“Lock In” by John Scalzi

After reading The Collapsing Empire, I was in the mood to read more Scalzi, and luckily, I’ve had Lock In on my to-be-read list ever since it came out.

Lock In is a near future novel set after a disease known as Haden’s syndrome left millions of people across the world “locked in” – unable to control their bodies but fully conscious. High-profile patients spurred the accelerated development of technology to allow these “Hadens” to participate in life again though neural implants, virtual reality, and robot bodies, among other things. It’s been a while since that all happened, and the government benefits that many Hadens relied on is about to be repealed, and it is an uncertain time.

This is all just background for the story, though – the actual story begins when rookie FBI agent Chris Shane is assigned to investigate a murder where the prime suspect is an Integrator (a regular human who allows Hadens to rent their body.) It stays a pretty solid mystery/thriller type novel throughout, and usually I don’t care that much about that genre, but the worldbuilding and slowly unfolding plot kept me hooked. Scalzi takes the premise and runs with it, exploring how a disease like Haden’s would affect society in both big and small ways. I felt like I identified with the main character a little more than most people because I work remotely and haven’t met many of my coworkers in person.

If you’d like to find out more about the world, Tor.com has a novella that explores the history of Haden’s here. I think this is one of Scalzi’s better books, even though the content was pretty different, it reminded me a lot of the thoughtfulness of Old Man’s War.  I can’t wait to read the follow up, Head On.


Lock In by John Scalzi (Lock In, #1)
Tor Books, 2014 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“A Closed and Common Orbit” by Becky Chambers

The first thing I did after I read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet last month was pre-ordering this book, so it’s probably an understatement to say that I’ve been excited to read it.

A Closed and Common Orbit is set in the same universe as The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and follows from the events of that book. It has a couple of shared characters, but it’s entirely standalone. We follow Lovelace, a sentient artificial intelligence designed to run a spaceship, who has been downloaded into a humanoid body because of circumstances not entirely in her control. AIs in bodies are illegal in the Galactic Commonwealth, and she has to figure out how to blend in as a human while staying under the radar. The secondary protagonist is Pepper, an engineer who helps Lovelace in part because of her past experience with AIs. We get to see how she grew up and eventually the story ties into Pepper and Lovelace’s present life.

I love the cozy feel of this story – it’s not something that I usually associate with science fiction, and I hope Becky Chambers keeps writing these kinds of stories forever. And this isn’t just science fiction, it’s good science fiction. Lovelace’s story reminded me a little of Breq from Ancillary Justice – she’s an AI trying to make sense of an existence she’s really not designed for, but their personalities and stories are very different. Breq was an imperial warship, but Lovelace is a friendly and accommodating AI designed to be as human as possible.

Lovelace and Pepper both have pretty screwed up circumstances, but they make the best of it and end up being really great people who are at peace with themselves. I think that’s what I love about these books – every character genuinely wants to be good. Sometimes things fall together in a way that seems a little too neat, but I’m happy to suspend my disbelief for it because it makes for such a good story.

I’m not sure if there’s going to be another book in this universe, I hope there is because Amazon has A Closed and Common Orbit labeled as “Book 2 of 3”, even though there’s no third book to be found. Regardless, I’m going to read whatever Becky Chambers writes next as soon as I can.


A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers (Wayfarers, #2)
Harper Voyager, 2017 | Buy the book


“Sins of Empire” by Brian McClellan

Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy is one of my favorite new fantasy series’, and I’ve been looking forward to the new trilogy set in the same world ever since Brian talked about it in my interview with him a couple of years ago. And now it’s finally out, and I’ve read it, and I thought it was even better than the first trilogy!

The new country of Fatrasta is ruled with an iron fist by the Lady Chancellor Lindet. Her secret police, the Blackhats, are almost everywhere, and where intimidation and arrests won’t work, there are mercenary companies. The famed powder mage Vlora leads one of these companies, and is suddenly called back from the frontier to deal with an insurgency within the capital city of Landfall. Of course, the insurgency isn’t as simple as it seems, and the long isolated Dynize Empire appears to be stirring again. It’s up to Vlora, her Blackhat liaison Michel Bravis, and disgraced Fatrastan war hero Ben Styke to figure out what exactly is going on and what it means for Fatrasta.

Sins of Empire is the start of a new standalone trilogy, and you can definitely read it without reading the Powder Mage trilogy – it’s set on an entirely different continent and only shares a few characters. That being said, I have read the Powder Mage books, so I’m going to be referencing them in this review (without spoilers.)

I love the flintlock fantasy subgenre in general, and the world of these books in particular. The gunpowder based magic system is one of the coolest ideas that recent fantasy has produced – I’m not sure why I love it so much, but it probably has something to do with why I also love Westerns and cheesy action movies. Anyway, there are guns, there are printing presses and penny dreadfuls, there’s exploration of colonialism without making anyone the bad guy. The world seems like it’s vibrant and changing quickly, and it really jumps off the page.

The characters are memorable – I already mentioned that there’s no cardboard cut out good guys and bad guys, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is morally ambiguous. There are antagonists, but you understand what makes them what they are. Vlora is an unusually compelling protagonist, she’s a veteran soldier in a committed relationship, she’s already pretty badass, but she’s also flawed and she knows it. Michel Bravis is a weaselly guy, but you’d expect that from a professional informant. Characters like him usually end up being sidekicks or useful friends for the protagonist to have, so he makes a fascinating viewpoint character too. Ben Styke is the most conventional protagonist, but he’s also well done, and I always looked forward to his segments too. Readers of the original trilogy will see some unexpected but welcome familiar faces (I totally called one of the characters the first time they appeared, which is probably useless information in a review, but I’m proud of myself and had to share it.)

The pacing is probably the weakest point of the book, but I’d only call it weak if I was trying really hard to find something negative to say. For the first half of the book, I had no idea what was going on or what the ultimate plot of the book was going to be, but once things started falling into place, the revelations kept coming. My only major complaint is that I want to find out what happens next, and I don’t know when the next book is coming out.


Sins of Empire by Brian McClellan (Gods of Blood and Powder, #1)
Orbit Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Green Rider” by Kristen Britain

Karigan G’ladheon has just been suspended from her school for getting into a fight with an influential noble’s son. As she’s making her way home, she runs into a dying messenger who asks her to deliver his message to the king. She agrees, but what she thinks will be a simple journey turns into something much bigger when she is chased by agents of a mysterious power and encounters magic that she thought was long dead.

If I had one word to describe Green Rider, it would be “mediocre”. It is a pretty standard fantasy novel – we have the reluctant hero with latent magical powers, a long journey where the hero is chased by a representative of a long-dead evil, an intelligent mount, etc. In concept it’s probably most similar to Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar. I usually don’t have a problem with fantasy clichés (see my review of The Shadow of What Was Lost for example), but I don’t think this book ever rose beyond its clichés.  Karigan was an extremely bland protagonist, even after reading the entire book, I couldn’t tell you anything about her personality. Other characters seemed to just do whatever the plot required of them.

I don’t think I will be continuing with other books in this series.


Green Rider by Kristen Britain (Green Rider, #1)
DAW Books, 1998 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


Review & Giveaway: “The Collapsing Empire” by John Scalzi

Note: For instructions on how to enter the giveaway, see the bottom of this post.


The Inderdependency is an interstellar empire that has flourished for over a thousand years, ruled by the emperoxes of Hub and built upon the backbone of the Flow – an extradimensional field that makes faster than light travel possible. Imperial bastard Cardenia Wu-Patrick has just ascended to the throne, and she is woefully underprepared, having spent most of her life out of the spotlight assuming her brother would be emperox. Just as she comes to terms with her new responsibility, she learns that the Flow is collapsing, and that means the empire will soon be gone and humanity might go with it. It’s up to her to figure out how to save the empire. with help from noble merchant Kiva Lagos and Flow physicist Marce Claremont. I’m always excited for a new Scalzi book – I think of his work as popcorn science fiction. It’s light reading and it’s usually got a pretty good sense of humour, but it’s also science fiction so it has some cool ideas. I was especially looking forward to The Collapsing Empire because I like space opera, and Scalzi’s other space opera universe (Old Man’s War) hasn’t been doing much new worldbuilding in recent installments.

The Collapsing Empire met all of my expectations, but still managed to be somewhat different from Scalzi’s other work. It’s grander in scale (more operatic in space opera terms) than the Old Man’s War books, it focuses more on the empire and the larger story of humanity than it does on individual people’s character arcs. The characters don’t really grow or change, they are just the viewpoint from which we see the next great change in human history unfold. I mean, you still empathize with the characters, there are some emotional moments, particularly for Cardenia, but the focus is definitely not on those elements. This book is also a little more adult-themed than Scalzi’s usual work – there’s politics (intrigue, betrayal, plots, etc.), more explicit sex scenes (which I don’t remember Scalzi doing before), and a lot of swearing (mostly courtesy of the Lagos family.)

I had a couple of problems with the book. One of them is that I think I was supposed to like Kiva Lagos (Scalzi has called her one of his favorite characters ever), but I thought she seemed like a terrible person. I can appreciate a good greedy merchant (Quark is one of my favorite characters in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) but Kiva didn’t seem to have any heart, even though she mostly ends up being on the side of the good guys. Another problem is that I felt like the book didn’t tell a complete story, it seemed like it was just moving things into place for the rest of the series Most of the book revolved around getting people to acknowledge that the Flow was collapsing, and it was a serious problem and the antagonists’ plans didn’t seem to make a huge difference to the grand scheme of things. Also, sometimes the characters’ propensity for quips in serious situations can get annoying, but that’s something Scalzi does in all his books and I know to expect, so it wasn’t a real problem.

There are plenty of good things about this book, though. Most of the characters are easy to root for, and the antagonists aren’t just cardboard villains. There’s some good tension in the book when you’re not quite sure what’s going to happen next. And the idea of humanity settling mostly on artificial environments like space stations and becoming reliant on interstellar commerce, then suddenly losing the ability for faster-than-light travel is fascinating. I can’t wait to find out what happens next, especially with the situation at the end of The Collapsing Empire.


Tor Books is letting me give away one copies of The Collapsing Empire! To enter, please email me at kriti@justaworldaway.com with subject “The Collapsing Empire” and your name and mailing address (US/Canada only). This giveaway is open until Mar 25, 2017.

Note on privacy: I will not be using your email address or mailing address for any purpose other than this specific giveaway. If you win, your mailing address will be forwarded to the book’s publisher (Tor Books, in this case) so that they can mail you the book, but they won’t ever see your email address.


The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi (The Collapsing Empire, #1)
Tor Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers

The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet has been on my wishlist for a while – I’d heard great things about it, and feel-good character focused science fiction sounded right up my alley. I’ve been reading a lot of review copies lately, and while many of them have been good, I wanted to read something that I’d been looking forward to for a while.

Rosemary Harper is the newest member of the crew of the Wayfarer, a spaceship that drills holes in space-time to create new faster-than-light routes between planets. The Wayfarer is unusual in that it has a multispecies crew, and they’re all one big family – something Rosemary never expected to find.

There’s no overarching antagonist in this book, it’s just about the crew of the Wayfarer (humans, aliens, and AI) going on a space roadtrip, learning about themselves and growing as people, and becoming even closer. It’s cozy, and you end up liking everybody by the end. The worldbuilding is great, it’s pretty much everything that makes a science fictional universe fun (to me, at least) – lots of alien species that are actually different from each other, faster than light travel, galactic politics, a run-down spaceship with a ragtag but loving crew (okay, that’s more the characters than the world), and even a galactic Wikipedia-type thing.

I really enjoyed this book, but it still had some obvious flaws. Every crew member in the book gets their own character growth arc, and even though that was satisfying in a lot of ways, it also made the book seem too neat. Not everyone got a happy ending tied up in a bow, but they all changed in important ways, and it all fit the timeline of the journey. It also made the characters seem flat, and too convenient at times, and it made me not invest in them as much. I didn’t end up feeling close to any of them, like I do with the best character-driven books.

Despite its problems, this book was good enough that I’ve pre-ordered the next book, A Closed And Common Orbit. It arrives in about ten days and I’m pretty excited to read it.


The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (Wayfarers, #1)
Harper Voyager, 2016 | Buy the book


“The Ghost Map” by Steven Johnson

I was looking for a good book to buy for one of my friends who likes reading about history and medicine, and I remembered The Ghost Map, a book that many of the people I follow on LibraryThing read and loved. One of my pet peeves is buying someone a book that I don’t own myself, so I also bought myself a copy and read it when I was looking for a break from speculative fiction.

The Ghost Map is about the terrible Broad Street cholera epidemic in London in 1854. The epidemic claimed over six hundred lives, but also sparked an investigation that led to the foundations of the science of epidemiology and underscored the importance of proper sanitation and public health. We follow two investigators – local doctor John Snow, who had been looking for more data on cholera for a long time, and young assistant curate Henry Whitehead, who was increasingly concerned about his parishioners being decimated. Whitehead’s local knowledge and Snow’s methodical nature and medical skills combined helped prove that cholera was spread via contaminated water, rather than the ineffable “miasma” that was the prevailing theory of the time.

This book was well-written and well-researched, but I was far more compelled by the first half of the book. The author plops you down in the sights, smells, and sounds of Victorian London as he sets the stage for the start of the epidemic, and it’s pretty amazing. You really get a sense of what it was like for the residents of Broad Street, much of it is familiar, and the unfamiliar parts are explained with full context. However, once the investigation gets underway, it felt like there wasn’t a full book length of material there, and the author was trying to stretch it in creative ways. He talks up the opposing viewpoints of Whitehead and Snow, but there’s no drama there – Snow had the evidence, and Whitehead was convinced by it. Some of the later material also seemed a little repetitive. And occasionally the author goes on tangents where he draws conclusions that didn’t really matter to the narrative, but worse, didn’t seem backed up by anything (I checked the citations) – one example being alcoholism as an evolutionary predilection for some races of people.

The conclusion of the book was also somewhat weak, there was a bunch of tangential stuff about the various things maps are useful for, and the connection to the cholera outbreak map was extremely tenuous. The author also takes the opportunity to advocate strongly for his belief that humans should be striving for urbanization, which also didn’t seem connected to the rest of the book other than the fact that London is a city.

Overall, I’d recommend this book for its engaging portrayal of what it was like to live in 1854 London and to learn more about how humanity started making meaningful progress into investigating and managing epidemics. It’s definitely a popular non-fiction book though, and prioritizes shock value over thoroughness.


The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
Riverhead Books, 2005 | Buy the book


“The Sudden Appearance of Hope” by Claire North

I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Sudden Appearance of Hope. Despite falling under the broad genre of “speculative fiction”, it’s different in many ways from my usual fare.

The protagonist of the book is Hope, a woman who cannot be remembered for more than 60 seconds unless you’re in an active conversation with her. She ends up using her “ability” to become a thief and a con-artist, but longs for normal human relationships. She’s doing pretty good with the strict rules she sets for herself, but she makes a mistake when a woman she enjoys spending time with commits suicide. She steals from people she would ordinarily have avoided, and that has serious consequences – she can’t just count on her abilities to hide her anymore, she has to figure out who she wants to be.

I don’t think I did justice to the book with that summary, it’s also a story about the logical extreme of our culture of conformity and oversharing – the app Perfection which ingests every piece of data about your life and gives you rewards if you fit its definition of what a human should be. Hope is one of the players in this story, and it doesn’t matter that she’s forgettable, except to her own personal arc.

I’m usually skeptical of media that features software or hacking as a major plot point; I’m a software engineer, and books and movies get it so wrong usually. I couldn’t really find fault with The Sudden Appearance of Hope, though – the description of connecting to the “darknet” via Tor, the details of how an app like Perfection would work, etc. It’s not perfect, but it was good enough that it didn’t draw me out of the story because it seemed implausible. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a huge compliment.

Anyway, I really liked this book. Hope is unique, of course – she is always alone in the most awful of ways, and and pulls you into her worldview with surprising ease. The supporting characters are compelling almost because of the nature of the story, they have to be idealistic enough find ways to interact with Hope in a meaningful way. The book explores lots of interesting ideas about the nature of identity, the dangers (and benefits) of surveillance, and humanity’s inexorable attraction to conformity, while managing to tell both a tight personal story about Hope, and a broader one about the effect of technology on the world.


The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North
Redhook, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Discount Armageddon” by Seanan McGuire

Discount Armageddon is the first book of the InCryptid urban fantasy series by Seanan McGuire. We follow Verity Price, a member of a family that has dedicated their lives to protecting the cryptid (monster) community (which also includes hunting the cryptids that become a threat to humans.) Verity has moved to New York City to try and decide between her two burgeoning careers – ballroom dance and cryptozoology, but her life becomes more complicated when a member of the Covenant (a rival society that takes a more hardline attitude towards cryptids) arrives in town, and then cryptids start disappearing mysteriously.

Urban fantasy is not my favorite genre – perhaps because cities and sexy clothes/hairdos and nightclubs and so on don’t really appeal to me, even as wish fulfillment. I did enjoy Jacqueline Carey’s Agent of Hel series, but that was more small-town fantasy than urban fantasy. But I’ve heard great things about Seanan McGuire, so I wanted to give this series a go.

As far as urban fantasy goes, Discount Armageddon was pretty good. Verity is a fun protagonist, she’s your typical sexy badass girl who carries a lot of weapons and knows how to use them while looking fabulous all the time (although she does get covered in blood and sewer-juice fairly often.) The central adventure was okay, although I felt like it was a little anticlimactic because the villains were all faceless and we didn’t get to know their motivations very well.

I really didn’t understand Verity’s relationship with her love interest, Dominic, who is supposed to be this cultish killer, but instead ends up being hot, interested in her, and willing to sacrifice all his beliefs that he’s grown up with pretty much instantly. Also, I found the character of Sarah somewhat inconsistent, she’s constantly described as an awkward mathematician, but nothing she said seemed that awkward or nerdy or mathematical to me (other than the one reference to Babylon 5, which I appreciated.) I mean, I know urban fantasy is supposed to be dumb fun, so maybe I’m reading too much into it.

Speaking of reading too much into things, I had so many questions about the world that were not satisfactorily answered. Why are certain animals classified as cryptids but others are just normal animals? – sapience doesn’t seem to have anything to do with it. How do cryptids keep themselves secret if there are so many different species of them? Why doesn’t the Covenant have a permanent presence in the U.S.? Why is this book called Discount Armageddon, other than it being a cool name? And so on…

It’s a good thing that I have questions because it means that I’m into the series enough to think about it. I’ll probably read the next book in the series fairly soon.


Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire (InCryptid, #1)
DAW Books, 2012 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Six Wakes” by Mur Lafferty

I haven’t read any good sci-fi in a while, so I was looking forward to reading Six Wakes. I’ve enjoyed Mur Lafferty’s other works (The Shambling Guides series), and I’ve even interviewed her on this blog.

Six Wakes is about a crew of a generation ship who wake up in clone bodies to a scene of carnage – their previous bodies are all dead or dying, and the last twenty five years of their memories are missing. As they try to reconstruct what happened and figure out who among them is a murderer, we learn more about their past lives and the politics of cloning.

The real star of this book is the concept of cloning. The author really delves into what our world would evolve into in a few hundred years if cloning and mindmapping was commonplace. I don’t agree with some of the predictions, but they’re consistent and fit the story well. First, we see what “normal” clones are like, and then we are slowly exposed to some of the bizarre (but completely understandable) ways that the technologies could be used.

The characters are good, but they’re a little flat, and I didn’t feel like I was able to connect with them. This could be because of expectations – the author’s Shambling Guides books are urban fantasy, and it’s a staple of the genre to show exactly what the protagonists are feeling and thinking. This is a very different kind of books, everyone on board has secrets they are hiding from each other and from the reader, so they’re pretty tightly buttoned up. I felt like that made the reveals a little awkward, because every member of the crew is also a point of view character at some point, but even though we know their immediate feelings, they never think about their secrets until after they are revealed. I understand that that kept the tension in the story, but I couldn’t help feeling like some of the revelations seemed to come from nowhere.

Sometimes I felt like the book had too much human drama, but the conclusion of the story is satisfying – the technology is cool throughout, but in the end, everything comes down to human decisions.


Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty
Orbit Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.