Anyone who is a regular visitor knows I’m a huge fan of Stroud’s writing – see my review of The Amulet of Samarkand, the first book in the fabulous Bartimaeus trilogy, and my reviews of The Screaming Staircase, The Whispering Skull, and The Empty Grave. And yes… I know that Stroud’s writing is aimed at children and the YA market – but he’s one of those wonderfully talented writers who is simply too good to leave just to the youngsters. And I, for one, have never found that his writing ever to be anything other than clever, nuanced and demanding.
BLURB: Set in a fragmented future England, The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne introduces us to a world where gunfights and monsters collide, and where the formidable outlaw Scarlett McCain fights daily against the odds. When she discovers a wrecked coach on a lonely road, there is only one survivor – the seemingly hapless youth, Albert Browne. Against her instincts, Scarlett agrees to escort him to safety. This is a mistake. Soon, new and implacable enemies are on her heels. As a relentless pursuit continues across the broken landscape of England, Scarlett must fight to uncover the secrets of Albert’s past – and come to terms with the implications of her own.
REVIEW: It was interesting to read this one so soon after I’ve completed The Rampart trilogy by M.R. Carey, because the setting is very similar. A hostile post-apocalyptic England, where there are all sorts of wild beasts and cannibalistic tribes roaming around looking for an easy snack. Civilised settlements are small oases where food, clothing and supplies can be found, along with law and order and safety. But Scarlett doesn’t make a habit of spending much time in one of the settled towns – other than to rob the bank. She doesn’t like the Faith House network, which is constantly looking for people who have deviated from the physical and mental norms (think of John Wynham’s The Chrysalids). She is not afraid of a fight, being an excellent shot and very good in a scrap – she wouldn’t have survived in the wilds, otherwise.
By contrast, Arthur Brown is a walking disaster. He has no instinct whatsoever for keeping himself safe and is liable to fall over his own feet, or get distracted by some pretty-looking seed pods or butterflies, rather than pay attention to the business of keeping himself alive. When chance brings these two together, Scarlett’s one instinct is to offload such a liability as fast as she possibly can – and the growing relationship between them was beautifully handled. It could have so easily puddled into sentimentality or lurve – and it does neither of those things.
Along the way, all sorts of adventures happen to this unlikely duo which steadily reveals more and more of this fascinating, blighted world. I highly recommend this one to anyone who enjoyed Carey’s Rampart trilogy. It’s sufficiently different to be enjoyable in its own right – and certainly provides an interesting backdrop to two fascinating, complicated characters and I can’t wait to see where Stroud will next take this adventure. While I obtained an arc of The Outlaws Scarlett & Brown from the publishers via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own. 10/10
This is part of the weekly meme over at the Caffeinated Reviewer, where book bloggers can share the books and blogs they have written.
If you are celebrating, Happy Easter!
I’ve been away for a while, because Himself and I went down with Covid just after my last Sunday Post and we were both very poorly. Himself narrowly escaped being admitted to hospital due to his breathlessness and I was coping with aching joints and slept more or less round the clock. Thank goodness we are now on the road to recovery, though I’m still struggling with my energy levels and Himself has been left with a nasty cough.
We are part of a study whereby we take a Covid test every month. On Thursday, the monthly event rolled around again – and this time, they also asked us for a blood sample. They want around 5 ml and the catch is that we have to administer the procedure ourselves. It was a hoot stabbing my finger and squeezing the blood out, then encouraging it to drop into the little phial. By the time we got the hang of it, the first little cut had clotted and both of us had to start again with another finger! By the time we’d finished the whole procedure, we were giggling hysterically. Hopefully by next month, we’ll get the hang of it with only one stabbed finger…
I have no photos this week, as sadly, I haven’t yet made it outdoors since I was ill. Maybe next week…
Last week I read: To Fire Called – Book 8 of the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series by Nathan Lowell
Captain Ishmael Wang finally gets the Chernyakova out of the yard and embarks on a voyage into the Toe-Holds where the Confederated Planets Joint Committee on Trade has no authority. Where the law is whatever you say it is as long as you can enforce it. Where he learns that some will do anything to hide their secrets and everybody has a secret. This is a space opera series that I tore into while we were ill, which is highly readable and provided escapism without too much darkness or gore. As you see, I found it difficult to leave it alone… Mini-review to follow.
The Invitation by A.M. Castle Thirteen guests. One killer. No escape. On an island on the coast of Cornwall, cut off from the mainland by the tides for most of the day, thirteen old friends meet at Tregowan Castle for a weekend of revelry. By the next evening only twelve are still alive.
Amongst them is a killer – but who? As a storm traps them on the island and past betrayals and grievances are revealed, nerves fray and friendships begin to fracture.
But with no escape and no way of calling for help it’s only a matter of time before the killer strikes again. And when everyone is keeping secrets, anybody could be the next victim… I thoroughly enjoyed this locked room murder mystery set on a fictionalised version of St Michal’s Mount. There was plenty of dramatic tension and the denouement was well done – I’ll be reading other books by this accomplished author.
AUDIOBOOK The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman Four septuagenarians with a few tricks up their sleeves A female cop with her first big case A brutal murder Welcome to… The Thursday Murder Club
In a peaceful retirement village, four unlikely friends meet weekly in the Jigsaw Room to discuss unsolved crimes; together they call themselves The Thursday Murder Club. Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron might be pushing eighty but they still have a few tricks up their sleeves.
When a local developer is found dead with a mysterious photograph left next to the body, the Thursday Murder Club suddenly find themselves in the middle of their first live case. As the bodies begin to pile up, can our unorthodox but brilliant gang catch the killer, before it’s too late? While this one took a while to get going, I ended up really enjoying this murder mystery featuring four elderly protagonists. Kudos to Osman for not patronising them in any way, providing plenty of food for thought and some poignant moments, along with the crimes and a mostly thoroughly likeable cast of characters. Review to follow.
The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne – Book 1 of The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne series by Jonathan Stroud Set in a fragmented future England, The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne introduces us to a world where gunfights and monsters collide, and where the formidable outlaw Scarlett McCain fights daily against the odds. When she discovers a wrecked coach on a lonely road, there is only one survivor – the seemingly hapless youth, Albert Browne. Against her instincts, Scarlett agrees to escort him to safety.
This is a mistake. Soon, new and implacable enemies are on her heels. As a relentless pursuit continues across the broken landscape of England, Scarlett must fight to uncover the secrets of Albert’s past – and come to terms with the implications of her own. This YA offering set in post-apocalyptic England is a rip-roaring adventure full of drama, with some shafts of humour and lots of tension. I inhaled this one, loved it and am now very much looking forward to the next one. Review to follow.
By Darkness Forged – Book 9 of the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series by Nathan Lowell Profits. Coffee. Extortion. All in a day’s work.
When Ishmael takes the Chernyakova back into Toe-Hold space, he finds a lot more than profit. A quick pass through the Telluride system reveals the answer to one question but leaves him docked without a cargo until the owner of Dark Knight Station makes him an offer he can’t refuse. I’m not sure – but this book has a real feel of the final book of the series. While Lowell doesn’t generally go in for foot-to-the-floor action, this time around there was plenty of tension and danger, which worked really well. Review to follow.
This meme was started by Books by Proxy, whose fabulous idea was to compare UK and US book covers and decide which is we prefer. This meme is being nurtured by Lynn’s Book Blog and this week we are featuring covers with Roman warfare images. I’ve selected The Eagle of the Ninth – Book 1 of The Dolphin Ring Cycle by Rosemary Sutcliffe.
This edition was produced by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR) in September 1993. It has grown on me, as I like the artwork, which is clear and works well in thumbnail. My main grizzle is that eagle standard, which seems to be propped up against the main character’s shoulder in rather a peculiar way. I find it distracting. And I’m not all that keen on the highly stylised font, which says 1920s and 30s, rather than taking me back to Rome.
Published in September 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), this looks to me to be a cover tie-in to the film. The protagonists look suitably grim and grubby and I like the epic sense of the battle going on in the background, rather than just a few chaps waving shields and pilums around. That is also a wonderfully threatening sky… However, I am disappointed in the choice of font, which blends far too well into the background to effectively stand out or draw the eye.
This edition, published by Oxford University Press in March 2000, has chosen to focus on the famous legion standard – the golden eagle. It looks fabulous, especially as it has been angled to catch the light and look suitably dramatic. So it’s a crying shame that all that impact and awesomeness is then promptly squandered by cluttering up the cover with that block of unnecessary chatter. WHY couldn’t the bit about the one million copies sold go on the back, under the blurb? This is so nearly my favourite…
This Dutch edition, produced by Clavis in 2003, also features the legion’s standard. This design has deliberately chosen to reproduce the sense of the 1950s – this book was first published in 1954 – with the textbox and artwork. While I’m not a fan of textboxes, I respect the care and thought that has gone into this one and it is so very nearly my favourite. I particularly like the red font, which pleasingly picks up the shade of tassels flying from the standard. It’s details like this that make a cover eye-catching.
This German edition, published by dtv in 1971, is my choice for this week. I love the vintage feel of the artwork and the clean, uncluttered look. Other than the author and title font, the only other detail is the publisher’s logo – what a lovely change to see the whole of the cover design unimpeded by blobs or chatter! I read this series when I was at school and while this isn’t the same cover as the copy I had – it’s not that different. Which is your favourite?
I read and reviewed the first book in this African-inspired epic fantasy, Kingdom of Souls – see my review. So when I had the opportunity to read and review this next slice in the adventure, I leapt at the opportunity.
BLURB: After so many years yearning for the gift of magic, Arrah has the one thing she’s always wanted—at a terrible price. Now the last surviving witchdoctor, she’s been left to pick up the shattered pieces of a family that betrayed her, a kingdom in shambles, and long-buried secrets about who she is. Desperate not to repeat her mother’s mistakes, Arrah must return to the tribal lands to search for help from the remnants of her parents’ people. But the Demon King’s shadow looms closer than she thinks. And as Arrah struggles to unravel her connection to him, defeating him begins to seem more and more impossible—if it’s something she can bring herself to do at all.
REVIEW: I found that the first book quickly came to mind as I began reading this one, and Barron adroitly slides in useful reminders of previous events. However, I would strongly advise that you go hunting for Kingdom of Souls before reading this one. Far too much happens in that first book which directly impacts on events in this one for you to be able to get the most out of Reaper of Souls if you haven’t read it.
Arrah continues to be a sympathetic protagonist as she now finds that trying to put together the world after the havoc wreaked by her sister and mother is a daunting task. It’s always a challenge to portray a very powerful character as sufficiently vulnerable that we care and I was impressed that Barron managed to achieve this, without making her too angsty or much of a victim. The form of magic that is particularly prevalent involves inhabiting another person’s body – it’s deeply unpleasant and once again, Barron’s punchy prose reminded me of just what a revolting intrusion this is. No wonder there are swathes of the population who are convinced that all magic is innately evil. I really enjoyed the fact that Arrah found it difficult to use her magic benevolently. Given the number of enemies she is facing, it’s all too easy to rely on the powerful tribal magic that she is imbued with, to lash out and simply end them.
The characterisation is the ongoing strength of this engrossing epic fantasy tale. Although I wasn’t particularly in the mood to be confronted with a largish tale featuring some really dark magic – nonetheless, I didn’t struggle at all. And that’s down to the quality of the worldbuilding, the strong characters and solidly good writing throughout. If you enjoy fantasy with an African setting, then this series comes highly recommended. While I obtained an arc of Reaper of Souls from the publishers via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own. 8/10
This is part of the weekly meme over at the Caffeinated Reviewer, where book bloggers can share the books and blogs they have written.
It was a quiet week. Frank stayed over until Monday evening which was a joy. He is always such very good company. We had a lazy morning in our PJ’s chatting about Life, the World and everything – as you do with a sixteen-year-old and then went for a walk along Littlehampton beach.
Once he went home, the rest of the week has been all about reading, working with my father-in-law on his memoir and getting the first draft of Trouble With Dwarves sorted out. Himself is now on his long weekend, so we went for a walk this morning along the beach. We are allowed to leave home to exercise, but we are being strongly encouraged to stay as close as home as possible for said exercise, hence the pics – once again – of Littlehampton beach and our bracing walk. As you can see, the sea was quite rough…
Last week I read:
Defending the Galaxy – Book 3 of the Sentinels of the Galaxy by Maria V. Snyder Year 2522. Oh. My. Stars. Junior Officer Ara Lawrence here, reporting for duty. Again. It’s situation critical for the security team and everyone in the base – including my parents – with a new attack from the looters imminent, a possible galaxy-wide crime conspiracy and an unstoppable alien threat. But this all pales in the face of my mind-blowing discovery about the Q-net. Of course, no one believes me. I’m not sure I believe me. It could just be a stress-induced delusion. That’s what my parents seem to believe…
Their concern for me is hampering my ability to do my job. I know they love me, but with the Q-net in my corner, I’m the only one who can help the security team beat the shadowy aliens from the pits we discovered. We’re holding them at bay, for now, but the entire Milky Way Galaxy is in danger of being overrun. With battles on too many fronts, it’s looking dire. But one thing I’ve learned is when people I love are in jeopardy, I’ll never give up trying to save them. Not until my dying breath. Which could very well be today… This is a wonderful finale to a very entertaining, action-packed space opera series. I’ve rarely seen subjects like quantum entanglement and time dilation dealt with so entertainingly, yet effectively. And Ara’s character simply bounces off the page. But whatever you do, read the other two books first… Review to follow.
AUDIOBOOK Tombland – Book 7 of the Matthew Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom Spring, 1549. Two years after the death of Henry VIII, England is sliding into chaos… The king, Edward VI, is eleven years old. His uncle Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, rules as Protector. Radical Protestants are conducting all out war on the old religion, stirring discontent among the people. The Protector’s prolonged war with Scotland is proving a disastrous failure. Worst of all, the economy is in collapse, inflation rages and rebellion is stirring among the peasantry.
Since the old King’s death, Matthew Shardlake has been working as a lawyer in the service of Henry’s younger daughter, the Lady Elizabeth. The gruesome murder of the wife of John Boleyn, a distant Norfolk relation of Elizabeth’s mother – which could have political implications for Elizabeth – brings Shardlake and his young assistant Nicholas Overton to the summer assizes at Norwich. There they are reunited with Shardlake’s former assistant Jack Barak. The three find layers of mystery and danger surrounding the death of Edith Boleyn, as more murders are committed. During their investigation, a peasant rebellion breaks out across the country. Yeoman Robert Kett establishes a vast camp outside Norwich and leads a force of thousands to overthow the landlords. Soon the rebels have taken over the city, England’s second largest. This monster of a book (800+ pages) was wonderfully narrated and has held me throughout most of January. I have been a fan of this series for years – and I’m so glad that one of my reading targets last year was to catch up with those series that somehow slipped through the cracks. For this book is a tour de force and already, I have one of the books that will make my Outstanding Reads of 2021… Review to follow.
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell Ancillary Justice meets Red, White & Royal Blue in Everina Maxwell’s exciting debut. While the Iskat Empire has long dominated the system through treaties and political alliances, several planets, including Thea, have begun to chafe under Iskat’s rule. When tragedy befalls Imperial Prince Taam, his Thean widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with Taam’s cousin, the disreputable Kiem, in a bid to keep the rising hostilities between the two worlds under control.
But when it comes to light that Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and that Jainan himself may be a suspect, the unlikely pair must overcome their misgivings and learn to trust one another as they navigate the perils of the Iskat court, try to solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war… all while dealing with their growing feelings for each other. This was a lovely surprise! I’m not sure what I was expecting – but it wasn’t this lovely adventure, coupled with a slow-burn same-sex romance that was handled beautifully. Which didn’t swamp the fascinating political dynamic and I’m very much hoping that this is the first in a series. Review to follow.
The Monster MASH – Book 1 of the Monster M*A*S*H series by Angie Fox Ancient gods. Modern war. And a star-crossed couple who could use some divine intervention.
The day I was drafted into the army of the gods, all I knew about being a MASH surgeon was what I’d learned from Hawkeye Pierce and Hot Lips Houlihan. Now here I am, Dr. Petra Robichaud, in the middle of an immortal war, assigned to a MASH camp with a nosy sphinx, a vegetarian werewolf, and an uptight vampire who really needs to get a life.
At least they’re all too busy with their own dramas to discover my secret: I can see the dead. It’s a forbidden gift, one that can get me killed, so I haven’t told a soul. Until the arrestingly intense Galen arrives on my operating table, half-dead and totally to-die-for. When his spirit tries to slip out of his fatally wounded body, I impulsively slip it back in. Call it a rash resurrection. One I’ll live to regret. A delightfully quirky read with a nice line in humour that prevents this being a bleak read. As a huge fan of the MASH TV series, I was pleased to see that this fantasy homage got the tone more or less spot on. Review to follow.
NOVELLA The Expert System’s Champion – Book 2 of The Expert System series by Adrian Tchaikovsky It’s been ten years since Handry was wrenched away from his family and friends, forced to wander a world he no longer understood. But with the help of the Ancients, he has cobbled together a life, of sorts, for himself and his fellow outcasts.
Wandering from village to village, welcoming the folk that the townships abandon, fighting the monsters the villagers cannot—or dare not—his ever-growing band of misfits has become the stuff of legend, a story told by parents to keep unruly children in line. But there is something new and dangerous in the world, and the beasts of the land are acting against their nature, destroying the towns they once left in peace. When I didn’t get a review copy of this one, I pre-ordered it, being a solid Tchaikovsky fan. And I’ve still to write the review of this one, as my feelings about it are a tad tangled. It was one of my most anticipated reads of 2021 and it didn’t quite live up to my very high expectations of it – though that didn’t prevent it being a solidly good book. Review to follow.
The Lord of Stariel – Book 1 of the Stariel series by A.J. Lancaster The Lord of Stariel is dead. Long live the Lord of Stariel. Whoever that is.
Everyone knows who the magical estate will choose for its next ruler. Or do they? Will it be the lord’s eldest son, who he despised? His favourite nephew, with the strongest magical land-sense? His scandalous daughter, who ran away from home years ago to study illusion?
Hetta knows it won’t be her, and she’s glad of it. Returning home for her father’s funeral, all Hetta has to do is survive the family drama and avoid entanglements with irritatingly attractive local men until the Choosing. Then she can leave. But whoever Stariel chooses will have bigger problems than eccentric relatives to deal with. Another solid delight! Himself strongly recommended this one and I read waaay into the night as I found it impossible to put down. I’ve a couple of Netgalley reads to get through – but just as soon as I can, I’ll be tucking into the next book in the series! Review to follow.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in this engaging YA far future adventure Navigating the Stars, featuring bouncy disaster-magnet Lyra Daniels – see my review. So I was happy to snap this one up when it became available.
BLURB: Okay, so I only died for sixty-six seconds. But when I came back to life, I got a brand new name and a snazzy new uniform. Go me! Seriously, though, it’s very important that Lyra Daniels stays dead, at least as far as my ex-friend Jarren, the murdering looter, knows. While dying is the scariest thing that’s happened to me, it morphed my worming skills. I can manipulate the Q-net like never before. But Jarren has blocked us from communicating with the rest of the galaxy and now they believe we’ve gone silent, like Planet Xinji (where silent really means dead).
A Protector Class spaceship is coming to our rescue, but we still have to survive almost two years before they arrive – if they arrive at all. Until then, we have to figure out how to stop an unstoppable alien threat. And it’s only a matter of time before Jarren learns I’m not dead and returns to finish what he started. There’s no way I’m going to let Jarren win. Instead I’ll do whatever it takes to save the people I love. But even I’m running out of ideas…
REVIEW: I also enjoyed the blurb, which gives a strong indication of the narrative voice and the stakes involved, without then giving away major spoilers. I won’t deny that Lyra is something of a Mary Sue – she has major skills that no one else possesses, which also puts her right on the front line of the trouble they are facing. But this time around, that didn’t bother me, especially as Snyder does give us solid reasons why she is particularly outstanding, and it works with the plot.
What also works particularly well is the steady rise in the tension throughout, as the enormity of the threat that Jarren poses continues to impact the lives of the community. We learn a bit more about what the mysterious terracotta warriors can do and how they interact with the deadly shadow aliens. I would just mention that in order to fully appreciate this book, I think you would need to have read Navigating the Stars, as they are essentially the same story with the same overarching narrative arc, so not only would you be floundering in far too many places – there are events in the first book that have a direct bearing on the characters and ongoing plot.
The ongoing romance isn’t an aspect of the book that particularly interests me, but I’m not the target audience – and it is generally well handled. Sweet, without being too cloying, with just the right amount of passion suitable for the age group, it evokes the strong emotions of first love very well. It also neatly underlines what is at stake. This one comes highly recommended for fans of far future adventures featuring a feisty heroine – though do read the first book before picking this one up. 8/10
Whatever else it’s been, 2020 has been a marvellous year for science fiction reads, particularly space opera. So what am I looking forward to reading in 2021? I’ve determined to become more disciplined and complete series that I’ve started, thoroughly enjoyed – and then dropped again because the new shiny drew me away… This is the final post that I’m linking to #Sci Fi Month 2020. So in no particular order:
Bear Head – Book 2 of the Dogs of War series by Adrian Tchaikovsky Anyone who has been on this site for a while knows I’m a huge fan of his writing – and I was delighted to learn that this sequel to the thought-provoking novella Dogs of War – see my review – is due out in early January 2021.
The Expert System’s Champion – Book 2 of The Expert System series by Adrian Tchaikovsky The Expert System’s Brother is one of those books that hasn’t left me alone since I read it – see my review. So I was so excited to learn that we have now the opportunity to follow what happened next to poor old Handry after his previous adventures.
Scardown – Book 2 of the Wetwired series by Elizabeth Bear I was blown away by Ancestral Night – see my review – and am thoroughly enjoying Machine, so got hold of Hammered – see my review – for more Elizabeth Bear goodness. And I want to continue with this series, seeing as I had such fun with the first book.
A Desolation Called Peace – Book 2 of the Teixcalaan series by Arkady Martine After the acclaimed A Memory Called Empire – see my review – I’m sure I won’t be the only desperate to get my hands on this sequel. And the good news is that we won’t have all that long to wait…
Endgame – Book 6 of the Sirantha Jax series by Ann Aguirre I started this series far too long ago and have loved the progression of Jax. So one of my Christmas presents from me to me, will be a copy of this one, seeing how much I enjoyed Grimspace, Killbox and Aftermath – review to follow.
Network Effect – Book 5 of the Murderbot series by Martha Wells I loved All Systems Red – see my review – but given that the novellas aren’t all that long and I read quite fast, I simply couldn’t justify the expense of following the rest of the novella series. The first novel, however, is a different proposition and I’m really looking forward to tucking into this one next year.
By Other Means – Book 5 of the Hayden War Cycle by Evan Currie I’ve loved following super-soldier Sorilla Aida on her adventures in On Silver Wings, Valkyrie Rising, Valkyrie Burning and The Valhalla Call. But, again, this is a series that has simply taken too long to catch up. So I’ll be tucking into this one sometime in January or February.
Driving the Deep – Book 2 of the Finder series by Suzanne Palmer I loved listening to Finder earlier this year – see my review. So I have decided to treat myself to the audio version of this one, so I have another space opera action adventure to keep me company while cleaning the house.
Lines of Departure – Book 2 of the Frontlines series by Marko Kloos I loved the first book, Terms of Enlistment – see my review – and fully intended to tuck into the second book , which I have on my TBR, much sooner. As it is, better late than never. So this is another offering I intend to read in the early part of 2021…
Defending the Galaxy – Book 3 of the Sentinels of the Galaxy series by Maria V. Snyder I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the upbeat, bouncy vibe of young Ara has she faces off the creepy alien shadows and a nasty crime synicate in Navigating the Stars and Chasing the Shadows – review to follow. So I’m keen to see how this all plays out in the final book of the series.
Fleet of Knives – Book 2 of the Embers of War series by Gareth L. Powell I thoroughly enjoyed the first book, Embers of War – see my mini-review. The sentient ship Trouble Dog rather stole the show for me and I’m only too happy to read more about his ongoing adventures.
And there you have it – 12 science fiction reads I have lined up to get me through the miserable months of January, February and March, in amongst my fantasy and crime reads. Are there any books here that you are intending to also read? Or others you would like to recommend? I’ve loved taking part in #Sci Fi Month 2020 – it’s been a joy to browse through the master schedule and make a note of books I want to get hold of. But I am trying very hard to be adult about this – and work on completing more series that I have already started. Wish me luck!
It’s been a truly dreadful year – like everyone else, I cannot wait to see the back of it. But in one respect, it’s been wonderful – I have discovered some fabulous science fiction reads. Some are relatively newly published, others are a bit older. But the one thing they all have in common is that they provided me with an engrossing read that took me right away from the daily grind of social distancing, masks and lockdowns… Have you read any of these? I’m linking this post to #Sci Fi Month 2020.
Ancestral Night – Book 1 of the White Space series by Elizabeth Bear Haimey Dz thinks she knows what she wants. She thinks she knows who she is. She is wrong.
A routine salvage mission uncovers evidence of a terrible crime and relics of powerful ancient technology. Haimey and her small crew run afoul of pirates at the outer limits of the Milky Way, and find themselves on the run and in possession of universe-changing information. When authorities prove corrupt, Haimey realizes that she is the only one who can protect her galaxy-spanning civilization from the implications of this ancient technology—and the revolutionaries who want to use it for terror and war. Her quest will take her careening from the event horizon of the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s core to the infinite, empty spaces at its edge. To save everything that matters, she will need to uncover the secrets of ancient intelligences lost to time—and her own lost secrets, which she will wish had remained hidden from her forever. Yes… I don’t deny there are some pacing issues. And that Bear does tend to muse about all sorts of philosophical issues that her character is chewing over – evidently being in a small tin can light years away from everyone else other than your own small crew can do that to you. But listening to this one, where the world seeped into my dreams and Haimey and I hung out together for a handful of days, was such a blessing… see my review. I’m currently listening to Machine, the second book in the series and enjoying that one, too.
Skyward and Starsight of the Skyward series by Brandon Sanderson Defeated, crushed, and driven almost to extinction, the remnants of the human race are trapped on a planet that is constantly attacked by mysterious alien starfighters. Spensa, a teenage girl living among them, longs to be a pilot. When she discovers the wreckage of an ancient ship, she realizes this dream might be possible—assuming she can repair the ship, navigate flight school, and (perhaps most importantly) persuade the strange machine to help her. Because this ship, uniquely, appears to have a soul. This one has more of a YA feel as Spensa is a teenager with family issues that make her reckless and a bit of an adrenaline junkie. Humanity is clinging onto existence, anyway as constant alien attacks are besieging their ghetto on a planet ringed by ordnance. I loved the sentient ship – and also where the adventure went in the second book. See my mini-reviews of Skyward and Starsight.
Termination Shock and Interdicted Space of the Interstellar Enforcement Agency series by Gillian Andrews Ryler Mallivan’s comfortable life as an upstanding young freighter captain has just imploded. Avaraks are storming the training ship he is on and the bullets being fired are not blanks. Interstellar war has broken out and unless he moves fast they will all be as stone dead as the instructor lying at his feet. But this is one conflict they can never escape. The cause of the trouble is far closer than they know and will bring Mallivan and his ragbag fledgling crew under ferocious attack from all sides. They are going to need all their wits about them if they are to stay alive. And they have to, because there is nobody else to save all their worlds from a doomsday weapon which is set to obliterate the entire universe. Just how much can one lone spaceship do? This is a lot of fun with loads of action and engaging characters – see my reviews of Termination Shock and Interdicted Space. I’m looking forward to reading the third book in the series – Exceptional Point sometime in the New Year…
The Book of Koli and The Trials of Koli – of the Rampart trilogy by M.R. Carey Beyond the walls of the small village of Mythen Rood lies an unrecognizable world. A world where overgrown forests are filled with choker trees and deadly vines and seeds that will kill you where you stand. And if they don’t get you, one of the dangerous shunned men will. Koli has lived in Mythen Rood his entire life. He knows the first rule of survival is that you don’t venture beyond the walls. What he doesn’t know is – what happens when you aren’t given a choice? I absolutely loved this series. The slightly degraded English in Koli’s first-person narrative is beautifully handled and works very well. Too much more and it have been annoying, but it is an effective part of the worldbuilding. I’m really looking forward to reading the third book in the series – see my reviews of The Book of Koli and The Trials of Koli.
A Memory Called Empire – Book 1 of the Teixcalaan series by Arkady Martine Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court. Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation. I have a particular fondness for stories where there are whodunits set in the future – done well, it makes for a wonderful, gripping read. And this is excellent – one of my outstanding reads of the year – see my review which is also going live today. I’m looking forward to getting hold of A Desolation Called Peace next year.
Relatively Strange, Even Stranger and Stranger Still – the Strange series by Marilyn Messik It’s tricky to know what’s normal if you’re not, But Stella’s north west London upbringing is average enough, and her eccentric, protective (paranoid?) family are not given to making a fuss. Only when she finds herself smack dab in the middle of a situation, face to face with the stark reality of medical experimentation and its horrifying consequences, does she realise how sure she is of one thing. This hero stuff just isn’t her. Normal, or as near as damn it is what she wants for the future, and if that means smothering her instincts, so be it. At least she’ll know, should she slip off the wagon occasionally, it’ll be choice not chance. Isn’t it a fact though, just when you think you’ve got yourself back on track, events can overtake and derail you. This series has been one of the major reading highlights of my year – at a time when my need for enjoyable escapism has been intense, diving into these books was like a long cold drink of water on a steaming hot day… Love, love, love them all – here are my reviews – Relatively Strange, Even Stranger, Stranger Still.
The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky and The Relentless Moon of the Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process. Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too. Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her. This classy, alternate history where a meteorite accelerates Humanity’s reach for the stars is another highlight of the year. I loved Elma – and Nicole, who we get to spend more time with in the final book. See my reviews of The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky – The Relentless Moon is to follow.
BLURB: Cory Doctorow’s Attack Surface is a standalone novel set in the world of New York Times bestsellers Little Brother and Homeland. Most days, Masha Maximow was sure she’d chosen the winning side. In her day job as a counterterrorism wizard for an transnational cybersecurity firm, she made the hacks that allowed repressive regimes to spy on dissidents, and manipulate their every move. The perks were fantastic, and the pay was obscene.
Just for fun, and to piss off her masters, Masha sometimes used her mad skills to help those same troublemakers evade detection, if their cause was just. It was a dangerous game and a hell of a rush. But seriously self-destructive. And unsustainable. When her targets were strangers in faraway police states, it was easy to compartmentalize, to ignore the collateral damage of murder, rape, and torture. But when it hits close to home, and the hacks and exploits she’s devised are directed at her friends and family–including boy wonder Marcus Yallow, her old crush and archrival, and his entourage of naïve idealists–Masha realizes she has to choose. And whatever choice she makes, someone is going to get hurt.
REVIEW: I haven’t read Little Brother and Homeland – though given they are set in the same world and Marcus Yallow makes more than a walk-on appearance in this story, I’m going to track them down. But that didn’t prevent me from thoroughly enjoying this thought-provoking read about some of the consequences caused by our love of social media and mobile technology. And exactly how repressive regimes can use this technology to keep their population under their boots…
Masha is a smart, edgy protagonist whose brilliance has led her into working for some murky organisations. I love the fact that she isn’t presented as some helpless, bewildered victim who has been coerced into making her dodgy decisions, but realises all too well that what she is doing has bad consequences. I also enjoyed her pride in the money she’s making and the status she’s accrued – after all that is the American dream, right? Her mother struggled all her life to provide sufficient money to educate her clever daughter, so it’s not surprising Masha highly values her wealth and the ability to buy the best. It makes her struggles with her conscience more plausible and visceral – and snagged my sympathy far more effectively than if she’d somehow been bamboozled into putting her brilliance to work for people who are now not on the side of the angels. Though given that this is aimed at the YA market, I’m intrigued to see how this plays out with that age-group, given that teens tend to see things as more black and white.
As for the technology – inevitably there needs to be a fair amount of explanation about what some of the programs Masha is dealing with can do. I’m guessing that youngsters probably won’t have to flog their brains into following said explanations as hard as I did, because they’ve been born into this world. However, I didn’t find it unduly hard to follow what was going on and neither was it a problem – because it was far too chillingly plausible and made for instructive reading.
Science fiction can provide the escapist fun of the far future, but it can also sound warnings about where we’re headed and provide scenarios to show the consequences of what will happen if we don’t change our ways. Cli-fi has been doing this for years. This is another of those books that shows how technology designed for our convenience and ease of communication can be put to far darker use. More imaginatively though, Doctorow also provides a solution to the problems he raises and this book ends on an inspirational, upbeat note that left me feeling empowered and slightly buzzed. This would be an excellent book to be studied in schools, as it raises all sorts of issues our youngsters will be grappling with for years to come – as well as suggesting how they should be dealt with.
Highly recommended for fans of thought-provoking, near future sci fi – though do be aware that Doctorow’s politics and views won’t be for everyone. While I obtained an arc of Attack Surface from the publisher via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own. 9/10
This week’s deja vu review is from 24th October, 2012…
I met up with Janet Edwards at last year’s Fantasycon, when she told me that Earth Girl was due to come out in the coming year and we also exchanged a few words at Eastercon, when I heard enough about the book to put it onto my reading list. So I loaded it onto my Kindle for the journey to Brighton for this year’s Fantasycon.
BLURB: In the far future, the universe is divided into two different groups: the Norms, who can portal between planets, and people like Jarra, Earthgirlthe one in a thousand born with an immune system that doesn’t allow them to survive anywhere but Earth. Norms come back to Earth for one reason: to study human history – like the ruins of what was once New York City. But only if they don’t have to interact with any Apes along the way. 18-year-old Jarra has a plan to change that.
REVIEW: This debut novel is a delight – it is marketed as YA, but this adult science fiction fan found it completely engrossing, as did my husband. Jarra is a strong protagonist – spiky, yet believably vulnerable. About halfway through the novel, there is an episode that appears to have split Earth Girl readers into those who feel that it is unrealistic and those who don’t. I’m in the latter camp. The series of events leading up to the shock that catapults Jarra into behaving as she does is entirely convincing – as is her reaction.
So Edwards has set up a strong female character and an intriguing situation – has she also managed to depict a sufficiently detailed and complex future? Absolutely. One of the characteristics of YA fiction – which is probably why you see a lot more Urban Fantasy, rather than Science Fiction in this genre – is that it is generally fast-paced. So it is a big ask for authors working with a primary world where the surroundings and customs are significantly different from our own time – unlike most urban fantasy offerings which are mostly set in modern cities with a few extra supernatural touches laid over the familiar landscape – to produce a satisfactory setting without holding up the narrative drive.
Edwards manages to provide plenty of interesting insights into her future world as part of the plot progression – an achievement a whole lot more difficult than the author makes it look. In fact, the world and the reasons why archaeological teams are frantically mining these decaying cities was – for me – one of the main treats of this book.
Any grizzles? Well – it is a minor niggle, but I did feel that I would have liked the ending to be slightly less… tidy. But that observation doesn’t detract from the fact that Earth Girl is a thoroughly engrossing read by a talented author, who is definitely One to Watch. 9/10