Invictus (Ryan Graudin)

5 stars

Time flies when you’re plundering history.

Farway Gaius McCarthy was born outside of time. The son of a time-traveling Recorder from 2354 AD and a gladiator living in Rome in 95 AD, Far’s birth defies the laws of nature. Exploring history himself is all he’s ever wanted, and after failing his final time-traveling exam, Far takes a position commanding a ship with a crew of his friends as part of a black market operation to steal valuables from the past. 

But during a heist on the sinking Titanic, Far meets a mysterious girl who always seems to be one step ahead of him. Armed with knowledge that will bring Far’s very existence into question, she will lead Far and his team on a race through time to discover a frightening truth: History is not as steady as it seems.

So, I went into this book with fairly low expectations. Not because it’s Ryan Graudin (I love Graudin’s books!) but because I just don’t tend to fall in love with time travel stories. I’m going to be perfectly blunt and say that I find Dr Who a complete snoozefest, so, I wasn’t really sure whether the odds were stacked against this book before I’d even read it. Nevertheless, it was Graudin, the cover was shiny, it had gladiators, so I decided to give it a try.

I am so glad that I did.

So, without further ado, here’s a little precis of why I enjoyed this book so much.

  • I haven’t fallen for a motley crew of characters so completely since ‘Six of Crows’. They’re present and multi faceted and all with their foibles. The interpersonal relations between them are engaging and real. We’re talking a bunch of teenagers who spend 50% of their time piloting a cramped time machine throughout the universe. Yes, the time travelling is fun, but so is their banter and how they deal with the fact they’re living double lives, so wildly inexplicable to anyone other than eachother.
  • Without giving too much away, I really enjoyed Graudin’s use of theories of time and the universe.
  • The threat levels in this book are through the roof. Honestly, as much as this book is fun and bubbly and adorable, the ‘enemy’ that our heroes face is absolutely terrifying. I had to sit and read it in one sitting because I was too tense to put it down!
  • It’s light hearted but emotional…so emotional. I was actually quite surprised with how much the story made me feel. I was expecting a light hearted sci fi caper, and we got that but also with a side of real emotional clout.
  • RED PANDAS.
  • Established romance. I didn’t realise how much I like to see characters already in relationships until I started this book. You get to see the cute, fluffy stuff without any of the awkwardness.
  • The worldbuilding was really cool. I loved the concept of recorders and the entertainment value of their work, but I also really liked the unexpectedness of having Rome as the centre of time travel rather than somewhere like New York, which, frankly, would have been a whole lot less interesting. It was really easy to imagine a new high tech city being built around and through the historical ruins and monuments of Italy. It also felt more like a global city for it, with people congregating from all around the world to work in the time travel industry. It’s not an American-centric future, but somewhere where you’re just as likely to get some proper Chai as an espresso.
  • There is a lot of chai and gelato in this book, I was honestly developing cravings.

In the interest of writing a balanced review, I tried to think whether there was anything that I didn’t particularly like about this book. I really struggled. I suppose what I will say is that if you’re looking for some kind of grimdark hard sci fi time travel then it might not be for you. It’s as much about personal relationships between the crew as it is the time travel element. I really like that, but it might not be for everyone.

So, in short, an awesome book that got me through a direly dull weekend on-call. If I had to describe it in only a handful of words, I’d say it was effervescent, colourful and emotionally draining. If you like fast paced, quirky adventure stories then it’s definitely one you should check out.

Many thanks to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers for a copy in return for an honest review!

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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.