Normally a book by Adrian Tchaikovsky is something I will reliably enjoy. So I was excited to get a review copy of his latest novella Walking To Aldebaran from Solaris. But this one was a rare miss for me.
The premise is intriguing – a first person narrative from Gary Rendell, one of the team sent to explore a mysterious structure found in space. That structure turns out to be a gateway to the universe. A hub that provides gate access to worlds across the universe. But a hub that is inhabited by strange alien creatures and full of peril. As Gary explores this strange environment he tells the story of the expedition, how he became separated from his team-mates, and the journey he is on. It is full of encounters with aliens, miscommunication and a building sense of mystery about what it exactly has happened to Gary. He has clearly undergone metamorphosis of some sort in this environment.
But I struggled to engage with it. I suspect a lot of that is down to the first person narration. I struggled to connect with the blokish Gary and the strong voice he has telling his story. And for all that there is a twist in the tale, I was left a bit underwhelmed.
Goodreads rating: 2*
If there are two preoccupations in current SFF, they are probably climate change and artificial intelligence stories exploring the nature of what it means to be human. Emily Eternal by M G Wheaton (review copy from Hodderscape) attempts to fuse the two. But I’m not sure it succeeds.
Emily is an artificial consciousness created as a therapist by a New England university to help people overcome trauma. And there is a lot of trauma in the world of the novel – the Sun is dying and that means the Earth will too. Between the loss of solar energy and electromagnetic discharges destroying most of the planet’s technical infrastructure, the world is doomed. Wars, scarcity and suicide feature in the slow decline and fading away of society. It’s a very depressing scenario.
Within this last fading of human civilisation, Emily is growing and learning as a person, and helping others, living in a near live-time virtual copy of the university campus and able to interact with some of her developer team through specialist implants. Despite her impressive abilities, Emily is scrupulous about trying to replicate as far as possible what it is like to live as a human. Her life is a sophisticated version of The Sims, in effect.
But this story of human identity and what-it-means-to-be-human when living with the expected imminent collapse of civilisation takes a massive jink to the left when Emily’s technology is seen as one possible route for preserving humanity. What results is a bit of a hot mess of a thriller, with lots of mercenaries, chase sequences and evil Government conspiracies. The ending, in particular, felt rushed and incredibly implausible.
Goodreads rating: 2*
I love space opera. I particularly love post-colonial space opera of the kind that Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee have been writing. So Arkady Martine‘s novel A Memory Called Empire (review copy from Tor) was always going to pique my interest. Add to that a main character who is a diplomat, and this is right in my wheelhouse. And I loved it.
Mahit Dzmare is sent from the tiny independent mining station of Lsel to be the new ambassador to the Teixcalaanli Empire. Lsel is tiny, and Mahit’s main mission is to prevent her home from being swallowed up by the Empire, whilst investigating the mysterious disappearance and murder of her predecessor. Mahit has been selected for her love of Teixcalaanli culture, and her knowledge of its society. That and her psychological compatibility with the last ambassador, as she will carry an embedded device with a download of his knowledge and memories, adding her own to the store.
These themes of identity run through the novel extremely strongly. Mahit is a product of her childhood on Lsel, and her study of Teixcalaanli culture, but she also carries the memories and reactions of her ambassador predecessor within her. These rise up at odd moments, to the point where she sometimes struggles to disentangle her thoughts and feelings from sense memories and the reactions of her predecessor. Much of that plays out through Mahit’s sexuality – she experiences flashes of her predecessor’s desire and his memories of sexual encounters, muddying Mahit’s own burgeoning feelings.
Mahit’s love for the Empire’s culture and her joy at being able to visit it and experience it at first hand wars with her mission to protect Lsel’s independence. This tension runs throughout the novel, as Mahit is confronted with the difference between her experience and the reality of Teixcalaanli culture for those born and raised within it. She regularly fails to appreciate the subtleties and nuances around her, never more so that when she is bewildered by the layering of sophistication of the Empire’s poetry.
Mahit finds herself plunged into the heart of a succession crisis for the Empire, as the aging Emperor’s health begins to fail and various rivals start jockeying for position. War seems inevitable, with Lsel one of the possible casualties as the various rivals seek to cement their claims. She has to navigate her way through this, brokering Lsel’s safety through political turmoil. In this she is assisted by ambitious young civil servant Three Seagrass, who has been appointed as her liaison to the Empire. Three Seagrass is herself walking a fine line between her loyalty to Teixcalaan, her own personal ambition, and her duties supporting Mahit.
It’s an incredibly satisfying novel that leaves me extremely excited about the next book in the series.
Goodreads rating: 5*
The question of what it means to be human is a well-worn one in SFF. Greg Chivers gives us his take in his novel The Crying Machine (review copy from Harper Voyager).
Clementine is an artificial being, an AI consciousness in an augmented human body. She arrives in Jerusalem a refugee from a Western Europe devastated by war and corrupted technology. She tries to find her place in this strange, divided city. In an attempt to get some money she falls in with criminals contracted to steal something from the museum. That something turns out to be the Antikythera Mechanism– an artifact from Ancient Greece that is probably the world’s first computer. Shenanigans ensue, and Clementine finds herself caught up in Jerusalem city politics and on the run from the authorities.
I’m afraid I was left rather cold by this techno-thriller. It felt confused at times, and I struggled to engage with, or care about, the principal characters. Although the focus of the story was on Clementine’s time in Jerusalem, too little was sketched in of what was happening in the wider world to have resulted in her arrival there. This was a frustrating level of hand-waving world-building.
Goodreads rating: 2*
I love octopuses. They are beautiful, strange creatures. Probably the closest thing we humans can get to the truly alien. They live in a different milieu and come from a radically different branch of the evolutionary tree. They are also clever, resourceful and undoubtedly sentient. This is why I was super-excited when I heard that Adrian Tchaikovsky‘s sequel to his Clarke-Award winning Children of Time would focus on uplifted cephalopods. And I was not disappointed – this was a novel that I enjoyed much more than its predecessor.
Children of Ruin (review copy from Tor) picks up where Children of Time left off. The uplifted spiders from Kern’s World in the first novel are now space explorers, with their domesticated Human compatriots. They are travelling to a distant star system that was one of the destinations of one of the original Earth colony ships, following up on signals received that suggest there may be a surviving colony. What they find is a system on the brink of collapse, with one water world choked and polluted, another in strict quarantine and a derelict space ship. Space-faring octopuses live in water-filled bubble ships, in loose and chaotic communities. The story is cut with flashbacks that show the Earth colony team that came to terraform the system, slowly revealing the disaster that befell them and the old Earth.
This is the Year of the Octopus. Books like Other Minds and The Soul Of An Octopus are best-sellers, showcasing the strange creatures we share our planet with. In Tchaikovsky’s hands, the octopuses are all but unknowable, struggling to make themselves understood to Humans and spiders, and frustrated as a result. These are creatures on permanent transmit with no filters, through their movement in the water and their colour- and texture-changing skins. Clever and creative, they adapt and innovate, but their non-hierarchical society runs on individual battles for dominance. Tchaikovsky’s octopuses are compellingly Other.
The story is a pleasing one of co-operation and collaboration, rather than conflict and dominance. Only by working together can Humans, spiders and the AI consciousness of Avrana Kern communicate with the octopuses. And only with the help of the octopuses can they engage meaningfully with the sentient slime mould antagonist that risks the system. And that slime mould delivers some chilling moments of pure horror in the body snatchers mode.
This is a novel that champions evolution and co-existence. Messages we should learn to pay attention to.
Goodreads rating: 4*
The final volume in Ian McDonald‘s Luna trilogy, Luna: Moon Rising (review copy from Gollancz), was one of the books I was most excited to read this year because I had loved the first two hard. And it did not disappoint.
This is a book that is as red in tooth and claw as the first two volumes in the series. With all the hallmark kidnapping, assassination and destruction we have come to know and love from this series. Luna: Moon Rising focuses on two key plot threads. A battle between Lucas and Ariel Corta for control of the Moon and custody of the injured Lucasinho. And a debate about the future of the Moon colony itself.
This debate about the future of the Moon is a fascinating one. Each competing vision of what the Moon could be is plausible and compelling: automated provision of resources for a starving Earth, solar-powered data-centre, or jumping off point to colonise the stars? Whatever choice i made, it will have profound consequences for Earth, Moon and the future of the solar system.
But it is in the Corta v Corta battle that the novel has its heart. Where the previous novels have shown us the conflict between the Five Dragons and the consequences of that for Lunar society, here we are treated to the divisions within families. With the Cortas struggling to rebuild and reclaim after the cataclysmic events of earlier books, this is an extremely personal story. And McDonald resolves it beautifully in a thrilling climax.
I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the book. But if you had any doubts, read this glorious trilogy.
Goodreads rating: 5*
I know I’m not a natural fan of YA fiction, but I can usually manage to appreciate a well-told and constructed YA story. Sadly Master of Sorrows by Justin Call isn’t it (review copy from Gollancz).
The premise here is very familiar. A young orphan (Annev) is raised by a wise old man in a small village cut off from the world. He goes to school where he has friends and enemies, and competes to graduate and become a magic hunter. But he is hiding a mysterious secret: a deformity and his ability to do magic. What Call is trying to do is to subvert some of that classic story by having Annev be the Chosen One of the dark lord, and make him an antihero rather than a classic fantasy hero. But it just doesn’t work.
The world-building really lets the story down and makes it an unpleasant book to read. Call has chosen to have the founding principle of his world’s religion be the stigmatisation of all disabilities. Any child born with any disability is immediately marked out as claimed by the dark lord and killed. Even if Call intends this to signal to the reader that this society is one that we should not be taking as a healthy or a good place, the unremitting structural ableism makes this book a really uncomfortable read.
The characterisation is also weak. For reasons that are completely unclear, despite Annev having a disability that he masks with the use of a forbidden magic hand, he is passionate about fitting into a society that would expel him with horror if they realised the truth about him. For a Chosen One, he is remarkably stupid, regularly making unwise choices, ignoring advice and doing reckless things. The adults aren’t much better. The teachers at the Academy are two-dimensional caricatures. And Annev’s friends and classmates aren’t much better. With very little effort you could map all of them onto principal characters from Harry Potter. Except without Hermione, because without exception all of the female characters in the novel are shallow, manipulative and horrible.
A more skilled writer could do something really interesting and exciting with the idea of a story focusing on the Dark Lord’s Chosen One and a society that believes itself to be good but is in urgent need of revolution. But this is not that book.
Goodreads rating: 1*
The Ruin of Kings is an exciting new debut from Jenn Lyons (review copy from Tor) and the first in her A Chorus of Dragons series. This is the story of Kihrin, an orphan raised in a brothel by a musician. A chance encounter with a demon on the streets of the city leads Kihrin to discover that he’s actually the bastard son of one of the city’s powerful ruling families. At the same time, the story follows a slightly older Kihrin who has been sold into slavery. Kihrin owns a mysterious necklace which was the only thing recovered from his mother’s body when she was murdered and Kihrin was rescued from her dying arms. Unbeknownst to Kihrin, the necklace is not just magical, but it holds the key to destroying and remaking the world.
This is a story told in braided narratives. Chapters of each phase of Kihrin’s life alternate, until at last the two storylines meet and the climax of the novel happens. It’s an ambitious approach, and one that would fail in the hands of a different writer. I was surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did, as I really dislike authors artificially creating suspense by witholding relevant information from the reader that their characters know. But in this novel there are a pleasing series of reveals as Kihrin’s early life starts to fill in the context for things happening in his later time line.
The worldbuilding is extremely rich. There are gods, monsters, elder races, magical artifacts, death cults, powerful families, and other races. Lying behind and running through Kihrin’s story is a conflict between the gods that threatens to tear the world apart if it can’t be stopped. And it’s clear that Kihrin and his mother’s necklace will end up playing a key role in it.
Kihrin himself is cocky, charming and can be infuriating. He’s not always the most reliable of narrators in the first person sections of the book, but he’s a pleasure to spend time with. Lyons has developed a character with a strong voice and clear personality. I am really looking forward to the next books in this series.
Goodreads rating: 4*
I absolutely loved The City of Brass by S A Chakraborty (read that review before this one), so I was extremely excited to get a review copy (from Harper Voyager) of its sequel, The Kingdom of Copper. And I was not disappointed!
The Kingdom of Copper picks up Nahri’s story about five years after the climactic events that end The City of Brass. She is living in Daevabad, married to Prince Muntadhir and the effective prisoner of the king as a hostage for her people’s good behaviour. She is grieving the loss of her Afshin, Dara, and the betrayal of Prince Ali, a man she thought was a friend. But the king’s repressive policies are starting to have inevitable consequences, and rebellion is brewing, fomented by the mother Nahri believed to be dead.
Everything I loved about the first book is here in its sequel. But it has a much darker tone than the adventure/romance of the first book. Nahri is tougher and more cynical as she learns to operate effectively within the constraints of her role at court. Dara has fallen in with rebels and is being driven down a dark and violent path. The moral Prince Ali only wants to live in quiet peace, helping the people of his adopted community, but he finds himself dragged back into Daevabad politics against his will, and at risk of becoming a rallying point for those wanting to overthrow the king’s rule. Allegiances shift, and hidden agendas come to the surface.
This is a great book, and a worthy sequel. I can’t wait to see what the final volume has in store!
Goodreads rating: 4*
Sometimes a single, simple change can birth a brilliant and exquisite story. In The Binding (review copy from Harper Collins) Bridget Collins turns the magic of writing a story into literal magic. Books are the real memories of real people, and once written down, the subject has given up those memories forever unless and until the book is destroyed. They are left with no recollection of the events that they have given up to be bound. In Collins’s hands, this becomes a beautiful story of love and loss, cut through by a brilliant exploration of the dynamics of power.
After recovering from a long illness, Emmett Farmer discovers that he is a Bookbinder, one of the rare people with the talent to bind people’s memories into book form. Apprenticed to Seredith, he begins to learn the craft of making books while continuing his recovery. One day, Seredith is visited by a rich young man called Lucian, who is extremely distressed and troubled and wants his memories bound. Emmett has never met him before, but Lucian is intensely focused on Emmett. Seredith’s health is failing, and she dies before Emmett’s training is complete. He is taken on by another bookbinder who lacks Seredith’s prize for craft skills and her view that binding is a sacred calling that should be offered to all those that need it. Give up too many memories, or do it too frequently, and the person who is bound can be left as little more than a hollow zombie.
This is one of the real strengths of the book for me. Its exploration of power and how the wealthy exploit and commodify the experiences of the vulnerable and less fortunate is extremely contemporary, particularly in the #MeToo world. In Seredith’s hands, binding is a way of helping others to move on from tragedy, and is not something to be done lightly or without thought. But Collins shows how the powerful use the same mechanisms to silence others – including sexually abused servants. Others sell their life experiences for the titillation of others as a way of briefly escaping poverty. Books containing people’s experiences are bought and sold for entertainment, with a dark trade in the most horrific experiences. The books of people who are bound are used as tools for blackmail and extortion.
But the heart of The Binding is a beautiful queer love story. It unfolds throughout the second part of the book. Collins writes it with grace and a wonderful emotional intensity. It is joyful, evoking the tender fragility of a burgeoning love affair, but bitter sweet for its forbidden nature. It’s impossible not to be swept up in Collins’s lyrical prose as the romance unfolds.
This is a book to immerse yourself in, but prepare to be hit in the feels. Hard.
Goodreads rating: 5*