“Time Salvager” by Wesley Chu

TimeSalvagerI hadn’t read anything by Wesley Chu before, but I’ve heard extravagant praise for the Lives of Tao series, so I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I didn’t think Time Salvager was very good – it had a great premise, but the writing was clunky, the plot is riddled with clichés and the characters seemed more like archetypes than people.

It’s the 26th century, and humanity is in danger of extinction due to centuries of war and resource limitations. The only thing keeping humanity going are the chronmen, who take difficult excursions into the past and salvage material for present day rebuilding.  James Griffin-Mars is a chronman who gets a “golden ticket” job offer, accelerating his retirement considerably. However, on his way back, he breaks the cardinal Time Law, bringing a doomed scientist, Elise Kim back with him, and now they’re both fugitives.

Like I said, the premise of this book is interesting – time travel as a way to gather resources. What it actually ended up being was a mostly a lot of different action scenes with a clichéd evil corporation as the villain. There are a few forays into various historical periods, but they’re sparse on detail and atmosphere – in fact, the whole world it builds doesn’t seem compelling at all. Some of the lack of color makes sense with the whole “humanity is desperate” thing, but how desperate can humanity be with roving spaceship malls being commonplace?

None of the characters were engaging either, their decisions didn’t make any sense, and they seemed like a bunch of stereotypes thrown together – for example, the protagonist James is going somewhat crazy (complete with hallucinations of people whose lives he didn’t save), he likes Elise Kim, and I don’t know anything else about him. I can’t describe him as brave or determined or pretty much anything, he’s just someone who feels and thinks what the plot needs him to. Every other character has the same flaws, any attributes they have are just described by the text, not shown.

The book isn’t even self-contained – it’s clear setup for a trilogy, it raises a bunch of questions and answers none of them, and since the entire book has been fighting and running, the climactic fight doesn’t even seem much different from the rest of the book. I’m not sure how this book got so many glowing blurbs, I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of this series.


Time Salvager by Wesley Chu (Time Salvager, #1)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Too Like The Lightning” by Ada Palmer

Too Like The LightningI knew absolutely nothing about Too Like The Lightning when I picked it up to read it (well, other than the fact that Tor had sent it to me, so it was presumably sci-fi or fantasy.) It’s not often that I encounter books I know nothing about, and ever rarer that I end up really loving them, so it was a very pleasant surprise.

It’s the twenty fifth century, and Earth has evolved into a kind of utopia where really fast flying cars have made the whole globe accessible, and nations are based on membership rather than geographical location. Our protagonist (as much as he likes to swear that he isn’t the protagonist) is Mycroft Canner, a convict sentenced to spend his life being of use to people, and Too Like The Lightning is presented as an in-universe account of events written (mostly) from his point of view. He’s also the protector of Bridger, a young boy who can seemingly make all his wishes come true and bring inanimate objects to life. When the house sheltering Bridger becomes the focus of a high-profile theft investigation, it kicks world-changing events into motion, and Mycroft is at the center of it all.

I’m not sure where to start – reading this book was like being drawn into a whole new world and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days after I had finished. I don’t think I’ve encountered any future utopias that still involve humanity living primarily on Earth – there’s Star Trek, but it involves spaceships and aliens. It seems ambitious because it fills in so many details of the world and how we got there from here. It’s not entirely a utopia either, all writing is censored and labeled, the practice of religion is outlawed (it’s instead been replaced by an order known as the sensayers, who are kind of like psychologists, philosophers, and priests combined, and talk to people about the existential questions that you can’t outlaw), and distinctions between genders are not encouraged. And the people populating the world are different too, as you would expect from a world where scarcity wasn’t much of an issue – still very much human, but with unfamiliar values and assumptions. I don’t think I’ve encountered such a cohesive and fascinating world in a long time.

I found the writing somewhat pretentious at first. Mycroft is deliberately borrowing heavily from the style of eighteenth century French philosophy, and it seems somewhat incongruous. Plus, he has an irritating habit of occasionally pretending to be the reader reacting to the text. It probably doesn’t help that he has a particularly sensational way of looking at the world sometimes – it’s pretty clear that it’s Mycroft’s point of view and not the world itself, though. I got used to it though, in part because the people in the world do seem like real characters (probably because they have the time to be, not having to work all the time.) I’m sure many of the references to Voltaire and Diderot and the Marquis de Sade and Robespierre and the rest went straight over my head, but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the book.

There’s a pretty large cast of characters, the sensayer Carlyle Foster is probably the most prominent of them, but they’re all very memorable. The book itself takes place over only three days, but a lot happens in those days – much of it talking (Too Like The Lightning is classified as political science fiction, so of course there’s a lot of politics, which I always love), but none of it is boring. It helps that Mycroft has known most of these people for years and can give us comprehensive introductions to them. The author really takes advantage of the fact that it’s presented as an in-universe book to give us information in a natural way. I can’t say much else about the plot, it seems to move slowly at first, but there are major payoffs. Also, the book doesn’t quite end in a cliffhanger, but you’ll be glad that the next book in the duology, Seven Surrenders comes out this year as well.

A couple of minor annoyances – like I said, the writing style bothered me for the while, and some things never stopped bothering me, like bringing up the national heritage of characters all the time as descriptors – for example both Thisbe Saneer and Bryar Kosala’s hair was described as “thick Indian hair”, I wish my Indian hair was thick! It just seemed like a shortcut to describing the characters, as well as tying the world to present Earth. Also, I guess it matches the eighteenth century France theme, but it seemed like everyone had weird sexual proclivities.


Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer (Terra Ignota, #1)
Tor Books, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


A few mini-reviews, January 2016 edition

I’ve read more than 30 books since the last book I reviewed, so I’m just going to do a few 1-paragraph reviews in an attempt to catch up.

The Philospher Kings by Jo Walton

thephilosopherkingsSequel to The Just City, which I loved. This was one of my most anticipated reads this year, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a pretty different book from The Just City, and starts off with the very unpromising note of the death of one of my favorite characters from the last book. But it goes on to explore the nature of grief, and what it means to be your best self regardless of circumstances in an incredibly thoughtful way. The new characters are compelling, and it’s fun to see more of the world. And the ending is a doozy, I really cannot wait for the next book, which is going to be entirely different from the last book again.

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

themechanicalThis book had been on my to-be-read pile for far too long. I was introduced to the world by Tregillis’ short story in the anthology Human for a Day about a clockwork android seeking his freedom from the compulsion that drives him to be a slave. Tregillis later developed the short story into The Mechanical (I’m only linking to that Reddit AMA because I asked the question.) The series is set in an alternate history where the Dutch empire has conquered the world through its invention of mechanical servitors called Clakkers, and New France is the primary opposition, although it is on the brink of defeat. We follow, among others, Jax, a Clakker that longs for his freedom, and Berenice, the spymaster of New France as they fight against the empire. The world and politics are fascinating, I found the characters a little flat at times. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, which is out next month.

The End of All Things by John Scalzi

theendofallthingsI really enjoy the Old Man’s War universe, so this was a no-brainer pre-order for me. Just like The Human Division, this is a series of loosely connected stories that tells a larger tale. Scalzi’s trademark wit is in full evidence, and the political shenanigans his characters get up to are always fun to read about. I was surprised that the ongoing CDF/Earth/Conclave story arc was actually wrapped up pretty neatly, since there are more books scheduled to be written in the universe. I’m looking forward to see where Scalzi takes the story next.

Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson

shadowsofselfThis is the sequel to The Alloy of Law, set 300 years after the original Mistborn trilogy. Pretty much everything you expect from Brandon Sanderson and Mistborn – fun characters, amazing magic-system innovations and worldbuilding, a very, very effective plot twist and terrible puns. I was a little disappointed that there seemed to be a lot of banter/action, and not enough character moments, but I’m excited that the next book comes out in January – only three months after this book.


Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn Adventures, #2)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

The End of All Things by John Scalzi (Old Man's War, #6)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis (The Alchemy Wars, #1)
Orbit Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton (Thessaly, #2)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Luna: New Moon” by Ian McDonald

lunanewmoonAs always, I’m behind on my reviews, so I’m keeping this one short.

Luna: New Moon was marketed as “Game of Thrones set on the moon”, and that seemed pretty accurate to me. The Moon has finally been colonized, primarily by the Five Dragons, five powerful industrial families that are constantly battling for supremacy. We’re following the upstart Cortas, led by matriarch Adriana Corta, who’ve made a fortune mining Helium-3, but are finding that their ascension to Dragon stature comes with a whole bunch of complications.

There’s no one protagonist, as is the case with many of McDonald’s novels. We follow pretty much all of the Cortas, and some others, like Marina Calzaghe, a “Jo Moonbeam” (a recent arrival from Earth) who gets thoroughly tangled in the Cortas’ affairs. There doesn’t seem to be plot at first, we dive head first into the Cortas’ lives, what they do, who they love, their struggles with each other, but it’s all extremely compelling. We also learn more about the early days of the moon and its colonization through Adriana’s memoirs, which adds a lot of context to the story and is a lot of fun. There is plot though, and it all makes sense when it comes to fruition.

Some of the other highlights were the evolution of world/national culture (something McDonald specializes in), the development of  interesting AI, and the brutal economics of living on the moon. My only complaint was that I didn’t realize that this was a duology until I reached the end and realized there was no way this story had ended. I’m looking forward to the sequel, though. CBS is also developing a TV show based on the books, which I really hope goes to series.


Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald (Luna: New Moon, #1)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Ancillary Mercy” by Ann Leckie

ancillarymercySpoilers warning: Spoilers for Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword.

Ancillary Mercy starts right where Ancillary Sword ended, with everyone at and near Athoek Station recovering from the fallout of the events of the previous book. However, Breq knows that her actions will not end up unnoticed for long, and sure enough, Anaander Mianaai shows up in the system in a very bad mood. Meanwhile, there’s still the issue of the ghost system and the missing ancillaries, the intervention with the Presger, and the fate of various people from Ancillary Sword to deal with.

I wasn’t sure how Leckie would end up wrapping up this series, given that the second book was so much more scaled down than the first (only involving one system), and this book seemed to be set in the Athoek system as well. I’m very happy with the ending, though – it was well set up in the rest of the series, and thoroughly satisfying. The characters continue to be a delight to read about as they discover things in them they didn’t know they had – especially Breq, but also Tisarwat, Seivarden, and Mercy of Kalr. There is still plenty of tea and personal drama, but there are also some really cool action scenes in space.

Ancillary Mercy was one of my most anticipated books this year, and it did not disappoint! This series is sadly over, but there’s going to be a new book set in this universe in 2017, and I’m really, really excited about that.


Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (Imperial Radch, #3)
Orbit Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Aurora” by Kim Stanley Robinson

auroraI’ve been meaning to get around to reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s work for a while (I’m woefully underread in the sci-fi classics), so I was delighted to get an unexpected copy of Aurora, his latest book. One of Earth’s first generation ships sent to colonize beyond our solar system is almost at its target, Aurora, a moon of the Tau Ceti system. They’re prepared for some difficulties but even then, the reality of colonization turns out to be much more complicated than anyone anticipated.

Generation ships are a pretty common idea in science-fiction, and they always seem so cool – people taking great personal risks and braving the unknown for the sake of exploration. Aurora takes a long, hard look at the reality of this concept and the morality of subjecting your descendants to living in a tin can decades away from anyone who can help them if something goes wrong. The residents of the ship make the best of the hand they’ve been dealt, but they’re fundamentally in a life they would have never have chosen – they’re heading to a place that may not even be habitable, but constantly see news feeds from an Earth that they could have flourished on. They have very few personal liberties (reproduction and choice of work have to be regulated to maintain the ship), but have access to literature and media that shows them exactly how controlled their life is compared to the norm.

The narrative voice of this book is interesting – the story is told to us mostly from the point of view of the ship, who started out as an AI that relied entirely on its programming, but is slowly gaining consciousness with the help of Devi, the ship’s de facto chief engineer. The text is presented as a chronicle that Devi asks the ship to write, except the first and last chapters. The ship mostly chronicles the journey via Devi’s daughter Freya, who grows from being a teenager in the beginning of the book to become a leader of her people. The style evolves subtly as the ship learns and observes more, and there are occasional meditations on the nature of self and consciousness, and the process of narrative itself, which are just as fascinating as the colonists’ story.

Ship was easily my favourite character in the story – we are somewhat detached from pretty much all the other characters, but I don’t mind that in hard science fiction stories like this one. Except for Freya and those close to her, most of the other humans are just seen as representatives of the factions and ideas they represent. Even Freya dulls in comparison to her mother Devi, who helped the ship grow and reason in unprecedented ways. She’s not actually present in a large portion of the book, but her furious drive leaves a lasting influence that is felt through the actions of both the ship and Freya, and she’s the character that we can empathize with the most.

Also, the science in this book was fantastic. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the physics or the biology/ecology, but it seemed as well-researched and accurate as the computer science algorithms and problems that the ship uses in its narrative. It wasn’t as riveting as the science in The Martian, but it was still a lot of fun to read. I’m fascinated by maintaining sustainable ecosystems in a closed environment – The Quiet War did a lot of that too.

I was expecting that this would be a triumphant tale of humanity overcoming adversity and making their mark on the stars, but Aurora is not constrained by that trite idealism. The portrait of humanity that it paints is not pretty – humans want to see themselves as pioneers, but are often petty, confused, violent, and all too happy to deprive others of safety to achieve something abstract. It was more depressing than I had hoped it would be, but there’s comfort in examining the consequences of an idea thoroughly, and it ends on a note of hope – not for humanity’s grand dreams, but the knowledge that humans can always learn and adapt.


Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“The Galaxy Game” by Karen Lord

thegalaxygameI was really excited to get a review copy of The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord; I absolutely loved both of Lord’s prior novels – I reviewed Redemption in Indigo pretty recently, and The Best of All Possible Worlds is one of my favourite books of the last few years (and shares a world and some characters with The Galaxy Game). Unfortunately, I ended up being pretty disappointed with the book.

The main protagonist is Rafi, the nephew of The Best of All Possible Worlds, Grace Delarua, who has been forced to attend an oppressive school for the psionically gifted. He escapes with the help of one of his friends, and is thrown unprepared into a galaxy that is undergoing considerable turmoil. We also follow his two friends, Ntenman and Serendipity as they find their own way.

So, there were a bunch of problems with this book:

  • Rafi: Rafi should have been interesting – he’s scared of his psionic abilities because of the way his father abused his own, and he has a difficult relationship with his mother who’s scared of being manipulated by him. He’s doing exciting things – he’s exploring a new planet, and training for a galaxy-famous sport. Unfortunately, he just comes off as a child who’s mostly passive but occasionally reactionary (he even admits as much in the book) – the only thing he does actively is run away from his school. In the end, when he finds a place in society, it seems to be mainly because everyone else told him what to do.
  • The other viewpoint characters: I’m not really sure why Ntenman and Serendipity were protagonists – sure, we did watch them “grow up” a bit too, but their arcs were as dissatisfying as Rafi’s. This book was only 320 pages, and it didn’t have enough room for us to get to know these characters and invest in them. Ntenman’s voice was pretty charming, and I at least looked forward to his dry humour, but Serendipity seemed completely flat. Also, we get viewpoints from Delarua, Dllenahkh and the headmaster of the Lyceum (there might be more that I’m forgetting), and there’s even a framing story that takes place fifteen or so years later. This makes the book seem pretty fragmented, especially given…
  • The plot, or lack thereof: Okay, there is nominally a plot – the protagonists come of age in a time of great galactic turmoil, which they are marginally involved in. Emphasis on the “marginally”. As I said earlier, a lot of the stuff that happens is just Rafi reacting to what other people tell him to do, and most of the time, he just does it. So yes, a lot of stuff happens, but we’re just left with burning curiosity about what’s actually going on. For example, a planet gets attacked by a rival faction, but we have very little context for it, so it’s not very impactful, except for a generic “war is bad” way. And there are many factions, each with their own agenda, but we know very little. But the plot isn’t even about the galactic conflict, per se, but about developing a new transportation technique… that somehow involves a sport that Rafi is uniquely qualified to play, but it’s actually about Rafi and his friends growing up, but there’s also the plot of the framing story…
  • Characters from the previous books: Okay, I loved Delarua and Dllenahkh and the assorted supporting characters in The Best of All Possible Worlds, but they should not have been in this book this much unless it was at least twice the size. Pretty much everyone shows up, and we learn all about their problems, and how they’re resolved (Freyda and Lanuri’s marriage, Lian’s worry over the missing Queturah), and they add to the mess of plots already in the book.

If I were to describe the flaws of The Galaxy Game in one word, it would be “unfocused”. Both of Lord’s previous books were pretty intimate – they were mostly focused on one or two people and the consequences to their own life, and she’s very good at that type of narrative. She seems to be trying to do that in this book, focusing somewhat on Rafi and his friends’ coming of age, but it doesn’t really work that well because there’s so much going on in the grander scale. There was a lot going on in the grander scale in The Best of All Possible Worlds too, with the destruction of Sadira, but that was much more personal because of Dllenahkh.

I know that it seems like I hated this book, but I didn’t; I just had really high expectations from Lord’s previous work. The Galaxy Game has beautiful prose and fascinating ideas. It would have been great as either a 600 page book or a novella with a lot of the subplots cut out. I’m still anticipating Lord’s next book eagerly, though – I hope it is a return to her previous form.


The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord
Del Rey, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Vicious” by V.E. Schwab

viciousVicious follows Victor and Eli, who were best friends in college until their experiments to gain superpowers went horribly right. With Victor no longer in prison, neither of them will rest until the other has been utterly destroyed.

This is one of those books that’s almost a screenplay – I could see the movie playing in my head. It has short chapters (sometimes only a couple of pages) and is fast-paced, but it still focuses a lot on character by alternating flashbacks with the present-day story. The build-up to the final confrontation is extremely well-done – it almost gets too excruciating to wait any longer, and then everything happens very quickly.

Victor and Eli are fascinating characters, they both have something missing inside them, and that’s what drew them to each other in the first place. They learn to cope with that hole inside them in very different ways, although both are definitely supervillain material. Their sidekicks – Serena, Sydney, and Mitch, are complex in their own right – Serena’s crippling isolation with her power of persuasion is particularly poignant.

There was a lot of talk of gaining superpowers leaving people with a moral/spiritual hole inside themselves.  It reminded me a little of Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart universe, where superpowers also make you entirely selfish, so there are no superheroes – only supervillains. But most of this was perpetuated by Victor, Eli, and Serena, who all seemed to be pretty screwed up people even before they gained powers. Sydney certainly didn’t seem to have anything missing (and Serena even remarks on that at one point), and neither did any of the other superpowered people we met. I guess the ambiguity might make what Eli’s doing a bit more sympathetic, except he’s acting without any evidence, so it doesn’t.

I did like the fact that Victor wasn’t exactly a good person, but I wished that the book had pushed the envelope a bit farther – by the end, we know exactly who we’re rooting for – Victor might be a sociopath, but he’s remarkably well-attuned to society. It’s still a great book, though, in the Watchmen style of “who we think of as superheroes are usually badly-adjusted and obsessive people”. Someone please go make a movie out of it now.


Vicious by V.E. Schwab
Tor Books, 2013 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“The Martian” by Andy Weir

The_Martian_2014Everyone has been raving about The Martian by Andy Weir, and as a total sucker for any space exploration related story, I had to read it.

The Martian is about Mark Watney, a member of one of the first human Mars exploration teams. When the mission is aborted due to a dust storm, he has an accident and is presumed dead while the rest of the team evacuates. But Mark is not dead, and as the mission’s mechanical engineer, he’s uniquely qualified to survive in a place where his continued life depends on machines working.

When I started this book, I was a bit skeptical about all the praise it had been getting – how could one guy all alone on a planet be that interesting? Weir does an admirable job, though – Mark is determined, optimistic, has a great (and sometimes very immature) sense of humour, and he’s everything you dreamed you’d be when you dreamed of being an astronaut when you were younger (if you didn’t want to be an astronaut, what the hell?) He’s also the quintessential engineer, he doesn’t mope when there are problems unsolved. It’s brilliant to hear all the scientific issues he faces from his voice; his enthusiasm is infectious, and what could have been easily tedious instead becomes thrilling.

Mark isn’t the only character though, we also follow the action back on Earth, and Mark’s mission crew that are back on their way from Mars trying to live with the guilt of leaving a man behind. The point of view jumps around a lot, but I think that’s only fitting in a story about humanity banding together and trying to save one man. There are a couple of scenes on Mars that are told in an omniscient narrative style, and those do stick out a bit, but they’re rare.

So yes, I loved this book as much as everyone else. It seems like everything these days talks about humanity’s flaws, but this book makes me really proud to be a human.

Also… the pacing of the book was very much like that of a movie, and I really wanted it to see a movie version (Gravity and Apollo 13 are both really great movies of this type, although those take place over a few days at most). Apparently Ridley Scott feels the same way, because The Martian is coming out this November! And what a great cast, too – Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, Donald Glover, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Peña – all people I like. I’m a bit puzzled by Chiwetel Ejiofor playing an Indian person, but he’s a great actor, so I’m not actually complaining.


The Martian by Andy Weir
Broadway Books, 2014 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Firefight” by Brandon Sanderson

firefightShorter review again. I’m going to be doing lots of these so I can review a higher percentage of the books I read.

Steelheart wasn’t my favourite Sanderson book – not because it wasn’t good, but I don’t find superheroes or YA or endless action that compelling, especially given Sanderson’s skill for elaborate worldbuilding and cool magic systems. But he’s pretty much my favourite author, so I’ll read anything by him and like it. That being said, Firefight was pretty darn awesome.

David has achieved his goal of killing the Epic that murdered his father, but in the process, he’s also realized that Megan, the girl he’s kind of in love with, is actually Firefight, a High Epic with the same innate evil as every other Epic. David is never one to give up on the impossible, though, and armed with his infectious enthusiasm and groan-worthy metaphors, he sets out to rid Babilar (once New York City) of its ruling Epic, Regalia – while also searching for Firefight, who has already murdered one member of his team.

We get (some) answers to what’s going on with the Epics and their powers and weaknesses, and it all makes sense in the way that only Brandon Sanderson can do magic systems. The action is fantastic, and David’s eagerness and self-assurance are irresistible (and slightly horrifying, I was convinced he was going to get himself killed every other chapter). I know I pretty much end every book series review with “I want the next book”, but dammit, I want Calamity now, not Spring 2016!

Edited to add: Here’s a preview of Firefight on audio.


Firefight by Brandon Sanderson (The Reckoners, #2)
Delacorte Press, 2015 | Buy the book