Regeneration, by Stephanie Saulter

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 3, 2016

Summary: The gillungs – waterbreathing, genetically modified humans – are thriving. They’ve colonised riverbanks and ports long since abandoned to the rising seas and the demand for their high-efficiency technologies is growing fast.

But as demand grows, so do fears about their impact on both norm businesses and the natural environment. Then, a biohazard scare at Sinkat, their colony on the Thames, fuels the opposition and threatens to derail the gillungs’ progress. But was it an accident, or was it sabotage?

Detective Sharon Varsi has her suspicions, but her investigations are compromised by family ties. And now there is a new threat: Zavcka Klist is about to be released from prison – and she wants her company back.

Review: Since first being utterly blown away by Gemsigns, I’ve been a huge fan of this series. The way it explores what it means to be human, the way people fear and hate what they don’t understand, the injustices done to people who are often just trying to live their lives peacefully but who don’t fit societal standards of normalcy… All of it strikes chords and resonates deep within me. On the surface it may seem like just a story about genetically modified humans and the future of humanity after a catastrophe, but so much of the series has its ties in what’s happening today, and what has happened in the past. The story of humanity repeats itself a dozen times over.

Saulter took us through gems gaining independence and no longer being slaves to the companies that made them. She took us through the early days of that independence, and the ups and downs of having to hold their own in a hostile culture. And now she lets us jump ahead to a time when Gabriel is an adult (or near enough to), to a time when gems are moving forward and working on projects that make the best use of their unique abilities, and to a time when certain people will go to any lengths to stop gems from holding the ground they’ve fought for inch by inch.

Business as usual, then.

Most of Regeneration focuses on the development on Thames Tidal, a gillung-developed power plant that aims to use the power generated by the natural flow of water through the Thames river, storing it in quantum batteries and releasing it as needed. It’s new tech, advanced and poorly understood by most, and so unsurprisingly there’s some opposition. The fact that gems are heading the project ruffles no few feathers, either. But as the setbacks keep mounting, it becomes clear that somebody has taken it upon themselves to sabotage not just the project but to endanger all those associated with it. The bulk of the story is something of a corporate espionage mystery, something that normally I think I’d find little interest in, but I suppose this just goes to show that most things can be made interesting with the right tweaks. Show me a story with a modern-day setting where the story involves a corporate espionage plot between Picrosoft and Gapple, and meh, I doubt I’d be too interested. Set the story in a power plant from the future and have the cast be genetically modified humans trying to adapt to a culture that still doesn’t much like them? Sold!

The Thames Tidal plot isn’t the only one, of course, because where would a story be with no subplots to keep interest going? You see more of Gabriel now, grown up and employed, keeping a rein on his telepathic abilities and trying to unravel what’s behind a smear campaign. Zavcka Klist has been released from jail and is under house arrest, but that certain won’t stop her from doing what she thinks needs to be done to protect her investments and regain some traction for her own agenda. Eve, a precocious little girl with far too much arrogance, hides much from her parents and becomes the focus for a group attempting to uncover Klist’s secret of immortality. It all comes together quite wonderfully, since everybody’s really tied up in the main plot one way or another, and every character is one I could quite happily read an entire novel starring and I doubt I’d be bored for a moment.

It’s really the characters that make it all come alive for me, as it has been in the trilogy’s previous books. I love the themes of social justice, of adaptation, of fighting to be acknowledged as worthy of respect and rights that others take for granted. I love that these themes are so relatable and applicable to current events but aren’t put across in a heavy-handed way. (As I said previously, it’s just the story of humanity repeating itself once again, not just a thinly-veiled metaphor for only what’s happening nowadays.) But as great as these themes are to discuss and explore, some explorations just fall flat on their faces if they don’t have a great cast of characters to move the plot along. The world can be on the brink of great chance, and if you’re writing about people who just sit back and let it all happen, chances are you’re not going to engage many readers. But all of the characters Saulter writes about are active, engaged, and whether or not you agree with them, you can’t deny that they’re all part of that great force for change, for good or ill, and you know that every one of them is playing or will play a part in how the future in written. Gabriel was remarkable as a child for his telepathy, something that shouldn’t be able to occur even with genetic modification, but as an adult, he’s remarkable for his tenacity and ability to spot patterns and to do what needs to be done when it needs doing.

That’s what I find so very interesting about the characters in these books. They have abilities above and beyond what most humans can do, and while these things often come with severe drawbacks, they’re practically poised to be superheroes, to turn what was done to them into something that thrives on vigilante justice, clandestine meetings and thwarting great enemies at every turn. And yet, they don’t. They strive to live, not to become superheroes. They’re remarkable for their gem-related traits, but they’re amazing for all the things they go that have nothing to do with those enhanced abilities. That they overcome a boatload of opposition, both from social views and from carving out a place in a world that wasn’t built to accommodate them, adds to their stories, but it doesn’t define them, it doesn’t reduce them to caricatures or stereotypes.

Even Zavcka Klist, someone who I alternately feel pity for and then want to strangle because she embodies so many things that I hate about ruthless abusive people and companies, someone who could do easily just remain a token villain in Regeneration, shows far more development and compassion toward the end of the book that I expected, so much growth that really only shows when something she’s passionate about might be taken away. As the antagonist, she was interesting. As the human being we’re made to confront near the end, she’s somebody that prompts reexamination, conflicted emotions. She’s still very much herself, but who we see her as has changed to a degree. I really have to give Saulter some praise for pulling that scene off in a very realistic way that still left me going, “Wait, did I read that right?” Making me reconsider what I thought I knew about what a character might do is definitely worthy of note.

As always, I feel like I could go on at length with my praise. But Regeneration — the whole series, really — is something best explored for yourself. It’s the kind of future that makes you think twice about the things you thought you knew, changes how you look at the world around you, and does so in a way that’s phenomenally entertaining and brilliant. The characters are wonderful, the story is compelling, the pacing and development smooth and fascinating; it all comes together as a rich tapestry that draws you in and doesn’t let you easily. The ®Evolution series has left its mark, and its influence will be felt for years to come.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 26, 2016

Summary: A girl named Rose is riding her new bike near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand.

Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved—its origins, architects, and purpose unknown. Its carbon dating defies belief; military reports are redacted; theories are floated, then rejected.

But some can never stop searching for answers.

Rose Franklin is now a highly trained physicist leading a top secret team to crack the hand’s code. And along with her colleagues, she is being interviewed by a nameless interrogator whose power and purview are as enigmatic as the provenance of the relic. What’s clear is that Rose and her compatriots are on the edge of unraveling history’s most perplexing discovery—and figuring out what it portends for humanity. But once the pieces of the puzzle are in place, will the result prove to be an instrument of lasting peace or a weapon of mass destruction?

Review: Sleeping Giants is a book that seems to be getting a load of very positive reviews, especially considering that this is apparently the author’s debut novel. It’s a shame, then, that I won’t be another voice chiming in with that positivity. This is a time when my voice is going to go a bit counter to others, because I really just didn’t enjoy Sleeping Giants that much.

I’m going to start out on a positive note and say that I can’t deny the premise of the novel is a really interesting one. The hand of what looks like a giant statue is discovered purely by accident as a young girl falls into the hole that reveals it. With that starts something that spans decades, following the discovery of the rest of the statue’s pieces, putting them together, and learning just what it’s all for in the first place. It comes across as something very much inspired by mech anime, and for those who are fans of such, then I can see that Sleeping Giants would be very appealing. And really, even for people such as myself, for whom mech-heavy anime holds very little appeal, the story and the slow reveals were decently interesting, and I was curious about how it would come together in the end. The statue appears to be older than any human civilization that could have built it, is made to be controlled by people with different physiology than humans possess, and that’s even before you bring the fun ramifications of international politics into the mix, since the statue’s pieces were scattered all across the planet, requiring often-illegal trips into foreign territory to recover them.

But premise and story alone aren’t always enough to carry a novel. As much as I prefer substance over style, there are times when particular styles can get in the way of enjoyment, and this was one of those times for me. The story is unveiled not through typical narration but through a collection of reports with a couple of journal entries thrown in along the way. The reports are mostly interviews and briefings with the team members working on the statue, and the occasional politician. So nearly every single piece of this book is told, essentially, through dialogue. Which, on one hand, may set it up to be a fantastic audiobook experience, but I don’t think it worked very well as a written one. The dialogue felt clunky at times, more like how people write rather than how people speak, and rarely did it feel like I was actually reading what people said so much as I was reading a cleaned-up version transcribed by someone who got creative with editing. There were no “um”s and “er”s, no idiosyncrasies of real speech, except when reading the interviews with a character who stutters. So even the representation of speech was inconsistent.

(The stutter issue is one that comes up a lot in books, I find, where authors attempt to convey speech disorders through text only when it’s a chronic issue, and rarely doing the same thing when non-stuttering characters fumble words. It has the unfortunate effect of presenting things as normal vs abnormal, notable only in how it divides a character with a speech disorder from other characters who don’t, and I’ve noticed such portrayals talked about as sore spots with people who have trouble communicating verbally. Something to consider, I guess.)

It was, to be fair, a bold and unconventional way to convey the story. Breaking away from standards and expectations, and I do have to give Neuvel credit for taking an unusual approach and experimenting with presentation, but it really just didn’t work for me. The style felt too weird for me to properly get at a lot of the substance.

Add to that the fact that it was a slow-moving story to begin with, with a sense of time that’s hard to pin down because it spans years and the only way you can tell is because characters literally mention that it’s been so many months since something previously mentioned (none of the reports were dated), and you’ve got a novel that I think can appeal to a particular type of person, but not every type. Even the action sequences felt ponderous and unclear, because I knew I was only reading transcriptions of dialogue spoken during events and not really seeing the events themselves. You have to infer a lot, you never really get clear images of people or places, and it feels very sterile.

And for its part, that does work in context. To expect great emotion and detail with such a format would be like expecting to know a child’s feelings on school by reading their report card. It’s just unrealistic to expect the same kind of immersion and understanding; the format really just doesn’t allow for it. The journal entries written by characters do, but those are few and far between, and mostly only show up in the first half of the book, when the plot really hasn’t picked up pace yet.

So between the slow story and my disconnect with the style, I didn’t really end up enjoying Sleeping Giants. It dealt with some interesting concepts, and there’s enough left unsaid to provide plenty of material for future novels in the series, but that wasn’t enough to get me past the problems I had. Those who have an easier time looking past stylistic issues may well get more out of the book than I did, and as I mentioned earlier, I can see it having a great appeal to those who love stories and shows about giant robots. It has a fair bit going for it in terms of creativity, but at the end of the day, it simply isn’t for me.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Planetfall, by Emma Newman

Again, we have another book that I deem worthy of having me crawl out of the woodwork for!

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Author’s website
Publication date – November 3, 2015

Summary: Renata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth, calling to humanity. A planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed in that vision enough to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown.

More than twenty-two years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided, alone. All that time, Ren has worked hard as the colony’s 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment, and harboring a devastating secret.

Ren continues to perpetuate the lie forming the foundation of the colony for the good of her fellow colonists, despite the personal cost. Then a stranger appears, far too young to have been part of the first planetfall, a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi.

The truth Ren has concealed since planetfall can no longer be hidden. And its revelation might tear the colony apart…

Review: Over time I’ve come to understand that one sign of a great book is its ability to make you stop reading and ponder the implications of what you just read. To speculate and theorize in a way that’s too deep to do while still continuing to read on. Planetfall quickly became that kind of book for me, one where I needed to step back and start pondering the symbolism and implications of half of what was going on. I sank into that perfect brainspace that tells me yes, this book is one that provokes some interesting thoughts, and it’s definitely a keeper.

Planetfall starts out fairly innocuously, with the interesting idea of a smallish community on a non-Earth planet. The story is told in first-person viewpoint with Renata Ghali as the narrator, an engineer who lends her skills to the colony at the base of God’s city, where Lee Suh-Mi is said to be communing with God for the purpose of advancing the colony and doing God’s work The colonists left earth years ago, under Suh-Mi’s guidance, to find God and learn about humanity’s place in the universe. The colony runs fairly smoothly, at least on the surface.

Then a young man arrives, claiming to be Suh-Mi’s grandson, and his very presence threatens to unravel everything that the colonists have built.

On its surface, it seems like a fairly standard exploration of early human colonization of another planet, told from the perspective of a private person who was there when it all began. But it quickly becomes more than that. Newman starts the reader off partway through the story, telling necessary backstory in the form of seamless and brief flashbacks, revealing details piece by piece. I know that many people aren’t that fond of flashback storytelling, and I myself am rather torn on the matter (so often it can come across like a series of memory-infodumps, which gets irritating), but I find that Newman handled it well, making them relatively brief and with actual relevance to what was occurring in the plot. Ren having brief memories prompted by objects or places is perfectly natural, it happens to all of us, and so it wasn’t at all obtrusive, nor did it take me out of the story as a whole.

I love how very broken Ren is, and how slowly it all becomes clear to the reader. Little hints get dropped so subtly that by the time the big reveal hits, you’re left remembering all those small mentions that previous cropped up, putting all the pieces together until your heart just aches for her. Or at least mine did. Quite possibly because I can relate a bit to what she was going through, or at least some of the thought process behind it. Tension ran high once Ren’s secret is out in the open, too, and the colonists decide to force issues in unhealthy ways that leave her feeling trapped and threatened, and I felt my own anxiety surge when reading that particular scene. She was an interesting character even before that, of course, but the way her mental health comes into play added to my ability to relate to her, and I think it was all handled extremely well. Mental illness is a hard card to play in fiction, but Newman did it justice, I think.

One of the things that left me with an utter “Whoa!” moment was the parallel between this story and the Garden of Eden myth. To me this whole book was a twist on a creation myth, a sci-fi origin story. When you look into the flashbacks and realize that the journey from Earth and the discovery of a new planet with God’s city all started with a woman who ate a strange plant and then began to understand things far beyond what she’d understood before, the similarities become clear. However, that isn’t to say that Earth is meant to be Eden; part of the reason the initial colonists left with Suh-Mi was because the planet was devastated by overcrowding and pollution, and where they ended up had none of that. But when you see a story about how someone is influenced by forces they can’t understand, which leads them to gaining unprecedented knowledge and wisdom and leaving their home to search for God? Yeah, it’s pretty easy to draw the comparisons.

And I loved that! I love plays on myths, especially ones that draw from Judeo-Christian myths, because so many people see them as sacrosanct and unchangeable and yet they’re so familiar to Western culture that they’re often instantly recognizable when somebody does take that chance and play around with them. Newman tackled this all brilliantly, adding a wonderful new touch to an old story.

Long story short, Planetfall is definitely worthy of the high praise it has been receiving. It’s a compelling story of what people will do to maintain order, to keep up the status quo. It tackles mental illness, creation myths, and the questions of how much “for your own good” is actually still good. It’s more than just an early colonization story; it’s an exploration of humanity and its relation to the divine, to science, and to itself. It tells you that sometimes there are no explanations even when there are answers, and that there are times to leave well enough alone and time to delve deeper to gain a better understanding. Beautiful prose joins with fascinating subject matter, resulting in a profound book that has made its mark. Highly recommended for fans of social sci-fi, Planetfall does not disappoint.

(Received for review via the publisher.)

The Night of the Long Knives, by Fritz Leiber

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Author’s GoodReads page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – 1960, reprinted July 15, 2015

Summary: I was one hundred miles from Nowhere ― and I mean that literally ― when I spotted this girl out of the corner of my eye. I’d been keeping an extra lookout because I still expected the other undead bugger left over from the murder party at Nowhere to be stalking me.

Welcome to Deathland, a postapocalyptic nuclear desert where kill or be killed is the law of the land. The radiation-damaged survivors of this ravaged region are consumed by the urge to murder each other, making partnership of any sort a lethal risk. But when two drifters forge an uneasy truce, the possibility of a new life beckons.

Written by a multiple Hugo Award–winning author and one of the founders of the sword-and-sorcery genre, this novel-length magazine story first appeared at the height of Cold War paranoia. Fritz Leiber’s thought-provoking tale addresses timeless questions about the influences of community and culture as well as the individual struggle to reform.

Thoughts: Ray is a murderer, wandering the Deathlands alone. If he sees another human being, he must fight down one of two primal urges: to kill or to copulate. That’s just how life is. Sure, there may be people out there who don’t do that, who live in social groups and cling to post-apocalyptic life in any way they can, but that’s not Ray’s way. And it’s a chance meeting with Alice, and then with Pop, that changes how he looks at his life, and the world in which he lives.

Night of the Long Knives is one of those stories that gives me a lot of difficulty when trying to review. It’s good. I can see that it’s good, full of interesting thoughts about religion and death and culture, much of it unsaid but still implied. It’s told from an interesting perspective, a man who’s very much a loner and part of a culture of death. it had a fun twist at the end whereby you think there’s going to be mass deaths, only instead it turns out to be mass salvation from a plague.

I should have loved it. Instead I viewed it as… okay. Objectively good, but really not my cup of tea.

I liked the themes more than the execution, really. Ray and Alice are murderers by culture, life in the Deathlands shaping them into people who kill people just because primal human instinct tells them to. Pop is an ex-murderer, someone who has made a choice not to kill and who struggles with fighting that urge. Like Ray, he played a part in the Last War, the war that brought North America, at least, to its knees and remade it into something desperate and harsh. There’s discussion over why someone would choose to go against their urges, whether remote mass killings in war count as murders or not, treating part of the accepted human condition as merely another thing to be overcome. These are some great theme, fertile ground for discussion and reflection.

But the story just didn’t do it for me.

Perhaps it was because as fascinating as those themes are, I felt such a disconnect from them that it was hard for me to really appreciate that way of life and the struggle to change it. The fact that Leiber is also hailed as such a phenomenal writer made me feel, through the whole thing, that this was just utter allegory for something else entirely, and I just wasn’t smart enough or insightful enough to figure out what. Stories that leave me wishing I was more intelligent are great, because they give me drive to better myself, but they are pretty frustrating during the initial read.

At fewer than 100 pages, The Night of the Long Knives flies by despite the dark concepts it deals with, and so even when it may not be an enjoyable read, per se, it is still objectively good, stylistically worthwhile and set in a fairly common but still unique post-apocalyptic setting. It does hold up and is good reading even over half a century since its initial publication, and you don’t find too many works that you can say that about. Older sci-fi tends to suffer from the limitations of its day, and while there was a little bit of that in here, it was only a touchpoint, and a subtle one, to show the difference of North America after a massive war. A few phrases here and there that sound dated or awkward to modern ears, but nothing that isn’t easily handwaved as just another part of the story and the time it takes place in. So even if, like me, you don’t end up that fond of this novella in the long run, I’d say it’s still worth reading just to see a good example of something that stands the test of time and raises some interesting questions about morality and instinct.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Dark Orbit, by Carolyn Ives Gilman

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Author’s Goodreads page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 14, 2015

Summary: Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate. Thora was once a member of the interplanetary elite, but since her prophetic delusions helped mobilize a revolt on Orem, she’s been banished to the farthest reaches of space, because of the risk that her very presence could revive unrest.

Upon arrival, the team finds an extraordinary crystalline planet, laden with dark matter. Then a crew member is murdered and Thora mysteriously disappears. Thought to be uninhabited, the planet is in fact home to a blind, sentient species whose members navigate their world with a bizarre vocabulary and extrasensory perceptions.

Lost in the deep crevasses of the planet among these people, Thora must battle her demons and learn to comprehend the native inhabitants in order to find her crewmates and warn them of an impending danger. But her most difficult task may lie in persuading the crew that some powers lie beyond the boundaries of science.

Thoughts: First Contact is a tricky situation, no matter the culture. Trickier still when you arrive in a place and don’t expect to actually encounter sentient life at all, so you’re completely unprepared for what awaits you. This is the situation that the crew of the Escher find themselves in when they investigate the newly discovered planet Iris. There are multiple confusing things about the planet: random gravity fluctuations, new species of plants, a pseudo-forest that seems to bend spatial perception. But the real trouble begins when one of the crew disappears, taken by a twist of reality to the underground village of Torobe, where the inhabitants are blind and where the ship’s scanners can’t penetrate to find her and bring her back.

But Dark Orbit is more than just a story of first contact. It forces the characters, and thus the reader, to confront their ideas of normalcy, or perception, of the things that define them. The people living in Torobe are blind; what use do they have for sight when they live in a lightless cave? It isn’t that they have no eyes, or that their eyes don’t function, but rather that their circumstances for forced rewiring of the brain to bypass the need for sight, even when they can respond to visual stimulation. It’s from Thora’s perspective, as someone who is sighted and is trapped in Torobe for over 2 months, that we get a chance to see just what that means, both for the Torobe and their culture, and for someone who doesn’t fit into it.

It’s worth noting that much of how we perceive the world has to do with sight, and Gilman makes mention of this more than once. When light is introduced to Torobe and Thora gets to visually experience the place she’s been living rather than perceive it with her other senses, she marvels that it’s odd how the place seems so different from she’d adjusted to. Like she trusted her eyes to tell her more reliably than any other sense. To enter into a world where we can’t see is, to most of us, rather terrifying, as we lose the sense we rely on most often to tell us things about the world. A surprising amount of at least the English language is devoted to visual terms. We say “you see,” when we may mean “you know,” and we don’t think anything of it. To get someone’s attention, we say, “look,” even when we may actually want them to listen.

And yet on the flip side, there’s much about sight that we take for granted. In attempting to teach Moth how to see, Sara in frustrated by the way Moth can’t comprehend angles, depth perception, that you can see through some solid objects but not others. How do we tell that a mug is still a mug when we can’t see the handle that was there the first time? Gilman does an amazing job of showing both sides of the coin, and she writes an extremely interesting culture around it.

Especially when you bring in the quantum aspects of being unable to see. People from Torobe can, in a sense, teleport from one place to another. So long as there’s somebody there to think about their existence. And provided nobody’s watching them do it. This intentionally mirrors the way some things in the universe are only stable when they’re observed, otherwise existing at multiple points of time and space until somebody observes them and forces them to confine to a narrow viewpoint. People from Torobe, in part because their method of observation is so different from ours, have mastered this on a macroscopic level.

It sounds confusing, and honestly, it’s considerably less so when you read the book. You don’t need to be well versed in theories of perception of quantum physics to enjoy Dark Orbit. It’s expected that the reader has a mind that can grasp certain advanced concepts, but not that the reader is cognizant of them in advance. They’re presented in a wonderfully comprehensible way, layman’s versions of things that can twist your brain in funny ways if you think about them too deeply, and there are enough hints at broader implications to keep astute readers grinning and pondering through the whole story.

In short, it’s one of those novels that occasionally had me staring off into space, trying to figure out how certain concepts could be applied in different ways. Sometimes my e-reader would go into standby mode, I did it for so long.

My biggest complaint about Dark Orbit is that it does take language and biology a bit for granted. Or rather, it leaves some things very vague, and doesn’t answer all the questions I had. People from Torobe speak an archaic version of Universal Standard, but there’s no real explanation of how they learned it in the first place. It could be implied that it was learned by observing other people while wending, but that doesn’t entirely explain why they don’t have a distinct language of their own, or why their dialect is still archaic if they encounter other modern cultures. There can’t be a standard universal language by default; or a least not likely, since even on Earth, languages can be so massively different across the world, let alone factoring in multiple other planets and peoples. Were the Torobes the only inhabitants of Iris? How did they get there? They’re human in appearance, and still have eyes, so it’s unlikely that they evolved there over millions of years in that same environment, or else there’d likely be differences in physiology. There’s a dropped hint about the Torobes having relocated to their current location some generations back, but for unknown reasons, from an unknown origin, and I’m not sure how many generations it would take to set up an unsighted monoculture like that.

I’m not saying that every question I could possibly have should be addressed and answered. It would be nice, but I don’t expect it. But no characters really seem to wonder about these things, so I don’t know whether it’s an issue of suspension of disbelief, or whether the characters don’t wonder because they already know and that particular story just didn’t call for an explanation.

But really, it speaks volumes that the author wrote something that made me so curious, made me ask so many questions, because it shows that Dark Orbit engaged me in the way that few other novels manage. It asks good questions, talks about intelligent theories, and leads the reader on a path of cultural exploration and identity, throwing in a little scientific spiritualism along the way. Very much impressed with Gilman’s work, and I’m very excited to read more in the future!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Time Salvager, by Wesley Chu

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 7, 2015

Summary: Convicted criminal James Griffin-Mars is no one’s hero. In his time, Earth is a toxic, abandoned world and humans have fled into the outer solar system to survive, eking out a fragile, doomed existence among the other planets and their moons. Those responsible for delaying humanity’s demise believe time travel holds the key, and they have identified James, troubled though he is, as one of a select and expendable few ideally suited for the most dangerous job in history.

James is a chronman, undertaking missions into Earth’s past to recover resources and treasure without altering the timeline. The laws governing use of time travel are absolute; break any one of them and, one way or another, your life is over. Most chronmen never reach old age; the stress of each jump through time, compounded by the risk to themselves and to the future, means that many chronmen rapidly reach their breaking point, and James Griffin-Mars is nearing his.

On a final mission that is to secure his retirement, James meets Elise Kim, an intriguing scientist from a previous century, who is fated to die during the destruction of an oceanic rig. Against his training and his common sense, and in violation of the chronmen’s highest law, James brings Elise back to the future with him, saving her life, but turning them both into fugitives. Remaining free means losing themselves in the wild and poisonous wastes of Earth, somehow finding allies, and perhaps discovering what hope may yet remain for humanity’s home world.

Thoughts: Imagine a future where the ability to manipulate time has not only been discovered, but where doing so is something of an elite profession filled with not-entirely-stable professionals. Imagine a future with dwindling resources, where the only logical course of action is to jump back in time and gather the resources that nobody will miss. James Griffin-Mars is a chronman, someone who does those time-jumps, elite among the elite. He’s seen World War 2. He’s met the woman who made the Time Laws that he lives by. But it’s not until a prime mission, one hat could buy out his contract and allow him to retire, that he starts to break those laws and unravel pieces of a mystery that could very well have created the society in which he lives.

It seems to be an inherent problem of time travel stories, that at some point, the paradox will hit. What if you go back in time and accidentally kill your great-great-grandmother. Your family line is broken, so you will never be born, which means you’ll never go back in time and kill anyone. Cycle ad nauseam. Chu manages to sidestep most of this with a series of strict Time Laws that are designed to avoid making ripples in the timeline. Only take resources that would be destroyed in events soon after your salvage, so anything missing would be assumed destroyed. Never bring anyone from the past back with you. Sometimes ripples can’t be avoided, and what’s done has further-reaching consequences than anticipated, especially when rogue chronmen break a rule or two. Most of the time, the timeline can self-heal, setting things to rights by itself. You accidentally save someone who was supposed to die in World War 2, and they go on to have a family? No matter, a car crash will kill them all, so their descendants don’t exist and so can’t contribute to change. The timeline is something of a fluid thing, subject to change but still capable of setting itself to rights so long as the diversion isn’t major.

All this careful manipulation, though, essentially means that an event near the end comes out of left field. You spend the whole book thinking that the time travel paradox will be avoided,, and then something gets revealed that essentially says: the current timeline was created through the manipulation of the past by someone on the current timeline. BAM, the paradox is back in play. I do hope that the sequel to Time Salvager will involve some multiverse theory, because otherwise cause followed effect. Well, cause still followed effect, but at least some multiverse stuff would help balance that out a bit.

In terms of characters, Chu comes through once again with a cast of diverse and well-developed people to lead the story. It’s always a treat to read his works, because he writes such realistic characters, ones that feel like proper people and not stereotypes or caricatures. James is a misanthropic seen-it-all man who’s riding the edge of death by drink, and the death by lack of medical attention when he goes rogue. He’s not always a great guy, not always right in his action, and is frequently selfish and gruff. Which makes him the kind of person who you don’t really want to associate with in real life, but who is great to read about, because he’s so unlike most SFF protagonists. Elise has an air of innocence and hope to her, which fits well for someone who believes that what she’s doing can change and improve the world, but without the usual naiveté that tends to get portrayed a lot in similar characters. She’s optimistic, but she’s no fool. And don’t even get me started on how interested the Mother of Time is, once you get to see her more!

As sci-fi thrillers go, this is definitely one to pay attention to. It’s more than just a frenetic romp through time and space. There are running themes about corporate transparency and limits on power, and ecological crises in the making and their consequences. While these are definitely hot-button issues today, their inclusion in Time Salvager is appropriate and done well, coming across as part of the plot rather than an attempt to preach to the reader. Which, honestly, I actually find to be the best way to convince others of a cause; you don’t beat them over the head with a message, but you include that message in other works, so that people get exposed to the idea in ways they find enjoyable in the first place. Even if you don’t have much interest in those themes in today’s world, it’s hard to argue with the presentation that Chu gives in Time Salvager.

What it all boils down to is that this is a book well worth checking out. I admit I’m not usually big on either hard sci-fi or thrillers, but when Chu writes something, I will read it. And enjoy it. He works magic with words and makes a tight fast story that I find very hard to put down. Highly recommended, and I can’t wait to see where the story’s future lies.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: volume 9, edited by Jonathan Strahan

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Editor’s website| Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 12, 2015

Summary: DISTANT WORLDS, TIME TRAVEL, EPIC ADVENTURE, UNSEEN WONDERS AND MUCH MORE! The best, most original and brightest science fiction and fantasy stories from around the globe from the past twelve months are brought together in one collection by multiple award winning editor Jonathan Strahan. This highly popular series now reaches volume nine and will include stories from both the biggest names in the field and the most exciting new talents. Previous volumes have included stories from Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Cory Doctorow, Stephen Baxter, Elizabeth Bear, Joe Abercrombie, Paolo Bacigalupi, Holly Black, Garth Nix, Jeffrey Ford, Margo Lanagan, Bruce Sterling, Adam Robets, Ellen Klages, and many many more.

Thoughts: As with any multi-author anthology, there are stories I enjoy more than others, stories where I feel the quality shines above the rest or where it just appeals to me more. I feel both that this should go without saying, and that I should mention it each time I review such a book, so that people don’t feel that I’m rating every single story 4/5 stars. Some are 5s, some are 3s. That’s the nature of the beast.

But I think it’s pretty safe for me to say that of all the SFF anthologies that I’ve read, this is the one I’ve enjoyed the most. In part because it seemed this collection really saw which way the winds were blowing and made a fantastic effort to include a huge amount of diversity in its writers and characters. That isn’t to say that there were no straight white males featured here. But there were a large number of stories with either authors or characters who were decidedly nonstraight, nonwhite, or nonmale. And it was wonderful to see, because with such a balance, you really start to get the feeling that fantasy and science fiction can and does encompass the vastness of human potential, and can be applied to and enjoyed by people who aren’t in the dominant social group in the West.

There were just so many amazing stories in here! Paolo Bacigalupi’s Moriabe’s Children is a creepy cautionary tale involving krakens and escaping from danger. I could read Kelly Link’s The Lady and the Fox half a dozen times over and love it every time. Holly Black’s Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind) was a wonderful exploration of expectations and surprise, and was really entertaining to watch the story unfold. Joe Abercrombie’s Tough Times All Over was fun, though the ending wasn’t that big a surprise once you got into the flow of the narrative. Greg Egan’s Shadow Flock was a technological thriller that I would really love to see expanded, because it was so tight and fast-paced and hinted at a lot going on in the background. Rachel Swirsky’s Grand Jete was a heartbreaking look at whether a transplanted personality is a whole new person or just a continuation of the original person, and at what point those two things differ. Kai Ashante Wilson’s The Devil in America was horrifying in more ways than one, with its take on racism and the price of magic. Michael Swanwick’s Tawny Petticoats was just hilarious, and gave me a few moments where I had to chuckle aloud while reading. And Theodora Goss’s Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology was insightful and full of thought-provoking content about creation and culture, as can be implied from the title.

And K J Parker’s I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There… My introduction to Parker’s work left me wondering what people saw in his writing, which was good but not so good that I figured it was worth the hype I’d seen it get. However, in his short stories, I’ve found some wonderful things, this most definitely being one of them (it was one of the major highlights of he anthology), and I think again that I really ought to give his novels another try, and that maybe I just started with one that really wasn’t as good as the others anyway.

Those are the best ones in the anthology, I think, and that’s well over half of them. The others were definitely good, too, but now and again there was just one that wasn’t to my taste, so my enjoy of them was an issue of personal preference rather than the quality of the content.

There’s straight-up science fiction, there’s urban fantasy, secondary-world fantasy, horror, just about everything a lover of speculative fiction could ask for in a Best Of anthology. It’s one to keep on the shelves, for sure, and one that I’ll likely revisit in the future so that I can dip my toes back into a dozen or more great stories and worlds. Strahan’s name tends to be associated with some of the best SFF anthologies, such as this one, so from the get-go you expect something that’s full of top-notch stories. He doesn’t fail to deliver on that promise. While I didn’t get introduced to as many new-to-me authors as I have in past anthologies, I have no doubt that I experienced some of the best of what genre fiction has to offer.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Apex, by Ramez Naam

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 5, 2015

Summary: Global unrest spreads as mass protests advance throughout the US and China, Nexus-upgraded riot police battle against upgraded protestors, and a once-dead scientist plans to take over the planet’s electronic systems. The world has never experienced turmoil of this type, on this scale.They call them the Apex – humanity’s replacement. They’re smarter, faster, better. And infinitely more dangerous.

Humanity is dying. Long live the Apex.

Thoughts:The US election is approaching, with public opinion swaying to favour a moderate newcomer over re-electing the current President, with his anti-augmentation policies, for a second term. The Posthuman Liberation Front is concentrating on how to spread Nexus to crowds and how to use it to fuel their agenda. An insane aspect of Su-Yong Shu has taken over Ling, trapping the little girl in her own mind while a twisted version of her mother commits acts of long-distance terrorism by forcibly dosing people with Nexus and making them act to her will. Seeking asylum in India, Kade and the Indian government negotiate terms of Kade’s assistance with a Nexus education program, which may lead to India pulling out of a near-global agreement to officially criminalize the use of Nexus and other human augmentations. The world is poised on the brink, with Nexus at its centre, and humanity, one way or the other, will be changed when it’s all over.

Like Nexus and Crux before it, Naam’s skill with storytelling is evident right from the get-go. You read the first few pages, and you fall right back into the story like you never left it, even if it’s been months since you read the previous books in the trilogy. It’s so vividly easy to picture what’s going on, the characters are all fascinating people in fascinating situations, and the subject matter and its controversies are more than enough to provide a high-stakes tension-filled atmosphere for the story to play out in.

This whole series is one that invites speculation and discussion. Indeed, I spent part of an evening talking with my roommate about the potential benefits something like Nexus could bring to people with autism, which is something that has been mentioned more than once through the books. Also education, and international cooperation, and all sorts of things. One in-book debate that I found particularly interesting was the issue of humans versus post-humans. Were augmented Nexus-connected humans still actually humans anymore, if their way of life and relation to each other had so drastically changed? One character likened the situation to Neanderthals versus modern humans, and how Neanderthals didn’t survive because they couldn’t adapt as well. Only now humans are in that position, with the possibility of having no place in the future, and their official response is to try desperately to hold back the tide. I thought that was interesting because in that comparison, people were tacitly admitting that yes, post-humans were better, but that humanity shouldn’t make way for that improvement.

Though that’s often been the case on official policies, I find. People clinging to tradition, with the notion that the tradition is what made them great for so long, forgetting that the tradition was very often born from revolution against an old tradition to begin with. I can’t help but wonder, in Naam’s idea of that post-human world, with so many minds connected like that, what the next big revolution might be, and whether people would react with the same old patterns.

I also found it painfully ironic that so many people’s opinions on Nexus changed after experiencing it. Especially Stockton. Though his experience with it was forced rather than voluntary, and could so easily have ended up as a sore spot that he fought even harder to stop the spread of, in the end his experiences led him to reverse a lot of his anti-Nexus policy. It wasn’t said explicitly whether that was done because he felt it was right or because he realised that any continued policy of, say, prosecuting those with Nexus in their brains would mean that he would now suffer. Possibly it was a bit of both. And while I applaud that kind of attitude shift, I thought it reflected well the tendency that people have to only become interested in a thing when it affects them personally. It’s not enough to legalize other people having a choice in a matter. It’s only an issue when you yourself, the policymaker, would benefit or suffer.

(Political bitterness toward a fictional character. You know a book has affected you when…)

And if the intelligent and thought-provoking material wasn’t enough, you can’t get away from tension action scenes in this book for longer than a chapter. Maybe 2. It comes hard and fast, between scenes with crowds in full riot to parachuting into an area that’s practically a mini war zone, it’s an incredible page-turner, and with cinematic clarity and pacing. It’s truly impressive to see the range that Naam has with storytelling, since he can do action just as well as political dialogue, or hell, even describing aspects of meditation. I’d be hard-pressed to find another book with such fantastic pacing.

There’s so much I want to say about Apex, but most of that would involve heavy spoilers, and this is a book that really deserves not to be spoiled. So much happens, both in the scope of individual character development and on a global scale, that talking in detail about any one thing would lead me to talking about how something else affects it, and it would just snowball until half the plot is ruined for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.

The best books are often the hardest to review, because it’s at those times that I just want to throw my usual attempts at objectivity out the window and reduce my review to, “Holy crap, you guys, you all need to be reading this series right now!” That’s Nexus, Crux, and Apex in a nutshell. It’s wonderfully intelligent, it speculates on amazing advances in technology that we’re already seeing the early stages of in the real world, and it’s all written by a master of the craft. If you’re a fan of science fiction that explores both technology and the social aspects of it, then this is, without a doubt, the series for you. It’s a phenomenal exploration of humanity, one that could pave the way for a new future in sci-fi.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Binary, by Stephanie Saulter

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 5, 2015

Summary: When confiscated genestock is stolen out of secure government quarantine, DI Sharon Varsi finds herself on the biggest case of her career… chasing down a clever thief, a mysterious hacker, and the threat of new, black market gemtech.

Zavcka Klist, ruthless industrial enforcer, has reinvented herself. Now the head of Bel’Natur, she wants gem celebrity Aryel Morningstar’s blessing for the company’s revival of infotech – the science that spawned the Syndrome, nearly destroyed mankind, and led to the creation of the gems. With illness in her own family that only a gemtech can cure, Aryel’s in no position to refuse.

As the infotech programme inches towards a breakthrough, Sharon’s investigations lead ever closer to the dark heart of Bel’Natur, the secrets of Aryel Morningstar’s past… and what Zavcka Klist is really after.

Thoughts: I adored Gemsigns. Adored it so very much. And there was no way I’d turn down the chance to read the sequel, not after being so thoroughly impressed by the first book in the series. Binary was an incredibly strong follow-up to its predecessor, complete with the amazing characters I knew and loved from before.

As before, there are a few converging plotlines here. Genestock has been discovered missing and the theft carefully covered up, attention only drawn to it thanks to an anonymous whistleblower. The implications are both staggering and confusing; it’s old stock, nothing proprietary, but why would someone steal it and go to such great lengths to hide it unless they were doing something quite illegal with the information? Herran, a gem with incredible skills at understanding binary code on the level of a primary language but with serious social and other linguistic impairments, is now part of a project at Bel’Natur, a new direction for the company in which they want to develop more infotech since they can no longer experiment with gemtech. Rhys has found comfort and support with Callan, but a mysterious illness is slowly killing him, and he’s not sure just how much time he has left. Zavcka Klist appears to be reformed and contrite about her previous role in gemtech, but multiple people suspect that it’s all just an act. And through all of that, Aryel Morningstar is there, helping, supporting, and keeping her own history a closely guarded secret.

Saulter’s fiction is so very amazing because she tackles social issues in a brilliant and subtle way that lets you know exactly what’s going on without feeling beaten over the head with certain moral viewpoints. And sometimes there are no clearcut right or wrong answers to a dilemma; sometimes you just have to go with one option because all the others are worse. I like the way that’s all presented here. It’s easy to write something where there’s an absolute right and an absolute wrong and precious little grey area in between, or perhaps a small quandary presents itself but the right decision is still fairly obvious because the benefits clearly outweigh the detriments. But in reality, that isn’t always the case, and I think Saulter does a fantastic job of showing how people can grapple with those situations.

There’s also something to be said about the realistic way that the social model of disability is presented here, too. A person may have a medical disability but the medical issues are not the only challenge. A person who can’t walk, for instance, may have absolutely no problem finding a job if workplaces had accessible ramps. It’s remarkable how a few accommodations can turn a debilitating situation into a manageable one, and that gets tackled more than once in both Gemsigns and Binary. Herran, for instance, has a much easier time communicating through online interactions than face to face, and with the infotech he was helping to develop with Bel’Natur, that ease may have even grown in the future with greater access available to him. Saulter does something very praise-worthy with all this; she puts it as a thread running through the whole story but only sometimes does it become blatant and unmistakable. You get the idea into your head in such a subtle way that you don’t even realise that your understanding is slowly shifting in a new direction. Love it!

Also wonderful was finding out more about Aryel’s past. She’s been mysterious right from the get-go, intentionally so, but here we get to see so much of her and how she came to be who she is, how those wings came to be, and what events propelled her onward. It was painful to see in many ways: the dismissive comments from scientists, the way she had to pretend to be less than herself in order to escape notice, and the knowledge that her escape meant disaster for so many others. She takes so much upon herself, is a natural leader, and all of that was born from such a troubled beginning. It wasn’t that she was an unsympathetic character in the first book, far from it, but the insight we gain into her background here brings her from a figure on a pedestal to someone closer to home, someone real, with her own traumas and coping mechanisms and more damage than anyone should reasonably have to deal with.

Of course, you could say that about any gem and you’d be on the mark…

I’m not going to lie: Rhys and Callan might well be my new favourite couple. I think I got more emotionally invested in their relationship than I’ve gotten in any other literary couple, at least in a very long time. I couldn’t help but love them, and I spent the last half of the book on the edge of my seat, half afraid that Saulter would go route of having Rhys die from his condition so that heart-strings could be tugged and tears could be jerked.

I also love an unspoken declaration that clearly homosexuality was not “bred out”, or rather tweaked out by manipulation of genetics. Why would it, for one thing, when gems were viewed for so long not as people but living single-purpose workers with no rights of humanity of their own? I doubt any of them would have given enough of a crap to design a specific sexuality into gems when romance was hardly something their designers were concerned with, even if it was possible. To them, it would have been like designing a sexual preference for computers; pointless and a waste of time. But while none of that was said outright, having heteronormative behaviours be the default for everyone would have been an easy trap to fall into, and easily explained if anyone asks. “They were designed that way.” Only they weren’t, and Saulter gets much love from me for that little subtlety.

The only part that was a little bit odd to me was Zavcka’s secret, and that’s difficult to talk about without going into spoilers, but I’ll do my best. It seemed a little bit cheesy. When it was first hinted that the women in her family all looked alike, I thought that perhaps they were clones, and that would have been very credible in context, but then you get into stuff about the extreme longevity and I raised an eyebrow a little. It seemed a touch over the top, like a bigoted villain who did everything she did wasn’t enough, but now she has to be behind almost everything since the company’s inception, too.

Though admittedly, reading between the lines, it does make a lot of sense, especially with the gemtech that evolved thanks to her genes. It was less longevity and more a high degree of cellular repair and adaptation to counter the typical effects of aging. Which sounds like it may amount to the same thing, and in her case it does, but to look at it as adaptation and repair makes more sense as to how people like Aryel were created in the first place. And all the other gems, who don’t have that wonderful longevity built into them (that we know of, anyway; I suppose we don’t exactly encounter very many gems who could have lived beyond a typical human lifespan), but it’s easy to see how that kind of mutation would have been invaluable for tweaking genetic structures and still having things work out in the end. It wasn’t said outright like that, so I’m reading between the lines on that way, but it makes the most sense to me to think of it that way, so that’s what I’m going with.

I could go on at length and praise this novel over and over again, I really could. Sometimes the hardest reviews to write are the ones where you loved the book so completely that it’s hard to be objective and talk about why it was good when the truth is that it’s a novel that defies description. The story is captivating, the writing beautiful, the characters perfect. If you enjoyed Gemsigns, you’ll enjoy Binary. If you enjoy amazing stories that break molds and stand out from the crowd, you’ll enjoy the whole series. I said it before and I’ll say it again: social sci-fi just doesn’t get any better than this!

(Received for review from the publisher.)