Jade City by Fonda Lee

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Jade City by Fonda Lee

Published 2017 by Orbit

A third of the way into Jade City, I found myself feeling sick to my stomach with fear. One of Kaul siblings, the leaders of one of Janloon’s biggest magically enhanced gang families, has just been challenged by the champion of a rival and needs to respond with overwhelming force, even though they could be killed in the process and the outcome is far from certain. Other characters object, but are overruled – in the brutal logic of the world the Kauls live in, this is all they can do, even if their death risks bringing down their entire family. The ten or so Kindle pages for this to resolve were some of the longest reading of my life.

That’s the magic that Fonda Lee brings to Jade City, an epic fantasy set in a modernised world where ancient families wield magic powers through training to control a particular type of jade found only on their island home. Most of the main characters in this book come from the aforementioned Kaul family, who lead the No Peak clan: there’s young Pillar (leader) Lan, trying to establish himself while dealing with forces still loyal to his retired, ill grandfather; his aggressive younger brother and Horn (general) Hilo, whose skill in developing individual relationships does not extend to a general understanding of politics; his estranged sister Shae, who has just returned to Janloon after following a boyfriend abroad to study two years previously and is trying to stay out of the family business; and adoptive youngest “cousin” Anden, still in his last year of school and attempting to overcome prejudice both from being mixed-race and from his mother’s highly stigmatised death from jade overexposure. The clan as a whole are dealing with an increasingly strong and belligerent rival, the Mountain clan, whose quiet machinations to control the production of jade and of a new drug which allows foreigners to harness its power are just beginning to be felt.

While “20th-century-analogue Asian City undergoing a post-war economic miracle” is hardly a common setting for epic fantasy, the level of detail in the world of Jade City, and the sense of complex history and culture behind the characters and their actions, more than justifies the label. As noted above, one of the book’s greatest strengths is how gripping it is – its been a while since a book made me this viscerally fearful for the people in it – and the narrative goes along at a strong pace from start to finish. The other impressive aspect is how successfully Fonda Lee’s characters encouraged me to think like them. Without spoiling anything at all in the plot, there is a point around halfway through where an opportunity is taken by one character when I felt strongly (and I’m sure this was intended) that this person wasn’t suitable and another character should have had it instead. Instead of glossing over that discrepancy, or resolving it in the second character’s favour in some messy pyrrhic victory later down the line (which is what I expected to happen), the apparent unfairness is quickly raised and just as soon dismissed in text by another character, who makes it clear why, in the world of Janloon, things had to turn out in a particular way. Most characters are very morally grey, but in a way where it’s clear they’re always trying to do “good” – it’s just that all of their actions are so tied up in a causal web of obligations and expected behaviour and far-reaching consequences that “good” sometimes ends up being “do an honourable murder”. It’s such a testament to Fonda Lee’s skills that these constraints don’t feel artificial in context, and I always believed the characters were acting in the ways they felt they had to act, even when as a reader I didn’t agree with their logic.

This is a book which takes a lot of its narrative cues and setup from media I associate too much with shitty masculinity to ever watch – things like the Godfather, and similar TV shows that former male “friends” loved to quote to each other over dinner when they wanted to exclude me from conversation. It doesn’t shy away from showing a highly patriarchal society, albeit one where women can break in when they show themselves to be overwhelmingly more competent and/or ruthless than their male counterparts. Again, this was handled well, with casual misogyny (and racism, and occasional homophobia) present among the characters but not at all condoned by the text, and no mentions of sexual violence or lingering descriptions of the particular victimisation of women in the war between the gangs (although as most of the Green Bones trained for fighting are men, and there’s a pretty significant body count involved, the fighting clearly does have gendered impacts). This is hardly a comfort read to begin with, so I didn’t mind reading about discrimination alongside transnational drug trading and arms races and the like – but if you like your fantasy to include a critical mass of unquestioned fighting women at all levels, this isn’t the book to give you that.

In short, this book is excellent and well worth your time if you enjoy morally ambiguous character driven epic fantasy, even if the list of influences leaves you a bit cold. I’m eagerly awaiting the next volume of this unusual series.

My Rating: 9 Pieces of Magical Jade Jewelry out of 10

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Provenance by Ann Leckie

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Provenance by Ann Leckie

Released 2017 by Orbit Books. Audiobook Narrated by Adjoa Andoh

Ann Leckie had a tough act to follow with this novel, her first since the mind blowingly excellent Imperial Radch trilogy. I’m happy to report that Provenance, while a very different book, did not disappoint me at all, with fantastic worldbuilding and compelling characters packed into a highly enjoyable plot which kept me engaged right to the end.

I feel like the biggest factor for Provenance’s success for me was the main character, Ingray. Ingray is the young adult daughter of one of Hwae’s most pre-eminent politicians. Like many people on Hwae, Ingray was fostered at a young age, but unlike most with her upbringing, she comes not from another wealthy family but from a “public creche”: a fact which she is constantly cognisant of, and which makes her relationship with her rather manipulative mother considerably more fraught. To further complicate matters, Ingray’s mother has explicitly put her into competition with her more privileged and obnoxious brother, Danach, for inheritance – a fight Ingray is already sure she will lose, but feels she needs to pull out all the stops to succeed at. The last of these “stops” kicks off the novel’s plot, as Ingray travels to another system to recover another Hwaean called Pahlad Budrakim, who she has paid to have broken out of “compassionate removal” (i.e. a dystopian inescapable prison planet) in order to obtain information about the location of priceless artefacts (“vestiges”) belonging to her mother’s political rival. (It’s worth noting that Palahd is also neither male or female, using “e – em – eir” pronouns: Hwaean culture explicitly recognises three genders for adults, which children choose when they come of age).

It’s clear within the first chapter that things are not going to go to plan for Ingray, and, unusually for a science fiction hero, she spends a lot of time barely keeping it together as things go off-script, flailing around before coming up with a plan which usually fits the situation and her resources – only to have the wider situation change around her, or someone not react totally as expected, putting her back into the fall apart and flail phase for a while. She’s smart without being sharp; demonstrably good at building alliances and making friends even in the most unlikely of places despite not being particularly skilled at reading the people around her, and she has a deeply flawed view of success and competence from her parent and brother which takes her a long time to recognise. The best part is that other characters are not just happy to allow this, but clearly value her strengths despite the fact she’s not the flawless five-dimensional chess player we often expect protagonists to be. Admittedly, this makes Provenance’s plot more reactive than proactive at times – while Ingray is usually trying to do something, it’s more often off-stage machinations between different players which drive events – but in terms of a realistic portrayal of a young woman interacting with much larger political forces, it really resonated with me.

Moreover, while Provenance doesn’t have the same intensity that Ancillary Justice, in particular, brings to its plot, there’s still a lot at stake here beyond Ingray’s personal future: the cultural identity of the Hwaeans, their relationship with their neighbours, and the relationship between humanity in general and an alien species, the Geck, whose ambassador follows the ship Ingray takes back to Hwae for rather alien – but ultimately very recognisable – reasons. It’s almost impossible to describe how these pieces fit together without diving into a lengthy retelling of the plot, which I won’t do (because you should read the book), but suffice to say that I am in awe of Leckie’s worldbuilding abilities, which handles the background politics brilliantly. By setting the novel outside the ostensibly homogenous Radch, Leckie has more space to explicitly develop several more or less alien cultures while linking everything to factors we can recognise in our own world – privilege and upbringing, family relationships, the way we build histories and myths and how we ascribe values to particular narratives (or objects), and the difference between doing what’s legal and doing what’s right. There are also a lot of spider robots, because it’s 2017 (2018 now) and Spiders are In.

An extra gush (Ancillary Gush?) is due to the audiobook narrator, Adjoa Andoh – who has apparently done the audiobooks for all Ann Leckie’s books so far – who brings the characters to life so well, and in particular does Danach with a Yorkshire accent which is bizarre and yet so perfect, all of our superior arsehole rich kid space brothers should be from Yorkshire, accept no substitutes, etc. Seriously, well worth picking this up in audiobook form – or in any form at all. A wonderful book.

Rating: 9 historically relevant invitation cards out of 10

Winterglass by Benjanun Sridaungkaew

I know I haven’t been very good at this own-site reviewing thing! But it’s a resolution for this year, and I’m going to do my best to work towards Reviewing All the Things – even when it’s a bit short like this one is.

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Winterglass by Benjanun Sridaungkaew (Novella)

Published 2017 by Apex

Received as a review copy through Librarything’s Early Reviewers Programme in exchange for an honest review

Sridaungkaew brings the Snow Queen myth to southeast Asia, in a story about a woman who has grown up with a shard of glass in her heart and what happens when the Queen and her General pay a visit to find her. The city of Siraparit was once tropical, but since being conquered is now a distant frozen colony full of oneiromancy and technology powered by executed ghosts; main character Nuawa is a professional fighter who enters herself into a dreamlike tournament to become the first Siraparit citizen to gain an officer’s commission in the empire. We follow Nuawa as she enters into the tournament and is thrown into intrigue and romance with the Queen’s general, Lussadh, and eventually into the orbit of the Snow Queen herself.
As the description above makes clear, the book has no shortage of compelling, if generally awful, characters, most of whom are women who love women (cis and trans), with nonbinary and genderfluid representation also present. While Nuawa’s motivations could be clearer, her journey into Lussadh’s confidence is interesting – although most of the actual tournament fighting is barely described at all – and the conclusion is brutal but fitting for the kind of story this is. While the worldbuilding is also interesting, it’s unfortunately obscured by a descriptive style which I can only describe as Too Much. We are given paragraphs of prose about details of the city which for me just made it less clear in my mind where we were – yes, the shadows on this building are isosceles triangles, but what does it actually look like? These overdescribed and sometimes obscure details also spoil what I think is supposed to be deliberate nonsense when we get into the dream world where the tournament is held, meaning it’s just not obvious that walls “made of pomegranate stone, gravid inside with thorn-knitted bones” is meant to be absurd – because a sentence like that wouldn’t have been out of place in descriptions of Siraparit itself. I also find it frustrating to run into these sorts of descriptions at novella length, when so much of the action seems to be glossed over, because it feels like a misuse of space – although I accept that others may enjoy the slower pace which this style brings!
Ultimately, I don’t regret reading this, but failing to gel with the author style is a tricky problem to overcome, and I probably would have DNF’d the book if it had been any longer. Recommended for those looking for dark, slow burning fantasy with lots of lesbians, but be aware that patience is also a must.

Rating: 6 Shards of Heart-destroying Glass out of 10

(Note: I can’t post this review without noting that this author has a well-documented history of conducting online harassment, disproportionately against women of colour, and most prominently as blogger Requires Hate – see for example here and here. Obviously I still chose to read this book and have made every effort to keep my opinions on the author’s behaviour separate from my review of its contents; however, I think this is still something potential readers might like to be aware of before picking this up.)

Mini-Reviews: 2017 Books in August

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_(book_cover).jpgBorne, 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.jpgRaven 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.jpgThe 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:

massacre of mankind.jpgThe 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

 

 

 

Grass by Sheri S. Tepper

 

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Grass by Sheri S. Tepper (Bantam Press 1989)

The Short Version: There are creepy horse-like animals and rainbow grass on the planet everyone conveniently needs to be on to try and stop a devastating interstellar plague. Marjorie Westriding-Yraier and her family are sent from Terra, along with their actual horses, to try and uncover its secrets, which involve a bewildering array of sci-fi tropes that don’t completely obscure the central mystery of the Hippae and deeper questions about relating to alien life.


Grass is a book about creepy horses.

On some level, of course, all horses are creepy. This is not to suggest they are not also beautiful, worthy animals, without whom the development of global civilisation would be very different, but come on. Horses are giant creatures with giant, alien eyes, walking around on giant single fingers. They appear to sleep standing up, and die of inexplicable things like “not being able to burp” or “tripping over”. They have a bizarre combination of fragility and power, and long, weird eyelashes. There is a reason the first suggested filter when you Google “horse masks” is “creepy”. There is a reason they consistently lag behind wolves and cats in fursona popularity, despite the cultural obsessions with horse-related children’s literature and My Little Pony. There is a reason why Horse Master exists.

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So, the planet Grass has a lot of grass, in various colours, and it also has creepy horses – who, we quickly ascertain, are actually aliens that look somewhat like horses, except bigger and covered in lethal bone knives. Completing the picture, we have a society of aristocratic families living on the grassy plains, who spend half of the 2000-day year going out on hunts tailored to the natural wildlife. Grass opens with one such hunt, with the youngest daughter of the bon Damfel family going on her first Creepy Alien Horse ride, to the concern of some members of her family. The alien horses, or Hippae, collect her and her family for a ride, along with equally creepy alien Hounds, in order to catch a “Foxen” which, you guessed it, probably isn’t a red fuzzy mammal (but like British foxes has done equally little to deserve their fate). Dimity bon Damfel survives her hunt, but has mysteriously disappeared by the time our main story opens.

For all its flaws, Grass the Creepy Hippae planet has two things going for it. First, it is apparently one of the few human planets not under the control of Sanctity, an oppressive and vaguely Catholic religious order with a stranglehold on the now-ravaged Terra and the rest of human spacefaring. Second, it is apparently the only planet on the galaxy not being affected by a mysterious plague with a 100% fatality rate which causes humans to literally decay in their own skins. Sanctity is almost as desperate to cure the plague as they are to stop its existence from becoming common knowledge, so to treat with the Grassians they send the Yraier family, whose collective love of horses supposedly make them ideal diplomatic material despite the abusive tendencies of father Rigo and the liability of two teenage children, Tony and Stella, who aren’t told the true purpose of their visit to Grass. Only wife Marjorie comes across as an interesting and sympathetic character from the outset, and we spend most of our time with her point of view as she unravels the secrets behind the Hippae, the plague and why entire families have dedicated themselves to riding what appear to be intelligent and sadistic knife-horses through a plain for fun.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and some of the many tropes deployed fit better than others. There’s a long-dead alien civilisation whose demise on Grass appears to have been different to their deaths everywhere else, whose history and interaction with the Hippae makes an interesting counterpoint to the humans’ own interactions with them, and with other apparently alien intelligences. There are tensions between the aristocratic Bons and the “commoners” of Grass, who are actually much better educated and closer to the galactic norm. There is a Sanctity presence on the planet, whose story is told mostly though the eyes of Rillibee Song, an acolyte who was packed off to the order after his family died of plague. Here, Sanctity appears to operate more as a weird cult than a political force; the younger members have a bizarre hierarchy of their own related to climbing towers and violence, which both their seniors and the narrative seem quite happy to explain away with a “boys will be boys!” shrug. There is also a mercifully brief introduction of an intergenerational love triangle, which combined with the other sexualised elements of the book (particularly the young women going missing on the hippae hunts and one other spoilerific thing) does not endear Sheri S. Tepper’s sexual politics to me.

Ultimately I felt that Grass would benefit from being either half as long or twice as long. A pithy exploration of the bits of the narrative that really go somewhere – the plague, the contact with the Hippae, the discoveries about their life cycle and the relationship between humans and the alien planet they have settled on – would have made a fantastic and thought provoking read, without the religious baggage or teen antics getting in the way. As it stands, the “humanity oppressed and directed by extreme Catholicism” element does find some synergy in the book’s later mysteries, but its a fairly tortuous connection and the treatment of religion in general holds up very poorly compared to something like The Sparrow, so I don’t think that element would be missed. Cutting this out would also focus the book better on the suspense and atmosphere of the main narrative, as the presence of the Hippae in their search becomes more unavoidable to the Yraier family and the nature of their relationship with the Bons becomes clearer.

 

On the other hand, I could see Grass going the other way successfully – fleshing out the interesting aspects of the worldbuilding related to the Sanctity and their Grassian order, giving more space to Rigo and Marjorie’s relationship and to their children (though please not to the intergenerational love triangle), giving the women of the Bon Damfels family and the commoners a greater voice. As it stands, the political intrigue and family drama in this novel are far outclassed by the horror and alien contact elements, but there are enough interesting elements in the former that could be woven more effectively into the narrative if given space to do so. Rillibee, in particular, is an enjoyable character to spend time with right up until weird spoilery sexual politics rear their head at the end, and I enjoyed his building a relationship with Brother Mainoa, the man who has been tasked with exploring the ancient alien ruins, and coping with his grief at his family’s deaths and his unwanted new status as a celibate religious acolyte. While I hesitate to suggest that Science Fiction needs more intricately plotted political doorstops, I can’t help but feel that Grass would be better as one of those, rather than the marginally lighter book it actually is.

In theory, Grass is the first book in the Arbai trilogy, but I get the impression from write-ups of Book 2 that it has little in common with the first, and in particular that the creepy horses and rainbow grass are out (but the ancient gods of a long-dead people are in). Based on what I’ve read, Raising the Stones is on my “someday” reading list, but given the length of that list I doubt I’ll be getting to it very soon. As a standalone, Grass has elements which are up there with some of the best science fiction I’ve read, but Tepper makes the reader work for them by throwing in a whole lot more that ultimately doesn’t come together as a fully realised whole in a way that does the central idea justice.

Two thumbs up for the creepy horses though.

Rating: Seven “Stop Making This A Thing, Adri”s out of Ten

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Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

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Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (First published January 2017)

The Short Version: Six clones wake up on a generation ship with twenty-five years of memory missing and their own dead bodies floating around, and things only get more interesting from there. Six Wakes is extremely readable, using its premise to great effect to build a great story as well as exploring the moral implications of technology and the ways we choose to control it.

Rating: 9 illicit personality modifications out of 10

I’m staying at my parents’ house in the UK for a month, which means my access to physical books and the internet services that can deliver them has suddenly taken a significant turn for the better. This year, a backfiring experiment with Kinokuniya Thailand’s book collection services meant I got to start the haul earlier, and add a kilogram of unnecessary extra weight to what was already a fairly ridiculous amount of luggage.

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(This happens every time I go to Thailand. Every. Time.)

As I don’t want to carry any of these across more continents than strictly necessary, these are all top of my priority list – starting near the bottom of the pile with the lovely shiny* Six Wakes.

According to the author interview at the end of the book, Six Wakes was conceived while the author was playing FTL (Faster than Light), which is the science fictional equivalent of having two cool people who you met in totally unrelated circumstances turn out to be mutual friends. FTL is a game where the player takes a spaceship through multiple sectors of a hostile galaxy, upgrading weapons and defence and picking up crew members and other systems as you go. The advanced edition of the game lets you swap out your medical bay (for fixing up the inevitable missiles-to-face and accidental asphyxiations and boarding altercations which your crew suffer through), with a clone bay, which pops out a new version of the dead crewmate every time they expire; it’s this concept of cloning as a longevity method which Mur Lafferty uses to excellent effect in this book.

The book is set in a future hundreds of years after the invention of the technology on Earth. Society has readjusted with some violence and difficulty to the technology, with humans essentially now split between the classic single-lifespan variety and the clones, who are effectively immortal but subject to a strict set of legal restrictions, the Codicils, which prevent them having more than one copy of themselves active at a time and specify that the most recent version of a clone is the one with the legal right to exist, as well as banning all genetic manipulation between iterations of a clone — so no gender modifications or editing out genetic diseases from a person, unless you are going to an illegal hacker who can program anything they want into your mindmap. Clones regularly back up all of their psychological data and when performed under the right circumstances, they can time their death and reupload into a new body to leave no continuity gaps. However, if something goes wrong and a clone dies unexpectedly, they can lose days or weeks of memories that aren’t stored in the backup.

Things have obviously gone wrong by page one of the main story, when our nominal protagonist Maria wakes up in the clone bay of generation ship Dormire. She and the five other clone crew members all find themselves in new clone forms, looking at the murdered bodies of their past iterations. Moreover, as far as their memories are concerned, they have only just started their voyage; the ship’s date, on the other hand, makes it clear they are already twenty-five years into the voyage. The gravity is off, the AI is malfunctioning, the ship is significantly off course and the 3D printer which synthesises the crew’s meals refuses to print anything but hemlock. It’s up to the crew to get themselves back on track for the sake of the hundreds of humans and clones frozen in cargo, as well as piecing together what went wrong and who is responsible for the carnage they all woke up to.

As in any good mystery, it soon becomes clear that there are shady things lurking in the past of each and every crew member, as well as the traditional untrustworthy AI. Six Wakes builds its narrative through an omniscient third person narrator which switches between character viewpoints, as well as flashbacks to the crews’ lives in the lead up to being selected for the ship. Each crew member knows the others have volunteered for the mission because they are convicted criminals who will be pardoned upon arrival, but they have been told their crimes must remain confidential. From the ship’s doctor who was one of the original people cloned when the technology began, to the AI tech who has been on the verge of a breakdown since waking, to the shady machinations of the captain and the security officer, Six Wakes uses a small cast to great effect, with the world of the clones coming across as claustrophobic and restrictive even in background chapters set on Earth, thanks to both the Codicls as well as the inequalities and power struggles that arise from a society of functionally immortal beings. Six Wakes’ characters aren’t likeable in a traditional sense but I found them generally sympathetic, and the backgrounds go a long way towards making that balance work.

The Codicls set up around cloning also lend themselves to a lot of moral ambiguities, and several of these are explored at some length. It quickly becomes clear that the laws have been developed in response to crisis, rather than being thought out for the benefits of humanity; characters’ lives are full of unavoidable moral dilemmas which the laws seem to complicate even further. For example, early in the book we find out that the complete death of the previous crew wasn’t quite complete, as the captain is in a medical coma; legally, her new clone takes precedence and the crew are required to “recycle” the woman, but are reluctant to do so not only because she might have information on the murders if she wakes up, but also because she’s an actual person whose clone was woken up through no fault of her own. Because of their extended lifespans, several characters have direct links back to the beginning of cloning and the events leading up to the creation of the Codicls: it is no spoiler to say these totally suck for all involved.

The central mystery of the book builds up very well, and while the head-hopping does lend itself to a bit of contrived information withholding (where we are following a characters’ thoughts but they are worded in a vague enough way that we don’t find out what’s going on until later), it’s done in a way where the eventual reveals are too exciting for us to wonder why the audience weren’t let in on secrets earlier. As connections and information pile up, everything builds to a very satisfying conclusion which, again, I won’t in any way spoil here.

In conclusion, this book is really good and well worth a read if you can get hold of a copy without excessive transcontinental carrying and subsequent shoulder strain. Go forth, seek it out and you too can be solving clone mysteries in space!


*Shiny because Kinokuniya wrapped all of my pre-orders in protective plastic for free. Which I… like? Maybe?

Mini reviews: dragons, aliens, robots.

Have kept up a solid reading schedule over the last couple of weeks but haven’t been inspired to a full length review of most things, for one reason or another. Here’s a quickfire round of some of the stuff I got to.

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Blood of Tyrants and League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

7 plucky midwingmen out of 10

The last two books in the Temeraire series, which charts an alternative history of the Napoleonic Wars and surrounding events by introducing dragons into human history. We follow the adventures of Captain William Laurence, upstanding vanilla navy captain-turned dragon man, who in the first book is forced (because of HONOUR) to take on custody of the dragon Temeraire, who hatches in the middle of a sea voyage and promptly becomes an enormous troublemaker throughout Europe and the rest of the world — they manage to visit five continents over the series. Along the way, they pick up a generally colourful and diverse cast of both the mammal and reptile variety (including badass women), and end up playing a major role in diverting the course of world history from the path our own took. This is mostly in ways which undermine colonialism and European technological dominance, which is exciting even if one wishes it wouldn’t take dragons to bring that alternative world about. (For anyone who wants to follow up on that wish: Everfair).

Novik’s dragons have a human level range of intelligence but applied in very non-human ways, and their coexistence with humans is made possible by applying what’s basically a hoarding mentality to people. For the British dragons, this means they are harnessed by a captain at birth who then becomes the platonic love of their life, with dragons willing to fight and die for a single human who is then able to control their “beast” for military purposes. As Laurence discovers what an intelligent, thoughtful being Temeraire is, the cracks in this arrangement start to show very quickly, and successive books demonstrate that the lot of dragons in many other countries, notably China, is very different and objectively better than what the British dragons are going through. Domestic reform and international shenanigans ensue!

It’s hard to talk about the plot of specific books at the end of a long series without spoiling the beginning, hence why I’m not doing a longer review. The series as a whole covers a lot of ground and has its ups and downs — some pacing decisions are rather weird and if you don’t equally enjoy the Napoleon bits and the globetrotting bits you are going to spend a lot of time wishing the story would go and do the other thing. Blood of Tyrants is a little unfortunate in that it has both Napoleon bits and globetrotting bits and I spent each half of the book wishing it was the other; League of Dragons has particularly bizarre pacing but also a lot of great moments which make that forgivable. Overall, I think this series is well worth your time if the basic premise sounds intriguing and you’re into Regency style prose, and if you don’t mind stories where the main character is the least interesting person in every scene. Poor vanilla Laurence.

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Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (audiobook)

4 excruciatingly detailed infodumps out of 10

I went for this on audiobook because until very recently the only English translation was from the French rather than the original Polish and apparently not well loved by the author himself; the audiobook is the “Definitive Edition”, a new direct translation by Bill Johnston. Not that I’d ever have known I was reading a bad translation, to be fair, but it seemed right to do it properly, whatever that means.

This is a well-known story, due in no small part to the various movie adaptations (the most recent being 2003). A scientist called Kris is visiting the planet Solaris, a world almost entirely covered in an “ocean” which actually appears to be a single, weird living organism. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a bad time for Kris’ Solarian fieldwork; due to some intrusive science shenanigans, the crew of the research station are now being visited by weird visions of traumatic figures in their past. In true Tragedy Bro fashion, Kris has a conveniently refrigerated girlfriend called Harey, who committed suicide after he left her ten years previously. She promptly shows up, cries a lot, gets fridged again, returns, tries really hard to return to the fridge while growing like 10% of a spine, uses that spine to succeed in returning to the fridge, the end. Meanwhile, all the Clever Men of the station are trying and failing to make any progress figuring out the ocean. Is it trying to communicate, or is it just being a giant neutrino-based douchebag?

There’s one chillingly intriguing hour of this when Harey first shows up and the idea of the “visitors” gets elaborated on – a super-strong alien being taking the form of a clingy version of a traumatic person in your past, who literally turns up anew every time you try to dispose of them? There’s so much you can do with that idea that could maybe not involve women in refrigerators! Aside from that unexplored potential, however, its safe to say that this book hasn’t aged well, nor did the audiobook format do it any favours: this is effectively hours of a dry narrator ploughing through long chapters explaining generations of fictional research by dudes. Because I was so indifferent and switched off, I think I missed whether there actually was any conclusion to that research-y stuff or the Plans of the Clever Men, but it’s safe to say I will never care enough to find out.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

9 dodgy soap opera seasons out of 10

I saw there was a reading challenge in May to read the alphabet in book titles! That sounds like a really neat idea and is something I am going to do very late and in my own time, at least until the mood strikes me to do something different instead. So here’s A!

This novella is the story of a self-defined “Murderbot”: a security-programmed android owned by an ominous corporate government whose contract is to accompany a survey group to a planet. What nobody else on the ship knows is that Murderbot has a cracked governor, and the constraints usually placed on cyborgs to stop them from disobeying orders and killing everyone therefore don’t apply. We very quickly learn, however, that this is really not what Murderbot wants to do. What Murderbot would like to do is watch the hundreds of thousands of hours of entertainment content they have downloaded from the SecHub satellite, and it would be wonderful if the humans could leave them in peace for long enough to do this — and certainly to stop treating them like they want to be friends or some nonsense.

This is a quick, well-paced read told in a fantastic voice. The actual plot is more serviceable than exciting, but the characterisation of Murderbot, their interactions with the humans and the way they justify their actions all more than make up for that aspect. Completely recommended to anyone with a quick plane journey or a long waiting room wait in their near future.