Speculative Chic year-end roundup

If you aren’t a reader of Speculative Chic, the other blog I contribute to, here’s a run down of what I’ve posted there this year.

Ancillary Mercy by Ann LeckiMy review of Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

I reviewed Ancillary Mercy, the third and final installment of the Imperial Radch trilogy,  over at Speculative Chic as part of our series on 2016 Hugo nominees. I may not have reviewed Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword (books one and two) anywhere — and that needs to be rectified at some point, but I have read them. I’d say Ancillary Justice blew my mind, and the other two cemented Leckie as an author to keep reading.

super-extra-grande-by-yossMy review of Super Extra Grande by Yoss

Super Extra Grande was an impulse read picked up from the library based on the back blurb and the slim size (I can’t often commit to longer books anymore). It’s about a veterinarian that specializes on ginormous space animals, so of course I wanted to read it.

sff-geek-list1A Geekish Gift Guide – this year instead of posting my usual bookish gift guide, I created a “Geekish” one inspired by my fellow contributors over at Speculative Chic. From SFF movies and TV to gaming and banned books, we have a wide range of interests. This was a fun one to put together. Hope you enjoy!

Finally, I talked about a few of “My Favorite Things” over the year:

Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea

Koko Takes a Holiday
Kieran Shea

The Premise: (from the back blurb) Five hundred years from now, ex-corporate mercenary Koko Martstellar is swaggering through an early retirement as a brothel owner on The Sixty Islands, a manufactured tropical resort archipelago known for its sex and simulated violence. Surrounded by slang-drooling boywhores and synthetic komodo dragons, the most challenging part of Koko’s day is deciding on her next drink. That is, until her old comrade Portia Delacompte sends a squad of security personnel to murder her.

Read an excerpt of Koko Takes a Holiday here

My Thoughts: Koko Takes a Holiday is the latest book I’ve read, picked up at the library based on the cover alone. It looks like pop art, mostly grayscale with big orange stripes, a pop of yellow and blue, and Koko, front and center, holding a gun and staring into your soul. If you look closely there’s things going on in the orange stripes, like explosions and a giant shark chasing a surfer. I really like this cover, but to be honest, once I looked past it, I worried this wasn’t the book for me. When I actually read the back blurb and saw “brothel” and “boywhores” and “sex and simulated violence”, plus saw that all the quotes were by male authors (and the Library Journal), I was a little worried about what I was stepping into.  Was this going to be all action and glorification of sex and violence that I would just not be able to connect to? Am I just the wrong audience? I began reading with trepidation.

First of all, yes, this is a story that is visual and violent; a science-fiction action blockbuster in words. This is what I “saw” whilst reading the first few pages: it starts with some black-and-white static, a one minute promo for The Sixty Islands with a fast-talking announcer telling us we can have it all and destroy it all, then fade into a darkened bar where someone is cleaning up the “red scrambled eggs everywhere” and the voice over is an earnest “boywhore” telling us that the two dead guests had it coming. A handful of pages later the bar/brothel is in flames and Koko is a fugitive. Koko, the action hero of this adventure, is exactly as the cover promises, a larger than life bad-ass. She’s introduced as madame in a manufactured, over-the-top “paradise”, but once the guns begin blazing, her mercenary background comes to the fore. A veteran of many missions for multinational conglomerates, she is familiar with guns, seedy characters, and staying alive. Realizing that her ex-commander and friend, now Vice President at the Custom Pleasure Bureau, Portia Delacompte (the very person who helped fulfill Koko’s dream of running a bar), is behind the order for her execution, we’ve got the set up for the story — a shady corporate executive, betrayal, and a brutal pursuit against the backdrop of spaceships and floating cities.

There is definitely this casual violence, high technology, and hectic pace in a corporate-run world that makes me think of Sin City, Robocop, Johnny Mnemonic, and Strange Days…very cyberpunk. This could be one-note, but while this mostly centers on Koko, the third person narration does rove to other characters, like the hired guns after Koko, Portia Delacompte’s ambitious but terrified assistant, and Portia Delacompte herself. The way the narration moved from character to character felt well-timed so I never felt like I needed to put the book down for a little bit (which I do very easily these days), so I finished Koko in one continuous gulp. We’re also introduced to Jedidiah Flynn, a Security Deputy suffering from Depressus on the atmospheric floating barge, the Alaungpaya who meets Koko while she’s on the run. I felt like his inclusion in this story bumped up the storytelling a few points. When the perspective changed to this straight-laced guy who recently found out he had months to live, Koko Takes a Holiday revealed a character-driven storyline that I tend to gravitate to. The attitude toward Depressus (a form of depression affecting some suborbital residents) made me pay closer attention to the dystopian aspects of the world-building.  That’s when a lightbulb came on regarding the casual violence and commercialization of death in this world and how the evil megacorporations were the true “bad guys” of the story.

When it sunk in that the violence was pretty much part and parcel of the cyberpunk package (don’t ask me why it took me so long to get this), it turned off my questioning why it was there, and I appreciated how good the writing and the world building were. What I really liked was the inclusion of Depressus (trying to remember the last time I read a book that included a struggle with depression and am coming up blank), and the glimpses into the points of view of the main antagonist, Portia Delacompte, and the contract killers. I enjoyed the details of Portia’s burning ambition, like joining a religious organization and following all its self-flagellation rituals in order to fit in with the rest of management.

What I wish had more oomph was the plot. When you strip away the world, the plot centered around a “bad guy eliminating a obstacle”, and when we find out the reason behind this, I felt disconnected from it. I was already inured at that point: more evidence that the antagonist is despicable was unsurprising. Something that went a little deeper would have made this story more memorable. I think that if this was more of a character-driven story, I would have accepted the weak plot, but it wasn’t – besides Flynn, who felt flawed and human, everyone else was interesting but still felt like they were representations of their roles, not individuals.

Overall: This is well written, the type of writing where after a while, the words just disappear and my imagination takes over. I never felt a lull where I was tempted to take a break from reading, the point of view cleverly switched from Koko’s desperate run to the frustration of the bounty hunters to the ambitions of Portia Delacompte and stayed fresh. Despite this, the plot didn’t give me any surprises, I wanted more connection with the characters, and the strength of the world buillding and writing wasn’t enough to overcome these issues. This means that overall my reaction to Koko Takes a Holiday is, “It was OK”.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell: “I enjoyed the fast ride.”

Man in the Empty Suit by Sean Ferrell

Man in the Empty Suit
Sean Ferrell

This review is based on a finished copy of the book sent to me by SOHO Press.

The Premise: Every year, a time traveler travels to the same time and place: the Boltzmann Hotel, Manhattan, 1st of April, 2071, and celebrates his birthday with different versions of himself. It’s a tradition he started when he was eighteen years old and invented his time travel raft. On his thirty-ninth birthday, the party is different. This time he discovers what the elder versions of himself have been hiding from the younger ones – that there’s been a murder, and the victim is his forty-year old self. Unfortunately, no one over forty can remember exactly what happened, and they are panicked. The time traveler has to solve the murder before he becomes the victim.

My Thoughts: I loved the convoluted mystery implied by the premise of Man in the Empty Suit. With one man the center of everything – the future victim, the investigator, and all the suspects, I thought I was going to experience something very surreal, like an M.C. Escher image where everything loops cleverly back to the beginning. This story starts promisingly down this vein, but doesn’t quite complete the circuit.

This is how it all begins in the first fifty pages: the time traveling narrator enters the hotel and he’s persuaded to go above the third floor (a rule he had previously not broken) with an older version of himself. Then the older him sneaks off by taking the elevator back down and is found dead despite being supposedly alone in the car. Suddenly our narrator is surrounded by the older contingent of his birthday party, the Elders, who are all ‘helpfully’ giving him information about the murder and laying the whole problem in his hands. Our narrator, surrounded by himself has to mentally nickname his future selves based on their distinguishing features: Screwdriver, Yellow, Seventy, the Body. They all form a sort of secret club within the party, helping the narrator as he scrambles from the body to the ballroom and up and down the floors, trying to find clues while keeping his younger selves ignorant. This was all very weird, in an awesome way, but then all of a sudden there’s this paradox thrown in. And then a woman.

Somehow, the focus is taken away from the murder, and what I’m reading isn’t really a murder-mystery. This is more like a strange tale that examines this one character, his relationship with himself, a woman, Time, and whether everything he’s doing is predetermined or if he can change his fate. In theory I should be having a great time, but in reality I found myself sort of drifting through the pages. This wasn’t a difficult book to read (I was never confused about what was going on), nor did it drag, but I did feel like there wasn’t really a point to everything and the plot was just muddling along. I think if I was the sort of reader who could be content with what I got, which was personal growth, independent agendas, and time travel strangeness, I would have fared better, but my problem was that I had expectations that weren’t met. That this was a murder-mystery, first of all. If that wasn’t going to happen, I would have settled for some clever Möbius plot. Neither really panned out for me, and this left me discontent. For a long time after I finished Man in the Empty Suit I wondered if I had actually missed some vital piece of information that would have satisfied these expectations, but I have flipped back and forth through the last hundred pages and haven’t found it yet. Maybe I should be satisfied with the quiet and reflective ending instead of wanting a flashier one, but I’m not. To me, the way the story ended revealed that there was no plan. I felt like this story was pants-ed and not plotted, and it bugged me.

If plot is something that doesn’t quite work for me, sometimes the characters make up for it. In this case, our narrator (he never gets a name by the way, which I actually like), isn’t the easiest to relate to.  I mean, who is the type of person to use their time-traveling raft to do nothing really special but study history, not for humanity, but for his own curiosity, and who likes to spend his birthday (for years and years!), with no one but himself? He’s so self-involved, that he wants to be the center of attention at the party where all the attendees are himself:

“Thoroughly frozen now, I rubbed my skin dry with my palms and then pulled my new clothes out of my travel bag: a suit, the Suit. At last my turn to wallow in the shit of self-adoration.
Every year the entire party — all my selves– paused in respect when the Suit made the Entrance into the ballroom. All my other visits to the party were tainted. I always tried too hard to be the center of attention, even with myself. Especially with myself. But the Suit was beyond that; everyone paid attention to him without any effort on his part at all. A few times I tried to get close to him, to get a sense of when I might be him, but I had never been able to get his attention. It was as if he were attending a party to which no one else was invited.”

This self-absorption is reflected in every character that is him. Granted, the younger members of the party are immature in obvious ways (drunk throughout the party, or openly resentful), but while the Elders are more concerned about the welfare of the group, they are still selfish in their own ways. And does our protagonist grow in this book? Well he’s forced to go through a period of growth and eventually sees his own flaws, but it takes him a long time. So long that I spent most of the book not liking him.

Maybe this review sounds like a rant, but I’m trying to work through what’s not working because there’s something here, something that could be really good, but it’s not enough. I’m really close to having some undefinable list of personal requirements met that would leave me satisfied, but this story and I, we didn’t quite click.

Overall:  My expectations led me astray on this one. I wanted one thing (crime solving, or time travel awesomeness), but I got something else (I’m not sure what to call it). The way this story bucked expectations is a positive, and I don’t think I could say I’ve ever read anything like this, but in the end I’m more of a feeler than a thinker when it comes to my reactions to things, and I just wasn’t getting what I wanted out of this story.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Ghost Planet by Sharon Lynn Fisher

This review is based on an eARC sent to me by the publisher.

Ghost Planet
Sharon Lynn Fisher

The Premise: Elizabeth Cole was starting a new job as a psychologist on the newly discovered world of Ardagh 1, also known as “the ghost planet”. This is a place with a remarkable phenomenon – everyone who goes there starts being followed around by a manifestation of a deceased person they once knew. Why the local aliens have chosen to do this is a great mystery, but to cope, settlers have set up the Ghost Protocol. The protocol is not to acknowledge the ghosts whatsoever.  Interaction has had adverse effects and colonists find that ghosts weaken if ignored for long enough. When Elizabeth lands on the planet she is apprehensive about what will attach herself to her, and when she meets with her supervisor Dr. Grayson Murphy, her first thought is to wonder if he’s human. He is, but Elizabeth is in for a shock – she’s the one that’s the ‘ghost’! Her transport to the planet crashed, killing all aboard. Now Elizabeth is faced with the alarming prospect of knowing she’s ‘real’ but being treated as if she’s not. She has to fight for herself and against the Ghost Protocol, while being tethered to the man responsible for it.

Read an excerpt of Ghost Planet here

My Thoughts: I’m not sure how long Ghost Planet has been on my radar, but I’ve been following the author’s blog since sometime last year. Its premise just got me aflutter: a planet where everyone has ghost following them around? And the heroine is surprised to discover she’s a ghost too? And there’s chemistry with the guy she’s linked with? AND Linnea Sinclair calls it a “fresh and fascinating take on the human-alien problem”? Uh, yeah, needless to say, I had pre-ordered this long before I was contacted about a review.

The tarmac was deserted. Foggy and disoriented, I wondered how long I’d been standing there, listening to the evergreens groan in the wind and dreading my first encounter on this new world. Would it be human or alien?
I breathed in the crisp, impossibly clean air, trying to clear my head. My gaze traveled around the landing pad hemmed in by towering conifers, and came to rest on the transport terminal, oblong and silent under a slate-gray sky.
What now?
I had the unsettling feeling I was the only person on the planet—Ardagh 1, more commonly referred to as “the ghost planet” by people on Earth. Inexplicable things happened here. The planet itself was a study in the impossible.
Finally the terminal doors slid open, and a figure stepped out onto the tarmac. Half a dozen others spilled out behind him, and a transport whined into view, landing about thirty meters away.
The presence of the other passengers eased my sense of isolation. But that first man out of the building—he was headed right for me. My heart beat out a warning, and my mind snapped back to the original question: Human or alien?
“Elizabeth?” He raised his dark eyebrows, and my gaze locked on his startling eyes. Piercing, round, and the lightest shade of blue, like sky behind a veil of cloud—clean cloud, not the brown smudges that passed for clouds back on Earth. Something about him tugged at my memory, but I found this the opposite of reassuring.
“Yes?” I answered, uneasy. If he wasn’t human, I was minutes on the planet and already breaking the rules. It was dangerous to talk to them. There were institutions back on Earth devoted to caring for people who’d done so. I’d met some of those people.

I think my instinct for what I like served me well with this one. I loved the concept that promised some interesting world-building, but because this is also Romance, there’s a burgeoning relationship for me to enjoy too. I like a balance between these two things, and Ghost Planet does a good job of it. I especially liked this early on, when Elizabeth has to adjust to her new reality. What first struck me was that although she was on a new planet, far from Earth, her work as a psychologist was something relatable and not high-tech or military. She was a middle-class woman, without any special combat skills, just her degree. And because this was told from her point of view, having the ‘ghost’ tell the her side of story was a nice spin on the extra-terrestrial encounter trope: no one knows exactly what she is, but then, neither does she. Until she’s told she’s a ghost, Elizabeth doesn’t realize anything is wrong, and her shock and confusion at having her most basic identity questioned is good stuff. The irony is that the human Elizabeth was interested in the ‘ghosts’ from an academic standpoint before traveling to Ardagh 1. Now her experience with the Ghost Protocol is much more personal and her questions about her existence much more pressing.

At first it seems like Elizabeth’s unlucky to be attached to her would-be-supervisor Murphy. He’s the psychologist responsible for helping the settlers cope and he’s told them rejecting their ghosts is the best thing to do. But before he realized what she was, they were enjoying each other’s company. When Elizabeth turns out to be a ghost, it’s a surprise for both of them. So Murphy is kind to her and conflicted about his own protocol. Their relationship mirrors the people on both sides of the equation. On one side, there are the humans, wary of a phenomenon that has no explanation, on the other, there’s the ‘ghosts’, struggling to be acknowledged.

Because any interaction with Elizabeth is verboten, the relationship took some time to develop, and I enjoyed seeing how it happened despite the rules against it. Elizabeth’s persistence and Murphy’s empathy were characteristics that brought them closer, but the connection they forged from quiet proximity had it’s own power. The romance takes a natural path there that I liked, and Elizabeth and Murphy make a compatible couple. The one quibble I had, was that once they hit a turning point in their relationship, something went away. I think that that suddenly the discord came from sources external to the relationship, and these two were very harmonious.  I suppose at that point they had enough to deal with.

Anyway, this is a story with a healthy amount of romance but has a plot that doesn’t just evolve around that. There are some suspenseful, action-adventure aspects to the story and Elizabeth and Murphy have to face several threats to their lives. I can’t really go into these without spoiling the story, but I was impressed by how thoughtfully Ghost Planet explores the the ‘ghost’ concept in its storytelling. It’s a concept that’s also a mystery, and thankfully the author doesn’t leave the reader with a lot of hanging questions. It explores a lot of the questions I had and organically integrated the answers into the plot. For example, I’d wondered about other ‘ghosts’ and what they were like, what Elizabeth could do and not do as a ghost, what would happen if she was strengthened by Murphy rather than weakened, what happened if she tired to separate from him, and so on. I even felt like I got something of a satisfactory explanation for why the ‘ghosts’ were there in the first place, or at least a working theory that made sense to me, by the end of the story.

Overall: I’m excited about other people discovering this author. I thought Ghost Planet was very enjoyable science fiction romance with a heroine who is more regular girl than action hero, and a setting that feels very unique (and not just for not being on a spaceship).  I really liked the thoughtful way in which the ‘ghost’ concept was explored in this story, and I also liked how I was engaged by scenes that weren’t all about action. Fisher made relationship dynamics and the fight for dominance (or just acknowledgement) between personalities just as important as physical fights for control. I’d recommend Ghost Planet for fans of Sara Creasy and Linnea Sinclair.

P.S. As far as I can tell, this is a standalone (!)

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Not yet

Fighting Gravity by Leah Petersen

Fighting Gravity is a science fiction romance that was sent to me for review from the author.

Fighting Gravity
Leah Petersen

The Premise: (blurb from publisher) “When Jacob Dawes is Selected for the Imperial Intellectual Complex as a child, he’s catapulted from the poverty-stricken slums of his birth into a world where his status as an unclass is something no one can forget, or forgive. His growing scientific renown draws the attention of the emperor, a young man Jacob’s own age, and they find themselves drawn to each other in an unlikely, and ill-advised relationship. Jacob may have won the emperor’s heart, but it’s no protection when he’s accused of treason. And fighting his own execution would mean betraying the man he loves.”

Read an excerpt of Fighting Gravity (Chapter 1) here

My Thoughts: Told from the first person POV, this had the feel of a memoir. I couldn’t tell what prompted this introspection, but I saw the story as three parts: Jacob’s early years at the IIC, his relationship with the Emperor, and the fallout from that relationship.

Jacob Dawes starts off as an unclass in Mexico City. His father, an abusive drunk, was Resettled years ago, leaving Jacob (or Jake), his mentally ill mother, and his toddler sister to fend for themselves. When he’s eight-years old, Jake’s intellect gets him selected for the Imperial Intellectual Complex (the IIC), so that he and a handful of genius children can serve the Emperor with their technological and intellectual advancements. It’s an honor to be chosen, but too poor to receive advance notice that this would happen, Jake is taken away from his family by unsympathetic servants of the Empire. At the IIC, his poverty and class keep working against him. He’s immediately singled out by the Director as a likely troublemaker and unworthy of being in the program at all. Shunned by many of the students and instructors, Jake struggles to prove himself, but he’s often the target of punishment and bullying. Eventually, he finds his niche in Physics under a kindly mentor, and after that he becomes a rising star with a series of breakthroughs under his name. By the time he’s fifteen, his advancements bring him to the attention of the young emperor, Rikhart IV, who is exactly Jake’s age. An unlikely relationship begins.

Jake and Peter (the Emperor) are on the exact opposite spectrum of the class ladder. At first Jake is in awe of Peter, but he quickly adjusts and sees Peter as another person – someone he likes. When Peter brings Jake along on a year-long tour of the Empire, the two have a chance to spend time alone. They begin a romantic relationship after an easy companionship (sex here is fade-to-black after some kissing and enthusiastic pushing). There’s not a lot of slow burn in their romance – their falling in love feels inevitable — but after they do, that’s where the drama really begins.

Class division is a big theme in this book. It’s clear from the start that although Fighting Gravity is set in a future where space travel is common, the social structure is traditional and hierarchical. While the Emperor has absolute power (so much so that the word “Emperor” is used in everyday phrases where we’d say “God”), merely being born as an unclass has made Jacob’s life a constant battle against the extreme bias of those around him.  Jake resolves to be beyond reproach, he doesn’t always succeed, and his impulsiveness often overrules his self-preservation. His non-conformist attitude about class (reacting to the individual, not their status) is welcomed by some (such as the Emperor), but makes enemies of others.

I worried for Jake. He’s the underdog in Fighting Gravity, and while he is extraordinarily gifted, he’s also flawed. His biggest weaknesses involve impulsiveness and letting his anger overrule diplomacy. Jake sees how people react to his class, is annoyed, and just reacts instead of protecting himself and to soothing egos. He knows that the aristocrats have “quiet, unpleasant ends that didn’t involve petitioning committees” if they wanted to be rid of him, but he kicks the hornet nest anyway.

“Others may say what they think, but you cannot.”
“Oh no? And why’s that?” She heard the edge of anger in my voice because her eyebrow quirked.
“You know why. Because of what you are.”
The hot rush of anger spread from my head down through my fingers and toes. My fists clenched. “I thought you were different than them, Your Grace, but I guess I was wrong. I don’t get to have an opinion because I’m unclass? I should have known. You’re like the rest of them.”
The crack of her hand against my cheek left my jaw throbbing and my ears ringing.
“Stupid man. Yes, it is because you are unclass, and you know I do not think less of you for it. If I did, would I be trying to protect you?”

This was a character and relationship-centric story. A big pull of Fighting Gravity (once we’re past his time at the IIC), is the drama that unfolds from the volatile combination of Jake and his closeness to the Emperor. With Peter, who treats him as an equal, everything is wonderful, but that’s in private. In public, time and again, Jake just makes himself an easy target for others and makes decisions without telling his powerful lover. He gets threatened and tells no one, and then of course his enemies carry out their threats. I sped through the story in a matter of hours because I wanted to know whether Jake would be alright and if he could be happy with Peter. It was really frustrating though–Jake brought a lot of trouble on himself, but the hatred against him was unjustified too.

I really liked how much Jake’s class played a role in the story, but I also felt like Jake’s problems center on himself. He’s hated for being an unclass, but he’s oblivious to others with similar situations. When he does think of others not as lucky as himself, his attentions are too little or too late. I’m hoping that enlightenment in this area is being saved for later. I’d like to see how both Jake and Peter would approach the class issues in the Empire.

Another niggle I had was over the extremity of some of what Jake goes through. Despite being caught up in what was going on, a romantic gesture and some painful punishment still felt over the top to me. I found myself asking “did they really have to do that?” at certain scenes. I’d have preferred more nuanced consequences for Jake, even if the angst and drama had me flying through the pages. I preferred the subtler moments, like those between Jake and his assigned servant, Jonathan. There was the suggestion all is not as it seems in that area, and I’m curious where it will go in the next book. Well, if there is a next book. Fighting Gravity didn’t end with a cliffhanger, but it did feel like Jake’s story wasn’t over.

Overall:  Fighting Gravity is a science fiction romance styled as a memoir about a poor unclass boy (Jake) whose genius intellect brings him out of the slums and into the path of the Emperor. They fall in love, but there are consequences because of deeply engrained beliefs about class hierarchy. Overall I thought this was a well-written, emotionally gripping type of read that went down easy. It may not have knocked my socks off because I wanted the class issues further developed, but I can see others not having that issue, and at $2.99 for the ebook, it’s worth giving it a go. Recommended for those looking for a coming-of-age type of SFR.

Buy: Amazon (kindle) | Dragon Moon Press (epub/kindle)
(paperback is also available at the above sites and B&N)

Other reviews:
My blogging buddies haven’t read this one yet.

Guest Posting for FantasyCafe’s Women in SF&F Month

Today I am over at Fantasy Cafe talking about some of my favorite women authors in SF&F – actually my favorite female speculative fiction authors that write in the science fiction side of the spectrum. I think these are some authors that could lure you over to the dark side one of my favorite genres. Like all genres, I think it has plenty of variety, so if you look, you just may find something you adore within it. Take a peek at my post and check it out! I have highlighted books that…

…are gateway books for romance readers to be introduced to some space opera/science fiction…

…are books I think urban fantasy fans could get into…

…are character driven, coming of age stories…

.. amidst war and other trials and tribulations…

… or just cross genre boundaries.

Silver Shark by Ilona Andrews

Silver Shark
Ilona Andrews

My book reading has taken a little detour into contemporary YA this month (three reviews in the genre forthcoming), but never fear, I’m not abandoning my love of speculative fiction.

Here’s a novella to tide you over. Silver Shark is the second novella set in the Kinsmen universe (the first is Silent Blade https://i0.wp.com/i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/livejournal_com.gifhttps://i0.wp.com/i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/wordpress.jpg, which was published by Samhain, but each book can be read out of order), which is being self-published by the authors. This review is based on an eARC that I requested and received from Ilona Andrews.

The Premise: Captain Claire Shannon is the leader of a team of psychers on the planet Uley. For 300 years her people on the Western Continent have been fighting a war against the Eastern Continent. Claire’s team uses their mind to connect to biological computer networks . They can infiltrate enemy networks, take data, and kill telepathically. They are incredible weapons, and when her side loses the war, aware that her abilities make her a dangerous tool no one wants alive, she hides herself in the civilian population and is shipped off as a refugee. Her mind hidden behind layers of protection, Claire is just a mousy secretary on the planet Rada, but hiding her true ability could be a problem, because her first job interview is for a position with Guardian Inc, which is a company that specializes in “Extrasensory Security Protocols and Biocybernetic Safety”. In other words, she has landed in the midst of pyschers, and her boss, Venturo Escana, head of the Enscana kinsmen family and Grade A pyscher, is the lion in this proverbial den.

Read an Excerpt of Silver Shark here

My Thoughts: Rada, the world in which most of Silver Shark takes place, is also the same world that Silent Blade was set, but while Silent Blade dealt with hired assassins, and physical abilities, Silver Shark is more about telepathic ability and hidden identity. In other words, you don’t need to have knowledge of the world building of one of the novella’s to understand and appreciate the other. In my opinion they may be read in any order, although yes, the couple from Silent Blade does make a cameo in Silver Shark, but I don’t think that a couple getting together in a romance counts as a spoiler.

Silver Shark is 98 pages (ARC length) compared to the 48 paged Silent Blade, so it’s no surprise that the world building felt more involved. This story revisits Rada, but describes it as seen from a foreigner’s perspective – very bright and beautiful compared to the drab, utilitarian (and war torn) Uley, Claire’s home planet.  I liked the way these places worked with the plot, but what I particularly liked was the depiction of the biological computer networks that only telepaths can access. The visual representation of code reminded me of the Scarabaeus series by Sara Creasy, but it in not quite the same way – more like being inside a dream than outside it. I really liked how lush and dangerous this computer world was and how Claire and others saw it.

This is a science fiction romance spin on the boss/secretary trope. In this case, the boss, Venturo Escana has little clue that the drab off-worlder that he decided to rescue is in fact a psycher like himself. Claire on the other hand, is very aware that the first impression she made was off as a fresh-off-the-boat bumpkin, but while her suppression of her true self keeps Claire safe, her attraction to Venturo makes her unhappy that he doesn’t know the real her. I really liked how the story drew out the tension of Claire’s dueling desires and the potential that she would be discovered (and shipped back to certain death in Uley). With this being a romance, as a reader you know Venturo has to find out, but the when and how are unknowns. All I will say is that the execution of the reveal was delicious.

I was also tickled by the thoughtful spins that were put into the boss/secretary story. Of course there is the science fiction setting that is integrated into Venturo’s business, which involves providing security for systems that run on biological networks, but there more than that. For instance the issue of power and consent is addressed in a unique way (which as a bonus shows some insight into Venturo’s POV).  The subplot of cut-throat competitors and a long term grudge with the owner of a rival firm was another nice touch that felt familiar and yet different from your usual Businessman Boss romance.

In the end I really enjoyed this one, and I do find myself rereading my favorite bits with a bit of a grin on my face. The only thing that kept it from being a home run was my reaction to the ending. I felt like I didn’t really get an explanation from Venturo for his decisions, and the story switches gears and ends before we ever do. If not for that feeling of incompleteness, this checks all my boxes. Recommended unreservedly.

Overall: Really, really enjoyable. If you like Boss/Secretary romances, Ilona Andrews, or SFR, then get this. I think $2.99 is a steal for this feel good, entertaining SFR that you could read in one sitting.

Buy: Amazon (kindle) | B&N (nook)

Other reviews:
Leontine’s Book Realm – 4 stars (out of 5)
Literary Escapism – positive
Chachic’s Book Nook – positive

Outside In by Maria V. Snyder

Outside In
Maria V. Snyder

I really enjoyed Outside In when it came out last year so I’ve been looking forward to the second book for a while. I snapped this one up on Netgalley.

*** The premise of this book has spoilers for the ending of Outside In, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, go check out the review for the first book: https://i0.wp.com/i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/livejournal_com.gifhttps://i0.wp.com/i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/wordpress.jpg ****

Have they gone yet? OK.

The Premise: Trella and her band of Sheep have managed to overthrow the dictatorship of the Pop Cops and the Insiders now know they are in a giant spaceship and that Outside is really Outer Space. The good news for everyone is that their ship has many more levels than they previously thought – plenty of room to expand, but the whole ship suffers from growing pains as a result of the recent changes and revelations. A committee has been created to lead the ship, but it can’t seem to agree on anything, scrubs and uppers still treat each other with the same disdain, and Trella wants nothing more than to explore and let others take care of the current mess.

Read Chapter 1 of Outside In here

My Thoughts: The story begins again with Trella trying to get back into her old habits – which are to do her own thing and let others fend for themselves. Although Trella notes that the committee is having difficulties and that there is a general sense of dissatisfaction on the ship, all she wants to do is let someone else take care of the problems for once. She doesn’t feel comfortable making decisions responsible for the people of the ship, but when saboteurs appear, Trella doesn’t hesitate to jump in and help. That Trella is willing to risk her life for people on the ship, but not willing to lead them, frustrates Riley. This frustration is compounded by Trella’s usual reluctance to let him know what is going on.

I thought that the first half of this book was promising, albeit without the same sort of pull that the first book had on me. I felt like there was a little awkwardness in its execution – a lot of dialogue and a plot that feels oddly episodic (a string of events following each other with cliffhanger-ish endings to each that segue into the next event). I had mixed feelings about Riley’s character in this book as well – his reaction to being unhappy with Trella didn’t sit well with me, but I was willing to see where their relationship went.  I still felt that the story had some interesting ideas that I was willing to follow where the plot led. I liked that things were not easy for the Insiders – after what happened in Inside In, things aren’t all solved. Instead there’s chaos as people try to figure out what to do next and what their roles are. Although the story wasn’t as strong as the first book’s, the science fiction concepts are interesting enough as an introduction to the genre, and comparing it to a similar book with people in a spaceship (Across the Universe), I felt like I liked this book better. There are a lot more secondary characters which influence the running of the ship and the conflicting personalities made me hope for some compelling drama. The mystery of who was behind the explosions and why also captured my imagination. I wondered what it would take to fix these problems and to get the people of the ship to band together.

Then the concept of Outsiders is introduced. (This is not a spoiler, it’s mentioned in the back blurb).

At first I was still relatively optimistic about this. It seemed to be just the igniter for Trella’s determination to save her ship and for the Insiders to band together. But then the plot sort of dissolved into a bunch of vignettes in which Trella moves forward only to find another setback. One disaster followed another but they happened so quickly, without pause between each that there was no room for Trella to do any self-analysis or any contemplation before she’s moving on into the next fray.  The constant action felt forced, and it made events blur into one another in a meaningless jumble. By the time the end came, I found myself disappointed in the direction of the story.

To be honest, in the midst of reading this book, I read a review of it over at the Book Smugglers where Thea pointed out “once the outsiders become known, they change the trajectory of the story, shifting the focus from internal strife to banding together against an external threat – which feels like a writerly cop-out”. I don’t think I am one to be influenced by others opinions but I did read this before the Outsiders began to really influence the plot – take that as you may. I still don’t dislike this book as much as Thea ended up disliking it, but I did end up agreeing with her on the above point.

What compounds my disappointment beyond feeling like using the Outsiders was an easy way out is that with this addition to the story we have the first book all over again. All you have to do is replace the Outsiders with the Pop Cops and the Trava family. Trella begins with her usual exploration, she ignores others, she is pulled into current events, she and others unite against a common enemy.  I don’t see anyone else remarking on this, so I am definitely in the minority in seeing this pattern. At any rate, I wish I didn’t see it, because I’d prefer if Outside In was more distinct from its predecessor. When I compare this book to the first one, it makes me wonder if the series was planned beyond book 1. There doesn’t seem to be a long-running story ARC, just a sort of repetition of the same concepts.

Overall: I have mixed feelings.  This is still a fine story for newcomers to the science fiction genre. If you loved Beth Revis’ Across the Universe, I’d recommend this – I like it as much if not better. It has plenty of urgency and action as well as a twisty plot. However, Outside In suffered from an awkwardness that I didn’t find in the first book, and the direction of the story was disappointing. I wanted things to be less pat, and more complicated. I wanted harder lessons. I’m not sure how others would weigh the mix of likes and dislikes I had, but they sort of balanced each other out and put this book under “it was OK” in my mind. So I recommend the first book but feel that your mileage may vary on the second.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
All Things Urban Fantasy – 4 bats (out of 5)
Galleysmith – mixed review (I had similar feelings to hers)
Squeaky Books – 5/5
Presenting Lenore – 4 zombie chickens (out of 5)
Yummy Men and Kick Ass Chicks – 3.5 (out of 5)
Good Books and Good Wine – positive
Tez Says – positive
Larissa’s Bookish Life – 4 Loveys (out of 5)
Reading with Tequila – 5 shots (out of 5)
The Book Smugglers – 4 (Really Bad)
Genrereviews – 3.5 pints of blood (out of 5)
Calico_reaction – Like, not love

Children of Scarabaeus by Sara Creasy

Children of Scarabaeus
Sara Creasy

I think that thanks to a couple of influential bloggers, this series is on more people’s radars, and that makes me happy. I really enjoyed Song of Scarabaeus when I read it in September last year (https://i0.wp.com/i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/livejournal_com.gifhttps://i0.wp.com/i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/wordpress.jpg), and when I heard that it’s sequel, Children of Scarabaeus was available on NetGalley, I requested it ASAP.
**** mild spoilers for Song of Scarabaeus ****
The Premise: In this continuation of the story that follows Edie Sha’nim and her bodyguard Finn, Edie has freed herself from her kidnappers and her goal is to use what she’s recently learned to help Fringe worlds with their reliance on Crib technology to keep their environments viable. Unfortunately, her freedom is short-lived, as the Crib government catches up with Edie and her friends, and reclaims her as their property. Edie has to cooperate or Finn suffers, so she reluctantly goes back to work as a biocyph for Liv Natesa’s pet project on a new terraformed world named Prisca. During the project she makes some startling discoveries about what the Crib is up to, including the use of children as their new breed of cypertecks. In the meantime she’s also asked to return to the place where it all began for her: the planet Scarabaeus.
Read the first chapter of Children of Scarabaeus here (pdf)
My Thoughts: I was anticipating this read so much that it leaped over all others in my TBR and landed on the top of my queue, and then I read it all in one day. I’m happy to say it felt very readable and I had no inclination to put it down once I started. This book had much of the same sort of twists and turns as the first, with escapes and captures, spaceship crashes, deadly planetary disasters and wild animals. Not to mention the manipulations of Natesa, who wants Edie on her project, which promises terraforming at a much faster pace than ever before and of Colonel Theron who wants Edie to work for him on Scarabaeus. Like the first book, Children of Scarabaeus has a lot going on. In fact, it surprises me how much happens in it within a relatively short number of pages (my eARC is numbered at 322 pages).
Edie and Finn begin the story with the same relationship they had when Song of Scarabaeus ended, which was a place where they trust each other completely, but things are still new and Edie isn’t quite sure where she stands. It doesn’t help matters that the chip in Finn’s head (the one that could kill him if he’s too far from Edie) causes emotional feedback that makes romantic entanglements complicated, or that Finn is a hard man for Edie to read. Edie wants Finn by her side, but she also wants him to be free, and not have to be by her side, especially when her skills make her a resource everyone wants. I wasn’t sure how things were going to go for them with their general lack of communication, but this book moves them forward a lot more than the first did, and the romance was not as understated as the first installment.
The descriptions of the biocyph and cyperteck technology as Edie sees it continues to be fascinating. I really love how it’s described visually instead of trying to explain the technical details behind it. When the cyperteck children are introduced, I liked how they related to the code differently from even Edie and other ‘tecks. Instead of understanding things visually, they go by sound and by feeling. The code is something living that needs fixing so it can be “well”, and the children instinctively work as a team to patch the code up. They have no idea what the code does, all they are interested in is the feel of the code itself.
Children of Scarabaeus does a very good job in tying up all the loose plot strings left over from Song of Scarabaeus. There were a few times where I thought the story was going to go one way (and this probably would have lengthened the plot), but Edie and Finn instead are steered towards their destinies. The way things are satisfyingly tied up leads me to believe that this series is now complete, which is in a way disappointing. This is a case where I would be really happy for more books and more adventures with Edie and Finn. I don’t really think that Children of Scarabaeus rushes to a conclusion, but it upon me before I wanted it to be. I wanted to spend more time, leisurely exploring the galaxy and watching the relationship develop between Edie and Finn. I could have used a book or two between book 1 and the conclusion here, and I think that would have also sidestepped the feeling that the plot twists and deaths in the story were a means to get to the appropriate ending within the pages allowed. I hope that the next series Sara Creasy writes next gets to be longer. And this is from a girl who balks at long series, so do not take my words lightly.
Overall: I really loved Song of Scarabaeus, and this is a worthy sequel that has the same action and awesome world building as it’s predecessor. It comes pretty close to pleasing me in the same way the first book does, but it has one handicap – it has to complete the story in one book, which means the romance and the complex plot are tied up before I was ready. I think the author did a good job at making these things satisfying (particularly the ending), but I would have been fine if I had to wait one more book (or two) for it. Thumbs up for this series – get both books.
Children of Scarabaeus comes out on March 29th.
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Other reviews:
It’s early yet..

Across the Universe by Beth Revis

Beth Revis

This is a review for an ARC I received from the publisher after requesting it.

My memory is going because I can’t remember the first blog that introduced me to this book. I might be Presenting Lenore when she had her Dystopian week. She highlighted Across the Universe as a dystopian YA book to look out for in this post, and she included a link to the excerpt of the first chapter. I know that reading the excerpt is what sold me, although I do admit that the pretty cover also helped (I am a sucker for a starry backdrop).

The Premise: From the blurb: “Amy is a cryogenically frozen passenger aboard the vast spaceship Godspeed. She expects to wake up on a new planet, 300 years in the future. But fifty years before Godspeed’s scheduled landing, Amy’s cryo chamber is unplugged, and she is nearly killed. Now, Amy is caught inside an enclosed world where nothing makes sense. Godspeed‘s passengers have forfeited all control to Eldest, a tyrannical and frightening leader, and Elder, his rebellious and brilliant teenage heir. Amy desperately wants to trust Elder. But should she? All she knows is that she must race to unlock Godspeed‘s hidden secrets before whoever woke her tries to kill again.”

My Thoughts: Across the Universe is about 400 pages long but it feels much less because of short alternating chapters written from Amy and Elder’s points of view, which is combined with a fast-paced plot. The story starts with a bang: Amy narrates the terrifying feeling of being frozen in preparation to join her parents on a 300 year journey across space to the planet Alpha Centauri. While Amy and her parents sleep along with other scientists and military personnel needed after the ship lands, a crew maintains the ship through generations. 250 years later, sixteen year old Elder is learning how to be the next leader of the ship under the supervision of his mentor, Eldest, and running into problems due to his ignorance of the ship. Improbably, the two teens meet. Through some accident or act of chaos, Amy is thawed 50 years ahead of schedule, almost dying in the process, and she has to adapt to a very different world than she is used to.

Life on the vast spaceship is fascinating. There are three levels: Keeper, Shipper, and Feeder, which correspond to the three types of people who live and work on it. Elder and Eldest are the Keepers, with access to all levels, Shippers work on the Shipper level where the research labs and the bridge are, but live on the Feeder level where a collection of small trailers house most of the ships residents. The Feeders are only allowed on the Feeder level where they farm and produce day-to-day products like textiles. All the lives are strictly regimented and controlled by Eldest, but his vicelike grip on the Godspeed begins to raise questions in Amy and Elder’s minds. Elder realizes that his education has glaring holes in it, and Amy sees a society with a disturbing lack of soul and a too-easy acceptance of authority.  The only people who don’t seem mindless are those in the mental ward. The more time Amy spends on the ship, the more she and Elder realize that things on Godspeed are not right. All the while, some murderer is killing people in the cryo-chambers by turning them off so they are thawed improperly and die in agony.

All this is well and good. There’s a sense of urgency in the writing and an invitation to keep flipping pages to see the big picture, but at tlmes I felt like the focus on the twists came at the expense of introspection.  The book brings up a lot of questions about right and wrong when survival in an enclosed environment is at stake. Eldest and those before him made certain choices that made sense to them at the time. When Elder and Amy find out about those decisions, instead of delving into their motivations and whether they had any merit,  the book misses an opportunity in my opinion by making a provocative topic overly simplistic. Some of the big reveals were things I could easily guess, enough for me to feel impatient with the characters in not figuring things out earlier, so I wish that the space for these predictable puzzles was used instead on what science fiction does best: make the reader think. Across the Universe begins to take us there, but then abruptly does an about face, leaving me feeling somewhat unsatisfied. To top it off, I keep having moments of “but what about _____?” after finishing this book — several inconsistencies never explained. I’ve read online that Across the Universe is the first in a series, and maybe what seems inconsistent now will be fixed later, but I have a feeling it won’t be.

The book cover and the blurb suggest that this book has a certain amount of romance in it. It is there, but it is extremely low key and for the most part platonic with the suggestion that in time there will be more.

Overall: This is a really promising debut — science fiction, dystopia, a fast paced plot and really interesting world building. These are all good things and for that alone, I’d recommend the book, but it didn’t quite hit the mark in terms of substance — there was more focus on grabbing the readers attention through plot twists than on really making the reader think. It skirts this territory, then scurries off, and that doesn’t really satisfy my science fiction reader sensibilities.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Calico Reaction – Buy the Paperback
Steph Su Reads – 4/5
La Femme Readers – 5/5
Fantastic Book Review – 5/5
Ellz Readz – positive review
Debbie’s World of Books – positive review
One Librarian’s Book reviews – 5/5
Book Reviews by Jess / The Cozy Reader – A

Across the Universe website (Really spiffy website I have to say, with goodies like wallpapers and an interactive map of the Godspeed)

I’m passing along my ARC copy of this book — to someone willing to review the book (on their blog, goodreads, wherever).  Open to everyone but first come, first served! Taken!