Shattered Minds (Laura Lam)

4.5 stars

“Ex-neuroscientist Carina struggles with a drug problem, her conscience, and urges to kill.

She satisfies her cravings in dreams, fuelled by the addictive drug ‘Zeal’. Now she’s heading for self-destruction until she has a vision of a dead girl.

Sudice Inc. damaged Carina when she worked on their sinister brain-mapping project, causing her violent compulsions. And this girl was a similar experiment. When Carina realizes the vision was planted by her old colleague Mark, desperate for help to expose the company, she knows hes probably dead.

Her only hope is to unmask her nemesis or shes next.

To unlock the secrets Mark hid in her mind, shell need a group of specialist hackers. Dax is one of them, a doctor who can help Carina fight her addictions. If she holds on to her humanity, they might even have a future together. But first she must destroy her adversary before it changes us and our society, forever.”

 

Set in the same dark future as ‘False Hearts’, the newest offering from Laura Lam is a very different book. Whereas ‘False Hearts’ was a book of neon warmth and arching redwoods, ‘Shattered Minds’ is a story filled with clinical chrome and the buzz of electronic instruments. It is a harder, colder book, less forgiving, with characters that take a little bit longer to love. But love them you definitely do.

Centring around a hacking group that is attempting to bring down a large, corrupt corporation that seems to own most of the West Coast (now Pacifica), ‘Shattered Minds’ has a really classic cyberpunk feel that put me in mind of William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’. Members of society now have complex neural implants to allow functions such as the straight downloading of information from external systems. Such neural implants can also allow hacking via VR, a more natural interface than hard code, though also bringing the added risk of cybersecurity systems being able to ‘fry’ user implants remotely, and, with them, the user’s own mind.

Carina, our protagonist, an ex neuroprogrammer, takes some time to warm to. She’s blunt and difficult, though once you realise how much of that ‘difficulty’ is due to self loathing and trauma she’s much easier to understand. She’s a character who has been betrayed by everyone she ever thought to trust, from her father to Roz, the scientist who was supposed to take her pain away. ‘Taking the pain’ away in Carina’s case turned out to be much more literal, with Roz re-engineering Carina’s brain in a way that made it so she rarely felt strong emotion. It was only when that programming began to unravel and sudden strong compulsions to commit violence and murder began to develop that Carina realised what had happened to her. Terrified of hurting people, she retreats into the world of zeal, a drug that allows users to manipulate their own dreamscapes. Her body falling apart at the seams, Carina feels that at least she is less of a threat to those around her…it’s heartbreaking on so many levels. The story raises the question on multiple occasions of just how much of Carina’s personality is her own and how much is what the brain engineering made her. Even if they were to reverse that engineering, how much of what Carina is was caused by nature and how much is what was done to her?

Dax, an important secondary POV character and love interest, was my favourite. I try not to play favourites, but I just couldn’t help it. He is, in Laura’s own words, the ‘cinnamon roll’, and I entirely agree with that assessment. The medic to our hacking collective, Dax originally was a surgeon specialising in body modification, common in the state of Pacifica. Always excellent at including LGBTQA+ characters and respectful rep in her stories, Laura’s decision to write Dax as a trans man is such a positive thing. Dax’s identity is not a plot point, it’s not a twist, it simply is. More books need to include LGBTQA+ characters in a way that makes identity incidental and not somehow part of the plot. LGBTQA+ people exist and their story doesn’t have to end there, let them have stories beyond that! Let them be heroes and villains and hackers and doctors, let them be whatever your stories need them to be, like any other character.

Also, you know, let them be cinnamon roll Native Doctors, because I love Dax so much.

Before I go on an excessively long ramble about how much I love one character, I’ll direct you towards our villain, the ruthlessly driven Roz. It’s been a while since I’ve disliked a villain quite as much as Roz. Cold, hard, indifferent to the feelings of others, she is probably my entire opposite, but I don’t think it’s even that which got under my skin so much. The most horrifying thing about Roz is how she doesn’t view consent as something sacred. She doesn’t care what you want, you’re simply her experiment and she has no qualms whatsoever in knocking you out and making fundamental changes to your brain. Genuinely, she gives me the shudders.

The half a star came off because I wasn’t able to gel with the story quite as much as I would have liked. It has a complicated structure, moving backwards and forwards in time in a way that makes a lot of sense for the plot and for Carina’s character, but sometimes left me a little confused. I’ve also mentioned before that Carina is maybe a little more difficult to love than your classic protagonist, but I think, once again, that that’s a personal thing and I know from reading other reviews that other people have absolutely adored her.

One of my favourite parts of the world that Laura builds for her Pacifica novels is the culture and the cities. There are all these subtle hints at other stories happening behind the scenes, like the fan who tried to clone his idols and led to a fashion for covering all fingerprints and shaving off all hair, so that no DNA was accidentally left behind. There’s also some overlap with ‘False Hearts’, in mentions of the cult that the protagonists were raised in, characters reappearing and further discussion of the some of the repercussions of events in the other book. Whilst you don’t have to have read ‘False Hearts’ to enjoy this, I’d honest recommend picking up both books, because ‘False Hearts’ is one of my favourite books of all time, and the world that Laura has created is a joy to read.

So, if you’re looking for a cerebral thriller (no pun intended), with diverse characters, genuine threat and much much neurohacking, this is definitely the book for you.

‘Shattered Minds’ is out on the 15th of June, and Laura has a pre order promotion going at the moment with 10K of extra Pacifica fiction available in return for proof of pre-order!

Many thanks to Tor Books for a copy in return for an honest review!

 

 

 

 

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When the Moon was Ours (Anna-Marie McLemore)

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“To everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist, and rumors say that she spilled out of a water tower when she was five. Sam is known for the moons he paints and hangs in the trees and for how little anyone knows about his life before he and his mother moved to town. But as odd as everyone considers Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.”

4 stars

It took me longer to read this book than I would have liked. It’s not a fast book, it’s a slow, meandering, thoughtful book with beautiful, lyrical prose. It contains probably the most sensitive portrayal of a trans character that I’ve come across, a trans character that is allowed to fall in love and explore his sexuality without fetishization.

I think I can safely say that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Things happen and you just have to let go and accept that they’re happening. This book is the definition of Magical Realism, down to the beautiful authenticity of the Latin American elements present in the book. Think pumpkins turning to glass, brujas pulling the lovesickness from a heart, shining painted moons, and a roping vine of rose that buds and flowers in response to the protagonist’s inner turmoil.

You can really tell that this book is ‘own voices’. McLemore draws upon her heritage and, as is described in the afterword, her marriage to her husband, who transitioned after they started dating. It gives the book a truthful feeling even amidst the unreality of some of the magical elements. You feel as if McLemore is very carefully and sensitively choosing her words. The relationship between Miel and Sam, how it blossoms and, equally as importantly, how they help to manage each other’s foibles is just so tenderly handled that it makes your heart swell in your chest.

‘To Sam, she was the girl who gave his moons somewhere to go. She was the dark amber of beechwood honey, the caramel of sourwood, and the bitter aftertaste of heather and pine. She was every shade of blue between two midnights.’

I also loved how McLemore intertwined the cultural identities of our two characters, how Sam shared traditions of his Pakastani heritage with Miel, and she shared with him the Mexican culture of her family. It’s sad and powerful and feels very true.

One star was removed because I felt that, in places, this book could have benefitted from being shorter. There were some beautiful passages that lost their power for me because I felt as if I’d heard them before earlier in the book. I felt it was dilute when it could easily have been concentrated.

However, I think overall that any positives far outweigh the benefits. I think it’s still sadly unusual to find a book ‘for’ lgbt individuals as opposed to ‘about’ lgbt individuals. There are some books I’ve read where I worry for the lgbt kids reading them, where an overuse of slurs to illustrate the hardships facing lgbt individuals ends up hurting those who read it whilst looking for characters like themselves. This book was different. Yes, it covered transmisogyny and dysphoria, but importantly it gave its lgbt characters a happy loving relationship and a warm positive ending. I cannot thank McLemore enough for that.

Thank you to St Martin’s Press for a copy in return for an honest review.

 

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?