For one reason or another, I’ve read quite a few books published this year over the past couple of weeks, and have also completely stalled on writing about them, mainly because my review of Borne has been languishing part-written for so long.
Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer
Borne is a gritty but heartwarming tale of a dysfunctional family struggling to hold themselves together in the face of a capricious and uncaring world. It’s also post-apocalyptic New Weird creepiness from Jeff VanderMeer. It turns out these things are perfect together.
The title “Borne” refers to one of the book’s main characters, a mysterious bioengineered creature which narrator Rachel finds nestled in the fur of a giant, malicious, flying bear (Mord!). Beginning its life as a small piece of inanimate goo, Borne quickly acquires all the traits of an inevitably-disastrous monster companion: exponential growth, sentience, pseudopods, unnecessary male pronouns, precociousness, lack of respect for personal boundaries, and (of course) an insatiable hunger. Unlike VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, which leaves a lot of biological horror elements open to interpretation, Borne’s various forms and transformations are quite realistically and even whimsically described, and it’s quite easy for a reader to follow along with Rachel as she develops a strong maternal instinct for the many-eyed, many-tentacled thing she has taken under her wing.
Borne, Mord, and the other bits of weird biological innovation (alcohol minnows!) are all fascinating in their own right, but I found Rachel’s voice, and her relationships with Borne and Wick and with her own past, the most compelling part of this book. Rachel is a climate refugee, who has spent most of her life moving through camps with her parents after her island nation flooded; she now views the ruined, decaying city with heartbreaking resignation. The book implies through Wick that the maternal relationship between Borne and Rachel is unnatural, but I don’t think the narrative itself comes down strongly on that side, and certainly Rachel isn’t punished for developing affection, even as the difficulties and misunderstandings pile up. It’s refreshing to have a survivalist character who is allowed to care, within sensible limits, and who is given a narrative which doesn’t make that out to be ridiculous or dangerous. Wick, too, develops from a character trope we are expecting to be antagonistic and uncaring into someone quite complex, and while conflict between him and Borne is a key plot strand, it never devolves into a forced choice for Rachel. The effect is a book which is unflinching about the kind of horror which humanity is able to inflict on itself when it’s not thinking (and sometimes when it is), but which also quietly celebrates our ability to love and to connect with each other, and with many-tentacled things, no matter how imperfectly that might play out in real life.
Definitely worth picking up – 9 desiccated alcohol minnows out of 10
Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee
The sequel to last year’s Ninefox Gambit is a book which I literally cannot stop referring to as “The Raven Stratagem” (seriously, it’s going to slip back through in the next couple of paragraphs, just you wait). It picks up right where Book One left off: the Hexarchate, a galaxy-spanning totalitarian government which relies on controlling the thoughts and behaviour of its citizens through a calendar in order to literally shape the laws of reality, has let a 400-year-old disembodied mass-murdering general out of his magic box in order to conduct an assault on a heretical fortress. In order to do so, he has possessed Kel Cheris, a rather unusual member of the Hexarchate’s soldier faction. Inevitably, the nice tidy wrap-up of the fortress campaign where General Shuos Jedao would go back into his magic box has gone wrong, and in Raven Stratagem he’s commandeered a rogue fleet for some military manoeuvres of his own, while elsewhere the leaders of the Hexarchate’s factions wage their own political battles.
This series is fascinating space fantasy, and I enjoyed the fact that there are more glimpses at how the Hexarchate manages to suppress and control its populations in the way it does – I generally enjoy science fiction and fantasy which explores colonialism and assimilation, and the way the Hexarchate functions is an extreme example which Lee takes in interesting directions through different characters. There is a plot strand in Raven Stratagem which deals directly with ethnic cleansing, which I didn’t think added a great deal to the book, aside from providing additional evidence on the gaps between different factions and the brutality of the group sent out to commit these murders (apparently 1/6 of galactic humanity have the power to kill dissidents by touching them? OK). While I loved the setting and characters in Raven Stratagem, however, the political machinations and the overall plot left me cold – there is a game-changing reveal towards the end which was welcome but not nearly as surprising as Lee seemed to intend, and otherwise the “six dimensional chess” aspects of who was fighting who and why simply didn’t grab me. I suspect part of this is simply “middle book” syndrome, and payoff will come in later instalments, but as a standalone experience it was still a little disappointing.
Raven Stratagem is in the unfortunate situation of being less memorable the further I get away from it. However, there’s still a ton of interesting stuff here, and exciting set-up for Book 3, which I hope is going to bring more action back to this unique and interesting world – 7 cindermoth manoeuvres out of 10
The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
The third book in the Broken Earth trilogy ends this series with all the grace and fury of a Fulcrum-trained orogene’s torus. In the Stone Sky, we reach the end of the story of Essun, a woman born with the power to control earthquakes (i.e. an orogene), in a world where having that power means being treated as subhuman and discriminated against at every turn. Ironically, the Broken Earth’s world is the Stillness, an enormous mega-continent which is constantly being afflicted with earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and where humans must periodically endure “Fifth Seasons”, which are long periods after major seismic events where normal weather patterns end and communities need to go into regimented survival mode to have any hope of continuation. Even in normal times, the Stillness’ entire society is built around this survivalist mindset; people don’t have family names, they have “usecastes” which define the work they will do in a fifth season, as well as a comm name which indicates where they belong. The Stillness has racial prejudice as well as discrimination against magic users, but this is expressed through features which don’t exist on earth, like “ashblow hair” which is fine and woolly enough to act as a filter when volcanic dust is in the air. The whole series is a worldbuilding masterclass, where nothing is just lazily imported from our earth – the humans of the Stillness are who they are because of their world, not ours.
From a storytelling standpoint, neither the Stone Sky or its predecessor, the Obelisk Gate quite reaches the technical brilliance of Book 1, the Fifth Season, which I highly recommend you read without any sort of spoiler. However, the story, and its exploration of anger and trauma and of trying to belong in a world where the entire of humanity is prejudiced against you and the earth itself is literally trying to kill you, is just as brilliant here as ever. The Stone Sky also spends some time building on hints of the past which have come up over the past two books – I was somewhat torn over these sections, as on one hand their appearance in the last third of the narrative is well-timed, but it also means that we only get glimpses of a long-dead society which feels like it needs another book series dedicated to exploring it. Maybe we’ll get that series one day, or maybe this is a good time for me to explore Broken Earth fanfiction.
Love it, love it, love it – 9.5 ominous floating onyx monuments out of 10.
And some even shorter reviews:
The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter: A sequel to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, set 13 years after the original at the opening of a second Martian invasion. I won an ARC of this from the Strange Horizons fund drive lucky draw so long ago, and even though it didn’t explicitly come with a requirement to review it I feel really bad for not doing so (although technically it’s not out until tomorrow in the USA, so I’m still a tiny bit early!) My main interaction with War of the Worlds is the Jeff Wayne musical, although I read the book earlier this year and it was pretty much what I expected it to be. The Massacre of Mankind delivers more of the same in some ways, but expands to a genuinely global scale and features a more proactive hero (the sister-in-law of the original book’s narrator) and a plot where characters continue to persevere even in the face of invasion, rather than giving up early and going for a hopeless descriptive walk. The plot itself is a bit left field, but works with the tone. It also directly addresses the limitations of the first book and incorporates the reaction to that text (which canonically exists as a widely-read non-fiction work in Massacre of Mankind), indirectly raising questions about who gets remembered by history in such cases. Overall, I found this an enjoyable read despite feeling like it’s Not My Thing – which is actually a very impressive thing for a book to achieve. 7.5/10
Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray: Noemi is a human from Genesis, an idyllic planet trying to escape from earth control. Abel is a prototype android from Earth, built with superhuman skills and, it transpires, the Capacity to Love. They meet and turn out to be conveniently heterosexual and into each other, while also trying to save Genesis from Earth in a way which doesn’t involve a mass suicide assault. As a rule, it takes quite a lot to get me to read YA romance-like things these days, but I loved both of Claudia Gray’s Star Wars tie-ins, and one of those is a YA romance-like thing (Lost Stars), so I thought I’d give this a go. It was fun, with some likeable characters (including the central pairing) and a plot that wasn’t super straightforward. I struggle to say there was anything spectacular about any of the worldbuilding or the issues raised, however, and I’m not sure I care enough about the future of Earth and/or Genesis enough to pick up a sequel. 6/10
Inferno Squad by Christie Golden: OK, so this one is pure Star Wars tie-in (to a forthcoming Battlefront video game). Crack team of Empire kids infiltrates a hardcore Rebel cell. Inferno Squad had promise, but because it presumably needs its surviving characters to be at a certain developmental point for the beginning of the video game, nobody actually seemed to grow or learn anything in the book itself. My expectations were probably too high, to be fair, but this was highly mediocre. 5/10