“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.


“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.


“Empire Games” by Charles Stross

I’ve never read any Charles Stross before, but he’s been on my wishlist for a very long time, so I was excited to read this book. It’s set in the world of his Merchant Princes (also known as Family Trade) books, but it’s the start of a new series. I had high hopes, but I ended up being a little underwhelmed.

After terrorist “world walkers” from an alternate timeline nuked the White House, the U.S. has become a paranoid surveillance state. Rita Douglas is the adopted daughter of a family that knows how to keep their head down and out of trouble – her grandparents escaped from the GDR and outwitted the Stasi. Unknown to her, the U.S. government has been keeping tabs on her since she was eight – her birth mother was a known world walker and she has the gene as well. She’s recruited to become the first American world walker spy. Meanwhile, her birth mother is trying to rebuild modern technology in an alternate timeline while waiting for the inevitable U.S. first contact.

There are a couple of reasons why I didn’t love this book, the biggest one being that I just didn’t believe the picture that Stross painted of the timeline closest to our world. It was the same until 2003 when the nuclear attack on the White House happened, but since then, the Bill of Rights has become a farce, conservative values have taken root (Roe vs. Wade was overturned), society is more overtly racist and homophobic, and India and Pakistan have had a nuclear war. Surveillance is everywhere – every street corner has a camera, and there are advanced algorithms to identify suspicious people.

The danger of setting up an alternate reality that diverged only a few years ago is that it will inevitably ring false to many people. Everyone has opinions about the times they live in. I just couldn’t believe that Americans would give up privacy or civil liberties to such an extent, or that our increasingly liberal world would suddenly descend into a moral panic about race or homosexuality. And India and Pakistan having a nuclear war struck me as exceedingly unlikely – there’s no political gain to either country going to war (much less nuclear war), and I don’t think there would be popular support for war at all (from having grown up in India.) References to “President Rumsfield” implementing draconian surveillance measures, and far too many references to the “Defense of Marriage Act” made me suspicious that the author was using the story as kind of a dumping ground for his politics.

The story and characters were fine, but they were inseparable from the world, so it made me hard to get invested in them. The tone of the book is an old school spy/tradecraft story, with much lamenting about skills lost after the Cold War ended. Without the world being what it is, I have no idea who Rita would be. Miriam and her timeline are much more interesting – the problem of introducing modern technology rapidly to a society with old fashioned values is fascinating, and I liked seeing the glimpses of how that was being implemented.

The book uses omniscient narration, including things like behind-the-scenes transcripts from Rita’s handlers, and that meant there was very little tension in the story. There was no real anxiety about Rita’s mission to the other timeline because we’ve been following the other timeline through Miriam and we know they’re fairly nice people. Rita’s contentious relationship with her handlers could have been a lot more ominous, but we’re reading their transcripts and we know they’re well-intentioned even if they occasionally misjudge her. There are hints of a larger threat established, but since they haven’t been encountered at all so far, that doesn’t add much excitement either.

I’m not saying this was a bad book – it was well written and well executed for what it wanted to be. What it wanted to be just wasn’t for me.


Empire Games by Charles Stross (Empire Games, #1)
Tor Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Merchants and Maji” by William C. Tracy

Merchants and Maji is a collection of two novellas set in the same universe (the “Dissolutionverse”) – Last Delivery and The First Majus in Space. It’s been a while since I’ve read anything self-published (mainly because I don’t know how to find good self-published work) but I was intrigued by the description of this book and decided to accept a review copy.

I’m a big fan of worldbuilding, and I thought the world of these stories was pretty interesting. I don’t read a lot of science fantasy, so I’m always fascinated by secondary worlds that have both magic and a modern-ish level of technology (I guess urban fantasy does that too, but that ends up being too close to our world, so I don’t find it as interesting.) The Dissolutionverse is a set of ten planets inhabited by different sentient species that are linked together by magical portals. Among other things, the maji are the only people capable of creating these portals, so they’re integral to economy and trade.

The first story, Last Delivery, follows a group of ragtag merchants who accept a particularly shady assignment out of desperation. Once they figure out what they’re dealing with, they have to figure out what (if anything) they want to do about it. I enjoyed this story, the crew of the trading vessel (I don’t think I can call it a spaceship since it doesn’t actually fly) was well fleshed out, and I would read more of their adventures gladly. It isn’t just a simple adventure story either, it ends up tying into the politics of the world, and it gives the protagonist, Prot (I couldn’t help but imagine him as Kevin Spacey in K-PAX because of his name) a solid growth arc as well.

The second story, The First Majus in Space, is about the first known attempt to launch people into space the traditional way. We find out more about the magic system in this story because the spaceship is designed to require a maji’s power to fuel it. When the launch goes wrong and the original majus assigned to the ship is injured, veteran majus Origon Cyrysi must replace him at the last minute. Nothing goes according to plan during the mission, though, and it reveals deeper forces working against the maji. I liked this story too, I liked learning more about the larger world and how the maji fit into things. Origon is somewhat of a curmudgeon, but a likeable one. My main frustration with this story was that it seemed like setup for a larger story, so it didn’t feel as complete as Last Delivery, there are a couple of unanswered questions at the end. Also, the antagonists’ plot didn’t make as much sense, I feel like it was a little bit too convoluted and there were too many variables for it to succeed.

Overall, I’d recommend this book, especially if you’re looking for something that feels like old school sci-fi but is still modern. The author is also working on a novel set in this universe, which I think will be great since it will have the room to explore the world and politics more.


Merchants and Maji by William C. Tracy
Space Wizard Science Fantasy, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Martians Abroad” by Carrie Vaughn

I don’t think Martians Abroad is coming out for a couple of weeks, but I was delighted to receive a review copy from Tor a couple of days ago since I’ve enjoyed most of Carrie Vaughn’s work that I’ve read.

Polly Newton has had her life planned out for a while now – intern at the astrodome on her native Mars, and eventually get into a starship piloting program. When her mother arranges for her and her brother Charles to attend the prestigious Galileo Academy on Earth, her whole life gets derailed. Life at the academy doesn’t exactly turn out to be what she expected either.

Books set at schools are always a little more fun because of the setting, and Martians Abroad is no exception. There’s something intrinsically compelling about reading about your protagonist getting used to a new place and new people. Polly is a pretty typical teenager – confused but completely certain she knows best, stubborn, and rebellious. But when things get hairy, she does the right thing, and everyone likes her for it, including me. Her difficulties fitting in are exacerbated by her reaction to Earth. Vaughn did a great job of conveying how alien a planet like Earth would be to someone who grew up on a naturally uninhabitable planet. The other characters don’t stand out that much, except for Charles, who I really wanted to know more about.

I’d say the biggest flaw with this book was the plot. I couldn’t believe that the antagonist would get away with the things they did so easily. I feel like it also made Polly’s growth arc too contrived, it felt like she was constantly reacting rather than growing on her own. Maybe I would have felt differently if the book hadn’t ended so soon; it ended just as things were getting interesting. I hope there will be a sequel because I would like to follow up with what happens to Polly and Charles.


Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn
Tor Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“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.