? It didn’t contract from the story, but felt like it was missing out on an opportunity to really bolster it.

Elyth is a strong lead, and her character development—while not the best ever—was quite something. A true believer from the outset, it’s interesting to watch her evolution as she discovers that while she was told the danger of the Strain, perhaps it wasn’t the whole truth. She’s a loyal and stubborn servant, but also an inquisitive and independent one. While she does whatever she can to fit her discoveries within the lines of what she believes, she never discounts anything out of hand, despite what it means for those beliefs. And so her evolution is interesting—whether it be progression or regression, even sometimes both.

I had little issue getting into Every Sky a Grave, but a slight problem in the middle. Action, stealth and tension war with philosophy as to which controls the pacing, but neither wins out. As such, the pacing was a bit odd at times, making it easy for me too rattle off fifty pages, only to take me a half hour to get through a dozen. While I never struggled to read this, it’s not exactly an action-packed thriller. There are periods of action, yes, but it’s all balanced with stealth, mystery, philosophy, and more. That wasn’t an issue for me, though it might be for you.

Though the conclusion wowed me (there was even a certain LOTR moment that brought chills), the lead-in to it was hit and miss. There were some unlikely events, some great ones, and even one that was a head-scratcher. All in all, however, it was a great adventure.

TL;DR

Every Sky a Grave combines in-depth world-building with strong dialogue and fascinating character progression to tell a tense, gripping story that somehow manages to incorporate both fantasy and science fiction, while committing to neither genre. The mysterious Deep Language is a unique magic-system, while its space-opera roots are evident in the world and its characters. With a strong female lead and an interesting story you should have little trouble getting into the read, though its second half struggles to decide between philosophy, action, and stealth—which really makes the pacing odd. At times I tore through pages, while others I had to read and reread sections to make sure I understood them. Despite this I thoroughly enjoyed Every Sky a Grave and look forward to the continuation of this new series, Posey’s best start since Three!

The Last Human – by Zack Jordan (Review)

Standalone

Scifi, Space Opera

Del Rey; March 24, 2020

432 pages (ebook)

3.5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Del Rey and NetGalley for the review copy! All opinions are my own .

Part metaphysical, part philosophical, and part action-adventure science fiction, The Last Human is Zack Jordan’s debut novel, following a human in an universe without them, and her search for acceptance on behalf of herself and her species.

Sarya is an orphan, adopted and raised by a Widow. She goes through life pretending to be nothing more than the wayward Spaal, an intelligence so low on Tier One that it barely merits being classified as ‘intelligent’ at all. Indeed, none of her classmates treat her as anything more than a joke, and a particularly dull one at that. Sarya commands little respect, what she does have courtesy of her mother, Shenya the Widow. Shenya, a widow and as such a killing machine both feared and respected the galaxy over. That Sarya is her adoptive daughter is not taken lightly. Only Sarya is taken lightly. But Sarya has a secret. One that, if any other but her mother knew, would have her ejected from the nearest airlock then pushed into the nearest sun so that not even ashes remained.

Sarya is a human. The LAST human, near as she can tell—the most feared and hated species in the universe.

Near a millennia past, the humans waged a war against the Network—the system that accepts and balances life throughout countless galaxies and realities. One species against untold billions. And they very nearly won. Now humans are presumed extinct, but are hunted mercilessly to ensure that theory. Trust, but verify.

Watertower Station is the last place anyone would expect a human to be. A nothing station in the middle of nowhere, overlooking a world good for nothing but the ice it provides. Here Sarya has accepted her life; to be seen as nothing but a Spaal—a slow, pedantic alien worth nothing aboard a worthless station. But her life is about to change.

When a hive mind, a fourth Tier being, visits Watertower, it recognizes Sarya for what she really is. Recognizes, and promises to reunite her with her own kind. Sarya is ecstatic, nervous, and skeptical all in the same instant. Bu entert a bounty hunter, a stolen ship, a kinetic missile and an adventure she never imagined she’d get. Sarya ends up alone—surrounded by a crew of misfits—and homeless, with only the vague promise of humans on the horizon. A promise, that like all else, might well turn out to be nothing more than the lies she’s been fed her whole life. But what else can she do?

*————*

The Last Human works acceptably well as an action-adventure—but for a few issues we’ll get to later. If taken as a quest for acceptance, it works. Just as it’d work if viewed as a philosophical endeavor into the nature of what it is to BE human. But instead of settling for just one of these, the Last Human seems to be an attempt to explore all three, much like the Wayfarer books by Becky Chambers. Yet where those novels succeed in this, the Last Human fails. Essentially, it tries too hard. An over-ambitious aim from the outset, the book never dwells enough on just one of these to remain anything more than passable in all of them, with the exception of the adventure, which succeeds well enough.

Though I’ll allow that it succeeds as an adventure, the Last Human isn’t a perfect one. Not by far. I mean, there IS a definite adventure. But—especially after the halfway point—the story takes too many side-trips into the nature of being, of existence. I kept finding myself questioning what was going on in the universe and losing touch with what was happening in the story.

The first half of this tale is completely addictive; I read it in a couple days. After that, the story flounders somewhat, as new characters are introduced and new POVs considered. Tier 3 (Part 3) is almost entirely occupied by a single, new POV that proceeds to tell the reader how clever and advanced they are. Prior to this point, the plot was moving along nicely, alternating building and background with action and adventure. From here on, however, the pacing changes, alternating from action to reflection at the drop of a hat, frequently switching in the same chapter, sometimes with only a paragraph or so separating the two. It’s such a befuddling pace and one that’s so completely different from the first half that it slowed me—and the story—down.

Overall, the Last Human presents a mystery and plot that’s a worthwhile read, even if it takes some liberties getting there. Without spoiling anything I’ll just say that the plot wraps up nicely—except that its culmination splits time with a discussion of philosophy, the universe, and the nature of man. It was a bit… distracting, altogether.

TL;DR

Zack Jordan likely intended The Last Human to bridge the gap between science, science fiction and philosophy—much like authors Becky Chambers, Dmitry Glukhovsky, Joe Haldeman, and more did before him. It’s a highly ambitious plan—and one that nearly succeeds. But there’s just too much going on in the story. While everything fits together nicely for the first half of the book, it spills over somewhat in the second. The plot, the nature of man, the meaning of the universe all dance around one another but end up stepping on each other’s toes to the point where one and all threaten to cloud the others’ progress. While the story itself wraps up quite nicely, the philosophy ends a jumbled mess, provoking more questions than answers while losing me as I tried to make sense of it. Or, maybe, this was its intent all along. I’d recommend the story for the story, just don’t read too much into the metaphysics (unless you’re into that). All in all, The Last Human bites off a bit more than it can chew, and as a result, some elements get lost over its course. The plot, the story, its characters and world and description, remain mostly intact. As this is the author’s debut, I suspect these flaws will be hammered out in later books, and expect great things from him in the future! While some few elements distract from the adventure, the story is still very much worth the journey.

Fortuna – by Kristyn Merbeth (Review)

My favorite cover of the year, hands down

Nova Vita Protocol #1

Scifi, Space Opera

Orbit; November 5, 2019

560 pages (ebook)

4.2 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished with a copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to both Orbit and NetGalley for the review copy! All opinions are my own.

Fortuna is the space opera debut from Wastelanders author Kristyn Merbeth (also known as K.S. Merbeth). This one has been on my radar for a while, only partly due to its absolutely beautiful cover. Two siblings, separated by time and space, reunite at the turning point of all things.

Scorpia Kaiser once stood in her elder brother’s shadow. But when three years prior, he abandoned their family to fight in the war on his home world, she hoped this would change. Three years, and Scorpia now only has one thought—becoming the new heir apparent of the family business and owner of its ship, Fortuna. It’s not a fancy ship—aged, battle-scarred, space-worn—but it’s the only home Scorpia’s ever known, and the only one she ever wants.

Three years prior Corvus Kaiser was abandoned on Titan, his home world, to fight in an unwinnable war. A war that he very much suspects will eventually claim his life. But recent events have changed his mind on this. In a split-second decision he calls his family, summoning them to his aid. But now faced with the choice of whether to leave or stay he must make a difficult decision between the team he never wanted and the family that doesn’t want him back.

Between the two of them there’s enough chaos to go around, but the universe seems dead-set on raising the stakes. Soon the Kaisers and Fortuna are in the middle of a war—one that may very well cost them their lives.

Fortuna is told using dual-1st person POV chapters—one following Scorpia and the other Corvus—which alternate every chapter. Initially, I found this impossible. In fact, I would read three of Scorpia’s then go back and do three or so of Corvus’s. But then the two reached the same point and place in time and—actually, it wasn’t as bad as I expected.

There’re only a couple other books I’ve read that had this format. The Girl the Sea Gave Back (by Adrienne Young) featured the same alternating man-woman 1PPOVs and I kept getting confused and lost between characters. In Iron Gold (by Pierce Brown), there are three POVs all 1P, that alternate around. I stopped this one for much the same reasons—confusion, mixing up characters, etc. Fortuna is the same, but not. I… don’t really know how to describe it. Maybe it’s because the characters are in close proximity for 2/3 of the book. Maybe it’s because they’re similar. Maybe it’s because the chapters are longer. But it didn’t bother me as much. I mean, it still bothered me, just less.

In the Afterword, Merbeth mentions that she added Corvus’s POV on the advice of her editor. Now, I dunno if this was doing him in 1P, alternating his chapters, or whatnot, but it seems to have payed off. I absolutely loved both of their stories—barring the end. The end (the final showdown, if you will) fairly well sucked. The outcome was never in question, and it was as if the author was trying to inject drama wherever possible. Which is a shame, considering the rest of the text is a treasure. While both Corvus and Scorpia have their own individual storylines, they share the main quite well. And while Scorpia tied all her threads off quite nicely, Corvus pretty much just took a flamethrower to his. Gradually, over the course of the book, though.

The minor characters of Fortuna were no less surprising in their complexity. Three further Kaiser siblings, together with their matriarch, Corvus’s team on Titan, Scorpia’s contacts on Gaia, and other black market dealers, scum, and pirates all really show their humanity (for the most part). Together, these elements make Fortuna a heck of a read, despite its few missteps.

TL;DR

Fortuna was quite a treat. Kristyn Merbeth has weaved herself a masterful tale, one that I can’t wait to see more of. The writing, description and characters were all top-notch, and at no point did I lament reading one character’s chapter to get to the next. While the ending does have its issues, the post-showdown section manages to tie everything together rather nicely, leaving me with only a few loose ends to worry after. The divide between Corvus and Scorpia helps tell their story, something that their interconnection is more the better for. It helped me feel so much more for them, humanize them, almost made them seem like real siblings, even.

I definitely recommend Fortuna. And I can’t wait to see more from Kristyn Merbeth!