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.

Gallowglass – by S.J. Morden (Review)

I really like how the cover captures the mood of the book: blue, lonely, dark.

Standalone

Science Fiction

Gollancz; December 10, 2020

384 pages (ebook)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

I often complain about science fiction that’s all fiction and no science, that I like more science with my fiction. Gallowglass certainly tested this. There’s a heavy dose of science in this scifi adventure—some might say too much, others too little.

Jaap van der Veerden lives the life of the ultra-wealthy; all his needs and wants are met instantly, he exists surrounded by servants that he never sees, his parents are even exploring the prospect of eternal life. But Jaap doesn’t share his family’s transhumanism desires. All he wants—all he’s ever wanted—is to live his own life, outside of his family’s influence, outside of the bubble of wealth surrounding him. And so Jaap concocts a plan to escape his family, knowing that even if he does succeed, he’ll be hunted as a fugitive for the rest of his natural life.

But once he escapes, what then?

Jaap (now known as Jack) accepts a berth on the only ship that will take him, the only one that cares nothing for his past nor the reach of his family, a ship and crew he knows nothing about with heading nor mission unknown. But Jack seeks only escape—it doesn’t matter where it is.

That is, until it does.

For when Jack discovers the goal of the expedition is an elusive asteroid, and that the team of misfits he’s joined are all as desperate as he is, he might just come to regret his choices to leave his big, comfy mansion and eternal life within. For there is more than just a big rock at the end of their voyage, but the prospect of death, a million euros, and a second chance.

Gallowglass features some very in-depth science throughout. Not gonna lie—I LOVED this. There’re discussions about plotting and vectors and orbits and math and data and science and… well, at times the repetitive parts of data and plotting do get a little old. But even during those times I loved that the book was so heavily chock full of science. There are a few points where the technology itself is suspect, however. Like, we’re mining and commandeering asteroids. We’ve developed artificial gravity (at least kinda). Diamond tethers and filaments are a thing. And yet the spacesuits are still as fragile as a teddybear in a razorblade factory. Even the tiniest bit of debris can be a death sentence. We’ve developed lines that’ll never break, but not armored any suits? Seems ridiculous to me.

So, for the longest time I thought this story was about Jack. But then, no, it must be a tale of redemption. Oh no wait, it’s about the asteroid. No, maybe it was about Jack. Jack remains the POV throughout, but…

And then by the end… what is this about? (The ending is really lame, FYI.) The official blurb—which I didn’t quote—would have you believe this is a book about climate change. But… it’s really not. There are quotes about climate change at the start of every chapter. These are pretty much worthless (adding nothing nor relating to the story in any way) and I started ignoring a little ways in. They ARE about climate change, at least. Which, for the longest time, nothing else is. Eventually it’s alluded to, but the story never really BECOMES about climate change. It’s only really dwelt on at the end, and by that point I wasn’t sure why I should care about it. I mean, climate change is bad. Okay? It is. Just when it suddenly becomes the all-encompassing reason right at the end—I didn’t buy it.

Then what is Gallowglass about? Well, “gallowglass” would argue that it’s a book about people. About a certain kind of people (a “gallowglass” is mercenary or some special type of soldier) (yes, I had to look it up). And that’s… difficult, as no single person gets any kind of gratifying resolution at the end. So, maybe it’s a book about the gallowglass lifestyle? I mean… maybe, but. During no time when I was actually reading it did I have any real idea of what the focus of the book was.

While I enjoyed the characters of Gallowglass itself—particularly Jack and his arc and the way his character develops—it was the story that really kept me reading. Even when I had NO IDEA what the heck the story was about. Even with my issues with the tech, the pace, the way the story randomly skips ahead at times. Even up through the 99% mark, where the ending was bombing. Even with all this, I do not regret the time I spent reading this. I legitimately and thoroughly enjoyed this book. For Gallowglass, it’s not about the destination—it’s the journey to it that matters. And while that journey may be a immersive, complex and ofttimes directionless masterpiece, it’s still a great read.

TL;DR

I was definitely torn on Gallowglass. It’s an immersive wonder. It features absolutely no resolution for anyone. Jack shows wonderful character development, age, and progression. None of the other characters shine, and few are even memorable. The story is a really good one, considering… I mean, what this book is even about is a matter of constant bother. Even now, I’m not sure. There were times I wanted to stop reading Gallowglass, but never could bring myself to. The destination was a no-show, but I’m still thankful for the journey. It’s not going to get my highest rating, but it still gets a full recommendation.

The Rush’s Edge – by Ginger Smith (Review)

Cover by Kieryn Taylor

Untitled #1 / Standalone

Scifi, Romance

Angry Robot; November 10, 2020

297 pages (Paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.2 / 5 ✪

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

Halvor Cullen was not born but made—grown in a tank until the age of twelve, then trained to fight and kill and die for those that made him, the ACAS. After his seven years of mandatory military service, Hal washed out, as all VATs do. For there he was expected to continue fighting and kill up until he bit it, while trying to fill the void within, mostly with drugs. Instead Hal joined up with his old CO, taking off to salvage the edge of the galaxy for advanced tech.

During one of his layovers in central space, Hal meets Vivian Valjean, a tecker trying to escape her old life and her old mistakes—most recently a man named Noah. Through a series of circumstances, Vivi ends up accompanying the crew on a mission—and the rest is history. But between the discovery of an alien sphere, trouble with the ACAS, and a deadly assassin, possibly the most interesting development is between Hal and Vivi. For what happens when a natural born human and a VAT super-soldier fall in love? I guess we’ll find out—that is, if either of them live long enough.

The Rush’s Edge is the debut novel from author Ginger Smith, part science fiction, part romance with action, adventure, space opera, and cyberpunk elements all thrown in. If this sounds like a lot—that’s because it is. If it sounds too good to be true—again, yeah. The Rush’s Edge tries too hard to be too much, and ultimately topples beneath its own grand desire.

My main problem with the Rush’s Edge, was how it was sold to me. I was sold an epic space adventure with “a little bit of romance, a smudge of aliens, and a whole lot of butt-kicking”. And to be fair—we got all of that. What I expected though, was a complete story. And didn’t necessarily get this.

The Rush’s Edge IS a complete story in the way that The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a complete story. Just where the latter tells you up front that this is a tale of how people become a family with some space-exploration-y elements, the former kinda makes you find that out on your own. Now, if I’d been sold “it’s basically like the Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet”, that’d’ve been great! While Becky Chamber’s first book wasn’t a masterpiece, it was quite a good read. But between wondering if it was setting me up for a sequel or cliffhanger and then reaching the end with none of these questions actually answered… the Rush’s Edge didn’t captivate me in quite the same manner.

The conclusion also drew on quite a few overused clichés, which I really would’ve ditched. And I DO understand that when you’re writing something and decide to throw in a few classic plot twists you never want to think they’re cliché. But sometimes they are. Instead I would’ve liked to see the author try something different—maybe it’d work, maybe it wouldn’t—because, as they say, “nothing ventured, nothing gained” or “you’ll never succeed if you don’t try”.

The POV can change from paragraph to paragraph, so sometimes it’s difficult to tell who is talking/thinking, unless it’s explicitly mentioned. While this does allow the author to include several characters’ perspectives on any situation at almost any time (so long as they’re present), I’ve always found it incredibly frustrating to switch back and forward without knowing exactly when.

It’s really kinda science light fiction. There’re spaceships, yes, but there’s no explanation on how they travel between the stars. Do they use a hyperdrive? Faster than light travel? Wormholes? Instant transmission? We don’t know—it’s not explained, or mentioned. They just leave and… then they’re somewhere else. It must be some kinda faster than light travel, but we’re not told, which is a disappointment. While I realize not every science fiction tale is heavy on science, I would’ve liked to see more—but I’m like that.

Even if the action falls a bit flat, it’s the story that steals the show—specifically the romance between Hal and Vivi. One a natural born human, the other a vat grown super-solider; while it sounds kinda silly, it’s difficult to put into words just how much it’ll pull at your heartstrings. My main problem with the romance is that I don’t really read a book specifically FOR the romance, so when it’s the most entertaining element, there’s probably some things wrong. That being said (again), if this had been pitched as a becoming-a-family, Wayfarers-type story: I’m pretty sure I’d’ve been sold. Just leave off the (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) action-elements, the fights, the mysterious conflicts and battles that I can’t get into without spoilers. The alien presence can stay as it (minor spoilers) isn’t really the focus of the story. The romance isn’t really all that romance-y, even. It’s a bit as if the author didn’t want to sell out on romance, but then sold out on action instead. So now there’s not even enough of a romantic element to carry the story entirely on its own.

While overall I enjoyed the Rush’s Edge, there were definitely some issues with it. But it WAS a debut after all, so some of these an be forgiven. If I was to offer the author some advice: leave off on some of the overused tropes—they don’t add anything. Tell your own story—if it’s a thriller, then go action; if it’s a romance, then go romance. The Rush’s Edge is like a romance that tries to go all in on action—and just fails.

TL;DR

The Rush’s Edge is a debut that blends science fiction with romance, attempting to weave the tale of an unlikely romance between a natural born victimized woman and a vat grown super-soldier. It reads kind of like a Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet—where it’s more about the voyage than the destination, how the ending doesn’t matter as much as how we got there, and the ideals of family, love, and hope steal the show. As a heartwarming romance, it kinda works. As an action-adventure, it doesn’t. The action is overused and the adventure is incomplete. The science fiction is mostly fiction, with just the occasional science cameo. For a debut—it’s okay. Tries too hard to be too many things, play too many hands. Uses far too many cliché tropes. But these are to be expected. I just wish they weren’t.

Scifi Month ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

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?

Red Noise – by John P. Murphy (Review)

Standalone / Noob #1

Scifi

Angry Robot; June 9, 2020 (ebook) July 14, 2020 (PB)

448 pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

Bebop meets Borderlands in Red Noise, where the stylized samurai western former combines with the casual and often dark humored killing of the latter to create something in between. The story definitely has a dark twist, which becomes more evident the further you read. But read further still, and you’ll find that it also has heart.

Station 35 looms out of the darkness. The Miner came to sell her ore, fill up on food, water and air, and get back to her claim. Though initially warned off docking by another trader, she has little choice but to do so when her ship runs out of fuel. And once on the station, it’s going to be hard getting off.

Throughout the text, the Miner often goes simply by her moniker. Otherwise, she is referred to as Jane or Mick, for reasons that’ll become clear when you read it. We do eventually learn her name, her real name, but that really doesn’t mean anything. Yet. Maybe not ever.

Fresh off the boat, the Miner is thrown in the deep end, as both gangs come out to woo her to their cause. She stiffs them both, preferring just to sell her ore and leave. But the station isn’t done with her just yet, and the stationmaster makes this abundantly clear. After shortchanging her on ore and tripling the price of fuel, she’s pretty much stranded.

But the Miner’s not the type to be tied down. So she hangs out with Kenshi Takata—the resident station good-guy and restaurateur (you know the one)—and the former station master turned drunk, Herrera. Where she watches, and waits.

On one side, John Feeney hunkers in the hotel. Once the gangland kingpin of Station 35, Fennel survived a coup in the aftermath of his grandson implanting a nuke in his chest. Mary, Feeney’s granddaughter remains his only family, but rarely agrees with her grandfather’s methods. His crew is the bigger of the two, but more of a rabble. On the opposite side, Angelica del Rios lounges in the casino. Once a hangout for Mr Shine—we’ll get to him—she and her brother Raj took it over after their fallout with Feeney. Though smaller than Feeney’s crew, they’re better armed, better trained. In the middle, there’s the police chief, Tom McMasters. Corrupt to the core, he has fingers in both pockets. His security personnel keep the peace—enough. An all-out gang war is bad for business, but so is a hard peace. So they keep it somewhere in the middle, while McMasters turns a profit. Down below is Mr Shine. Once and always respected, he’s been driven into the station’s underbelly with a ragtag band of dishwashers, butchers, craftsmen, and various commonfolk, of unknown strength and number.

Eventually, each gang comes to woo her in turn. And when it becomes clear her sword isn’t just for show, the competition for her services intensifies. But while working for one side may pay well enough for her to escape, it’s not ultimately satisfying. So the Miner decides to play them against one another. Now all she has to do is survive to see her plan to fruition.

———————

While it’s not a polished gem, I’d say Red Noise is a diamond in the rough. Okay, maybe not a diamond. More of an uncut… Coltan. Dull, black, but with a bit of a metallic sheen. Which I think adequately describes the book. Dark, but harboring a golden finish.

^ Coltan ^

When I was gearing up for Red Noise, I heard quite a bit about it. There was a lot of contention, mostly about the Miner herself—her femininity, her emotional depth, more. As expected, now that I’ve read it, I’ve some thoughts on the matter.

I’ve seen a fair number of reviews stating that the Miner acts like a man, or isn’t that she wasn’t “feminine” or “unique” enough to be a woman. To be perfectly honest, not only do I not agree with this, I’m not even sure what it means (seriously, “unique”?). There’s no set amount of femininity required for a woman to be a woman. Some women are more “feminine” than others. One reviewer stated that she “couldn’t tell you how many times the female ‘rubbed her chin’”. Now I was watching out for this, and I counted. Three. It happened three times. But that’s not even the important part. The thing is, who says it’s a male attribute to rub their chin. I’m a guy, and I don’t think I’ve ever rubbed my chin. I’ll scratch it occasionally when I grow out my beard, but not rub it. The Miner does scratch and rub various other parts of her body, but this can be explained away by any number of reasons. Maybe being alone for so long lowered her inhibitions about certain “etiquette”. Maybe it’s the lack of bathing. Or maybe it’s the scars. The Miner has a lot of scars. And let me tell you, scars can get itchy, especially if they’re accompanied by an unpleasant memory.

The next is the Miner’s emotional depth. She does often feel cold, emotionless, distant. But some people are just like this. Later in the story, she will open up a bit and show more sensitivity, more vulnerability, but early on she can come across a bit cold. I’m leaning towards this being the author’s intention, rather than bad writing, but I can definitely understand how this could drive some readers away. Not everyone likes a ronin with a heart of stone. Sometimes you like the lead to emote, to think, to FEEL—and that’s okay. Red Noise has this, but you have to read into it a ways, and even then it’s more subtle than many other texts. Screwball—your secondary lead—for his part, is more emotional and sensitive, though he more often comes across as whiny, at least early on.

I’m not sure exactly what to say about the novel’s characters. There’s a main cast, and then everyone else. Some of them have names in the way that disposable characters do—but little in the way of backstories. The main cast is much better. They have more depth, more history, more development—just don’t expect them to exhibit it all up front. Like everything else in Red Noise, you have to dig in for it. Now it’s good that this book had a legitimate, dedicated cast, but their depth gave them away. It’s like this: there’re a bunch of people walking around, some we come to recognize, others just a name and a face—who do you think is going to die? Because it’s a bloody book—someone’s going to die. Just don’t expect any of the lifers to go early on. This isn’t GoT. Also there’s not a ton of character development, even from the lifers. Instead… I’d call it more character “progression”. It’s not a constant. They can change over time, but I wouldn’t say many of them evolve. Their motives, their demeanors might change, but there’s little enough in the way of behavior or thought. There is some, just not much.

I thoroughly enjoyed the setting. Station 35 reminds me of Blue Heaven from Outlaw Star (another anime, manga—google it), with warrens and gangs and a “strict” no-gun policy. An old, ruined military outpost where its citizens eke out their lives, however fruitless they may’ve become. Hope mired within hopelessness. It definitely has a brooding feel, like the streets of a plague-infested ruin in the dead of night. The only stretch of civilization between Stations 34 and 36, it constantly reminds you that there’s no escape—and no help coming.

The plot itself isn’t terribly inventive. It’s built on revenge, betrayal, distrust, greed, even hope. But it’s fairly simple, and a bit clichéd. The were no mysteries to solve, no conspiracies to unravel—despite how much the story tries to tell you that there are. I found it to be a straightforward tale. Yes, there are some twists and turns, a few unexpected occurrences, but nothing groundbreaking. Red Noise sets out to tell a bloody tale of greed and deceit and chaos, and does just that. It’s enjoyable, just not overly complex.

TL;DR

Red Noise is Bebop meets Borderlands—a science fiction samurai western with a bloody, but carefree finish. It’s like a chunk of uncut Coltan—mostly dull and dark, but with a slightly golden finish. It reminded me most of a 90’s anime, which made my read-through of it as enjoyable as it was nostalgic. There’s a lot of contention surrounding this book—specifically with the Miner and her mannerisms—which I’d advice are best ignored. Everyone is going to make something of it, and no one’s going to agree completely with anyone else’s interpretation. But the same can be said of anything—Red Noise just seems to bring it out more. Still, the book isn’t for everyone. It’s dark, it’s bloody, it’s chaotic. “Organized chaos”, I would call it. The Miner’s really an anti-hero, and there’s not a lot of love to go around. Those who idealize women may not like it, nor may those that like to know all their characters’ thoughts and emotions. Red Noise tells a blunt tale, but also a subtle one. On the surface there’s nothing but blood and death and deceit, yet read on and dig down and you will find a layer of gold beneath it.

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

Novella, Standalone

Scifi, Space, Adventure

Harper Voyager; September 3, 2019

134 pages (PB)

4.9 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

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

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

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

What would you do?

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

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!

Book Review: Planetfall – by Emma Newman

Planetfall #1

Scifi

Ace Books; November 3, 2015

320 pages (PB)

2.5 / 5 ✪

Emma Newman has been on my TBR for a while, with the Planetfall series marked as one of her more popular offerings. For some reason.

Planetfall is the combination of two tales in one. The first is the story of Renata Ghali, and the secret that has haunted her for so many years. The secret, and what it has done to her. But it begins with a woman named Lee Suh-Mi. Renata’s friend, roommate, idol, obsession. It begins in years long past, when they were still on Earth.

The second story in a moment. But first, a scene is to be set. A lone human colony sits on an alien world, a spaceship in orbit above. Beside it sits an alien city—a vast, towering thing, dwarfing it—called God’s City. A number of colonists go about their morning routine, while two others separate from them. These two strike out from the city, to intercept a third. One coming from the plains without. A figure that looks familiar somehow, but definitely should not be there.

The second story is his. But it is told via Renata Ghali as well, the woman the first belongs to.

These two tales intertwine, providing an interlocking narrative that spans the text, often flipping back and forth multiple times in a single chapter. Ren seems to just faze out a lot. She will often randomly switch from one to the next without pause; mind stuck in the past while her body lives on in the present. This is meant to show her trauma, I assume, though it’s fairly confusing, especially at first.

But when I got used to it, nothing really distracted from the story itself. I mean, both. Themselves. And they’re both pretty interesting, though the first quickly becomes less about Suh and more about Ren. And when it does, it was less immersive scifi and more, well, vaguely-science-fictiony trauma. The story of the newcomer continues to deliver, though. Right up until the end, but we’ll get to that.

The newcomer introduces himself to both Ren and Mack—the de facto leaders of the colony. Though he looks the spitting image of Suh, he is far to young to be of their original crew. He claims to be the grandson of Suh-Mi, and has been living on the far side of the planet, the now lone survivor of a terrible accident suffered many years prior. Mack and Ren let him in, allow this Suh to begin integrating into the colony. And yet Mack is nervous—about who he is, about what he knows. And Ren… Ren is still haunted. By the other story, now bleeding over into this one.

Got it? Yeah? Cool.

I’m a fan of colonial books. Fiction, I mean. Scifi and fantasy ones especially. Something like Planetfall would always be on my radar and high up my TBR. I really would’ve liked more on the planet itself, more on the journey, more on the sheer… differentness of it all, but Planetfall did an adequate job of introducing a new world and populating it with adventure.

At first.

So… the ending sucks. It’s like the end of the Mass Effect series. It’s like Game of Thrones ending. It’s like… It doesn’t combine the two tales into one so much as abandon one and give the other one a totally unfulfilling conclusion. In my opinion, the last 10-15% one the text isn’t even worth reading—it’s that bad.

I wouldn’t say this ruins everything. As pissed as I was about the ending, the journey there was still enjoyable. More so, I’ve heard the rest of the series is better than the beginning. Even, since each novel seem to be connected vaguely at best (sharing only the same universe, really), I’d say read Planetfall as an intro, to tide you over, as an apart… but don’t expect it to set the tone for the series as a whole. Personally, I haven’t gotten to any of the others in sequence yet. My library only had the one. But I’m definitely planning to return to Emma Newman’s Planetfall universe… just not this book itself.