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!