“Paradox Bound” by Peter Clines

I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump lately because I’ve been really busy at work. I hadn’t read anything by Peter Clines before, but when Paradox Bound showed up in the mail one day billed as an “outrageously fun time-travel adventure”, it seemed like the perfect book to get me out of my slump.

Eli Teague lives in the small, dead-end town of Sanders in Maine. He has an uneventful life working as the IT manager for the local bank and he’s fairly content except for one thing – he keeps thinking about Harry, the mysterious stranger he met twice years and years ago. When Harry shows up in Sanders a third time, he wants answers. But that conversation doesn’t go anything like he planned and he finds himself pulled into a whole new world beyond his wildest imaginations – a hidden society of time travelers, faceless (and murderous) men, and the truth behind the American Dream.

This book lived up to its “outrageously fun” marketing; it’s fast paced, it has an interesting world, and the characters are entertaining. I enjoyed the mechanics of how time travel works. Magic systems that are based on deriving power from the identity of objects or places are fascinating (one of my favorite authors, Brandon Sanderson, does this a lot) and pretty much everything magical in this book fits that description. Most fantasy books I read derive their inspiration from ancient or medieval cultures and myths so it was refreshing to see America’s own mythos come to life, complete with folk heroes like John Henry.

I would love to see a movie version of this book, it reads like a sci-fi action movie (one of my favorite genres). I kept imagining how scenes from it would look like, which is pretty rare for me. I’m not sure how to explain why a book felt like a movie – I think part of it was that its structure. It tells a simple story with only a few characters, but it’s tight and cohesive and almost everything you learn becomes relevant later in the book. The characters aren’t too complicated but Eli has a solid and satisfying arc.

I’ll definitely be checking out more of Peter Clines’ work. I’ll also be posting an interview with Peter Clines and giving away two copies of Paradox Bound soon, so keep your eyes out. I’ll link it here once that post is up.


Paradox Bound by Peter Clines
Crown, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North

Claire North’s The Sudden Appearance of Hope become an unexpected favorite of mine and I’ve been looking forward to reading more by her. It seems like she writes about people with extraordinary abilities living in the modern world (under her Claire North pen name, anyway, I haven’t read her other work), and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August also follows that pattern.

Harry August is what’s known as a kalachakra or an ouroboran – whenever he dies, he ends up being reborn as the exact same person in the exact same time, and he repeats his life over and over again. As the name of the book implies, we follow Harry through his first fifteen lives. It’s written like a memoir, it’s in first person, and tends to jump around all over the place, just like a person telling a story.

One of the things I loved about both The Sudden Appearance of Hope and this book is the way that the person’s abilities are explored. I’ve read/watched many, many books and movies about people with unique abilities, and almost no one is portrayed as using them in a realistic way, and the psychological implications of the powers are rarely explored, too. Other than these Claire North books, the only other portrayal that makes sense to me is Steven Gould’s Jumper series. The Cronus Club and the kind of amenities they provide for their members, and most of the the ways that Harry spends his lives make total sense – I could see myself doing that, too.

Even though Harry August is special, the book is not really about that, it’s a fairly simple story with a fantastic backdrop. I don’t want to say more about the overall plot because the slow reveal is part of what makes the book great. The first half of the book seems to be Harry just recollecting random snippets of his lives, but it all falls into place in the second half. That made for a focused and tight story, which I did enjoy but part of me also wished the whole book was Harry just talking about his various lives without much of a point because that was so interesting too.

I’m excited that I have two more Claire North novels to go – Touch and The End of the Day. And after that, maybe I’ll start reading her Catherine Webb and Kate Griffin books!


The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Redhook, 2014 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“Snapshot” by Brandon Sanderson

Snapshot is a near-future science fiction novella set in a world where an entire city can be recreated virtually so that detectives can investigate crimes (kind of like the movie Source Code.) We follow Anthony Davis and his partner Chaz as they investigate a murder and stumble onto a larger crime than the one they were originally assigned.

I’m usually a big fan of Brandon Sanderson’s work, but I didn’t think Snapshot was that good. It certainly wasn’t bad, but it didn’t pull me in like most of his other work. I was intrigued by the premise, but I wasn’t quite able to connect with the characters, and since the story depends entirely on the relationship between Davis and Chaz, I wasn’t invested in the outcome. The book seemed to be going for a gritty tone, and I don’t think that is the author’s forte – I usually associate his worldbuilding with a lot of detail, but this book seemed very shallow somehow.

I think Snapshot would work better as a movie (not something I say very often), and it’s actually been optioned by MGM, so I’m hoping something comes out of that.


Snapshot by Brandon Sanderson
Vault Books, 2017 | Buy the book


“Lock In” by John Scalzi

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

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

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

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


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


“A Closed and Common Orbit” by Becky Chambers

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


“The 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 free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“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 free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“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 free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“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 free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.