Monday, 30 July 2012

Short Stories

"In The Tide" by Linda Nagata

“In The Tide” by Linda Nagata

An interesting story about rogue nanobots, Saturn and genetically engineered humans. Set in a space faring world still confined to the solar system, it was nice to see some hard SF eschewing interstellar travel. You can download it free from Smashwords.

"Loss Leader" by Simon Haynes

“Loss Leader” by Simon Haynes

A story which originally appeared in an early edition of ASIM (which makes me feel like I should’ve read it before, but apparently I missed that issue). What happens when a company spends piles of money on a spaceship filled with cryogenically frozen settlers that the settlers aren’t keen on boarding? You treat the mission as a loss leader, of course. A bleakly amusing tale. You can download it free from Smashwords.

"The Rebelliousness of Trassi Udang"

“The Rebelliousness of Trassi Udang” by Patty Jansen

This is a slightly dark and sinister story set on a space station with a large Indonesian population. In the background there is war, in the foreground minor rebellion. A well drawn world and a great read. You can download it for free from Smashwords.

"Fed" by Mira Grant

“Fed” by Mira Grant

This isn’t strictly speaking a short story but an alternate ending to Mira Grant’s novel Feed. It’s how things would have played out if one event near the end had happened differently. If you’ve read Feed you can probably guess which event. It’s understandably a little rougher than the finished novel (and somewhat lacking in characterisation where points of view have changed from the original), but still harrowing. You can read or download it (PDF link hidden at the bottom) on this Orbit page.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Feed by Mira Grant

Feed by Mira Grant is a novel I picked up earlier this year and left lying around on my ereaders while I was distracted by other things. Now that I’ve read it, I wish I didn’t have to read two more books before buying the sequel.

This was a book that snuck up on me. It started interestingly enough and for a while I wasn’t sure what the main action was going to be. Then, in the last 20–30%, the action picked up and didn’t slow down until the very end. I didn’t take many breaks while reading the first part, but for that last part I could not put it down.

Twenty years after the zombies started rising, humanity endures. During the Rising the media as we know it today fell on its face in a few ways and bloggers rose to feed the public’s demand for truth (and sensationalism). As journo bloggers, Georgia, Shaun and Buffy run around looking for news and sometimes poking dead things with sticks (that’s mostly Shaun). At the start of the novel, they’re chosen by one of the Republican presidential candidates to follow him on the campaign trail in the lead up to the primaries. Drama (and zombies) ensues.

When I finished it, I wanted to give Feed five stars (which I reserve for my absolute favouritest books — they go in the side bar) but after some reflection there were some things which bothered me but which the awesomeness of the last part distracted me from.

Firstly, it’s a book about the US presidential elections making it, obviously, very US-centric. That’s fine but there were some parts where there was assumed knowledge which I’m sure USian readers would know but that went a bit over my head. And I say that as someone reasonably well informed (US elections are probably the ones I know the second most about, after Australian ones) but who couldn’t look up some references while reading (because I had no internet at the time). So, for example, this was the first time I’d heard about Super Tuesday. It was explained enough for the story to make sense, but I couldn’t help but feel more background knowledge (or slightly more explanation) would have helped.

I also really want to know how, if the zombie apocalypse started in the US, the entire rest of the world also became infected. Once people realised what was going on, it doesn’t seem like it would be hard to keep relatively isolated countries like Australia (or at least Tasmania…) and New Zealand clean. And if the outbreak started in the US, wouldn’t it be the hardest hit? How can it still be “the greatest country on Earth”? I suspect some of these questions are addressed in the related novellas Countdown and San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats, which are set at the time of the Rising and which I look forward to reading.

I very much enjoyed Feed and I look forward to reading the rest of the series. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes zombies, post-apocalypic stories, near-future SF or political or epidemic thrillers. It’s definitely a worthy read.

4.5 / 5 stars

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Hal Junior: The Missing Case by Simon Haynes

Hal Junior: The Missing Case by Simon Haynes is the second of his Hal Junior books, although they stand alone and reading order isn’t important. The Hal Junior series is itself a spin-off of Haynes Hal Spacejock novels for adults.

Hal Junior is a kid growing up on a space station who is particularly adept at getting himself into trouble and causing havoc. In The Missing Case, he is given the important task of entertaining and looking after a VIP visitor’s son Alex. Except that it turns out Alex isn’t the VIP’s son, but his daughter, much to Hal’s dismay. Alex is also entrusted with looking after her father’s very important (and titular) briefcase. Shenanigans ensue.

Since I started reading the Hal Junior books, I’ve been very curious as to how they fit into the larger Hal Spacejock universe. Initially I thought Hal Junior was going to be about Spacejock’s childhood, but this is obviously not the case once you start reading. There was a hint at the end of The Missing Case which suggests that maybe we’ll find out more soon, hopefully in Hal Junior 3 (which I think isn’t that far off).

The Missing Case is a quick fun read and good for a few laughs. I would also recommend it to kids (I believe the US category is called “middle-grade”, but in Australia I’ve only seen it called “for younger readers”) who enjoy space adventures or reading about general mischief-making.

4 / 5 stars

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Interrogation of Ashayla Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina

The Interrogation of Ashayla Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina is a fascinating novel. Seeing it marketed as YA fantasy, I was expecting something a little more standard fare but I’m glad that’s not what I got.

The Interrogation of Ashayla Wolf is both post-apocalyptic and dystopian, in a similar way to Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn series, although the world is completely different in the specifics. About 300 years before the story takes place, there was some sort of environmental apocalypse which resulted in the world flooding and being almost entirely destroyed. Now there is just one landmass with a smattering of cities which was reminiscent of Australia, although definitely not the Australia we know and love today. The disruption that caused the apocalypse was a result of humans disturbing the Balance and now humanity is obsessed with maintaining the Balance lest they cause another apocalypse. While the world obviously has strong environmental themes, it didn’t feel preachy at any point. The Balance is something people know to be real rather than a moral/philosophical point.

The other thing that emerged after the apocalypse is that some people manifested powers — basically superpowers — of various strengths. The government has decided that these people could upset the Balance and so the movements are highly regulated. People with powers are assessed and either detained in detention centres or given an exemption if their powers are weak or harmless enough. Those that flee the system are called Illegals and perforce live off the grid.

Of course our main character, Ashayla, is an illegal. She’s the head of a tribe of children with powers who mostly ran away from home rather than be taken away by enforcers. As the title suggests, this is the story of her interrogation. The story unfolds as a series of layers, like an onion — Shrek reference notwithstanding — with more going on than we see on the surface.

What I really enjoyed was Kwaymullina’s use of language. The words she used at the start, before we were fully abreast of the world, evoked certain powerful images (in my culturally Australian mind) relating to our world today. Although as we learnt more we saw that the situations in this future world were different — detention centres being for people with  illegal powers rather than asylum seekers is an early example — they remained similar in tone. I thought it added an extra layer of cultural reference points which I don’t think I’ve seen done this way before. While I’m not sure it would send exactly the same message to a non-Australian, it wasn’t the sort of thing which quickly becomes dated or alienating like many US “now” references I’ve come across.

Overall, I found The Interrogation of Ashayla Wolf to be an excellent novel. I highly recommend it, especially if you like stories which are not all that they first seem. If you’re not a fan of the usual vampire/werewolf/whatever types of fantasy YA, rest assured this is quit different. It’s also not your stock standard dystopian novel (although it does have elements of usurping the system that I’ve come to expect in YA dystopias. One of my favourite books of the year.

5 / 5 stars

Monday, 23 July 2012

Tell the truth, know the escape routes, and always carry extra ammunition.

Feed by Mira Grant

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The Long Earth is a collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did. My favourite Pratchett books are hands down some of the Discworld novels. My experience with an armful of Baxter books is that he tends to over write this science and tends to reuse similar characters. So I wasn’t sure what to expect. Mainly I was hoping for Pratchetty characters and an interesting story.

That’s pretty much what I got, but better. The whole novel flowed well so there was never any obvious breaks between writers (as one would hope) and front cover notwithstanding, the overall feel seemed more Pratchetty to me. I read in an interview somewhere that the idea of the Long Earth — a series of parallel worlds which followed different biological and cosmic evolutionary tracks to the world we know — was Pratchett’s idea from way back, but he didn’t feel he could do justice to it by himself. Perhaps this is why it feels like a Pratchetty world, although some of the ideas (of odd things encountered) seemed Baxtery.

The story follows a few characters with varying degrees of depth. There is Joshua, a natural stepper (between worlds) who was there, so to speak, on the day when the children of the world downloaded instructions to build their own stepping devices and suddenly disappeared. He is the most central character and, later on, we follow him and a Tibetan reincarnated as a computer across millions of Earths.

We also see many cameos of other characters, some only once, some reappearing several times. All of them play crucial parts in the unfolding of the Long Earth. I mention this because one of the characters on the blurb isn’t a very prominent character, so I thought it odd that he was included. I suspect it would have been a difficult book to write a blurb for.

Overall, The Long Earth is more philosophical than plot-driven, although there are some save-the-day type moments. That said, there was never a dull moment and a lot of the ideas explored were fascinating and, in my opinion, dwelt upon for just the right amount of time. The end, when it came was a little bit sudden but upon reflection I’ve decided I like it. They leave it open so that there could be more books (I don’t expect any, but the back cover of my copy says it’s the first book in an exciting new collaboration… so I don’t know. I’d read it, but I’m more keen for as many Discworld books as possible) but nothing is left hanging, except for, y’know, the fate of all the worlds exactly what happens next.

I would recommend The Long Earth to anyone who enjoys science fiction or fantasy that is thoughtful, character-driven (especially if you count the Long Earth as a character) and immensely interesting.

4.5 / 5 stars

New Booksies (13)

The Dark Griffin by K J Taylor

The Griffin's Flight by K J Taylor

The Griffin's War by K J Taylor

Showtime by Narrelle M Harris

The Female Man by Joanna Russ

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf

These are the last of the books I’m allowing myself to buy in Australia. Obviously I’d always like more, but weight limits are starting to be relevant (also, the whole not being made of money thing…)

First up, I visited the new Embiggen Books shop in Melbourne, which is where a Twelfth Planet Press event took place during Craftinomicon. It was a bit meta because I ended up browsing the bookshop while listening to a podcast recorded IN the book shop. Anyway, of the TPP books the had remaining, Showtime by Narrelle Harris was the one I found which I didn’t already have. So that was nice. I’ve already reviewed it, too.

Then I decided to by the K J Taylor trilogy about griffins, The Fallen Moon series. Because I could (just) and because I’ve been hearing good things and she’s Australian and female and those traits tend to bode well for my enjoyment.

Finally, quite by chance, I stumbled upon The Female Man by Joanna Russ in a second hand bookshop in the sticks of southern NSW. After all the mentions on Galactic Suburbia, I couldn’t not by it. I don’t think I have room for it in my luggage, though, so I don’t expect to be reading it too soon (on the other hand, I already have the Extra Ordinary People collection by Russ waiting for me on the other side of the world, so I won’t be completely deprived).

Finally, I found a copy of The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina in a new local indie bookshop, which was cool. It’s a recent release so I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find it (and it’s not by a giant publisher, which makes it all the harder to get overseas/in ebook). So I’m looking forward to reading that soon, possibly trying to finish it before I leave, but we’ll see how that pans out.

And that’s it! Soon it’s back to my regularly scheduled read-three-buy-one programming, so I’m not sure when I’ll next be posting about new booksies :-/ Would that I could always buy all the books. Alas.

Monday, 16 July 2012

The Ravenous Dead by Natasha Hoar

The Ravenous Dead by Natasha Hoar is a new ebook-only novella published by Carina Press. Continuing Carina Press’s trend of releasing series of related novellas, The Ravenous Dead follows on from The Stubborn Dead (link to publisher page). I haven’t read The Stubborn Dead and, while I could guess vaguely what it might have been about, I didn’t feel I needed to have read it before The Ravenous Dead nor that The Ravenous Dead was likely to have spoiled the earlier story for me (of course, I might be wrong on that second part, who knows).

Rachel is a rescue medium which means that it’s her job to help free souls which are stuck on Earth and deal with certain supernatural creatures. In this novella, a reaper, an undead soul-eater, is ravaging Vancouver and leaving a trail of bodies in it’s wake. Rachel sets out to stop it with her protege (with his own special powers) Kit.

It was a little bit gory at the start when the bodies were described but after that the story was mainly action and a little bit of detective work.

There were a few scenes from the reaper’s point of view which felt a bit odd. They seemed to make the reader sympathise a bit with the reaper (who didn’t end up as a particularly soul-thirsty reaper on purpose) but then ended with him being an emotionless killing machine. It turned out there was a reason for this, story-wise, but it confused me a bit.

There was a nice hook at the end for a possible future story which definitely made me want to read more.

Overall, this wasn’t a bad story but it didn’t elicit any particularly strong emotions in me. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy and is looking for a quick and action-heavy story to pass the time.

3.5 / 5 stars

Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Radiant Seas by Catherine Asaro

The Radiant Seas by Catherine Asaro is the second book I’ve read in the Skolian Empire saga (which actually has three empires in it with the two main ones having different names so it gets confusing but that’s the term I’m going to stick with). The other book that I’ve read was Primary Inversion which, chronologically, immediately precedes The Radiant Seas. For this review to make sense, I’m going to have to include a spoiler for the end of Primary Inversion, but I’ll put in a warning when I get to that.

Asaro’s universe contains three interstellar empires:

  • The Skolians whose ruling family are powerful telepaths and who can communicate instantaneously through a telepathic web that three of the imperial family hold in place with their minds (and to do so they have to be the most powerful type of telepaths, a condition that involves recessive genes and can’t be genetically engineered.

  • The Eubians who are ruled by the irredeemably evil (and genetically specific) class of Aristos. Evil because they literally gain transcendent pleasure from being in proximity to the suffering of telepaths. Their mission in life is generally to acquire as many telepathic slaves as they can, the more powerful the better (and, incidentally, they don’t see anyone else as fully human, especially the telepaths but including ordinary humans).

  • And then there’s the Earth and Allied Worlds who try to stay out of the never ending conflicts between the other two empires and don’t entirely believe how horrible the Eubians are with their slavery and torture.

The main characters are mostly Skolian and the antagonists are all Eubian although they’re not all as automatically evil as it might seem (but most are) and do have proper motivations for what they do, always an important trait in bad guys. The story in The Radiant Seas picks up exactly where Primary Inversion left off and spans many (17ish) years.

Before I get to the spoilers, a few words on the science because I can’t review an SF book without commenting on that. Asaro’s science, real and made up, is pretty good and (most importantly ;-p ) didn’t annoy me. It was a good mix between made up stuff (the telepathy) told from a scientific point of view and fairly hard semi-plausible science like the propulsion systems. Asaro actually has a PhD in physical chemistry theoretical atomic and molecular physics so much of the quantum and relativity stuff is plausible. She even published a paper about the theory behind her faster than light travel system. In short, nothing to complain about here.

And to be able to talk about the plot, I have to mention a spoiler for the end of Primary Inversion








At the end of Primary Inversion, Soz, next in line to be the Imperator (Skolian), and Jabriol II, heir to the Imperial throne (Eubian), fall in love when Soz discovers Jabriol isn’t in fact an Aristo but part of a secret genetic experiment to breed telepathy into the imperial line. Rather than feeding on telepaths, he is the most powerful type of telepath himself (as is Soz). Since peace between their empires is inherently impossible while there are still Aristos running around, they ran off to a deserted planet together. The Radiant Seas picks up when they’re busy making copious babies while their families mourn them, then get on with waging war against each other.

Because the story spans so many years, it really felt like the first half was setting up the events of the second half. There were some action scenes in the first half and the story definitely progressed, but there were moments when it felt like it was dragging. In the second half, Soz and Jabriol (and their kids) rejoin civilisation and their respective empires, the story really picks up. Soz trying to rescue Jabriol was much more exciting than them making babies while their families fought.

Aside from the few boring bits (which weren’t enough to ruin anything, in my opinion), I quite enjoyed this novel. I mostly liked Soz because she kicks arse but I did find the whole running away from imperial duties thing a bit selfish. However, it was also nice to see an alternative narrative where duty isn’t held up as the most important thing and the character chooses family. (I still think they should’ve hung around to fix things up more first…)

Overall, I would recommend this book to people who enjoy science fiction with epic world-spanning empires, lots of political intrigue and long range plots. I definitely suggest reading Primary Inversion before The Radiant Seas, however, since a lot of world building and, more importantly, plot set up, takes place in the earlier book.

4 / 5 stars

Saturday, 14 July 2012

A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix

A Confusion of Princes is the first book by Garth Nix that I’ve read, despite his being an Australian author of some note. After reading it, his other books have moved up on my mental TBR list.

The story takes place in a space opera galactic empire, complete with fancy technology, body augmentations and psychic priests holding the empire together. The empire is run by the Emperor and the Imperial Mind, a sort of psychic presence that monitors almost everything and directs the actions of the empire’s priests, assassins and princes. Princes are chosen from a young age based mostly on genetic predisposition to the augmentations that make them super human. They’re taken away from their ordinary human families and raised in temples (which have very little to do with religion) and trained to be arrogant and self-centred pricks.

The thing that prevented the main character from being insufferable was that the story was told retrospectively by his grown-up self (mind you, he’s 18-19 for most of the story), who fully acknowledged what an idiot he was. I think if it was told in a more present manner, he would have been much more insufferable. There were many humorous moments where I laughed out loud at him as he learnt how the real world worked. I was also amused by some of the scenarios Nix set up which seemed to be poking fun at certain SF/space opera tropes.

A Confusion of Princes is also a very action-packed and fast paced novel. Although it covers about two years, it jumped from highlight to highlight quite quickly with several “and nothing exciting happened for a few months” moments. In a way this was good because it kept the plot moving, but I also couldn’t help but want to know more about the world Nix has built. Although this is a stand-alone novel, I wouldn’t mind reading more stories set in the same world. There was a short story appended in the edition I bought (which I think is the standard Aussie Allen & Unwin edition — can I just say how nice it is to see vapourise spelt with both a u and an s?), about the main character’s mysterious right hand man (aka Master of Assassins) but I didn’t feel it added much to the story. I mean, it wasn’t bad, I was just hoping a deeper look into the guy’s psyche.

What I found particularly interesting was the way all the imperial roles were gender neutral. Princes could be male or female, as could assassins and priests. There was a special gender-neutral pronoun for the Emperor heirself and while the main character was male and the world revolved around him, background characters were just as likely to be female as male (and Nix didn’t shy away from the whole fighting a girl thing that trips up some). The only thing that annoyed was the whitewashing/homogenising of the main character on the front cover. He’s meant to be black and spends most of the story with a mohawk.

Overall, a fun read. I would call it YA but more for its brevity than, even, the coming of age aspect of the plot. Oh, and none of the science made me angry, yay! I recommend it to anyone who enjoys YA science fiction or wants a light, non-strenuous, read.

4 / 5 stars

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson

The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson is the conclusion to the somewhat epic Mistborn trilogy. You can read my reviews of the first two books The Final Empire and The Well of Ascension (the latter with minor spoilers).

The Hero of Ages is a worthy conclusion to an epic and detailed trilogy. All the titbits set up in earlier books come to fruition in this final volume as we, by the end, gain a fairly thorough knowledge of the world. As far as I remember, all the questions raised in earlier books are finally answered (I can only think of one that isn’t and that was raised towards the end of the final volume as, I assume, a hook for Alloy of Law set in the future of the same world).

What I found interesting in Sanderson’s wrapping up was that I was able to guess some of the revelations/twists he threw out before they were revealed (and some seemed obvious several chapters before they were confirmed), some of the twists caught me completely off-guard. Including some twists/revelations which were set up well in advance and for which all the relevant clues were in place. I think this is mainly a product of the sheer volume of intricate world-building he’s packed into the series (or, arguably, my lack of attention but I saw SOME things a mile off).

As with the previous books in the series, I would have liked there to be more female characters in The Hero of Ages since I can literally count all the named, on page women on one hand. The fact that Vin remains an important central character continues to make up for it a bit, but still. This aspect, as well as the intricate world building, makes me want to compare what I’ve read of Sanderson to Patrick Rothfuss but in this instance that wouldn’t be a fair comparison since Rothfuss’s female characters all revolve entirely around the main character and his attempts to lessen this in his second book were heavy-handed. And I’m going off on a tangent.

Back to the point, the entire Mistborn trilogy is well written and I would recommend it to all lovers of fantasy, particularly epic fantasy. It’s definitely the kind of series you have to read in order because the world building is so cumulative. Handily, my Gollancz (UK/ANZ) editions have summaries of the earlier books at the back. And appendices.

4.5 / 5 stars

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Showtime by Narrelle M Harris

Showtime by Narrelle M Harris is another of Twelfth Planet Press’s Twelve Planets collections. The stories in it are thematically linked — supernatural creatures such as vampires, zombies and ghosts feature — but there isn’t a linking setting or common characters as in Nightsiders, Bad Power or Love and Romanpunk.

The general theme throughout the four stories is of subverting some of the tropes associated with the aforementioned supernatural creatures. There’s either a bit of a twist or something upfront that’s a bit unusual in each of them. They’re also all ultimately about families in different ways. I really enjoyed all of the stories and I would highly recommend this collection to anyone with even a passing interest in vampires, zombies or ghosts. The fact that two of the stories were also set in Australia only added to my enjoyment (of the other two, if you’re wondering, one’s set in a kitchen which could be almost anywhere and the other is set in Hungary).


Stalemate is the story set in a kitchen. It’s a story about family and about family fights and how the same fight can feel never-ending.


Thrall is the story set in Hungary. It’s about an ancient vampire that hasn’t quite gotten with the modern times (and has discovered that YouTube videos have no problem capturing his likeness, unlike good old silver nitrate film). A story about how the old isn’t always compatible with the new.

The Truth About Brains

The truth about brains is that one day your little brother can accidentally get turned into a zombie. And then you don’t necessarily want him around when he’s getting increasingly smelly in the Australian summer. That doesn’t stop your mum from making you take him with you every time you go out, though…


The titular story is about a (human) librarian and a vampire going to the Melbourne Show. If you’ve read Narrelle M Harris’s The Opposite of Life (I haven’t yet), then you might recognise the two main characters.


Overall, it’s hard to pick a favourite story as there are different nice things to recommend about each of them. As I said, I very much enjoyed this collection and I highly recommend it.

4.5 / 5 stars

Thursday, 5 July 2012

New Booksies (12)

American Science Fiction

172 Hours on the Moon by Johan Harstad

The Long Earth by Pratchett and Baxter

A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix

The Gene Thieves by Maria Quinn

Hindsight by AA Bell

Rogue Gadda by Nicole Murphy

From Netgalley I got American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956-58 which includes:

  • Robert Heinlein / Double Star
  • Alfred Bester / The Stars My Destination
  • James Blish / A Case of Conscience
  • Algis Budrys / Who?
  • Fritz Leiber / The Big Time
From Kmart, because cheap, I bought two YA SF books:
  • 172 Hours on the Moon by Johan Harstand (which was originally published in Norway. The original title is Darlah - 172 timar på månen which is almost the same as the English title just with Darlah, the name of the moon base, appended at the start. I’ve already reviewed it here.)
  • A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix because he is Australian and I haven’t got around to reading any of his books yet.
And then my order with Dymocks came in and I picked up three shiny books by Australian women and then also the new Pratchett/Baxter book because it was on sale.
  • The Gene Thieves by Maria Quinn (I haven’t heard many good things about it but it is Australian and science fiction, a rare beast, so I thought I’d give it a go)
  • Hindsight by AA Bell (the sequel to Diamond Eyes so I can have them both looking pretty on my shelf together)
  • Rogue Gadda by Nicole Murphy (the last book in the Dream of Asarlai trilogy, see my reviews for book 1 and book 2)
  • The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter (obviously, this is the one not by an Australian woman. Mainly I’m hoping the Pratchett element will overcome Baxer’s usual lack of characterisation. Or that it just reads like a Pratchett book with extra science in it)

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

The Well of Ascension is the second instalment of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. You can read my review of the first book here. This review contains minor spoilers for the first book, mostly in the form of who lives and dies. If you don’t want to be spoiled, just go read my review of book 1, Mistborn: The Final Empire, and don’t read on down. I’ll just say that it’s an excellent fantasy series and I’ve given both books one and two 4.5 / 5 stars each.








In The Final Empire, the crew of thieves and allomancers (metal-magic users) that make up the main characters in this series, succeeded in overthrowing the Lord Ruler, the seemingly all-powerful god who had tyrannically ruled over the land for the past thousand years. Where the first book asked (and answered) the question: What would happen if the evil overlord won?, the second book asks the question: What happens next once you get rid of him?

The answer, of course, is almost 800 pages long.

The original crew, plus Elend and sans Kelsier, is trying to hold onto the city of Luthadel and keep the people fed and free. A year after the Lord Ruler’s fall, they’re more or less managing, particularly with Vin to take out any assassins sent against Elend. Then two armies arrive on their doorstep and things get a little bit more tense.

The story follows the crew as they try to hold the city together, prevent the skaa peasants from starving to death or being slaughtered or enslaved again by one of the opposing kings. Unsurprisingly, they face many ups and downs (mostly downs) along the way both external and personal.

Vin, the powerful Mistborn, has grown into her powers and gained a lot of self-confidence, compared with the start of the series. Her bouts of doubt about her place in the world felt realistic and her interactions with Zane, a new character were frustrating, but in a good writing sort of way. Speaking of Zane, I liked the unpredictable element he brought to the plot, but I also spent a lot of time hoping for him to go away and leave Vin alone because she really didn’t need him to make things harder for her than they already were. Another sign of good writing, I think.

The other important new character introduced in The Well of Ascension was Tindwyl, a Terriswoman very different to Sazed, the existing Terris member of the crew. As well as providing a different view of the Terris people (turns out, Sazed is a bit of a rebel) it was nice to see another female character in the foreground. She and Vin are the only two women who are in more than a handful of scenes and who aren’t background decoration (maids, wives, miscellaneous peasants). While they’re both kick-arse characters, I’d still like to see more women, hopefully in the next book.

Overall, this is an excellent book and I would recommend the series to any fantasy readers. I definitely suggest starting from the first book, however, The Final Empire. Handily, if it’s been a while between books one and two, there is summary of book one included at the end of The Well of Ascension.

4.5 / 5 stars

Monday, 2 July 2012

Liar's Game by Kait Gamble

Liar’s Game by Kait Gamble is a new novella out from Carina Press on July 2nd. A copy was provided to be from the publisher via Netgalley. The official blurb summarises quite well, so I thought I’d start by including that.

Rumors of Aurelia Popkiss’s death have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, she and her crew have been drifting through the big black, scavenging to survive since the day she “died.” Yet after years of being on the wrong side of less than favorable odds, they never thought that finding a young girl stowed away on their ship would prove to be among the worst things to happen to them.

From the moment Aurelia finds Kateryn concealed in her cabin, Auri knows she’s hiding something. But even Aurelia can’t imagine the true reason for the stowaway’s sudden appearance in her life.

Kateryn’s past is as convoluted and murky as Aurelia’s own. The girl is out for revenge and nothing is going to stop her from destroying Aurelia and her crew-including Keys, Aurelia’s fellow shipmate and the man she’s secretly in love with-to get it.

Aurelia captains a ship full of ex-criminal men. They are all fiercely loyal to her and a bit over-protective. The further along I read the more it made sense but there was still something a bit dissonant between Aurelia being described as headstrong and then letting the guys restrain her so she doesn’t get hurt/in too much trouble. The opening chapter, in particular, hit a lot of clichés and had me concerned about the rest of the story. Fortunately it improved, particularly once Kateryn, the stowaway, showed up.

Although it’s listed as science fiction romance, I’d be more inclined to call it space adventure romance or something like that. There’s minimal realistic science (see below) but the background setting reminded me a bit of Firefly. But with space pirates instead of space cowboys.

The ending strongly suggested that there will be more novellas/stories in the series, which is a trend I’m liking with the Carina Press stories I’ve read. Hopefully the sequel will flesh out more of the background of the world. I’d like to see where exactly the nobility come into it, future-historically.

On the science-front, Liar’s Game was less science fictiony than I was hoping. The actual science was non-existent, replaced with a few cool gadgets, and setting-wise there were some elements that just didn’t make sense. I never quite got a feel for the layout of the ship (in the sense that there were a few times I was confused when people moved from one room to another a bit too instantly) and there was a bit where the way a shuttle left the main ship was baffling and probably should’ve caused an explosion. Also a strangely uneventful landing on Io — this was at least partly explained, but I would’ve liked to read more and it would have been a perfect opportunity to talk about the technological development of humanity.

The main characters’ ship was secretly floating around the solar system but mostly seemed to be relatively close to colonised moons or planets. If you’re trying to hide from society, why are you that close (a few hours flight) to civilisation? Even though they’re being pirates, surely they’d want to hide on the other side of the sun from the big hubs when they’re not in need of supplies? Also, NASA etc already track many asteroids, some of which would be comparable in size to ships, so I don’t quite buy their ability to hide for so long (I don’t think cloaking devices were mentioned). On the other hand, being set in the solar system does eliminate the problem of space being too big for viable piracy, so that’s something.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to science fiction fans, but lovers of romance or adventure romance will probably enjoy it. Overall it was readable by pushed some of my pet peeve buttons which I expect wouldn’t bother many other readers.

3 / 5 stars

Sunday, 1 July 2012

172 Hours on the Moon by Johan Harstad

172 Hours on the Moon by Johan Harstad is a recently released YA book that was originally published in Norwegian in 2008. I enjoyed it quite a bit and I think it would make an excellent movie. Hopefully, someone in Hollywood notices it and makes it happen.

To summarise the book in one sentence: monsters and teenagers on the moon. I would probably call it SF horror, but I didn’t actually find it scary per se. It should have been, but I was more entertained by the question of “who will survive?”. I think it would make a scarier (and quite good) movie than it did book. But then, it’s a translation, so maybe there was more suspense in the original Norwegian? Who knows.

EDIT: I forgot to say one thing about the translation which really jarred me out of the story. The translator translated into US English not only the words but also the units of measurement so that the non-USian teenagers were thinking in miles and feet and yards and wtf no. It really threw me out of the story. Especially since a Norwegian mile, a Mil, is actually defined as 10 kilometres. Even if the American astronauts had told them speeds and distances in miles, there’s no way the scared Norwegian girl having to cross a dark room would think in yards. Not to mention the astronauts are scientists and engineers and as such have to be able to cope with standard units anyway. I’m confident that if the metric system had been left in, no US teenagers’ brains would have fallen out. End rant.

The back story is that in the 70s, during the 5ish year window between Skylab (the US space station that in real life didn’t entirely work out as planned) falling into disuse and it reentering the atmosphere (to crash in Western Australia), it was used as a staging ground for NASA and the US Air Force to build a secret base on the moon. In terms of plausibility, I was happy to ignore the unlikelihood of NASA managing to actually keep this secret, never mind that the USSR would’ve noticed all the extra launches, if nothing else.

Now, in the run up to 2019, NASA has realised that it should go back to the moon before someone else beats them to it and discovers the secret moon base. Fair enough. Also they need funding so instead of just sending ordinary astronauts to do boring astronauty things, someone comes up with the brilliant media stunt of sending three teenagers with the astronauts. Instead of running some sort of reality TV show to choose them, NASA holds a world-wide lottery. World-wide. None of the three teenagers are American, which I found a bit baffling from a plausibility point of view. From a readability point of view, of course, it was brilliant to have a cultural change. Harstad also skipped over some of the checks and tests that the contestants would have had to go through — and later the training was fast forwarded past — which I found a bit annoying, but then that wasn’t the main point of the story, so it’s understandable.

The aspect I really enjoyed was that all the characters had proper back stories and different motivations for going. Mia, the Norwegian girl, was in a band and had no interest in the moon but her parents signed her up anyway. Antoine, the French boy, was mostly concerned with getting away from his ex-girlfriend and Midori, the Japanese girl, didn’t want to spend her life stuck in Japan. Several of the adults and secondary characters also had proper back stories. It was nice to see more complex motivations than are necessarily common in these sorts of stories.

In terms of the science — because I can’t review a SF novel without some mention of its science — it was mostly accurate or close enough. Harstad skimmed past many things (like zero-gee nausea which none of them miraculously suffered from, something statistically quite unlikely when you’re randomly picking people out with a lottery) which worked generally because if he was slightly wrong about something, he was never specific enough to be completely and utterly wrong. There were a few odd bits involving low or zero atmosphere, but nothing specific worth complaining about. What was really strange was that somehow, in the 70s, NASA managed to not only build a base on the moon, but to somehow imbue it with artificial gravity which they also kept secret from the world. Then they just casually announced it on live TV and there was no outcry of bafflement from the world’s scientists. Or from NASA’s own scientists who had also been kept in the dark (the whole moon base thing was classified of course) until the lead up to the launch. What. The. Frack? Of course this is nothing compared with the scientific train-wreck that was Beth Revis’s Across the Universe, but artificial gravity on the surface of the moon is enough of a big deal that not addressing it was jarring and that including it at all was completely unnecessary. In the story it’s included to supposedly mitigate the effects of prolonged stays in low gravity, but really? No. The saving grace was that it wasn’t dwelt on or in anyway important to the plot, so I could easily ignore those few lines.

So. Despite the rather lengthy critical discussions above, I quite enjoyed 172 Hours on the Moon. I read it in two sittings and would recommend it to SF fans, especially those who don’t mind a bit of non-scientific horror in the fiction (talking about the mysterious evil now, not the actual science). The production values of the physical book were also nice. There were illustrative images interspersed throughout the novel including things like maps of the base, NASA photos of the moon, and the promotional lottery poster (see right).

4 / 5 stars