Category Archives: strong heroines in science fiction

Review of Grimspace – Book 1 of the Sirantha Jax series by Ann Aguirre

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The review below was first posted back in the days when my offerings were unsullied by visitors trailing in and out of the place, reading my work… Seeing as it’s nearly pristine – and about a writer whose work I’ll be tracking down again in 2015, I thought I’d re-release it…

This enjoyable space opera romp features a feisty, no-holds-barred heroine with a troubled past and an unusual ability that puts her in a variety of life-threatening and difficult situations.

grimspaceAs the carrier of a rare gene, Sirantha Jax has the ability to jump ships through grimspace — a talent that cuts into her life expectancy but makes her a highly prized navigator for the Corp. But then the ship she’s navigating crash-lands, and she’s accused of killing everyone on board. It’s hard for Jax to defend herself: she has no memory of the crash…

Jax’s first love was killed in the crash and she spends a chunk of the book grieving for him. In fact, the subject of death figures a great deal in this book and its sequel. Navigating a ship through grimspace significantly shortens a jumper’s life expectancy. Indeed, Jax has already outlived all her contemporaries — other than those who chose to retire and become teachers. But she has already decided that isn’t a lifestyle choice available to her, addicted as she is to the lure of grimspace. However, those around her have little patience or understanding with her frequent thoughts about her impending death.

Aguirre’s depiction of a space jumper apart from the general run of humanity, with her own closed ethos and set of rules suddenly bumping up against a group of people with differing attitudes, works well. Jax’s ability to alienate everyone around her is impressive, but as the book and its sequel, Wanderlust, progresses, she is forced to reassess her priorities and attitudes. I think this is one of the undoubted strengths of this sub-genre – offer up a heroine in the middle of a major crisis, present her with yet more life-changing problems – and then watch her change.
Any niggles? The characterisation of Jax is mostly spot-on, but I have trouble believing that a girl, who in her former life was a devoted fashion follower, wouldn’t get her disfiguring burn scars dealt with at the earliest opportunity, rather than keep them as some kind of memorial to her dead lover. It’s not serious, but it does slightly jar. However, one of the strengths of Aguirre’s writing is the first person POV in present tense, which gives Jax’s voice a fresh immediacy that certainly drew this reader right into the action.

It is the personal relationships and Jax’s own reaction to what is going around her that is the undoubted centre of this book. While the world adequately hangs together and certainly seems solid enough to keep Jax, her companions and enemies fully occupied, Aguirre’s far future is almost cosy in its familiarity. She certainly isn’t in the business of creating original worlds or arrestingly unusual technological gismos to give us pause for thought. The notion of ships jumping through some other dimension veiled in secrecy has been regularly used as a device to overcome the problem of deep-space travel. We are also on more than nodding terms with a large, power-hungry institution who ruthlessly exploits personnel for its own ends, like the Farwan Corporation, which doesn’t even have a particularly inventive name…

As a science fiction fan, am I bothered? Not for a nanosec. There are plenty of writers creating worlds eye-bulging in their complexity and originality, whose characters possess the depth of a pavement puddle. Hard-core fans generally speak of these authors with hushed respect. While critics fall over themselves to find yet more metaphorical links between these worlds and our current society, yet managing to gloss the fact that their protagonists’ dialogue often manages to make a Thunderbirds script seem realistically raw. Which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy their work – I do. But I think the genre should be big enough to encompass Aguirre’s entertaining character-led science fiction with equal respect.
9/10

Review of The Hive Construct by Alexander Maskill

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This book caught my eye as it won The 2013 Terry Pratchett Prize, complete with a complimentary comment on the back cover by the great man, himself. So I was expecting something remarkable by this young writer.

hiveconstructSituated deep in the Sahara Desert, New Cairo is a city built on technology – from the huge, life-giving solar panels that keep it functioning in a radically changed, resource-scarce world, to the artificial implants that seem to have resolved all of mankind’s medical problems. But New Cairo is also a divided city – a vast metropolis dominated by a handful of omnipotent corporate dynasties. And when a powerful new computer virus begins to spread through the poorer districts, shutting down the implants that enable so many to survive, the city begins to turn on itself – to slide into the anarchy of violent class struggle. Hiding out in the chaos is Zola Ulora, a gifted hacker and fugitive from justice. Her fervent hope is that she can earn her life back by tracing the virus and destroying it before it destroys the city. Or before the city destroys itself…

It takes a great deal of technical skill to be able to immediately pull a reader into a technically complex world with a suitably layered, sympathetic character that allows your reader to fully bond with her. While the world was interesting, the pace was initially silted up by too many chunks of information on how it all worked. However, I persevered because the world was well constructed and entirely plausible, while

Maskill endeavoured to give a fully nuanced take on the situation unfolding.

As it all started kicking off, the pace picked up and provided plenty of unexpected twists I really didn’t see coming, although the themes are very familiar to science fiction fans. Maskill can certainly provide a plot with plenty going on. While I initially was concerned that the outcome was all too predictable, he was at pains to provide a rounded view of the struggle threatening to rip New Cairo apart. Although I would have liked to have spent a bit more time in Zola’s viewpoint. There was a reasonably large cast in a relatively short story and Maskill hasn’t yet acquired the knack of immediately writing a solid bonding moment with the reader and viewpoint character. The consequence was that I wasn’t as heavily invested in the story as I would have liked.

I’m conscious that I have sounded very critical – but this is by no means a bad book. The world certainly works and because of Maskill’s approach, there is an attempt to look at the crisis from both sides – this near future scenario is probably the hardest form of science fiction to write well and there is plenty in it for fans of the genre to enjoy. What this first book has demonstrated is Maskill’s undoubted talent. I look forward to following his writing career – he is certainly One To Watch.
7/10

The Blog-hop Challenge

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Thank you Sarah Letourneau for nominating me to contribute to this World Blog-hop. The challenge is to answer the five questions below and nominate two more people to take on the Blog-hop. Here goes…Bunny Hop

1. Include a quote.
I think it comes from the great Terry Pratchett – Writing is the most fun you can have with your clothes on… Yep. I’d agree with that.

2. Why do you create what you do?
Because it’s an addiction that really has me by the throat. I’m aware that I and my family pay a price. The hours I spend sitting at the computer pouring these words out (so far this year 277,800 and counting…) means I’m not doing other things. Some of those things aren’t crucial – let’s face it, who really cares whether the house gets dusted once a week? Or even a month? But I don’t keep up with friends as much as I should, and there are also times when I’m not the best daughter/mother/granny/sister/wife I could be – because those damn words keep swirling around in my head and if I don’t let them out, I stop being my usual sweet-natured, saintly self and instead turn into the snarling bitch from Hell…

3. How does your creative process work?
I used to just plunge in and start writing – whether it was a novel or a story, but I’m far more circumspect about doing that with a novel, these days. My favourite part of the whole business is writing the first draft, but if I’m too gung-ho then the re-writing is a massive effort of tidying up dead-ends, extra characters that didn’t go anywhere and pruning redundant plotlines. So these days, I will make some attempt to write a plot outline – and I make a strenuous attempt to have an ending planned. However inevitably in the middle of a chapter, about a third of the way in, the book will suddenly swerve off the main road speed off down a left turn. I’ve learnt to go with the flow – seven times out of ten it will work out.

The other three times it doesn’t and I have to stop, work back to where the turning went wrong and start again. As I’ve become more experienced and learnt my own writing rhythms, I can spot when it’s going wrong far more quickly and backtrack and sort it out fairly fast. I’m a bit of a conflict junkie, so there are times when I’ll get caught up in burying my long-suffering protagonist under a mound of knee-buckling problems to the extent that it simply doesn’t work. But while there are times I’ll break off from a book for a while, I’ve only a couple of times completely abandoned a novel without finishing it. The first one was when in chapter 3, my lantern-jawed hero was suddenly castrated in a tragic accident – which was when I realised my destiny didn’t lie in writing straight romantic fiction…

4. How does your work differ from others in your genre?
My writing voice is very strong – for good or for ill. I’m one of those Marmite writers readers either love or loathe. I write mostly science fiction and some fantasy. I’m particularly fascinated by the dynamics of family life and in what form it will survive when we are living on different planets, or family ships carrying cargo, as my current protagonist’s family do, for instance, in my Sunblinded trilogy.

And the collection of short stories I’m shortly self-publishing, entitled Picky Eaters, explores what happens when Granddad has to move in with his daughter after Sammy Jo and Billy Bob, his grandchildren, manage to upset the neighbours so they run him off his mountain dwelling. And Granddad is a crotchety dragon cursed with the gift of time-travelling…

5. What are you working on right now?
I’m writing Breathing Space, the last book in a trilogy I hope to be self-publishing next year. It charts the adventures of my Iberian merchanter’s daughter Jezell Campo, from when she is a wannabe trainee officer on her father’s ship, to the final book when she is on a mission to track down and kill a psychotic murderer threatening her family. The first two books, Running Out of Space and Dying for Space are completed bar the final edits and I hope to have the first draft of Breathing Space finished before Christmas.

I’m enjoying writing the book, although it has thrown me a few curved balls – it’s one of the addictions about the writing process, it never gets boring… While I have other books I’d like to be traditionally published, Jezell Campo is going to be my PI in a series of science fiction crime series I’ve planned out, which I’m really excited about. This is one project is one I’d like to keep under absolute control.

I’m also working on next term’s course notes Keep Writing on the Right Track. Each term has a particular teaching focus and next term we’ll be looking at those issues that can derail a writer. I do a lot of thinking and reading before I start writing the handouts – which will be at the beginning of next month at the latest. I hate running any project right up to the deadline as the sort of pressure never produces my best work.

My continual work in progress are the reviews and occasional other articles I produce for my blog – another passion. I’m an avid and enthusiastic reader and have become somewhat addicted to writing reviews sharing my excitement about a good book I’ve recently enjoyed. I don’t write negative reviews because these days I simply don’t bother to complete books I don’t like – Life is too short.

My nominations for blog-hopping are:
Mhairi Simpson, for her site Reality Refuge.
I met up with Mhairi back in 2011 at Fantasycon and we just… clicked. We poured out our passion for writing fantasy and science fiction, swapped life histories and discovered we had a lot more in common than the fact we’re both strong-minded blondes… Her blog reflects who she is – brave, articulate and with a tendency to run into situations at a full gallop. She writes fantasy, including several self published excellent short stories and edited the critically acclaimed anthology Tales of Eve – I reviewed it here – which include stories from the likes of Juliet E. McKenna and Adrian Tchaikovsky. She is also one of the most endlessly inventive people I’ve ever met and spending a week-end in her company makes me feel brand new and excited about writing all over again… If I could bottle her, I would.

C Miller. Another impressively talented YA Fantasy writer who regularly blogs. Check out her book Reave. She writes with a passion that sweeps you into her world. Her blog is enjoyable and well written, while she is enthusiastic and supportive of other writers – all in all a thoroughly deserving nominee, who I guarantee will answer the questions interestingly…

Review of Farthing – Book 1 of the Small Change series by Jo Walton

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One of the highlights of this last year has been discovering Jo Walton – I actually met and talked to her at Eastercon in 2012 without knowing her work, which I’m really sorry about because I think she is one of the brightest talents in the genre. I’ve reviewed Tooth and Claw and Among Others – which was my outstanding read of last year – here. So when Himself came across this alternate history offering, we were both delighted.

In a world where England has agreed a peace with Nazi Germany, one small change can carry a huge cost… Eight years after they farthingoverthrew Churchill and led Britain into a separate peace with Hitler, the upper-crust families of the ‘Farthing set’ gather for a weekend retreat. But idyll becomes nightmare when Sir James Thirkie is found murdered, a yellow Star of David pinned to his chest. Suspicion falls, inevitably on David Kahn, who is a Jew and recently married to Lucy, the daughter of Lord and Lady Eversley of Castle Farthing, but when Inspector Peter Carmichael of Scotland Yard starts investigating the case, he soon realises that all is not what it seems…

As ever, Walton braids the apparently cosy into something different and when you’re lulled into a false sense of security, she pulls the rug from under you. The familiar backdrop here is the classic country house murder. Guests are staying over – mostly the ‘Farthing set’, with the inevitable alliances and enmities, both political and personal. Inspector Carmichael and his loyal sidekick, Royston, set about the task of unpicking the various secrets of all the likely suspects. The investigation in alternate chapters is described in third person viewpoint, harking back to those Agatha Christie whodunits we all know and love.

But by far the strongest voice in the book, is that of Lucy Kahn. She bounces off the page with her first person narrative, told in a slightly breathless, chatty style that is so vivid, I actually dreamt of her… Her love for her husband shines through – as does her disgust for her peers, whom she regards at best as useless, after being educated by a thoughtful, egalitarian governess. And her wary hatred for her powerful, unscrupulous mother.

Walton is masterful at capturing a particular feel for an era – all the more impressive when this specific version never existed. In Walton’s Britain, because WW II didn’t run its full course and Germany is still fighting Russia, Labour never came to power. Which means the Old Order still prevails with landed gentry not beset by death duties and the measures put in place by the revolutionary governments just after the war, such as the Education Act of 1944 and the Welfare Act of 1948 never happens. So the gulf between the rich and poor doesn’t narrow, as it actually did in 1950’s Britain – which is why the narrative reads so much like early, classic whodunits. This Britain is far more similar to the world of Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie than the historical reality.

While on the surface this seems fine – there are constant jarring details. The language describing Jews is unpleasant – as is the fact that no public school in the land will take any Jewish boy, no matter how well connected or successful. Everyone has to carry an I.D. card and a whole raft of professions and employment are simply closed off to sections of the population if they are not born into the right class. And everyone appears to know and accept this…

Walton’s smooth writing style is deceptive. She manages to cover a lot of ground in a book just over 300 pages long – and while the crime is solved, the political fallout is just about to create a cascade of political consequences… I am waiting for the next book in the series, and if you have ever enjoyed any form of alternate history, then start tracking down this gem.
10/10

Review of Heaven’s Queen – Book 3 of the Paradox series by Rachel Bach

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I was hooked the moment I picked up the first book, Fortune’s Pawn – read my review here. I immediately burned through the second book Honour’s Knight, but would I enjoy the third offering as much? I generally don’t read a series straight through as it is much easier to spot an author’s quirks that way. However this third volume was due back at the library, so I had no choice…

Government conspiracies. Two alien races out for her blood. An incurable virus that’s eating her alive. Now, with the captain missing and everyone – even Devi’s own government – determined to hunt her down, things are going from bad to impossible. The sensible plan would be to hide and wait for things to blow over, but Devi’s never been one to shy away from a fight, and she’s getting mighty sick of running. It’s time to put this crisis on her terms and do what she knows is right. But with all human life hanging on her actions, the price of taking a stand might be more than she can pay.

heaven's queenIf you like your action fast-paced, with plenty of twists along the way, then this series ticks the boxes. There is no shortage of fights, with a satisfying variety of different backdrops providing a whole range of challenges. And while it seems that Devi will prevail because she always had – there was always a sense that this time around, she may not manage it.

Bach really knows how to keep cranking up the stakes – and the overall narrative pace throughout the series is perfectly judged. This trilogy really hangs together well, with each book taking a slice of the storyline and overall action. I think if I had read them spaced out, I would have lost more than I gained by reading them together.

Devi is a wonderful protagonist – vulnerable enough to make us care, especially as she is battling for her very survival – but also amazingly gung-ho about Life in general and hers in particular. The first person viewpoint really helped me bond with her and Bach managed to make me entirely sympathetic to her and her ideals, while profoundly thankful I’ve never run into her on the High Street after she’d had a few at the local pub… Devi is different – a product of her Time and upbringing. Bach is too good a writer to tell us this – but she manages to show that difference in action repeatedly.

The love story between her and Rupert is complicated – just because she cares for him, doesn’t stop her blasting him in the chest at pointblank range when he gets in her way. I liked her worries that her feelings for him make her weaker and less effective as a soldier. It is also interesting that she finds for the first time in her life, the rage she uses to hone her battle instincts also accelerates the symptoms of the disease ravaging her. So she has to exercise self control – not one of Devi’s strengths…

In addition to producing an outstanding protagonist that will live long in my memory – I was also interested to note the theme running through the book. Bach raises the question whether the interests of the greater good should ever allow us to trample on the rights of a few individuals. She comes down fairly emphatically on the side of the individual versus the greater good – a classic American theme that runs through many films and books produced on the other side of the pond. The ending is entirely satisfactory and I was relieved and heartened to see a couple of plotlines that could be expanded on for yet more Devi fun in the future. I profoundly hope so – she is a great character and I’m already missing her.
10/10

Review of The Waters Rising by Sheri S. Tepper

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Sherri S. Tepper is one of my all-time favourite authors – A Plague of Angels and Beauty are books I recall with great fondness and a couple of years ago, I reviewed The Margarets here.

The waters are rising. Rivers have become fjords, swamps have become lakes, towns along the shore have been moved up, and up, the waters risingand up again. Within the century, there will be only a few mountaintop islands above a world-wide ocean, and all land life, including mankind, will have ceased to be.

If this were not enough, a monster from the days of The Big Kill has awakened, a slaughterer out of time determined to eradicate all thinking beings. Arrayed against the monster are a dying woman, a fearful child and her two guardians, and a travelling peddler and his horse.

The blurb burbles on a bit longer, but the section I’ve included gives a reasonable idea of the main plotline. Once again, Tepper takes the idea of post-apocalyptic, dystopian world where a degraded remnant have survived a major crash in human civilisation – only to now face probable extinction. All that can save them now is the generosity of the Sea King, a formidable sea creature, and the genetic wizardry from a lost past. Tepper fuses fantasy and science fiction together more elegantly and convincingly than anyone else.

I loved the start of this story with the frightened little girl finding herself prompted to act in ways that don’t make sense – this beguiling protagonist sucked me into the story as the gathering threat surrounding this child is scarily powerful. Just as I settled down to read a particular story, it then jumps sideways into something else. And then, once more, shifts gear into something far more mythical, with the language and pace also altering accordingly.

In a genre where many authors are content to produce a series of books in a particular world, reprising the same characters and narrative voice, Tepper’s continual insistence on pushing herself right to the outer edges of her comfort zone is both admirable and risky. In this book she attempts to use a small number of relatively humble main characters to relate a world-changing epic tale – and I think she mainly succeeds. However, there is a section about seven eighths through the book where the pace suddenly drops away and the narrative drifts. It doesn’t last too long, before the story once more gathers momentum and we re-engage with the narrative with renewed urgency, but I do feel that at least some of that section could have done with being slaughtered in the interests of keeping up the narrative tension.

However, as ever, Tepper provides us with a layered, fascinating world provoking all sorts of hard questions about the direction of our current civilisation. And the book should be required reading for all politicians for that reason alone. At her best, Tepper is in a class of her own, and while I don’t think this book falls into that category, it will stay with me long after most of the books I’ve read this year slide into forgetfulness.
8/10

Review of Fortune’s Pawn – Book 1 of the Paradox series by Rachel Bach

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This is fun! I’m always a sucker for well-written, entertaining space opera and it doesn’t get more enjoyable than this…

Devi Morris isn’t your average mercenary. She has plans. Big ones. And a ton of ambition. It’s a combination that’s going to get her killed one day. But not just yet. That is, until she gets a job on a tiny trade ship with a nasty reputation for surprises. The Glorious Fool isn’t misnamed: it likes to get into trouble, so much so that one year of security work under its captain is equal to five years anywhere else. With odds like that, Devi knows she’s found the perfect way to get the jump on the next part of her Plan. But the Fool doesn’t give up its secrets without a fight, and one year on this ship might be more than even Devi can handle.

Written in first person point of view, Devi is a wonderful protagonist. A driven, adrenaline-junkie, she spends her earnings on wicked weaponry and a shielded suit that she loves far too much, to the extent they all have names. She also likes the odd drop and playing poker. I loved her – and her impulsive character that gets her into regular scrapes. One of which is the ship’s cook, Rupert, who is gorgeous and unattainable – so typical tricky romance. Which is fine by me. If this had been a contemporary romcom, then I may have had a bit of a problem that there isn’t more of an unusual spin on the plot trajectory – but so much else is going on in this action-packed adventure, it isn’t remotely spoiling my enjoyment. Mostly because the writing is solidly good throughout.

œF$¿Æ‘$8Òò¤»däå¸R8BIBach’s world-building is confident and holds together – I love the fact that she comes from a planet with a strong warrior caste that worships their King, and that their history with Earth and everything Terran has been troubled. Devi’s shipmates are as eccentric a bunch as you could wish to meet. The armour-plated nightmare alien race are represented by the ship’s doctor, Hyrek, who acquired his knowledge of anatomy during his stint on a tribe ship, working in the butchery section; while Basil, the navigator, is from an avian species whose skill in always knowing where he is derives from his flocking instinct. There is the mysterious daughter of Captain Caldwell, Ren, who never speaks or engages with anyone, but obsessively plays chess and accompanies the Captain and Rupert on their odd trade missions.

Not that Devi has too much time to ponder such enigmas. Their ship seems to be the target for a lot of powerfully unfriendly attention and she is generally right in the middle of the fray, leading to plenty of full-on action. Anyone who follows this blog will know that I’m fond of science fiction – but I’m especially keen on the variety that focuses on the protagonists, using the future to explore opportunities and landscapes currently unavailable to humanity. Bach’s offering has the punchy, readable style normally reserved for urban fantasy, with the wider, more various opportunities that science fiction offers. And this particular heroine reminds me of Anne Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax and Elizabeth Moon’s Ky Vatta. I’m conscious that on the strength of one book, I’m adding Devi Morris to a very select list – but I’m halfway through the second book and loving it every bit as much as the first. And if you, too, like your science fiction well written, with plenty of character-led action, track down this book – you’re in for a treat.
9/10