“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.

“Dangerous Women” edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

076533206X.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_I was really excited about this anthology! I love anthologies, I love kickass women, and the Martin-Dozois anthologies attract the best fantasy writers. I’ve read and liked one of their anthologies (Songs of Love and Death) before, but this one blew it out of the park!

Dangerous Women doesn’t just feature sci-fi/fantasy stories; there are a variety of genres represented. This makes the collection have an incredibly broad range. The eponymous dangerous women are all pretty different too – physically or magically powerful women, women who flourish despite their circumstances, femme fatales, vengeful ghosts, and more. Sometimes they drive the plot, sometimes they’re the protagonist, and sometimes they’re both.

I enjoyed some stories more than others, but unusually, I didn’t think any fell flat. Some were disturbing or implausible, but I think they still made good additions to the anthology. I’m not going to review every story, but I’ll talk a bit about some standouts.

The Hands That Are Not There by Melinda Snodgrass

This story takes place in the same universe as one of my favourites from Songs of Love and Death, and I was immediately pulled into this universe again. Unfortunately there aren’t any full-length books in this universe, but I’m hoping there will be soon! It involves an extraordinary story told in a bar, which if were true, would have incredible repercussions.

Shadows For Silence in the Forests of Hell by Brandon Sanderson

I don’t really like the title of the story, but the story itself was fantastic. It’s set in Sanderson’s Cosmere (although I don’t know what planet) and features a terrifying world and a resourceful woman who makes it a little safer. I’m probably biased by my indefatigable love for Sanderson, but I loved this story.

Bombshells by Jim Butcher

I’ve only read the first book of the Dresden Files, but this story made me really want to catch up with it (it also contains major spoilers for the direction of the series, but I didn’t mind that). It features Molly, Harry Dresden’s apprentice and some other Dresdenverse women on a mission. Molly gets some great character development, and there’s a lot of gratuitous ass-kicking. Some of it was a little cliched, but it was so much fun that I didn’t mind.

A Queen in Exile by Sharon Kay Penman and Nora’s Song by Cecelia Holland

Both of these stories were historical fiction and featured women figuring out how to become dangerous in a male-dominated world. Other than that, they were fairly different – in the former, Constance, future Queen of Sicily, takes charge of her unhappy life and in the latter, a young Eleanor of England, Queen of Castile learns how to get her way. I found both fascinating, and I really need to read more historical fiction.

My Heart Is Either Broken by Megan Abbott

I don’t want to say very much about this heartbreaking story, but it examines the emotional consequences of knowing a truly dangerous woman. Or thinking you do.

Lies My Mother Told Me by Caroline Spector

This story is set in the shared Wild Cards universe, and involves a superhero that goes from having dangerous powers to being truly dangerous even without her powers. I found it very poignant.

I could keep going, but I’ll just say that I also loved Some Desperado by Joe Abercrombie (I can’t wait to see more of Shy in his latest book, Red Country), The Girl in the Mirror by Lev Grossman, Name The Beast by Sam Sykes, and Raisa Stepanova by Carrie Vaughn (I haven’t read anything by Vaughn that I haven’t loved). The Princess and the Queen by George R.R. Martin read like the dry medieval telling that it was meant to be, but was strangely fascinating.

The stories I wasn’t as thrilled about:

I Know How to Pick ‘Em by Lawrence Block

This is an extremely well-written story, but it left me feeling unclean just having read it (which seems intentional). It definitely adds to the diversity of the anthology, but I wish I hadn’t read it. It probably didn’t help that I was envisioning Tricia Helfer as the “dangerous woman” in the story.

Second Arabesque, Very Slowly by Nancy Krees

The idea behind this story was fascinating (discovering beauty in an ugly world), and I was somewhat touched by the ending, but I was distracted by finding the worldbuilding implausible – 99% of women are sterile, and civilisation totally breaks down. I can see how women’s place in society would change significantly, but I don’t think cities and technology would be completely destroyed. I didn’t even mind the world, but the cause of it seemed forced.

Pronouncing Doom by S.M. Stirling

I got the gist of this story, but was thoroughly confused by the world. American society is now heavily influenced by ancient Scottish/Irish tradition, and this all happens within a few years? I found out that this is set in the “Emberverse”, but I don’t think there’s enough of an introduction to this universe for people not already familiar with it.

That ended up being much longer than I anticipated. Summary: this is one of the best anthologies I’ve ever read. Buy it!

“The Republic of Thieves” by Scott Lynch

Republic of ThievesI just want to say “YAY, GIMME MORE!”, but I don’t think that would be a very good review, so I’ll try and extract some coherence from my general happy feelings about this book.

The Gentlemen Bastards is one of my favourite fantasy series – I love the world, I love the characters, I love the writing, I love the capers, I love the structure. Naturally, I was really excited to finally receive my pre-order of The Republic of Thieves (although I ended up not reading it for over a month because I didn’t want my life to go back to a world where I didn’t have more of the series to read). Also, naturally, the book was not just amazing. it exceeded my sky-high expectations!

With all the hype built up about Sabetha, I wasn’t sure if I should be looking forward to finally meeting her. I was fully expecting her to play a cat-and-mouse game, leading an obviously infatuated Locke on – something I wasn’t looking forward to. Happily, this wasn’t the case – Sabetha is endearing as well as being beautiful, confident and more than a match for Locke and Jean. Her reluctance to put down roots makes complete sense with her determination to be independent in the male-dominated world she lives in (something Locke and Jean have never considered). I also really enjoyed Locke and Sabetha’s relationship; it’s rare that a fictional relationship is so realistically based on good communication.

Okay, now that we have Sabetha out of the way – the rest of the book was also pretty awesome. I really enjoy that I get introduced to a new part of the world every book. Karthain, the dominion of the Bondsmagi, was a really interesting place, and of course, Locke and Jean have a new con to run – rigging an election. Except that this time, it’s not really their choice. The book had a slow start; Locke is still poisoned because of the fallout from his previous adventure, and Lynch does a good/scary job of portraying exactly how helpless he is. Once it gets going though, the plot moves at a breakneck speed.

This book also has extensive flashbacks (they occupy about half the book) about Locke and Sabetha’s time in Father Chains’ gang and how their relationship develops. There are several smaller incidents and then one large adventure, and Lynch does a great job of building a similar amount of tension in the flashbacks as the present day storyline, so I didn’t mind the alternating chapters at all. It was great to get more backstory on the dynamic of the group with Sabetha in it, as well as the awkward-adolescence phase.

I always figured that the Gentlemen Bastards series would veer in the direction of a more traditional fantasy epic (the suddenly vanished Eldren civilisation, the presence of a formal order of wizards), and we finally get our first inklings of that in this book. We find out more about where Locke came from (although nothing can be trusted in these books), and also a little more speculation about the nature of the fallen Eldren civilisation. Nothing is different yet (aside from the usual fallout accompanying Locke and Jean), but I’m excited to see what comes of it.

Okay, I can’t be articulate any more. This series is incredible, and so is this book. Read it!

“The Best of All Possible Worlds” by Karen Lord

I started writing this review over a month ago, and I still don’t think I can do a good job summarising my thoughts about this book, so I’m just going to go ahead and post this.

bestofallpossibleworldsThere are some books that haunt you for days after you’re done reading them, and The Best of All Possible Worlds is one of them.

Many science fiction novels tell stories of species-spanning conflicts, world-changing technologies, and boundary-stretching discoveries. These ideas are what attract many readers to sci-fi, and the Best of All Possible Worlds has its fair share of them. However, the biggest sense of wonder comes from its exquisite portrayal of a developing relationship.

The Sadiri home planet has been destroyed by an unprovoked attack, and some of them settle on Cygnus Beta, a world full of refugees trying to recreate their homes. The worst has already happened. There are probably spies trying to figure out how the attack was caused, starships trying to prevent the disaster, political scheming to gain power. This book does not focus on those people (although you’re very much aware that all of that is going on in the background).

Instead, it focuses on Grace Delarua, a Cygnian government employee and Vulcan-like Sadiri Councillor Dllenakh, whom she is helping with transitioning his people to their new world. They gradually fall in love – yes, this is a technically a romance novel, but it’s unlike anything else I’ve ever read. I think that the romance grows organically from the situations and the characters; it’s not an end unto itself. Dllenakh and Delarua are very believable. There are very few romantic tropes – no instant hatred, no moments of irresistible physical attraction – just two people getting to know and like each other slowly.

Although Dllenakh and Delarua are the main focus of the story, there are a lot of other things that happen. We get to explore Cygnus Beta, whose libertarian policies have led to an enormous variety of societies – feudal, tribal and fantasy-like. We learn more about the history of the universe and the various worlds. The supporting characters are well-fleshed out and grow over the course of the book. Even though most of the book is just an exploratory mission, the plot still advances and we get an exciting climax.

The only complaint I have is that the writing of the ending is somewhat cliché, I would’ve liked it to be as subtle as the rest of the book. That’s a very small quibble though, and overall, I can’t recommend this book enough!

“Agent to the Stars” by John Scalzi

agent to the stars by john scalziI’m a big fan of John Scalzi, and I’ve been wanting to read his first novel, Agent to the Stars, for a while and I finally got the opportunity to when Tor sent me a review copy. (I was going to buy it eventually anyway, but as soon as it arrived, I had to read it!)

The Yherjak are an alien race that want to make contact with humanity, but they are transparent gelatinous blobs who smell like rotten fish. From careful analysis of human movies and TV, they conclude that they’re not likely to inspire an accepting reaction. So they do the most natural thing in the world – hire an up-and-coming Hollywood agent, Tom Stein, to handle their introduction. Of course, hilarity ensues.

Agent to the Stars is a rather silly book. Like all of Scalzi’s work, it’s very entertaining and an easy read, but it doesn’t examine as many fun ideas as his later work (Old Man’s War builds a compelling version of human space exploration, Fuzzy Nation explores sentience and greed). Scalzi started off as a film critic, and this book exposes the breadth of his knowledge of Hollywood, and even though I wished there was more sci-fi, I really enjoyed these aspects.

The characterisation was somewhat one note – everyone is very nice and rational, or can be easily made to see sense and become so. I’m not really complaining, it was similar to an Aaron Sorkin show where everyone is witty and has a similar sense of humour, and that kind of story has its place. The aliens are really polite, and I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and their real plan to be revealed. They’re actually just genuinely nice aliens, though, which was was a refreshing change of pace.

The biggest problem I had with the book was the ending. I don’t want to spoil it, but I found the resolution of the PR problem exceedingly creepy, and it certainly would not make me look kindly upon the aliens. However, if you choose to not think too much about it and read Agent to the Stars as a straight comedy novel, it works really well. It was a bit hard for me to decide how seriously to take the book, since it was ridiculous most of the time, but was occasionally really earnest.

In the introduction, John Scalzi mentions that this book was his “trial” novel, to prove to himself that he could write a full length book. For that, it succeeds tremendously – it’s funny, smart and a really entertaining read. It’s not his best work, though.

“Billy Moon” by Douglas Lain

billymoonBilly Moon is Douglas Lain’s debut novel, and it’s one of the most original fantasies I’ve read recently. We follow an alternate version of the grown Christopher Robin Milne, who is still coping with the fame thrust upon him by the success of Winnie the Pooh. Things aren’t helped by the fact that he occasionally runs into things that are just plain impossible, and his son has been diagnosed with autism. As he struggles to connect with his son and make sense of his life in, he receives an invitation to Paris from student Gerrard Hand to join the May 1968 protests. The ensuing events form the meat of this book.

I had the constant feeling that I was missing something while reading Billy Moon, but I also had the suspicion that this feeling was what the author intended me to feel. The themes of the book make sense, the prose is lyrical and flows beautifully, the magical realism is expertly done – sometimes delighting, but often frightening. If you’re expecting a linear story where you know exactly what’s going on, or even which reality you’re on… this is not the book for you. I was left with a whole bunch of confusion at the end, but even though I was confused, at no point did I actually want to stop reading the book.

I wasn’t quite sure whether I should even attempt a review of Billy Moon, since I don’t really have a clear verdict on it. I hope that posting my honest reaction qualifies, even if it’s not in the traditional review format. I did read other reviews, and they seem universally glowing (I was tempted to write a similarly glowing one myself rather than admit to not quite getting everything in it), so I’d definitely recommend giving it a shot (which is easy to do because I’m giving a copy away!).

I plan to do a reread in a few months to see if I can get more from it, though, and I’ll update this post when I do!

You might also be interested in my Billy Moon giveaway and interview with author, Douglas Lain. Keep an eye out for that post!

“The Magicians” by Lev Grossman

Cover_TheMagiciansI’ve been wary of reading The Magicians by Lev Grossman. I’d heard a lot of great things about the book, but I don’t usually like fantasy stories where the protagonists are older teens/adults from our world who discover a fantasy world; it tends to dampen the sense of wonder and discovery that usually accompanies the exploration of a new world. However, the Lev Grossman’s short story set in the Magicians universe in Shawn Speakman’s Unfettered anthology (which I still need to review at some point) persuaded me to finally buy myself a copy, and I’m glad I did!

I’ve heard The Magicians described as Harry Potter meets Narnia, and that’s not a bad description. We follow Quentin, a fairly nerdy and very smart teenager who’s obsessed with the Narnia-like magical land of Fillory. He’s close to graduating from high school when he has a “you’re a wizard, Harry!” moment and gets the opportunity to go to a magical college and soon has more exciting things to worry about than Fillory. But Fillory is not as imaginary as Quentin thinks…

I enjoyed this book tremendously because it works excellently in two very different genres – high fantasy, and contemporary coming of age. Fantasy often comes with a coming of age story, but it’s generally of the type where the protagonist needs to accept his destiny and become the hero he was meant to be. The Magicians has none of this – most of it is the story of Quentin growing up, making real friends, realising the unimportance of high school priorities, coping with the real world after college… all very familiar. Magic is almost secondary until the last quarter of the book where they find Fillory. And even then, Quentin and his friends act exactly how you’d expect regular twenty somethings to act, but Grossman spins it into a great fantasy story, managing to make the same situations both mesmerisingly wondrous and infuriatingly realistic.

On the surface, this seems like a ridiculous book. The protagonist is generally unlikeable, the settings are very similar to books you’ve probably read, and nothing really happens for more than half of the book. Don’t be scared, though, because all of this enables Lev Grossman to tell an entirely new type of fantasy story that’s very much grounded in reality. Read it!

“Transcendental” by James Gunn

transcendentalI’ve never read anything by SFWA Grand Master James Gunn, so I was very excited when I received a review copy of his newest novel, Transcendental from Tor.

Transcendental follows a variety of humans and aliens aboard a starship on a very unique pilgrimage – finding the machine that will help them achieve the mystical concept known as transcendence. The protagonist is Riley, a veteran of the recent Galactic War, who has been placed on the ship to find and kill the Prophet of the transcendence movement. As the journey progresses, though, it soon becomes clear that almost no one on the ship is what they seem.

I really enjoyed this book; it was a great science fiction yarn. It focuses a lot on universe-building and cool ideas, but is still fast-paced and entertaining (unlike quite a few classic sci-fi novels I could name). All of the pilgrims are fascinating characters individually, and together they give the impression of a very diverse and interesting universe. I thought the Canterbury Tales-style stories were a bit of a cheat at first, but the unreliable narration makes the stories multidimensional. The protagonist, Riley is a somewhat bland, but I think that actually strengthens the book – he’s a good representative of the human race, not a special snowflake of a human.

I’m often sceptical of the combination of science fiction and spirituality, even though I think they go naturally together (you always need something that keeps the sense of wonder going), so I was worried about all the hype being built up around the Transcendental Machine. I think it was resolved very well, though, and I didn’t have to suspend my disbelief as much as I thought I would.

I hope that there’s a sequel to Transcendental, because I would really love to spend more time in this universe!

You might also be interested in my interview with author James Gunn about Transcendental, how science fiction has changed over the years and other things.