The Promise of the Child – Tom Toner

I tried really hard to love The Promise of the Child, Tom Toner’s debut novel from Gollancz (review copy from NetGalley).  I love space opera, and a braided novel that combines high politics with epic space battles ought to be right up my street.

There is a lot to like.  The world-building is complex and rich.  A wealthy, immortal elite (the Amaranthines) rule the galaxy, but their numbers are diminishing as individuals slip into madness over time, and they are increasingly turning away from the world, consumed by their own internal politics.  The immortals are ruled by the longest-lived among them, and an individual has appeared who claims to be even older than their current Emperor.  Meanwhile, the post-human diaspora across the galaxy is becoming increasingly restless and rebellion is brewing.  A new super-weapon has been created and there are those who will stop at nothing to get their hands on it.  The themes in the book of small, wealthy and distant elites becoming increasingly distanced from the people they rule are highly topical, and the persistance of bigotry and racism in the far future was dealt with sensitively.

But the novel suffers from a lot of first-novel flaws.  The three strands to the novel are so tonally distinct that it interferes with the flow of the story.  The plotting is choppy at times, and there is an over-reliance on explaining after the fact what characters have been seeking to achieve, which takes the reader out of the story and jars with the third person perspective.  The world-building is rich, but at times becomes intrusive.  At times the writer pushes particularly cool bits of world-building to the fore to show them off, but it interrupts the flow of the story.  It would be better to let them sit in the background, adding depth to the world-building.  And I really struggled to connect with Lycaste, the protagonist of one of the three strands of the story.  The most beautiful Melius on his world, he’s lived an isolated existence at the very edge of the world.  He’s lonely, naive and suffers unrequited love for a neighbour until a bureaucrat from elsewhere arrives and turns his world upside down.  I must confess I struggled to find his lack of knowledge about the world convincing, or to care much about such an angry, petulant teenager.

Goodreads rating: 2* 

Central Station – Lavie Tidhar

I’m an unashamed fan of Lavie Tidhar’s work.  So, I was very excited at the opportunity to read his latest novel, Central Station (published by Tachyon Publications, who provided a review copy through NetGalley).  And every page was a delight.

Central Station is an amalgam of several previously published pieces of short fiction, woven together with new material into a composite novel.  All of the pieces are set in or around Central Station itself, a spaceport built just outside Tel Aviv, in a post-war, post-fossil fuel society.

For all its futuristic setting, Central Station speaks to the world we live in now.  This is a novel about borders and connections, emigration and diaspora and the families we are born into or create for ourselves.  Where people are blends of human and machine, and religion is a literal drug.

Humanity has colonised the stars, and Central Station itself is the jumping off point to those varied communities in space.  The community that has built up around the spaceport is a melting pot of cultures and races, living and working in an informal economy of shebeens, salvage and more and less legal bioengineering.  The novel follows several of the residents of that community as their lives cross and interact.

In Tidhar’s novel, the connections between family and community are manifested through The Conversation: an all-encompassing background chatter of intertwined social media, facilitated by devices implanted at birth.  For some, that level of connection is not enough, and one family patriarch, Weiwei Zhong, made a deal to ensure that his family and descendants will all share each others’ memories.  But the volume of memories are threatening to overwhelm the bootleg technology, leaving his son with the equivalent of dementia as he tries to manage and process the volume of data.  Boris Chong returns from the stars to assist his ailing father, but finds himself confronting the family drama he sought to escape by emigrating and reconnecting with a lost love, Miriam Jones.

The world left behind does not stand still for those emigrants and returners.  Relativity means those who leave and return have not aged as much as those left behind.  As always, the person who leaves expects the place they have left to remain the same, but is the one who often changes least, struggling to cope with a home that has not stood still since their departure.

Around Boris Chong and his family accrete a number of other vignettes of Central Station residents and visitors.  Miriam Jones’s brother Achimwene Jones is a collector and seller of antique books.  He has no node, making him deaf to The Conversation.  But his very isolation and distance from others makes him irresistibly fascinating to Carmel, a strigoi, and Boris’s ex.  Infected with a virus, Carmel is a data-vampire, gifted with the ability – and need – to feed on the knowledge and memories of others.  She becomes integral to a piece of digital performance art made by a god-artist called Eliezer.  In order to help Carmel, Motl, a homeless cyborg former soldier, supplies a drug called Crucifixation, creating tensions in his relationship with the fully-human Isobel Chow.  A relationship that in itself is a taboo.

Motl’s story speaks to how we treat and value the military.  With the conflict that they were created for long concluded, the former cyborg soldiers are discarded and treated as less than human.  Left to beg for scraps, they live on the very margins of society.  But these cyborg soldiers are not as disposable as was originally envisaged.  Their essential humanity persists.  Ostracised for their fusion with the mechanical, they watch from sidelines as, ironically, humanity becomes ever more enmeshed with the digital.

Central Station comes together to become a complex and multi-layered novel that speaks of family and the nature of humanity.  It’s a beautiful thing, and it would be a crime if it doesn’t get some award nominations next year.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers

My Welsh sister-in-law taught me a wonderful Welsh word: cwtch.  It’s a hug, but not just any hug.  It’s the kind of warm, comforting hug that one gets from a close friend or family member, full of love and reassurance and the knowledge that there is always a safe space full of unconditional love.  The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is a cwtch in book form.

Cross Farscape with Firefly and add in a hefty dollop of life-affirming goodness and you have The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.  A multi-species crew travel across the galaxy under contract to build a new tunnel connecting the centre of the galaxy and the Galactic Commons, a collection of planets that have formed a loose alliance.

This novel is a love-song to the human condition, and our relationships with one another.  As the crew of the Wayfarer travel across the galaxy to the start point for their tunneling operation, we learn about them and their relationships with one another.  Everyone has secrets, but these are ones that expose their essential humanity – stories of love and loss that have shaped them as individuals.  Rosemary is coming to terms with her father’s arms dealing, Ashby with his love for an alien woman in a dangerous profession, Dr Chef wrestling with the self-destructive urges of his species and Ohan with the beliefs of their people that propel them on a course towards self-destruction.  And then there’s Corbin, the annoying flatmate we’ve all had to deal with at some point or another.

Although this isn’t the deepest or most complex of books (it’s a little too on-the-rails, with little sense of real peril at times), it’s one of those rare and special books that left me in tears.  Jenks’s love for Lovey, the ship’s AI, is real and intensely moving, and there are moments of real connection for all of the characters.  The visit to Sissix’s homeworld, in particular, reveals all that she has given up to travel with the crew of the Wayfarer.

The story of the novel itself is equally life-affirming: Chambers found herself out of work and short of money.  The generosity of strangers through a Kickstarter campaign enabled her to complete the book and self-publish it.  The success of the novel meant it was picked up by Hodder, a mainstream publisher.

Ultimately, what The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet teaches us is that we are all made of stardust.  All essentially the same, and capable of profound  connections with one another, regardless of how different we may seem.  We are enriched by our diversity if we are open-minded enough to appreciate it and let it blossom.  And I, for one, want to spend more time with the crew of the Wayfarer.

Goodreads rating: 4*