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 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 

Down Station (Simon Morden)

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DNF @ 52% after a good old slog of an effort…

I started reading this book a while ago, and at first the premise seemed really interesting. A ragtag group of survivors flee Armageddon through a door in the London tube network to a strange new world. But very quickly it lost its magic, mostly due to just being a little bit predictable.

The new world just wasn’t that interesting…which still baffles me because how can a world filled with strange monsters be boring? Yet somehow it was. For a book that spent so much time supposedly describing the world I still didn’t really feel as if I was in it.

I wanted to like the characters mainly because I was excited to see a POC protagonist, but they felt like cardboard cutouts and were often weird cultural stereotypes (mouthy girl whose been in care, the older black woman who mothered them all…yeah).

What frustrated me most, however, was reaching 50% and there still being no real discernible plot. Why put characters in an interesting new world and inflict upon them the same boring social hierarchy that we see in everyday life?

I went and read some reviews to try and get myself back into the mindset for continuing to read it but I just felt as if I was reading a different book entirely. Sadly, there was nothing that made me want to continue other than a lingering interest in how it ended. But not even that could keep me going. It’s a pretty rare thing for me to not finish a book but it felt as if the more effort I put into trying to finish, the more I began to hate the book. 52% seems a fair attempt to get into a book and it took me a month to get there. I think, for someone who usually reads books in a couple of days, that it’s time to jump ship.

I’m giving it 2 stars because I don’t think it’s a horrific book and I thought that it was well written but that it was just very much not for more. It’s pretty rare for a book to be ‘too slow’ for me, but I think I’ve found one.

Many thanks to Gollancz and Netgalley for a copy in return for an honest review. I’m sorry that I didn’t enjoy it more!

Time Siege (Wesley Chu)

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I’ve been going through a bit of a sci fi kick over the last couple of months after realising I hadn’t read many of the space greats during my fantasy saturated childhood. Reading Herbert and Banks lead me to understand what I really love about the genre, creative world building and fresh technology. Wesley Chu’s ‘Time Salvager’ series has both of these qualities in heaps.

I was actually half way through ‘Time Salvager’, the first book in the series, when I realised ‘Time Siege’ was available as an ARC.  I devoured them in a handful of days, being that annoying person on public transport who isn’t ignoring you but just isn’t in the same timeframe as the rest of the bus. I’ll be keeping this as spoiler free as possible because if you read ‘Time Salvager’ then you should read ‘Time Siege’ and, if you haven’t read either, then I strongly urge you to go and read both.

To cover the basic premise, enter James Griffin-Mars, a Tier 1 Chronman who salvages resources from dead end timelines and likes to drown his loneliness in a bottle. Elise Kim is a young scientist whose timeline is ticking down towards annihilation when James meets her on a tricky salvage. Knowing just how illegal and in violation of every time law he’s every upheld it is, he decides to bring her back to his timeline anyway and that is where the fun begins. Broken time laws, super corps that really want access to the ‘time anomaly’, an escape to a polluted and toxic earth with the Chronocom version of Agent Smith hot on their heels…I had a lot of fun reading these books.

One thing that really hooked me to these books is the character development. James is an asshole but you still grow to love him, ditto for Levin. Elise just…well, I’m not surprised that James sometimes feels inadequate around her.

I’m in love with the Tech and the idea of Chronocom and chronomen. There is just such a bleakness to the idea that the future is so bereft that they literally have to plunder the past to keep afloat. The Bands used by chronomen and the position they hold in society due to these aweinspiring augmented abilities is really cool. I got this really strong feeling of what it would be like to grow up in this desolate future and kids growing up wanting to be ‘just like the High Auditor of Earth, daddy’. Yeah, the tier and chain structure of Chronocom is such a great piece of world building. I fell in love.

Everything about this book is really big. It’s cinematic in scope.

Space is vast.

Time is vast.

And I couldn’t help but feel like the ‘big bads’ of this book were worryingly relevant to the current political climate.

Corporations

Big blood sucking, workforce subjugating corporations.

No governments left, just Corps.

Chu’s writing of Securitate Kuo, our POV in the corps, is so chilling and ruthless that it made me feel a little sick. Now, that’s good character building. A character who genuinely believes she makes the decisions but is so controlled and brainwashed that at times you realise she is little more than a mindless corporate drone, a fight dog on a leash to her Valta overlords.

So let’s get to the nitty gritty of ‘Time Siege’ as a book. There was a mild problem with the first book that I found it sometimes dragged a little, not too much and probably more because you have to take in a lot of world building. ‘Time Siege’ didn’t suffer from lags as such. However, if you want a super fast, action packed book this might not be it? It sounds ridiculous saying that based on how much action there is in this book, but, you have these big set piece fights, parts that really make you worry for the longevity of the characters you’ve come to love and then lulls. I, personally, believe these lulls are necessary, I’m not a big fan of continuous action, I like a little introspection, a little character reflection. And James really needed to have a little time for self reflection is all I’m saying.

It’s a clever book with clever concepts and characters that need page time to grow and flourish and it does that really really well. It also leads beautifully (painfully) and seductively (a cliffhanger) into the third book which I now really want to read…

So to round this all up I’d say that this book series comes with serious emotional clout. I’d also say that ‘Time Siege’ is a better book than ‘Time Salvager’ (which I really loved anyway) maybe because you already know the world and therefore require less info dumps, but also because I think the pacing is tighter and having the extra POVs really adds to the narrative (that’s pretty rare I know…)

So, I’m going to give a hefty five stars to ‘Time Siege’ and say that, if you’re looking for fresh sci fi with cool as hell world building, time travel and bloodthirsty capitalist corporations vying for intergalactic dominance then this is the series for you.

(Many thanks to Angry Robot Books for access to the ARC and including an excerpt from my review on the official book page ;-; )


This review was originally posted here on my tumblr.