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.

Book Review: The Cruel Stars – by John Birmingham

noob series #1

Scifi, Spaceships

Del Rey; August 20, 2019

416 pages (eBook)

3.5 / 5 ✪

NetGalley furnished me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Totally thought I posted this already, but I can’t find evidence of that anywhere, so… Huh. Well, here it is!

The Cruel Stars is a space opera set in a black-and-white world populated by vibrant and interesting characters. It chronicles the return of an old enemy, once defeated—the Sturm, a radical group of human purists set on purging the galaxy of any they don’t see as genetically pure. Where initially the world seems well-thought out and complete, it quickly becomes clear that the story is set entirely within the bounds of a single star-system, while supposedly the invasion is staged on a galactic scale. Plagued by uneven pacing and a fairly uninteresting story, The Cruel Stars is certainly an example of a piece that just would not come together as it was meant to.

Five regular POVs (and one infrequent) tell the tale of the Sturm’s attack: retired Admiral Frazer McLennan, the infamous hero known for defeating the Sturm hundreds of year prior. Princess Alessia, twelve year-old and heir to the Montanblanc Corporation. Booker 3-212162-930-Infantry, once soldier now prisoner and believer in the Code—a kind of digital consciousness that transcends the human body. Lieutenant Lucinda Hardy, initially assigned to the stealth corvette Defiant, a series of malware attacks soon sees her in charge of the ship, the entire mission hanging in the balance. Sephina L’trel, a pirate leader with a score to settle, must use all the tricks at her disposal to see her crew through the invasion. (Archon-Admiral Wenbo Strom of the Sturm is seen but a few times and makes a poor POV, due to a lack of depth and a heavily racist overtone that firmly entrenches him as a bad guy).

I’m pretty sure I was the only one annoyed about this, but: There is no perfect enemy. There are two short Sturm POVs, both using their ideology to just kill people. Not even those implanted, genetically modified, post-humans, but also the regular unadorned they came to “save”. Not that I’m defending the racists, but the author isn’t either. They’re the designated as the bad guys. While their ideology or beliefs or prejudices and such are never explained, or even briefed. By the 89% mark, there have been 3 Sturm POV appearances. All short, which totals to around one full chapter in length. So there’s really no dissenting opinion—one side is good, the other bad. I would’ve liked to see someone on the other side, some perspective into their thought process beyond blind doctrine-spouting. But hey, my opinion.

There’s also very little disconnect with the modern world. The weapons are fairly well thought out, but little else. The detail that Birmingham strives for in the first half soon departs, leaving the action and plot to carry the entire weight. I probably wouldn’t have minded as much had the plot been good. Sadly, what follows is a straightforward story with little to no character growth and frankly a lame ending. During the second half of the book, the author goes out of his way to remind the reader again and again of the characters’ motivations, backstories, and even why the Sturm are bad.

While the Cruel Stars was an excellent read over its first half, the following 200 pages struggled with identity, uneven pacing, and a slight, under-developed world. While the action is enough to carry the book to its outset—a subpar, unfulfilling ending leaves the audience awaiting the sequel just to figure out what exactly happened.

Book Review: Walking to Aldebaran – by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Standalone

Scifi

Solaris; May 28, 2019

Novella; 105 pages

5 / 5 ✪

I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

So many of my favorite quotes in this novella happen towards the end, and I’m unwilling to use them. That would give too much away, I think. But then, there are SO MANY good quotes everywhere! And Walking to Aldebaran was a good therapeutic read. Maybe this will get me to start talking to myself as I wander around life, too, though I won’t call it Toto. Never liked the Wizard of Oz—I know, that’s just horrible. Don’t judge me too much, please.

“If they didn’t want to be eaten, they shouldn’t be so delicious.”

Walking to Aldebaran is a hundred page novella from the master of, well, so many things: Adrian Tchaikovsky. This is only my third Tchaikovsky book—after The Tiger and the Wolf and Children of Time. Walking to Aldebaran reminds me quite a bit of Children, actually. Not so much the plot, as how it’s written. But that would make sense, wouldn’t it?

As for the plot, Tchaikovsky combines the erudite pilot Gary Rendell with some smart-ass in order to win my heart. Or, at least, I assume. Dude is quite possibly my favorite character of the year. Rendell is an astronaut tasked—along with his fellow crewmates—with exploring an alien artefact that hovers just at the edge of our solar system, known by him as ‘the Frog God’, due to it’s froggy visage. But, shortly after entering these Crypts (yeah, they’re the Crypts once he’s inside), a horrible fate befalls him and his crew, stranding Gary all alone in the darkness, forcing him to either curl up and die or traverse the Crypts afoot until he finds his way home. The narrative in Walking to Aldebaran picks up shortly after this (and after Gary begins talking to himself), but features frequent flashbacks that provide the reader with insight about how he got into this mess. And as the Crypts seem to bend time and space so that they can exit/enter into countless alien realms—he’ll be walking for a while. Hence the name.

Seeing as it only took me a handful of hours to finish it (albeit space across a few days), it proved less a journey and more a… jaunt. But still, with an adventurous and exciting novella like this, the length really doesn’t matter. I mean, I would’ve loved for it to have been longer… but it really didn’t need to be. Tchaikovsky knows what he’s doing, and Walking is fitted to match.

I seriously enjoyed this one. Loved it, actually. The narrator, the concept, the setting. The character arc. The quote-unquote “growth”. The cover was really nice, too. A solid 5-stars, I’d say. The real question is whether I’d justify the $10 ebook price, though. Now, normally there’d be no way I’d even consider it. $10 for a 100 page book, a couple hours read? Nah. But Aldebaran is really, really good. So… I’m torn. I guess, like, may…be? I’d definitely justify reading it, no matter how you get there.

Book Review: Forsaken Skies – by D. Nolan Clark

The Silence #1

Science Fiction

Orbit Books; September 6, 2016

570 pages

4 / 5 ✪

Aleister Lanoe is a living legend. A pilot without equal, a warrior without peers, the survivor of countless battles, etcetera. Through body enhancement and advanced neuroscience, the man has lived for centuries. Centuries which he has spent surviving suicide missions, winning winless wars, and generally being a total badass. Forsaken Skies finds him as the escort pilot for some planetary governor. Or, rather—former escort.

A series of chaotic events find him on the Hexus—a stellar Centrocor (a mega-corp that becomes important later on) shipping hub—confronted by its Chief Technician, Tannis Valk. Formerly known as the Blue Devil, the man is possibly the most famous pilot in history (excluding Lanoe himself), and once Lanoe’s greatest enemy. And yet things have changed.

Auster Maggs is interested in neither, up unto the point where both men have their weapons trained upon him. He’s the son of a respected admiral, a pretty face, a smooth operator, not to mention a petty cheat and con-man. When Lanoe and Valk crash his meeting with a pair of petitioners from the planet Niraya, it appears to be just another unfortunate event in a lifetime of them for Maggs, one that will finally lead to his head set on a platter—until something unexpected happens.

The petitioners—Elder McRay and her pupil, Roan—hail from a planet on the edge of known space. A world that is being overrun by something unknown. Something alien.

For all of its exploration and expansion across the galaxy, humanity has never once encountered aliens. And so the common explanations states: “well, if it hasn’t happened by now…”. But these beings, whoever they are have invaded Niraya, so the people have been sent to seek help. And they have found Lanoe.

And for reasons of his own, Lanoe is ready and more than willing to provide it.

He assembles a team of his best and brightest, calling in all the favors he has accrued over his long years, every man and woman he trusts, everyone from the Navy’s legendary 94th. Well, this amounts to two: Lieutenant Bettina Zhang—Lanoe’s former lover—and Caroline Ehta, a marine. The rest, dead or unwilling to come. Thus, Lanoe is forced to recruit a few more heads to fill out his team, a cast which includes Valk, Maggs, and Thom—son of the governor for which Lanoe used to work. Until the son killed his father.

They embark on a trip to the edge of known space, to a battle where they entertain mathematically insignificant odds to win, to meet a foe the likes of which humanity may have never seen before. Each man and woman carries a terrible secret, which naturally come out over the course of the text. But what they discover at Niraya may be more surprising than any of their secrets combined.

While the cast of characters is fairly solid, and their dialogue is okay, character development is sub-par. Not that the characters themselves are super deep and relatable. Lanoe was clearly meant to be the main focus of the book—a living legend who’s seen it all, up against something no one’s ever seen before. And yet he can’t pull it off. He’s… not dull exactly, but. Too big? Too much to be believed. Lanoe always seems a little to much legend, but a little too little human. His depth of character is soup can deep, however. The cast of characters around him is decent enough, yet none can ever interact with him in any unexpected way. Lanoe is too much a legend to ever act human—at least in Forsaken Skies itself—and his dialogue with any of the rest of them always feels… forced? Stilted. Annoying. Dull. This is something he works on in the subsequent Silence entries, though with limited success.

While the interactions between Zhang and Ehta and Maggs and Valk are so much better than any where Lanoe is involved, it’s the arc between Thom and Roan that carried the story for me. Well, them and the dogfights. The interaction between the two of them was more than enough to keep me reading at first, combined with the adventure and thrill of the unknown. Once the space skirmishes start in the second half of the book, I had no problem getting into it.

The action and adventure is the real reason to pick up Forsaken Skies. The premise is a rather lame—the Seven Samurai vibe being well and truly played out nowadays where every over book seems to run out its own ragtag band of misfits—but the execution effective, and it’s the dogfights and skirmishes that really steal the show. The writing of these is more than entertaining enough to make up for any lack of character development, a cliché plot or a few less than steamy romances.

All said, Forsaken Skies was actually a pretty good read. The story and development, while a bit of a slow build, was entirely worth it when we get into the thick of things, somewhere around the halfway point. Before this point, the setting and characters were interesting enough to keep me going. After—there were enough twists and thrills that it never got boring.