The Uploaded (Ferrett Steinmetz)

4 stars

In the near future, the elderly have moved online and now live within the computer network. But that doesn’t stop them interfering in the lives of the living, whose sole real purpose now is to maintain the vast servers which support digital Heaven. For one orphan that just isn’t enough – he wants more for himself and his sister than a life slaving away for the dead. It turns out that he’s not the only one who wants to reset the world…

‘The Uploaded’ is a dark book. I’m going to give you that warning for free now.

If said warning doesn’t put you off then please continue…

Amichai is an Upterlife orphan, a teenager whose parents died in one of the horrific genetically modified plagues that are accidentally set loose on the living world every now and then, and ‘ascended’ to a digital existence. Freed from the chains of reality, pain and suffering, they’ve all but forgotten that they left two children behind, spending their days fighting dragons with their pain receptors turned off and sipping piña coladas alongside an artificial sunset.

Amichai is left in the physical world, full of bleak crumbling sky scrapers, questionable protein sludge and glistening servers, whose upkeep is all that he’s considered good for. A trickster at heart and someone who is just terrible at following rules, Amichai lives under the constant burden of the shrive, a ‘save point’ where his memories and experiences are periodically uploaded to the servers and judged by the living dead. Tip too far into ‘criminal’ and he will not be allowed to enter the upterlife, instead dying a horrifying ‘meat death’, his existence erased.

Following the effects of the Bubbler Plague, which annihilated much of the living population, kids like Amichai are a dying breed, both needed and treated with disdain by their ‘ancestors’. Amichai would probably care less if it wasn’t for the existence of his sister, a survivor of the plague, no longer considered fit to wear the badge of the LifeGuard, the proxy officers by which the dead ‘police’ the living. Surviving ‘robbed’ her of the chance to ascend to the servers early, instead forcing her to take on menial work in microchip factories until the end of her natural lifespan.

Life on Earth is hopelessly grim with some foregoing the promise of a digital afterlife altogether, instead choosing ‘meat death’ and the dream of Heaven, trashing the servers that they consider ungodly. Caught between the dead, who do not value his existence and the ‘NeoChristians’ who wish to rob him of his digital future, Amichai is in a bit of a bind. All he knows for sure is that, life cannot continue this way.

Something has to change.

This was a very clever book. It’s been a while since I’ve had a book make me think so much. It’s also a strangely apt book for our current political situation, with the older generations entangling our futures in the chains of their poorly thought out decisions.

It’s definitely more about the concept than the characters. The worldbuilding is astounding, every little detail meticulously thought out for maximum weight and horror. Although the story is very different, I got a real ‘Fallout’ vibe from the book. It’s a bleak horrible world, with people banding together the best they can just to deal with the hideousness of their lives. A dangerous job is no longer considered something worth avoiding, but something that could potentially lead to a quicker upload to the Upterlife.

It’s not a book for the faint hearted, it is relentlessly dark and relentlessly hopeless. I’d also put a big warning on the book for anyone who’s currently having suicidal thoughts. Although the book is, obviously, NOT advocating suicide, the way that characters talk about death and how much they are looking forward to it could be seriously triggering for some readers!

In the afterword, Steinmetz speaks about the fact that he’s been writing this book for years. You can really see it in the story through the attention to detail and the planning of each of the twists and turns. It’s a story that I really enjoyed just letting it take me where it went. I stopped guessing what Amichai would do next, instead accepting that I would probably just be wrong.

In comparison with the world, the characters are a little bit forgettable. I don’t think that’s necessarily a flaw, it’s definitely a story more about deeds than the people behind them, but I found myself forgetting some of the side characters names or losing track of their relevance to the story. Amichai is, however, a great lead. When I was reading, the image in my head was Robert Sheehan as Nathan in ‘Misfits’, irreverent, extraverted, but, under it all, caring and more than a little afraid.

It’s a book that makes you feel a little hollow inside. You’d like to think that those living a digital existence wouldn’t forget the needs of those that they leave behind, but you also know that it’s entirely likely. The dead in this world have the ultimate privilege, they do not fear for anything, not hunger, poverty or pain, for they have already triumphed humanity’s greatest fear, death itself.

So, all in all, a great standalone with exceptional world building. Books like this are why I read science fiction: huge ethical questions, dark not entirely unfamiliar worlds and massive concepts. A great book, and definitely one that will have me searching out Steinmetz’s back catalogue.

(Also, look at this stunning cover…)

TheUploaded_144dpi

Many thanks to Angry Robot books for a copy in return for an honest review!

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Waking Gods (Sylvain Neuvel)

1 star

An unknown vessel, not of this world, materializes in London. A colossal figure towering over the city, it makes no move. Is this a peaceful first contact or the prelude to an invasion?

Every child has nightmares. But the only thing scarier than little Eva Reyes’ dreams – apocalyptic visions of death and destruction – is the habit they have of coming true…

Scientist Dr Rose Franklin has no memory of the last few years. The strangers she works with say she died, and was brought back to life. The question is not just how … but why?

Kara Resnik and Vincent Couture fell in love during war, and have found peace since. They are the thin line of defence against what is coming. But they do not know they have been living a lie.

And a man who claims to have the answers has his own agenda. There are things he cannot say – and others he won’t.”

Ok, the lesson I’m going to take out of this is that if I’m not all that fond of book one the likelihood is that I’m not going to like book two at all…

All my least favourite parts of ‘Sleeping Giants’ took a front seat in the sequel. It’s a book about giant robots and the annihilation of the human race, I couldn’t honestly care less about a questionable love story between two characters that I only mildly had any feelings for.

It’s a book that thinks that it’s more intelligent than it actually is…there were a couple of points during the DNA/sepsis exposition that I was sitting there as a medic thinking ‘you just described 1+1=2 in the most roundabout and smug way possible’. Also, choosing the BRCA2 mutation as one of the genetic markers for imperfect humanity was pretty insensitive, maybe they should have made up some gene mutations instead of choosing ones that people die from every year.  At about 10% I’d pretty much reached the decision that this just wasn’t a book for me, but I kept reading, ever hopeful and marginally curious about what would happen. That was a poor decision on my part.

There’s a reason that I don’t choose to read film scripts, because the lack of internal thought process and visuals is boring as hell to a reader. Maybe it was more interesting to listen to as an audiobook but I’m not sure that I can be bothered to try. I know that I mentioned World War Z in the first review as well, but, honestly, that’s proof that I do quite enjoy the interview format if it’s done well. The transcribed audio logs in ‘Waking Gods’ were embarrassing to read, it put me in mind of old manuscripts that I wrote when I was eleven, stilted dialogue and too many ‘noooooooos’ for me to be able to take it seriously. Let’s be honest, an audio recording is not going to hear what you’re saying if you’re screaming, it’s just going to come out as a lot of ear bleeding static.

This had a great premise, giant robots is one of the quickest ways to get me on side when I’m trying to choose media…but it was just so dull, and the fact that I could completely skim huge chunks of text and still know what was going on didn’t exactly made me want to read it in any more detail. Sometimes books and readers just don’t click and I think that might have been the case here. Maybe the audiobook would have been better? I know that I would have enjoyed a film version a lot more? All I know is that I went in wanting giant robots and got a love story…eugh.

Thank you to Penguin Books and Netgalley for a copy in return for an honest review.

 

 

Interview + Giveaway: Elise Kova talks Loom, Music and Inspiration

As I’m sure many of you know by now, I’m a huge Elise Kova fan! I was given the opportunity to read an advanced readers copy of ‘The Alchemists of Loom’ last year and fell in love with the dark steampunk world with its rich characters and videogame-like action sequences.

To give you a flavour, here’s is the synopsis for Book One, ‘The Alchemists of Loom’:


‘Her vengeance. His vision.
 
Ari lost everything she once loved when the Five Guilds’ resistance fell to the Dragon King. Now, she uses her unparalleled gift for clockwork machinery in tandem with notoriously unscrupulous morals to contribute to a thriving underground organ market. There isn’t a place on Loom that is secure from the engineer-turned-thief, and her magical talents are sold to the highest bidder as long as the job defies their Dragon oppressors.
 
Cvareh would do anything to see his sister usurp the Dragon King and sit on the throne. His family’s house has endured the shame of being the lowest rung in the Dragons’ society for far too long. The Alchemist Guild, down on Loom, may just hold the key to putting his kin in power, if Cvareh can get to them before the Dragon King’s assassins. 
 
When Ari stumbles upon a wounded Cvareh, she sees an opportunity to slaughter an enemy and make a profit off his corpse. But the Dragon sees an opportunity to navigate Loom with the best person to get him where he wants to go.
 
He offers her the one thing Ari can’t refuse: A wish of her greatest desire, if she brings him to the Alchemists of Loom.’

 


Now, with the release date of second book in the Loom Trilogy, ‘The Dragons of Nova’, looming ever closer I was lucky enough to get the chance to ask Elise some questions about her world and her inspirations!

  • The world of Loom is a very cinematic one. When you first started to envisage this story were there any images and ideas that stood out to you before all else?

[Elise] I’ve spoken about my video game influence in a few other interviews over the course of the read-along, so I’ll just take this as an opportunity to share my Loom Pinterest board which has a ton of my original inspirations and world images. 

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  • You’ve mentioned before that music had a profound impact on your writing of the ‘Air Awakens’ series, are there any songs that, through the writing process, you can’t hear without thinking of Loom?

[Elise] I wrote to a lot of the ‘Bloodborne’ Soundtrack, it was my “get in the mood” music when it came to writing Loom. Otherwise, I have a lot of songs that fit Ari specifically and seem to describe the overall feeling of Loom. Some of them are:

‘Control’ by Halsey

‘Gasoline’ by Halsey

‘Fairly Local’ by Twenty One Pilots


Florence-Character-Trading-Card

‘Florence’ Trading Card by Nick Grey

  • Which character do you find the most enjoyable or rewarding to write?

[Elise] All the characters are so different that they each really fulfil me in different ways to write. I thought originally I would enjoy writing Arianna the most and her logical approach to problems… But I think the character I have the most fun writing and find the most enjoyable is Florence. I think this is because of just how much she grows throughout the course of the books and how she evolves. Some characters write themselves and Florence was certainly one of those in that she became a lot more important than I even thought she would be to the plot. But, now, I can’t imagine her any other way.


  • Have any of the characters changed drastically, even unrecognisably, during the writing process from the way you first envisaged them?
Cvareh-Character-Trading-Card

‘Cvareh’ Trading Card by Nick Grey

[Elise] I think the closest to this is Cvareh… He was another character who (speaking of) “wrote themselves”. I wasn’t really sure what kind of character Cvareh was going to be going into his narrative. I knew aspects about his backstory, his priorities… But I didn’t know his voice. That was something I had the delight of discovering as I wrote. So I don’t know if he “changed drastically” because I didn’t have much for him going into things. But he definitely became someone I didn’t expect. 


  • Say you were to find yourself in Loom, harvesting dragon parts, which organ would you want for yourself?

[Elise] I think I would go for hands. I like the idea of being able to make illusions and think it could be used in ways that are both good (like “taking” someone who couldn’t otherwise go to a far away place there by illusioning it around them) and a little mischievous (like playing a harmless prank on a friend).

Many thanks to Elise for her time and her insights into the world of Loom! Keep an eye on my instagram (moonmagister) for a special ‘The Alchemists of Loom’ related post!


For the chance to win a signed copy of ‘The Alchemists of Loom’ visit the giveaway here!!

Bonus Content:


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Follow Elise on Social Media:

The Abyss Surrounds Us (Emily Skrutskie)

4 stars

Cas has fought pirates her entire life. But can she survive living among them?

For Cassandra Leung, bossing around sea monsters is just the family business. She’s been a Reckoner trainer-in-training ever since she could walk, raising the genetically-engineered beasts to defend ships as they cross the pirate-infested NeoPacific. But when the pirate queen Santa Elena swoops in on Cas’s first solo mission and snatches her from the bloodstained decks, Cas’s dream of being a full-time trainer seems dead in the water.

There’s no time to mourn. Waiting for her on the pirate ship is an unhatched Reckoner pup. Santa Elena wants to take back the seas with a monster of her own, and she needs a proper trainer to do it. She orders Cas to raise the pup, make sure he imprints on her ship, and, when the time comes, teach him to fight for the pirates. If Cas fails, her blood will be the next to paint the sea.” (Flux)

So I went into this book knowing two things, a) the lesbian representation was apparently excellent, and b) it was filled with raging sea monsters. Two of my favourite things, sign me up right now!

Our protagonist, Cas, has spent almost her entire life studying to be a Reckoner trainer, she pretty much breathes, eats and sleeps her work. To her there is nothing as exciting and important as this job and her Reckoner. She’s been raised with almost unquestioning loyalty to the programme and the task that they complete, protecting civilian vessels on the vast seas of a world ravaged by global warming.

The world that Skrutskie builds is chilling. Seriously, nothing manages to get under my skin more than a future where we did nothing to slow the progression of global warming. The world Cas lives in has been dramatically changed by rising sea levels with many cities, even countries, being swallowed by the waves. The remaining landscape is so changed, the landmass so depleted, that federations of countries had to form to redistribute people across the available space, leading to war and deprivation.

I think one of my favourite parts of the book was Cas’ growing awakening to the world around her. Her realization, after seeing the cramped and desolate floating cities, that she doesn’t deserve food, land or security more than any other citizen of the earth, and the understanding that the breeding of Reckoners was always to protect those with wealth from those without.

Swift is the instrument of Cas’ moral awakening, a hard nosed young pirate, training and competing to be next in line for Santa Elena’s throne. Swift is very much a victim of her circumstances, born on a floating city, learning to look at the Reckoners that Cas’ adores with fear and dread. Swift would have chosen to have nothing to do with Cas, were it not for a twist of Santa Elena’s game that left Cas’ success as a trainer and their lives entwined. The romance between these two is slow, slow burn. Although it was maybe a little too slow for my liking, I can appreciate Skrutskie’s reasons for doing so. A romance any faster would have been a romance with a unhealthy power dynamic, that of captor and captive, something which Skrutskie deliberately avoids. It did, however, mean there wasn’t as much romance in this as I would like, but, I’m hoping that in book two this will be ecstatically rectified. Another massive positive for the LGBT aspect in this book is the fact that the world seems to be a place where non-heterosexual relationships are not looked upon with any kind of bigotry, avoiding any homophobic narratives and making this a safe and satisfying f/f romance.

From reading other peoples reviews I thought I would come out of this crying that it was my favourite thing I’d ever read. Unfortunately, I found that, whilst I enjoyed it, there were some things lacking in it for me. Namely that I think I wanted it to be more hardcore sci fi than it actually was. However, I think I could be the problem here. Weirdly, I think I’m slightly too old for this book, which is something I rarely feel when reading YA fiction. I also think it was maybe a little too slow burn for me, romance-wise, and I entirely understand why Skrutskie chose to write it that way (and I know other readers loved it), but I wanted more angst…and more kissing.

So, would I recommend this? Yes, definitely yes. Queer sci fi and fantasy books, especially with an Asian lead, rarely come up on my radar, and this is a little gem that I’m sure lovers of all f/f romance will enjoy, regardless of whether science fiction is a genre they usually avoid.

False Hearts (Laura Lam)

5 stars

So, this is actually a review that I wrote well before I had this blog. It was my first ever ARC review, but it’s still one of my favourite books and, rather excitingly, Laura Lam has a new book ‘Shattered Minds’, set in the same world and coming out soon. So, now seemed like a great time to rec this awesome, diverse, beautifully written book. Hope you enjoy!

“I finished False Hearts a couple of hours ago but had to give myself some time to marinade  because, you know, incoherent screaming doesn’t make a very good book review.

I reviewed the preview of ‘False Hearts’ by Laura Lam ( @lauraroselam) a couple of days ago, basically concluding that, dear lord, I wanted to read the rest of this book and fast. Thanks to Pan Macmillan and Netgalley I was able to get a full copy to review and I’m sure the question you want to know the answer to is ‘was it as good as you thought it was going to be?’

Yes

Oh, yes…

To put this in perspective, when I’m writing a review I tend to make two lists, one of parts I liked, one of elements I didn’t like, but I really struggled to find things to put in the second column. It felt disingenuous to try and find something wrong with this book so, you know what, I accepted that I just honestly loved it.

So what’s the ‘basic’ premise?

Raised in the closed cult of Mana’s Hearth and denied access to modern technology, conjoined sisters Taema and Tila dream of a life beyond the walls of the compound. When the heart they share begins to fail, the twins escape to San Francisco, where they are surgically separated and given new artificial hearts. From then on they pursue lives beyond anything they could have previously imagined.


Ten years later, Tila returns one night to the twins’ home in the city, terrified and covered in blood, just before the police arrive and arrest her for murder–the first homicide by a civilian in decades. Tila is suspected of involvement with the Ratel, a powerful crime syndicate that deals in the flow of Zeal, a drug that allows violent minds to enact their darkest desires in a terrifying dreamscape. Taema is given a proposition: go undercover as her sister and perhaps save her twin’s life. But during her investigation Taema discovers disturbing links between the twins’ past and their present. Once unable to keep anything from each other, the sisters now discover the true cost of secrets.

(Macmillan-Tor/Forge)

The world building is just so good. A corporate owned San Francisco, devoid of crime, running on pure green energy, every citizen augmented. Use of psychoactive technology means every violent or abhorrent thought or fantasy is exorcised through dreams. You see the world through the eyes of the twins who spent their childhood in a woodland cult, deprived of access to the implants and technology that people view as standard. You view this world with the same mild bewilderment that the sisters are feeling, as an outsider.

We have Tila, the adventurer, the twin who always wants to forge ahead, and Taema, the twin who you almost feel started life in Tila’s shadow. The events of the book mean these roles have to swap, we see a Taema who, initially, seems woefully out of her depth, a Tila with the situation ripped from her hands. There’s this wonderful juxtaposition of forward fighting Tila forced to look backwards and the more retiring Taema having to take the plunge into the future for them both.

I fell in love with the tech in this world. I have an intercalated degree in Neuroscience so the concept of Zeal, a psychoactive dream altering agent, sucked me right in. Between the blurred identity of separated conjoined twins and the personality muddling effects of Zeal, you get a feeling that this is a book which focuses a lot on ‘self’. Indeed, Taema, taking on Tila’s identity often wonders whether people like her more as Tila than as herself.

That point takes me onto the sinister cult of Mana’s Hearth. A cult raising people to be part of a lucid dreaming hive mind whole, united in fear of outsiders and nervous devotion to their leader Mana-ma. Mana-ma is a distant villain throughout the book, constantly in the back of the twin’s minds, warping their identity, making them doubt themselves and their independence.

Enter Nazarin, the undercover cop (and love interest). Now, Nazarin could very easily have slipped into a cliché but he never did. He’s not overly brooding or weirdly protective of Taema, you feel he respects her and her ability to make her own decisions. He is the quiet reassurance that Taema, raised to doubt herself, has always needed. I could probably write an essay on Nazarin but I really want you to experience him for yourself because the segments between Taema and him are some of my favourite in the book.

(Also, I feel I need to say that it seems as if bisexuality is the base state in this book and it’s great, it’s great not to read another book where characters get morally offended at getting hit on by the same sex. This was A+.)

This book never felt as if it was dragging, which is a miracle, because I don’t know a book where there isn’t at least one section that I feel could be cut. It runs to a very smooth, well paced end, that, without spoiling anything, I will say was very satisfying 😉

As a final flourish I want to talk about the feel of this book. You know those beautiful aesthetic graphics that people make for books, I feel False Hearts could inspire some completely gorgeous ones. The open starry skies and towering Redwoods of Mana’s Hearth, the bay fog, glistening neon skyscrapers of San Francisco, the swirling unpredictable Zealscapes…this is a beautiful beautiful book.

I hope you all enjoy this every bit as much as I did.”

Originally posted at lordbelatiel.tumblr.com.

The Promise of the Child (Tom Toner)

1 star

Ok, so I actually had a couple of other reviews lined up to write before this, but I feel I need to talk about this one now. I’m usually a fan of darker books, I don’t tend to get turned off by violence, or gore, or things that are just plain weird, but I do have a real bugbear with the unnecessary use of sexual violence…that, and books without a single female character of note.

So, the book…

It’s touted as an epic space opera in the style of Banks or Reynolds, and it is pretty big…but also wallowing and lacking direction. We follow the POVs of a good ten or so different characters throughout the story, but only two that you’ll actually have any interest in. It’s basically set in our universe but approximately 12,000 years in the future. Humans left earth, some became the immortal Amaranthine, others evolved into strange Prism races, all seeming to be at war with one another. The Amaranthine, being immortal, ended up holding power, but a power that seems to be waning as infighting weakens their society.

Chapters leap around a bit, there’s one set in 14th century Prague that seems to be literally never mentioned again, a couple in the 20th century Mediterranean that turn out to be dreams, and most set in the 147th Century. I’m sure that some of the more superfluous seeming chapters may be important in later books, but since I found them horrendously dull and pretty irrelevant I won’t be reading the later books to find out.

This book could have done with some serious streamlining. I know it was supposed to be some grand space opera, but it wallowed in a way that the greats, the Herbert’s and the Bank’s did not.

Lycaste, the main POV for the novel, is a member of a colour changing race of giants living on Earth. The blurb describes him a ‘lovesick recluse’. What that doesn’t tell you is that he spends the entire book bemoaning the fact he has been friendzoned, and basically ends up trying to kill the man that his ‘beloved’ loves instead. I also really did not like that his ‘reclusiveness’ and the fact he is generally unlikeable seems to be ‘explained away’ by him being on the autistic spectrum…seriously, if you’re going to try and write an autistic character, maybe talk to some autistic people beforehand and don’t make already rare autistic characters into gross stereotypes.  Needless to say, I didn’t like how Lycaste’s character was handled at all. There was some really cruel ableist language chucked around that could really hurt readers on the autistic spectrum.

The second POV that gets the most page space is Sotiris, a 12,000 year old Amaranthine, who originally lived his life in contemporary Cyprus. Personally, I think this entire book would have been much more interesting and much more readable if Sotiris had been the main character. I want to read books about amoral space Immortals, not whingy young men (well, giants) from Earth. Sotiris also gets the most interesting, and least offensive plot line. I’m going to sit here and mourn the epic story that could have been.

So, what is wrong with this book…

Whilst the inclusion of rape, sexism, homophobia and ableism in a book isn’t in itself a red flag, how it is dealt with, and whether it is given the grief it deserves in book, really is.

I mentioned the problematic depiction of a character on the autism spectrum earlier, and the fact that the book is just generally too long and poorly paced, but there’s more.

There are only a handful of named female characters in this enormous book and pretty much all of them either get raped or die…sometimes both. There’s even an attempt to explain away the lack of older female Amaranthine by saying they all ‘go senile’ earlier than the men…which doesn’t follow medical statistics at all, but, well, you do you. Also, I’m not going to go into detail about it here because I know it could hurt people, but the character I mentioned earlier, the one who doesn’t love Lycaste, literally…I’m not sure the author really intended it to be this way…but it reads like a friendzone revenge fantasy . I had to skip that part entirely, it was so gross and hurtful and unnecessary. All I’ll say is that it involved pregnancy and sexual assault…

There’s also some really rampant and completely out of place homophobia in this book. One character goes on a rant about how he thinks it’s disgusting that two men loved one another, just, out of nowhere, for no real reason. Later, a character is goaded by another character that he’s a ‘pretty man’ and ‘gay’, as if it’s a bad thing?? Then later some dude, that looks like a kid, drugs Lycaste and tried to sleep with him?? Why a) are any of these scenes necessary and b) how did no-one read any of this and think ‘maybe this is a little bit homophobic?’

As I mentioned earlier, you can put the most horrible, disgusting content in your books as long as you justify in text that the actions are abhorrent. You’re allowed to make points, to use shock and horror, as long as it doesn’t read like torture or revenge porn. Using rape to make a character look like a monster is maybe not advised but possible, however, take care with context! If you’re writing a book  and you don’t take care not to romanticize that act, then you’ve written something that actively damages rape victims of any gender.

Conclusion…

This a big book with an interesting plotline and envious scope…but it rolled some critical fails when it came to nuanced use of gendered violence. As a woman, specifically a queer woman, this one was not for me.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Gollancz Publishing for a copy in return for an honest review.

 

Sleeping Giants (Sylvain Neuvel)

3 stars

I went into this book expecting giant space robots and, rather disappointingly, barely got any giant space robots. It’s probably slightly the fault of my own expectations that I didn’t enjoy this as much as I thought I would, but, nevertheless, this is not the book that I was hoping for.

The book opens with a scientist recollecting how, as a young girl, she stumbled across an ancient hand of glowing turquoise lines in the woods of South Dakota, and how the circuitous effects of fate have lead to her becoming the lead researcher on  the project years in the future. The early parts of the book are engaging, raising questions as to what the hand is, where it came from, how old and, most interestingly, who made it? From the blurb we know it’s not human made, surpassing even our earliest attempts at civilization, and made from a substance only found in tiny quantities on Earth, hence beginning a long and tortuous process to try and find the other parts of what is thought to be an enormous humanoid machine.

Now, that sounds really cool, I’m getting images of Pacific Rim, Voltron, Evangelion..but the thing is that we just never really see any action. This entire book is politics and military wrangling, which, you know, is interesting in its own way but isn’t what I went into the story expecting. I couldn’t help but feel that this would make a much more interesting TV series or game than book. I’m not say there weren’t interesting points, I wouldn’t have given it three stars if there wasn’t something anchoring me to the plot, for example, further exposition on the origin of the giant robot is something I will definitely be picking up the next book for and the ‘cold war’ events of the novel were at times really interesting. There were just a lot of things I wasn’t particularly fond of.

Unfortunately, one of those was the format. I think that the ‘interviews and logs’ style of writing can work really well, World War Z immediately comes to mind as my favorite example of the form, I just don’t think that it worked for me in this novel. When writing a book that is almost exclusively dialogue, the most difficult thing is giving each character a voice of their own. The only character in this novel that was instinctually recognizable was the ‘Interviewer’, everyone  else had a disappointingly similar tone. I found it difficult to care about characters when they were all written in pretty much the same way and found myself skipping large chunks of text when it started to sound more like a speech than actual dialogue.

So, all in all, not one of my favorites.  I can’t quite shake the feeling of disappointment that I experienced on ending this story. Who knows, maybe book two will be a pleasant surprise.

Fair Rebel (Steph Swainston)

 

3.5 stars

Fifteen years after the last devastating Insect attack, the immortal Circle is finally ready to launch an offensive against their implacable enemies. This time they have a new weapon – gunpowder. Hopes are high.

But the Circle’s plans are threatened when the vital barrels of gunpowder go missing. Jant, the Circle’s winged messenger, is tasked to investigate. Soon it becomes clear that the theft is part of a deadly conspiracy . . . and Jant and his friends are among the targets.

As tensions rise, Jant races to foil the conspirators. Can he expose them in time – or will the crisis blow the Fourlands apart?

My first introduction to the Fourlands was a good seven years ago now, in a book large enough to take someone’s head off. The blurb read as if all my favourite disparate plot characteristics had been forged into one enormous vat of excellence. Immortals, a winged messenger, drug fuelled crossings to wildly strange parallel worlds. Thankfully, it was as good as I had hoped.

Skip forward eight years and we have a book that I did not think was coming. “Fair Rebel’ is the fifth instalment in the Fourlands series, the story of a land being slowly destroyed by a wave of unrelenting, world-eating insects. Without giving too much away about the plot of the initial trilogy, because I think you should probably go and read that first, fifteen years have passed since an onslaught that stemmed the tide of insects, even if only for a little while. The Circle, a coterie of the very best militarists that the Fourlands has to offer, gifted immortality for as long as they remain ‘the greatest’, are planning a staggering assault on the insects far to the North, using their new secret weapon, gunpowder. Obviously, this does not all entirely go to plan.

One of my favourite things about these books has always been the voice of our protagonist, the immortal Messenger, Jant. Fate gave him fully functioning wings in a world where, for most, they’ve become little more than vestigial. The Jant of the original trilogy spent more time in the drug jettisoned worlds of the shift than in the Fourlands, but he seems more tempered in ‘Fair Rebel’, maybe a little more aware of just what they have to lose if he takes his eye from the ball. His relationships are firmer, truer, he seems more reluctant to disappear from them than the immortal of fifteen years ago. It raises a lot of questions about humanity and what happens to our humanity if immortality intercedes.

There was, however, one big elephant in the room for me when I was reading this book. The word ‘gypsy’ is used liberally throughout. I’m pretty sure it was used critically (well, semi-critically), indeed in the book the ethnic group that it’s used for and their persecution is a huge story theme. It’s just difficult when you’re physically wincing every time you see the word. You’ve just got to question whether it was necessary to use such a loaded word in text. I mean, it’s a fantasy world, just come up with a fancy fantasy word. Likewise, the plotline, which obviously had some basis in world events and the current post-Brexit bigotry we’re encountering, wasn’t handled as delicately as it needed to be. I’m not sure whether we’re all still a little bit tender for narratives about domestic terrorism, especially when coupled with a loaded use of the word ‘gypsy’. Swainston’s books have always dealt in the more fringe realms of fantasy; sex, drugs and death, and were probably never really for people who like ‘happy go lucky’ books, but there are definitely parts of this plot that came up as a big question mark for me.

So it was a bit of an up and down experience for me. I love the character of Jant, I love being back in the world and the depth and detail of Swainston’s work, I’m just not sure that the plotline worked and I ended up a little bit worried that it might even be offensive to some readers. I felt like in places it was trying to make a point but then never really made it. Is this supposed to be a book about terrorism? If you want to have a discussion about the broad painting of marginalised ethnic groups as ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ purely due to the actions of a few then why is this book about white people? It’s either an allegory for the treatment of actual Romani people or an allegory for the treatment of the Muslim community in the world at the moment, it can’t be both, and it felt a little bit like a weird, mind-mashing mix of the two.

So, my recommendation at the moment is to read the first three books. I’m not quite sure where this book sits with me. I enjoyed it when I was reading it, but thinking about it and writing this review I started to realise just how uncomfortable I’d been with the way some of the plot points were handled. I’ll be interested to see how the next book continues the story, but I’m disappointed with the way that this one unfolded.

Many thanks to Gollancz and Netgalley for a copy in return for an honest review.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (Kij Johnson)

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Professor Vellitt Boe teaches at the prestigious Ulthar Women’s College. When one of her most gifted students elopes with a dreamer from the waking world, Vellitt must retrieve her.

But the journey sends her on a quest across the Dreamlands and into her own mysterious past, where some secrets were never meant to surface.

4 stars

So, when I first picked up a copy of this book I, somehow, neglected to notice that it was based on the Lovecraft mythos (more, specifically, ‘The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath’) and, once I realised this, I spent a while torn between continuing as I was and reading up around the base concept. In the end I sort of did a bit of both.

I can happily say that this book is accessible to any and all, you don’t have to know anything about Lovecraft’s work to enjoy it. I’d read a little of Lovecraft’s work but found it very difficult to overlook the racism and sexism that is prevalent in it. Beautiful ideas utterly mired by disgusting prejudice. Johnson’s book almost reads as a commentary on that, a bit of a ‘what we could have had’ if the Lovecraft stories weren’t so hostile to women. Vellitt Boe acts as foil throughout the book, correcting some of the more troubling assumptions of the original books and gently critiquing the misogyny of Lovecraft’s male protagonists, namely Randolph Carter, the protagonist of the original ‘Dream-Quest’.

‘He loved who he was: Randolph Carter, master dreamer, adventurer. To him, she has been landscape, an articulate crag he could ascend, a face to put to this place. When were women ever anything but footnotes to men’s tales?’

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book is the voice of the protagonist. Vellitt Boe is an elderly woman, a character who has settled down to a life of quiet academia after decades of adventure, before being pulled into it once more. It’s so rare to read about older women in fantasy, especially not elderly women who are the heroes of the story.

Even without focusing on the important social commentary aspects, this is a beautiful book. It is entirely possible to get lost in the Dreamlands with Vellitt Boe. It has all the haunting beauty of the Mythos’ original ideas, but written in a more accessible, less rambling manner. The author mentioned in the afterword that she can remember the first time she read ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’ at the age of 10, and that, even though being troubled by the racism, the ideas of the Dreamlands had stuck with her. You can see the nostalgia in this book, that of Vellitt Boe travelling the roads she travelled as a young woman, and that of Johnson giving voice to the worlds she had adored and devoured as a child.

Whether it be the wild landscapes and creatures of the Dreamlands, or the well trodden paths of our own modern world,  Johnson finds beauty in both the extravagant and the mundane. Throughout the story you feel you are taking the journey with Vellitt, through places both bizarre and somehow familiar, and into the memories of a life fully lived.

Thank you very much to Macmillan-Tor/Forge for a copy in return for an honest review.

For those who are wondering, the beautiful cover art is by the wonderful Victo Ngai 

Dreadnought (April Daniels)

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Danny Tozer has a problem: she just inherited the powers of Dreadnought, the world’s greatest superhero. Until Dreadnought fell out of the sky and died right in front of her, Danny was trying to keep people from finding out she’s transgender. But before he expired, Dreadnought passed his mantle to her, and those secondhand superpowers transformed Danny’s body into what she’s always thought it should be. Now there’s no hiding that she’s a girl.

It should be the happiest time of her life, but Danny’s first weeks finally living in a body that fits her are more difficult and complicated than she could have imagined. Between her father’s dangerous obsession with “curing” her girlhood, her best friend suddenly acting like he’s entitled to date her, and her fellow superheroes arguing over her place in their ranks, Danny feels like she’s in over her head.

She doesn’t have time to adjust. Dreadnought’s murderera cyborg named Utopiastill haunts the streets of New Port City, threatening destruction. If Danny can’t sort through the confusion of coming out, master her powers, and stop Utopia in time, humanity faces extinction.”

4 Stars

Many thanks to Diversion Books for providing me a copy in return for a honest review.

This is a really important book. I think, off the top of my head, I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve read with trans characters. Considering how many friends and people I know that identify as trans or nonbinary, its actually pretty terrible how little representation there is for them in TV, film and books. This book is extra special because its accessible to the people who really need to be exposed to this book, your middle grade and younger adult readers.

‘Dreadnought’ did a really good job of taking the kind of high tech, metahuman world we see in X-Men and using it to examine real world problems. A world that will accept a flying green man but still balks at transwomen. It’s about hypocrisy in the face of progress and ‘equality for all…except you’.

I also feel this book really speaks to our current generation, kids who are finding themselves on the internet and our need for superheroes in a disappointing and downright dangerous world. We have an MC, Danny, who knows her own mind and is yet constantly told that she’s too young to make decisions for herself, to ‘consider’ the wants of her parents and put them before herself. I like that the book definitively calls out the vileness that Danny is subjected to. Misgendering? Slayed. Discrimination? Pulled up by the scruff of the neck. Trans-exclusionary rad fems? Slam dunked in the trash can.

It’s a short read, with a sparky, quick moving story that doesn’t shy away from confronting prejudice. I think one of my favourite messages of the book is that being a lawful good superhero shouldn’t stop you from examining your prejudices; that even a saint can be a bigot if they don’t listen to those around them.

Why not 5 stars?

I’m writing this review as a white cis bi woman so please correct me if you feel I’ve said something offensive/ incorrect. This book is #ownvoices, and it’s telling a really important story. My one big qualm with ‘Dreadnought’ was that, ironically, it did not feel that friendly to LGBT teens. In depicting the discrimination against Danny a lot of really quite nasty slurs were used, and, whilst, that’s good at teaching your average white teen about what it can feel like to be LGBT (and here more specifically trans) it can be a hostile environment for a young reader who wants to read about people like them.

It’s a difficult line to tread and, whilst I felt the ending was quite empowering, I’m not sure whether there were too many slurs used throughout. I’ve never had most of those words used against me and I felt uncomfortable. Now imagine you’re a 15 year old kid who is feeling really down, really isolated and wants to read a book about people like them. Is that kid really going to be glad about the MC being called a f*gg*t and being subjected to violent transmisogyny? I’d be interested to see what other readers thought. Maybe the book could have come with a trigger warning just to warn kids that it’s maybe one to save for when they’re feeling a bit more secure?