“Words of Radiance” by Brandon Sanderson

worSome context for this review: I’m a huge Brandon Sanderson fan, and I thought The Way of Kings was his best book, so I was really sure I would love this book. I re-read the first book in anticipation, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen next. I’m glad (but not surprised) to say that I wasn’t disappointed at all.

Spoilers for The Way of Kings follow.

Words of Radiance picks up right where the previous book left off, with Jasnah and Shallan on their way to the Shattered Plains and a newly confident Dalinar Kholin plotting with Elhokar on how to unite the highprinces. As expected, both efforts run into some difficulty. I’m not going to say any more about the plot because I don’t want to give anything away. I’ll just say that events take some pretty shocking turns, and also some wonderful ones.

This was advertised as “the Shallan book”, and we certainly learn a lot more about her in it. It is spread out over several flashbacks, and we don’t get all of it until the end (which drove me crazy, because I had to constantly keep myself from skipping ahead to the next flashback). Her story was not what I expected, and I ended up liking her even more because of it – she’s been through a lot and turned out fairly well. Her powers are tied perfectly to her story, and I can’t wait to see what she does with them next.We also learn a lot more about the world of Roshar and the wider events going on in this book (often through the perspective of a one-time narrator). It was especially nice to get a Parshendi viewpoint, and see their side of things first-hand. A lot more also happens that I thought Sanderson would wait a few more books to reveal, which is pretty exciting. The world is changing quickly.

I really like that the heroes in this book are not inherently noble and good; they don’t always know what the right thing to do is. Instead, they are the products of their experiences, and they have to struggle with it. If there was a theme to this book, I’d say it was the characters coming to terms with themselves – Dalinar did this in the first book, and now it’s everyone else’s turn.Some random observations:

  • We get a lot more Adolin in this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
  • There is romance in this book, and it was fun. I’m just hoping it doesn’t turn into a love triangle, because that would be frustrating.
  • Roshar is a pretty small place, because characters I never thought I’d see again return, and are given good character development.
  • Some characters that I thought would be pretty significant given the way the last book ended didn’t end up getting much screen (page?) time.
  • I love that each of the Stormlight Archive books is named after a fictional book – I hope that trend continues.
  • Even though we learned a lot in this book, there are so many unanswered questions…

I’m not saying this was a perfect book, though – I had some issues. Many of the characters suffer a big shock in the book, and I felt like they took in stride too easily. Except one person, no one seemed to think about or talk about it. I was also annoyed that some plot developments happened off-screen, but I guess a lot of ground was covered in this book that wouldn’t have been able to be covered if we’d spent time with that character. However, my only major complaint is that I have to wait a year or more for the next book.

“Arrows of the Queen” by Mercedes Lackey

arrows-of-the-queen-1I’ve been wanting to read Mercedes Lackey for a long time, but she’s so prolific that I had no idea where to start! But then I received Arrows of the Queen as one of my SantaThing (LibraryThing’s Secret Santa type event) books for Christmas, which is apparently Lackey’s first published book, so it seemed like a great place to start.

Arrows of the Queen is set in the country of Valdemar, which is protected by the noble Heralds and their horse-like Companions. Talia is a young girl from a remote homesteading culture that is selected by a Companion and taken to become a Herald – something she has dreamed of all her life, but never actually dreamed would happen. Her task is to be the advisor to the Queen, which means she has to learn a lot in very little time.

There is not much of a plot to this book; it focuses mainly on Talia settling in and feeling at home with her destiny to be a Herald and training in the Collegium. She solves some problems, learns to cope with bullying, loss and rejection, and grows up. The Heralds are all ridiculously honourable, which makes for little conflict, and the few conflicts that occur are usually resolved off-screen. The characters all have their own distinct personality, but Lackey does a lot of telling, not showing – I don’t know if that was just a stylistic choice or because it was her first book.

Despite the simplicity of the story, the book never felt boring – the character interactions were charming, the events flew by quickly, and Talia dealt with some pretty complex issues. I expected the narrative style to grate on me after a while, but it never did.

I’m looking forward to reading about the rest of Talia’s adventures and more Valdemar tales afterwards!

“Expiration Day” by William Campbell Powell

expdayI’ve started avoiding the entire YA genre because pretty much every book I hear about seems to involve an implausible dystopia built around societies of arbitrarily capitalised Nouns and a female teenager that disrupts it whilst choosing between her “nice” and her “sexy” love interests. When I read about the premise of Expiration Day (a young woman discovers that many of her classmates are androids and her society is not all it seems), I figured it would be more of the same. I was not expecting the thoughtful, character-driven science fiction story that it actually was.

In the near future, most humans are no longer fertile, and human-like androids are used to substitute for children. We follow Tania Deeley, a vicar’s daughter, through her diary entries from age eleven onwards. This book is a coming of age novel; the “Expiration Day” mystery (why do androids need to eventually be returned to the corporation that made them?) is not important except for when it drives Tania’s story forward. We watch Tania grow up and slowly learn more about the world around her and herself, supported by a wonderful and three dimensional cast of secondary characters.

The worldbuilding is pretty interesting too; I was initially sceptical of the premise (android children seemed implausible), but Powell has constructed a world where it makes sense. The only quibble I have was with the ending, which seemed far too neat.

In conclusion, if you’re a YA fan, read this! If you’re getting disillusioned with YA tropes, read this!

“The Quiet War” by Paul McAuley

QuietWarThe Quiet War is set in the 23rd century in a fully colonised solar system. War is brewing between conservative Earth and the solar system colonists called Outers, who push the envelope on what it means to be human constantly. The protagonists of the book are very different, but they are caught in this building momentum – an ambitious geneticist whose star is rising, a genetically-engineered clone soldier, a junior scientist whose curiosity makes her a liability, a pilot who volunteers to test a dangerous new technology, and a power-hungry diplomat.

I expected The Quiet War to be focused on the military, but instead it’s a slow burning political book that portrays the inevitability of conflict, despite almost nobody actually wanting one. It does this rather well, hampered only by the frequent and long passages on the technical details of ecosystem building (which are fascinating, but don’t add much to the story – atmosphere can be overdone).

McAuley’s descriptive abilities are put to good use when he describes the colonised solar system, though – the Outers’ colonies are vividly beautiful and inspire awe. It seems like a doable near-future vision of space colonisation, which is something I would love to see happen in my lifetime.

The protagonists are not terribly sympathetic, but they do a good job of illustrating how people from pretty much every walk of life are drawn into the war. Some of the protagonists’ quirks (Sri’s odd relationship with her son, for example) seemed like attempts to make the character multidimensional, but instead ended up feeling pointlessly uncomfortable. I think one particular viewpoint (Cash) could’ve been totally cut – I didn’t really get what he added to the story, since Dave 8 had had the whole “engineered soldier PoV” covered.

The Quiet War is fairly standalone, but I think it could use a little closure on the war, so I’m looking forward to reading the next installment, Gardens of the Sun.

“Consider Phlebas” by Iain M. Banks

I’ve heard a lot about Iain M. Banks’ Culture universe, but hadn’t read any of his books for a long time. I was inspired by the start of the new year to set up a group read of all of the books over on LibraryThing, and Consider Phlebas was the first book I read in 2014.

8935689Consider Phlebas follows Bora Horza Gobuchul, a spy and assassin for the Idirans, who are at war with the Culture. He is sent on a mission to retrieve a lost Mind, an Culture AI, who has landed on one of the forbidden Planets of the Dead. Along the way, he has incredible adventures and narrowly avoids capture by the Culture. Despite all the action-adventure, I would not call this a fun book, but it was a very, very good book.

Unlike most of the books I read, I had a fair amount of preconceptions going into this one, since I’d heard about the Culture for so long (Wikipedia calls it “a post-scarcity semi-anarchist utopia consisting of various humanoid races and managed by very advanced artificial intelligences”). I was expecting a dense hard SF novel with unfathomably alien characters and plot primarily driven by worldbuilding ideas. I was not expecting the poignant character development or the incisive look at the sidelines of war, and those are what made this book great.

Two minor criticisms – one of the chapters has a fair amount of visceral body-horror, which I did not enjoy at all; I wish that Banks had chosen to display the craziness of his universe some other way. I also wish that there was more insight into the Culture, and how it works from the inside, but there are plenty more books in the universe for me to get that.

“Burning Paradise” by Robert Charles Wilson

16059400Burning Paradise follows Cassie Klyne and various members of her family, who are members of a secret organisation that knows the truth about humanity’s history. They are in hiding; since Cassie’s parents and many more Society members have been killed for this knowledge, and it seems like a new round of killings is about to begin.

This book takes an interesting premise – a spacefaring alien hivemind has been subtly influencing human affairs, resulting in an alternate history where World War I never happened – and transforms it into an incredibly dull book. The characters are flat, and what personality they do display is unlikeable or some flavour of paranoid. The central conflict makes no sense; the human characters seem superfluous to the plot. The ending seems to have been intended to pack an emotional punch, but it just came across as nonsensical to me.

The aliens are supposedly intelligent but lack self consciousness (despite its ability to interfere with human communication with specific agendas and its ability to control human avatars that are indistinguishable from natural humans) – this is taken for granted and constantly touted by the scientist protagonist. Since this distinction is emphasised so much, and I figured a scientist wouldn’t be so certain about the nature of sentience so easily, I expected something to come of it, but all it seems to do is be a plot device to dehumanise the aliens to justify the characters’ hatred.

The other significant thing I disliked about this book was its portrayal of humanity as chomping at the bit to go to war, stopped only by missing telegrams and edited messages. I found it implausible and incredibly pessimistic. This view of humanity seems to carry to the individuals in this book too – like I mentioned, they were bland/boring at best and paranoid and unlikable at worst. Burning Paradise wasn’t a pleasant book to read, and it didn’t have anything else to redeem it, either.

“Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TPI’ve been hearing rave reviews of Ancillary Justice everywhere, so when I finally got my copy, I pounced on it and finished it that very night. Despite the sky-high expectations, I was not disappointed – it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

The protagonist of Ancillary Justice is Breq, the sole remnant of the sentient starship Justice of Toren of the Radch Empire.  She (it?) has been seeking vengeance after the rest of her was destroyed, and on a remote, icy planet, she’s getting close to the end of her quest. I don’t want to say any more about the premise because anything I say would focus on only a small part of what this book encompasses, and I think that would be doing it a disservice.

Breq’s viewpoint is fascinating – she is someone who is accustomed to perceiving and processing millions of things in many different locations and ways – sometimes through pieces of mechanical equipment, sometimes through human bodies (called ancillaries). She looks human but has never been human, so the things she pays attention to and the thoughts she has are very different. The story alternates between Breq’s present quest, and the events that led to it (when Breq had her full capabilities as Justice of Toren), so we see her character evolve (devolve?).

Ancillary Justice examines humanity in an incredibly compelling way – by omission. Breq pays absolutely no attention to the fact that her ancillaries were once fully human, or to other characters’ dismay over that fact. There is one disturbing scene where a new ancillary is connected to the ship, and the only thing the ship comments on as it squelches the human’s memories is that it is irritated that the host doesn’t know any new songs that it could learn. The way supporting characters feel is also clear through Breq’s narration – some are in love, some are scared, but much of the time, Breq has no awareness of what their actions mean, or even of her own feelings.

Many of the other concepts in this novel are also explored via omission – individuality and gender are two examples. Justice of Toren‘s individuality is murky – each ancillary unit has its own personality (or maybe just Breq’s origin – One Esk?), but they’re part of the ship. The Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, further adds to this murkiness – supposedly she is a single entity with thousands of genetically identical bodies – but is she? Gender is similar – The Radch Empire is a post-gender society, and Breq has a really hard time identifying people’s gender in other societies. I tried really hard to keep track of people’s “real” genders for the first few chapters, but then came to realise it didn’t matter at all.

Despite all the hard science-fictional concepts, Ancillary Justice never gets lost in its own ideas – it is well-paced and extremely readable all the way through. I could go on and on about pretty much everything in this book – the worldbuilding, its exploration of another half a dozen concepts, the characters, and much more, but instead I’ll just tell you that this is one of the most original and ambitious books I’ve read, and exhort you to read it as soon as possible!

“Fortune’s Pawn” by Rachel Bach

Fortunes-Pawn-250x369Another short review so I can catch up with reviews faster. Warning: mild spoilers.

Fortune’s Pawn follows Devi Morris, an armoured mercenary who is impatient about the pace that her career is progressing at. She takes a security job with the Glorious Fool, a ship where a one year assignment equals five years anywhere else. However, there’s a reason for this, and even Devi might be way in over her head.

This book was a lot of fun to read. The worldbuilding is immersive, the pacing is breakneck, and Devi is a great protagonist – smart, loyal, and sometimes so impatient/impulsive that you want to yell at her.

The one major thing I didn’t like about the book was the romantic interest – I generally don’t care for love-at-first-sight (lust is fine!), and the whole “I’m too dangerous; stay away from me” thing felt cliched and terrible. Plus, Devi has to be rescued by him a couple of times, and it makes her look bad – everyone (including her) is always talking about what a good mercenary she is, but she seems to fail at everything just so she can be rescued by Rupert.

I’m looking forward to the next book – Honor’s Knight – hopefully there will be more Devi being badass and less mysterious/dangerous love interest cliches!

“The Android’s Dream” by John Scalzi

androids-dream-john-scalzi-paperback-cover-artI’m very behind on reviews, so I’m going to make this one short. I got this book for Christmas, and as a huge Scalzi fan, I was excited to read it.

The Android’s Dream is a science-fiction comedy (like Scalzi’s previous Agent to the Stars). There has been a diplomatic incident with the Nidu, a race of not-that-powerful-but-still-more-powerful-than-Earth aliens, and war looms on the horizon – unless a specimen of a rare variety of sheep can be found. Harry Creek, a mid-level State department bureaucrat and war veteran, is tasked with getting to the bottom of the events.

The best word to describe this book is a “romp”. There are layered conspiracies, refreshingly practical religious zealots, artificial intelligences, and a lot more. The tone of the book reminded me of a (revived) Doctor Who episode – lots of witty banter and ridiculousness, some heart and a deus ex machina resolution that you don’t really want to look at closely.

I liked this book fairly well, but I prefer Scalzi’s more serious books – the Old Man’s War books, Fuzzy Nation and Redshirts. I hear that The God Engines is his least comedic work, so I’m pretty excited about reading that one someday too.

“Twenty-First Century Science Fiction” edited by David G. Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden

21st-Century-243x366Twenty-First Century Science Fiction features stories from sci-fi authors that have risen to prominence since 2000. All of these stories are new to me (apparently I don’t read enough short stories!) and the collection contained a pretty wide spread of subgenre and length of stories.

One thing that struck me about this collection is that more often than not, humanity is portrayed with such pessimism – apparently in the future, we’re going to be more and more cold, power-hungry and selfish. Most of my favourite stories in this collection had robot protagonists. As a huge Star Trek fan, my default view of humanity has always been optimistic, so I found the onslaught of cynicism somewhat disconcerting. I wish the editors had varied the tone a little.

As per my usual anthology review format, I’m not going to talk about all the stories, just the ones I liked most and least. The stories I enjoyed the most:

“Infinities” by Vandana Singh

This opening story was set in India (where I’m from), and I was thrilled to read sci-fi written by an Indian writer. I have no idea if this story is objectively good, but it was cozy and familiar and poignant. It involves an old mathematics teacher who dreams of seeing infinity. The sci-fi aspect of the story is pretty subtle.

“Eros, Philia, Agape” by Rachel Swirsky

Anyone who says science fiction can’t pack a deep emotional impact needs to read this story. It offers a fresh new twist on the trope of the robot wanting to be human, but backs it up with the real relationship of a robot, a human and their daughter.

“Tideline” by Elizabeth Bear

I’ve read and loved Elizabeth Bear’s fantasy, and now I can’t wait to read more of her sci-fi work. A forgotten military robot strikes up a friendship with a feral teenager, but her power is running out. Another moving story.

“Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal

This is a very short story – about two pages long, but it takes as incisive look at genetic manipulation and animal testing, while also managing to be touching.

“The Algorithms For Love” by Ken Liu

If pressed, this would probably be my favourite story of the collection. A designer of AI-like dolls is so successful that she starts to lose faith in free will and intelligence itself.

“Ikiryoh” by Liz Williams

An exiled genetically engineered being takes care of a disturbed little girl sent to her by the current goddess-ruler. The world of this story is what made me fall in love with it; the science fiction ideas are incidental, but seemed a little bit more like fantasy.

“Second Person, Present Tense” by Daryl Gregory

The protagonist of this story is a teenager who has overdosed on a drug that completely erased her personality. She’s spent years being coached to be who she was before, but she just can’t seem to do it. I loved the exploration of identity and consciousness, and it was very believable.

“Balancing Accounts” by James Cambias

One of the most fun stories in the collection. In this future, there are so many robots that there’s a robot society within human society, and our protagonist rocketship/odd job robot is one of them. His latest cargo seems like a lot of trouble, but he needs to make his human owners money, so he takes it on anyway. I imagined the world described to be kind of like the excellent game Machinarium.

Other good stories: The Tale of the Wicked by John Scalzi (Scalzi as a writer is kind of like Hugh Grant as an actor – he does the same thing all the time, but does it excellently), Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction by Jo Walton (I need to read her books!), A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel by Yoon Ha Lee (a story in encyclopaedia form!), How to Become a Mars Overlord by Catherynne M. Valente (a story in guide form!), The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi (journalism in the future!), The Calculus Plague by Marisa Lingen (memories transmitted virally!), and His Master’s Voice by Hannu Rajaniemi (a dog and a cat set out to rescue their master, armed with very cool technology).

The ones I wasn’t as thrilled by:

“Rogue Farm” by Charles Stross

I’m not going to say this was a bad story… I just didn’t get it. I wasn’t sure why the farm was called a farm; it seemed to just exist so we could be amused at the idea of a farm trundling towards a farmhouse. I didn’t understand why the protagonist was so anti-farm even before he knew what it wanted to do (hillbilly joke?). This story wasn’t for me.

“Third Day Lights” by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Another story that I was just plain confused by. A sci-fi story involving pocket universes and the future of humanity, but borrows heavily from fantasy tropes. I didn’t get the romance, and I didn’t get the pocket-universe creatures.

“The Island” by Peter Watts

This was a well-written and compelling story, but it just made me depressed to read it. The protagonist is a crewmember on a automated starship designed to make space travel gates, but they’ve been doing it for millions of years and seen civilisations rise and fall countless times, and the AI controlling the ship won’t let them stop. In this story, they encounter something that they’ve never seen before (and that part is awesome!)

Overall, this is definitely worth buying. It’s a great introduction to a lot of authors, as well as to the staggering breadth of SF.