Sunday, 23 August 2015

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff is a book I've had an unusual relationship with. The authors asked me to check their science/physics which meant I read an earlier version of the manuscript last year. I've now also read the final ARC with the proper typesetting. This is sort of a review, but not really a proper one. I can't be impartial since I've read and dissected an earlier version and even reading the final version in a more relaxed way, it's impossible to form the usual sort of opinion.

One moment, Kady Grant and Ezra Mason have nothing bigger to worry about than each other. Specifically, avoiding each other in the wake of their messy break-up. In the next second, their entire world falls apart.

The year is 2375 and one of the mega-corporations that control much of deep space has just fired the opening salvo in an intergalactic war, destroying Kady and Ezra's planet. Forced to flee on a small fleet of crippled rescue ships alongside thousands of other refugees, the fear of enemy warships chasing them down is at first all-consuming but soon becomes the least of their worries. A deadly plague is ravaging the refugees on the ships; the fleet's AI, which should be protecting them, may actually be an enemy; and High Command is refusing to acknowledge that there may be a serious problem. As Kady plunges into a tangled web of data in search of the truth, she realises that Ezra is possibly the only person who can help her save the refugees before it's too late.

Illuminae is an epistolary novel in the modern sense. Rather than containing any letters (well, there are some emails), it's composed of transcripts of interviews and security footage, chat messages, data dumps from the computer (which are much more readable than they sound like they should be), military reports, and a lot of creative topography. There's not a lot of traditional narrative — about half the forms I just listed might fall into that category — and the story is moved along through information being revealed in a judicious order. It's not a random order; obviously this is a book that was planned and intentionally written. But there are also plot reasons for the information appearing in the order that it does.

If you like spaceships, conspiracies, zombie-like plagues and explosions, this is possibly the book for you. If the idea of the the format tickles your fancy then also definitely pick this one up. On the other hand, if you hate text messages and non-linear typography, this might not quite be a book you'll enjoy. It's definitely different to a lot of YA I've read of late (in format, above all), and hey, I approve of the science. ;-p

First published: October 2015, Random House (US), Allen & Unwin (AU)
Series: Yes. Book 1 of 3 in the Illuminae Files
Format read: Um. Most recently a US ARC (in actual hard-covered paper), but also an earlier draft last year for science-checking/advising purposes
Source: The authors, see above
Disclaimer: I read an earlier draft to provide science advice, see above.
Challenges: Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge, Australian Women Writers Challenge

Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig

The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig is a book I've had a strange mental relationship with since before I read it. For whatever reason, I kept thinking it was YA (it isn't) and then put off reading it because I didn't feel like a YA dystopian and because it felt a bit too close to potential Defying Doomsday slush. Then one day I decided to start reading, got about a chapter in and put it down for a while because some other book seemed more pressing. The second time I picked it up, however, I was hooked (and read it exclusively till the end).

Four hundred years in the future, the Earth has turned primitive following a nuclear fire that laid waste to civilization and nature. Though the radiation fallout has ended, for some unknowable reason every person is born with a twin. Of each pair one is an Alpha — physically perfect in every way — and the other an Omega burdened with deformity, small or large.

With the Council ruling an apartheid-like society, Omegas are branded and ostracised while the Alphas have gathered the world's sparse resources for themselves. Though proclaiming their superiority, for all their effort Alphas cannot escape one harsh fact: Whenever one twin dies, so does the other. Cass is a rare Omega, one burdened with psychic foresight. While her twin, Zach, gains power on the Alpha Council, she dares to dream the most dangerous dream of all: equality. For daring to envision a world in which Alphas and Omegas live side by side as equals, both the Council and the Resistance have her in their sights.

Although, as I've said, The Fire Sermon isn't a YA book — mainly because the main character is in her mid 20s — it does, upon reading, feel like one in some ways. Primarily the dystopian world which needs fixing and the anti-establishment sentiments of the main character, which seem like they might lead to some sort of revolution by the end of book 3, and the way in which the main character is a catalyst of change. On the other hand, it's a longer and more complex novel (plot-wise) than most YA dystopians that spring to mind. The characters are also adults and act like adults (while having similar adventures to their YA counterparts), which is refreshing. (If you're wondering, there are no on-page sex scenes, only kissing.)

I was pleasantly surprised by the world building in this book. I've had my fill of vague and/or nonsensical apocalypses and regular readers will know how fond I am of rigorous world building. The Fire Sermon was set 400 years after a nuclear holocaust in what I was lead to believe was formerly Tasmania. There's a bit of magic to the effects of the nuclear blast — everyone is born with a magically-linked twin and there are a few people around who are seers — but it fits well with the history and feels cohesive. The society is dystopian for two primary reasons: fear of technology because technology once blew them all up and the fact that one of each set of twins (the Omega) is born with a physical deformity or, in a few rare cases, is a seer. Omegas are shunned by Alpha society and forced to live on the fringes. The only reason the Alphas aren't already practising eugenics, is because if one twin out of an Alpha/Omega pair dies, so does the other.

Our main character, Cass, is of course an Omega and a seer. Being a seer makes her unusual but I appreciated that she wasn't the only one. In fact, one of the bad guys is also a seer. The other advantage of being a seer — other than, y'know, seeing the future and/or past — is that they look physically normal. In Cass's case this meant that she and her twin weren't split until they were 13 because their parents couldn't tell which was the Alpha. Usually twins are split as soon as they're weaned and sent away to an Omega settlement. Being an Omega has a profound effect on Cass's life as it makes her a second class citizen but Haig also shows us how it affects the Alpha twin and also how different people can react differently to the situation.

I really liked Cass as a character and Kip, who she spends a significant portion of the book travelling with, was also very readable. After things in Cass's life take a turn for the worst, she finds herself on the run with Kip, both of them unprepared. I thought the portrayal of the journey, with a lot of almost dying from hunger or thirst, was plausible and there were not unlikely lucky breaks for them, which often bother me.

There are more things I'd like to talk about in this review, but they happen later in the book and are definitely spoilers. Suffice to say that I approved of the world building reveals as they happened. And there was a brilliant reveal near the end that I didn't see coming until I was in the revealing scene, so that's always exciting. I wasn't sure (and couldn't be bothered checking) whether The Fire Sermon was a standalone or the start of the series. It stands alone fairly well and while I'm definitely looking forward to the next book, I don't feel like I have to read it for plot-completion reasons.

All in all, The Fire Sermon was an excellent read that exceeded my expectations and was a solid example of both the post-apocalyptic and dystopian subgenres. I highly recommend it to fans of both, in particular fans who are looking for a meatier (and longer) story than the YA side of the genre tends to provide. I see no reason why fans of YA dystopian or post-apocalyptic stories would not also enjoy The Fire Sermon.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: March 2015, Gallery Books (US) / Harper Collins (Commonwealth)
Series: Apparently book 1 of what appears to be a trilogy. Stands alone fairly well.
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via Netgalley
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Pretty Deadly Vol 1: The Shrike by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios

Pretty Deadly Vol 1: The Shrike written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and illustrated by Emma Rios is the first volume of a comic series/serialised graphic novel, containing issues #1–5. To summarise, it's a western about death, his daughter, and another girl.

KELLY SUE DeCONNICK (Avengers Assemble, Captain Marvel) and EMMA RÍOS (Dr. Strange, Osborn) present the collected opening arc of their surprise-hit series that marries the magical realism of Sandman with the western brutality of Preacher. Death's daughter rides the wind on a horse made of smoke and her face bears the skull marks of her father. Her origin story is a tale of retribution as beautifully lush as it is unflinchingly savage.

I don't really like westerns that much and I only read this because a) it came highly recommended by some friends and b) because I've liked everything else DeConnick has done. I probably should've stuck to my first instinct of not liking westerns, though. (I think it's a combination of the gun culture and the general Americaness.) To be fair, Pretty Deadly is as much fantasy as it is western, but still. It more or less tells the origin story of Death's daughter with a focus on other character's whose relationship to that story isn't immediately obvious.

My favourite part of Pretty Deadly was the opening (per issue) narration by a butterfly and a skeleton rabbit. They were morbidly cute and framed the story nicely, putting the story in context at the start and the end. There were some non sequiturs in the middle issues, but those were still fun. So that was the highlight for me. I also liked Sissy, who struck me as more of a central character than Ginny, Death's daughter. That said, Sissy was one of the people telling Ginny's story and enabling it to happen.

Overall, I wasn't a huge fan of the art style. It's not that I didn't like it as art (and unlike some comic art, it definitely wasn't offensive), but I found it difficult to follow. A lot of the story is told through the art with only sparse words and I found I didn't take that in as well as I would have hoped. I'm not sure that more words would have helped because the presentation very much fit with the overall style. I think the busyness of many of the panels was the real culprit. There were times I felt a bit lost and had to do more work keeping up with the story than I would prefer for a comic. This was especially true of the scenes set in Death's domain (possibly a combination of the dark colours and large amount of small detail).

I haven't yet decided whether I'll be reading Volume Two. It won't be out for something like a year, so I have a while yet in which to decide. I would suggest having a look at the art style before committing to reading Pretty Deadly and I should point out that the cover is pretty representative of the interiors (albeit larger, obviously). On the other hand, the story itself is one that I think would appeal to a lot of spec fic fans, especially those that also enjoy the western genre and stories about anthropomorphic Death.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2014, Image Comics
Series: Pretty Deadly Vol 1, containing issues #1–5. There will apparently be a volume 2, but beyond that is a mystery.
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: Non-Amazon-affiliated online book shop

Monday, 3 August 2015

Spider-Woman Vol 1: Spider-Verse by Dennis Hopeless

Spider-Woman Vol 1: Spider-Verse written by Dennis Hopeless and illustrated by Greg Land contains issues #1-4 of the latest (Marvel Now) Spider-Woman comics and an origin story issue from 1971 to bulk it out. I previously posted a short review of Issue #1.

Jessica Drew has been an agent of both S.H.I.E.L.D. and S.W.O.R.D., an Avenger and so much more. But nothing could prepare her for the multidimensional insanity that is Spider-Verse! A war is brewing, and every spider-character in the multiverse is a target! But being a target is something Jessica Drew just won't abide. She's a woman with a mission - and with Silk, the newest spider on the block at her side, she'll need to put all her training to the test if she wants to make it out of Spider-Verse alive! Now, undercover in the most dangerous place in the multiverse, Spider-Woman is in the tightest spot she's ever been in. What if even succeeding with her mission means her death? And can Silk handle a solo mission?

I feel a bit bad for Spider-Woman on this run because it's very much squeezed between two events (if you consider that Vol 2 leads into Last Days). This volume deals with some of Spider-Woman's adventures during the Spider-Verse event, which also involve Silk (pictured on the cover), Spider-Gwen (who is great) and Spider-Girl (Anya, briefly). The Spider-Verse event (which I thought was explained sufficiently within the comic — a nice change) centres around a bunch of bad guys who want to eat all the spider-people. It kind of reminded me of the Family of Blood from Doctor Who. The story in this volume starts of focusing on Spider-Woman and other protecting Silk, who seems to strongly attract bad guys. The mission takes them across universes and past doppelgängers until the day is more or less saved (something which obviously involves story lines in other books) and the event winds up.

The fourth issue winds up the most recent chapter of Jessica Drew's life and sets her up to get a new costume (spoiler) in the following issue, which will be in Volume 2. It was a one-shot story involving Carol Danvers and Steve Rogers (Captains Marvel and America) a small bad to fight, and of course many quips.

The last issue, from 1971, which was bundled into this volume, tells yet another origin story of Spider-Woman. Honestly, it's not that terrible, although it is that ridiculous. It starts with Spider-Woman as a Hydra agent and,via an encounter with Nick Fury (disappointingly white), ends with her questioning everything she'd been lead to believe. It was a bit melodramatic, but on the scale of weird old comics I've read, really not as offensive as it could've been. But overall, meh.

It's interesting to see that Spider-Woman's costume hasn't changed since the 70s (except for maybe her hair) and that makes her recent update all the more exciting. Her costume isn't the worst ever since it at least covers her, but it does tend to be drawn with unrealistically clingy fabric. And so, while I enjoyed the story in this volume, there were a few slightly icky art moments. Nothing too egregious, but boobs that were too big — which bothered me most on Spider-Gwen, for whatever reason — and a few weird poses. This is the series that had the particularly anatomically incorrect cover for issue #1, so perhaps I shouldn't be too surprised. It's disappointing, but on the other hand, I was pleased to see that cover wasn't included in the cover gallery at the back or anywhere else in the volume.

I am looking forward to the next volume of Spider-Woman (out next year :-/ ) and I enjoyed this volume. I'm not sure whether I would recommend it to readers who aren't already fans of Spider-Woman or Silk (or at a stretch Spider-Gwen). I don't think it stands alone that well and I suspect the next volume will actually be a better jumping on point (although I say that without having read any of it). On the other hand, this made me even more eager to read Spider-Gwen (I'm waiting for the trade) and has also made me interested in Silk, about whom I didn't know much before.

4 / 5 stars

First published: June 2015, Marvel Comics
Series: Spider-Woman ongoing series. Volume 1, contains issues #1-4 (and an issue from 1971)
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: Real life book shop!

Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Wicked + The Divine Vol 1: The Faust Act by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

The Wicked + The Divine Vol 1: The Faust Act, written by Kieron Gillen and illustrated by Jamie McKelvie, is a comic about a variety of gods incarnating as teenagers for a limited time. This first volume in an ongoing series collects issues #1–5.

Every ninety years, twelve gods incarnate as humans. They are loved. They are hated. In two years, they are dead. The team behind critical tongue-attractors like Young Avengers and PHONOGRAM reunite to create a world where gods are the ultimate pop stars and pop stars are the ultimate gods. But remember: just because you’re immortal, doesn’t mean you’re going to live forever.

This comic series is less... obvious... or predictable than the blurb makes it seem. It's set in a world where every ninety years the gods reincarnate into teenagers, are pop stars (or the period equivalent) and then die within two years. The last time this happened was the 1920s. It's happening again now.

The story is told from the point of view of Laura, a normal teenager who is a fan of the god music stars and wants to see them all live in concert. Then, when she passes out at a concert, she becomes more mixed up with them than she anticipated. In particular, she finds an affinity for Luci (-fer), who quickly also finds herself in trouble. In her quest to help, Laura gets mixed up with even more of the gods (I particularly liked the Morrigan, for whom I have a bit of a soft spot) and a journalist who has a Masters on the recurrence and a lot of god-directed anger.

I enjoyed The Wicked + The Divine a lot. It was a consistently entertaining read that had a diverse cast and was fairly irreverent towards the gods. It is especially fairly liberal towards who gets to be which god, with a few gender (and ethnicity) switches in the mix. For example Lucifer is female, Inanna is male and Woden looks like he (?) just stepped out of Tron for some reason. The gods all have some aspects of their traditional powers/identities but less literally than many interpretations will have it. I also enjoyed that it was set in London rather than New York or LA, because non-US settings are always refreshing.

This first volume contains a section of story which, although it's self-contained for one character, is obviously part of a bigger story. I can't wait to read more. The second volume has just recently come out, but it was sold out at our local store, sadface.

I highly recommend The Wicked + The Divine to fans of mythology. Kind of any mythology. A rather wide swath of cultures make an appearance. It's an engaging and interesting story that makes good use of the comic format.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2014, Image Comics
Series: The Wicked + The Divine Volume 1 of ongoing series (vol 2 just came out). Collects issues #1–5
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: Comic book shop in Melbourne