Tag Archives: Martha Wells

A guide to Martha Wells, for Murderbot fans

As someone who has been a fan of Martha Wells’ books for at least six years now, it’s been a lot of fun to see new people discovering her work via Murderbot. I love the Murderbot novellas, and I’m so glad that other people do too. (Also that we’re getting a novel! Yes!) But Wells has written a lot of awesome books, so I thought I’d put together a list of places you might want to start, depending on what draws you to Murderbot to begin with.

Let us begin where I did, with The Wheel of the Infinite, a secondary world fantasy featuring a protagonist who really would prefer not to. Maskelle is a middle-aged woman who is jaded and weary but also very competent and appealingly snarky.

Or, if you’d rather, you can try The Wizard Hunters, the first in the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy. I love Tremaine, one of the two protagonists for this series, a lot; she reminds me in some ways of Julie Beaufort-Stuart, but if Julie was deeply depressed and didn’t like people all that much even though she also cares about them. Bonus: this series has weird magic, accidental travel to other worlds, friendships, and a very prosaic romance.

I am also very fond of the other Ile-Rien books, particularly The Death of the Necromancer, which I described back in 2013 as “a bit like Les Miserables, if Jean Valjean was a burglar and he teamed up with Javert to fight sorcerous crime.” (A description which instantly makes me want to reread the book, if I do say so myself.) However, I stand by the suggestion to start with Element of Fire if you’re planning to read Death of the Necromancer, for maximum feels. These are the least like the Murderbot series in some ways, but they do have some pretty excellent politics and machinations going on.

Finally, I am still working my way through the Raksura series, which starts with The Cloud Roads. Like the Murderbot stories, these feature non-human protagonists–in this case the Raksura, who are winged shapeshifters. The main character, Moon, is also an outsider in his own culture, which makes for some interesting conflicts.

I personally have most often reread The Wheel of the Infinite and The Wizard Hunters, but I’ve truly enjoyed and recommend all the books here!


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Favorite Tor.com Novellas

In the past few years, Tor.com’s novella line has really grown and strengthened. Here are a few of the offerings I especially enjoyed.

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander: This one is really stunning; it’s all about history and alternate history and the stories we tell. The prose is beautiful and the story is powerful. There are a few threads interwoven and each of them is treated seriously and given its own significance.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson: I’ve had a very strong reaction to some of Johnson’s other short fiction, but I really enjoyed this one. Centered on an older woman, whose academic background reminded me a bit of Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night, this also features some interesting cats and lovely descriptions.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire: A brutal, thoughtful take on portal fantasies and what happens afterwards. It’s probably my favorite writing from McGuire and I recommend it if you are interested in both stories and subversions of the stories.

Binti, Binti: Home, and Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor: Oh, the Binti trilogy! I love the writing in these books so much, the emphasis on diplomacy, on peacemaking. The scifi elements combined with a deep sense of history and culture and customs. Binti herself and her growth of over the course of the three novellas. There’s something really magical about these ones.

All Systems Red & Artificial Condition by Martha Wells: MURDERBOT. I love Murderbot so much, which sounds sketchy if you haven’t read these lovely space operas yet. But Murderbot is a disenchanted securitybot who just wants to protect humans and hacked its own governor module so it can watch entertainment feeds and doesn’t want to feel anything and I LOVE IT. The second novella is just as good as the first and I can’t wait for the next few. (PS, if you know Wells through the Murderbot novellas, please check out some of her other books; they are also excellent.


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Star Wars: Razor’s Edge and Rebel Rising

rebel risingI have to admit that I haven’t historically been a big reader of Star Wars tie-ins, despite loving the movies. But I’ve read several I liked recently, starting with EK Johnston’s Ahsoka.

Martha Wells’ Razor’s Edge has the advantage of being written by an author whose books I really, really like, and of being about Leia (my favorite character). I was initially slightly disoriented because for some reason I thought this took place after the end of the original trilogy. It’s actually between New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. It’s a relatively standalone adventure, featuring space pirates plus some fun banter between Han and Leia.

I really liked the way Wells shades in Leia’s competence–she’s shown to be a great negotiator and diplomat–but also her vulnerability–she feels incredibly responsible for the survivors of Alderaan. It’s a Leia that fits the movies while also giving an added sense of interority to the quippy Princess. This is enjoyable, although I didn’t feel that it ever reached the emotional depths of Wells’ strongest character work (Tremaiiiiine). At the same time, Razor’s Edge is a solid and thoughtful look at echoes from Leia’s past as well as her growing competence and strength.

While Razor’s Edge was published as an adult book, Beth Revis’s recent Rebel Rising is being published and marketed as YA. Telling Jyn Erso’s backstory, interspersed with scenes from Wobani, it goes a long way towards making her a slightly more coherent character than Rogue One was able to achieve.

This Jyn is shattered by the loss of her parents and then by subsequent loss after loss after loss. It’s grim, but we really do come to see the reason of her lack of hope. And we also see her talents as well as the training that made her one of Saw’s best fighters.

Saw himself emerges as a complex figure, and the book does a nice job of showing how his distrust and paranoia grow over Jyn’s years with him. I can’t say the male/female ratio is better than in Rogue One, but we do see a bit more of Lyra’s importance to her daughter, which is nice. (I still long for the AU where Lyra’s the scientist the Empire wants.)

There are a few inconsistencies that bothered me a bit, and the story felt long in places. Despite those quibbles, Rebel Rising is a solid YA that gives us better insight into Jyn and her motivations and background.


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Recent Reading: comics + fantasy

I’ve been reading a lot over the past couple of weeks because I was sick and spending large amounts of time lying down. However, I was also feeling very picky about what I wanted to read and that boiled down to: comics or adult fantasy.

cloud roads fandemonium thor troubled waters


  • Thor: The Goddess of Thunder: I loved this. So much. My background here is that I haven’t read any of the original Thor (and am not planning to go back and try), so this relaunch was a perfect place to enter. I’m really intrigued by the premise and I loved the characters. In particular: FREYA. NEW THOR. OLD THOR. I also snickered over the “you mean she won’t be Lady Thor? Thoress? Lady Hammer Pants?” thread that runs through. At any rate, this is smart, engaging comic writing, with some nice visuals and a thoughtful approach to its source material. Sign me up!
  • Captain Marvel: Higher, Further, Faster, More: I really like Captain Marvel. While the start of this collection was a little confusing to me (they’re doing a framing thing that maybe doesn’t entirely work?) I kept going and was rewarded with a story that delves a little deeper into the tensions and divisions that run through some of the characters we’ve already seen. Also, I love Chewie.
  • The Wicked & the Divine: Fandemonium: I remain unsure about how I feel on this series. I wasn’t a big fan of the first volume but decided that I should give the second one a shot. And I did like it at least enough to read the third one! I think my main problem is pretty close to Jodie’s [spoilers at that link]: “Part of my disconnection with Laura’s feelings come from the fact that I’ve never felt like I would trade life for artistic immortality. However, I feel like the comic should still be able to make me understand her point of view or, at least, provide textual clues that can help me pinpoint what her views actually are.” At any rate, I will give the next volume a go and see what happens.

I also tried the first of the recent Catwoman comics but while I was really liking the story and characters, I hated the art to the extent that I didn’t actually finish it and doubt I’ll go on. Which makes me sad! But also: why, DC, why.


  • The Mirador and Corambis by Sarah Monette: [mild spoilers!] Third and fourth of the Melusine books. I have so many emotions about Mildmay, and Felix, and Mehitabel, and Mildmay, and Kay, and Mildmay. I think Corambis is my favorite of the series because by the end of it I actually was hopeful that the main characters would eventually be okay. I think this starts in The Mirador, when we get glimpses of who Felix actually is when he’s not in crisis and get a sense of his kind of hard-won integrity. I’m not sure that’s exactly right? but close? He has no morals, but the morals he doesn’t have are on his own terms? Anyway, Corambis is both lovely and satisfying and SLIGHTLY FRUSTRATING because all of a sudden we leave the Mirador completely behind. I would really like to know what happens to Mehitabel! Also Simon & Ronaldo! Argh! Lastly, my ships in this series are really weird, AMA. (NOT Felix/Mildmay, though.)
  • A Companion to Wolves, The Tempering of Men, An Apprentice to Elves by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear: I glomped through this trilogy pretty quickly because I really wanted to know what happened. (How is Sarah Monette so good at writing heart-breaking characters? ow.) I loved the first book and felt that the second one was definitely a bridge book; the plot didn’t quite hold up to the weight of being its own book in my opinion. I did really like the third book, and I was happy to see Alfgyfa becoming a character in her own right! I think I wanted a bit more personal resolution for Isolfr, but overall this was an interesting, intense trilogy.
  • Troubled Waters and Royal Airs by Sharon Shinn: I’m partway through the third book in this trilogy. The first book was a complete joy for me–I always want to like Shinn’s books just a little more than I do and Troubled Waters may well be the book that’s resonated the most for me. Royal Airs was just fine, an enjoyable read, but I wasn’t quite as invested in the characters. Overall, I find the idea of the blessings & personalities really fascinating and I absolutely recommend the first one! It would work just fine as a standalone if you wanted to go that route.
  • The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells: The first Raksura book. I think I had read it several years ago, but I didn’t remember much about the plot or even characters. I thought I should reread it before going on to finish the series. I think the problem is simply that I don’t connect with this world in nearly the same way as I connected with the worlds of the Ile-Rien books. There’s no particular reason for this: Wells is a gifted writer and there are no problems here. It’s simply personal preference. I would like to read the rest of the series just so I’ve read all of her books, and also in case I connect more with a later book.


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The Wizard Hunters by Martha Wells

the wizard huntersOnce again, Martha Wells shows that she knows how to start a book. Here’s the opening of The Wizard Hunters: “It was nine o’clock at night and Tremaine was trying to find a way to kill herself that would bring in a verdict of natural causes in court, when someone banged on the door.” Can you read that and not want to know what happens next?

The Wizard Hunters is the third Ile-Rien book, and the start of a trilogy within the series. (The front cover of the copy I read calls it “The Fall of Ile-Rien” which sounds extremely dire.) It takes place about a generation after the end of Death of the Necromancer. I’m not going to give you hints about what happens to the characters from Necromancer, except to say that Tremaine’s last name is Valiarde, and that she’s very much alone.

As the book begins, we find ourselves in Vienne, in the middle of a war which looks and feels very much like our WWII. One of the things I truly admire about the Ile-Rien books in particular is the way that Wells has managed to capture the feel of an era in our history without appropriating the specifics. That is, Necromancer has the feel of late 19th/early 20th century Paris, but I never thought that any of the characters were simply, say, Renoir or Debussey in disguise. The world that she creates is quite distinct from ours, and yet the details are clear enough to evoke a time and chronology. Anyway, what we get in Wizard Hunters is the feeling of sheer terror and helplessness–Ile-Rien is fighting for its life against an enemy who can neutralise most of its weapons and whose bases cannot be found. It is taken as a given by most of the characters for most of the book that Ile-Rien will lose.

Tremaine has certainly been affected by this war, both as a citizen of Ile-Rien and personally. But her response to it, the way it makes up part of her motivations but not all, is a complicated thing. I liked this feeling of complexity very much–to me it gave a level of reality to her character that would be missing if she were simply gung-ho and doing her bit. She does do her bit, but for very different reasons than that. Also, I just like her: she’s prickly, stubborn, flawed, and yet completely engaging.

But there’s also another world and another main character. Ilias and his people have fought against wizards and their curses for years, suffering especially under the devious Ixion. Now there are signs that Ixion has returned. For Ilias and his family, this is especially personal for reasons which I will not spoil for you. Ilias’s world* is almost as different from Ile-Rien as it could be: agrarian, non-technological. I will be interested to see how Wells handles the difference between the two; I will also admit that I’m a bit nervous because this narrative is so easy to mess up. However, Wells is a great writer, so I have faith in her. Plus, for me as a reader (I am emphasizing this because I think other readers could have quite different and also valid biases and reactions) real specificity of character and world does a lot to counter unfortunate tropes. And Ilias and his world are certainly treated with care–the society he lives in is better in some ways than Ile-Rien, worse in others, and in still others it is simply different.

So, I liked this one a lot and am totally on board for the next book. The story does not end on a true cliffhanger, but things are not exactly resolved either. Besides, I want to know more about Tremaine’s past, and her motivations.

* I have totally forgotten how to spell it, and have returned the book. Smyrnia? Something like that? Bother.

Book source: public library
Book information: Harper Collins, 2003


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The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells

necromancerThe Death of the Necromancer is the second of the Ile-Rien books by Martha Wells (I read The Element of Fire for the first time recently). I had actually read Necromancer before, back when I was first discovering Wells and lots of people were saying how wonderful it was. I agree, BUT I think that the Ile-Rien books actually benefit quite a bit from being read in order. So if you’re new to Martha Wells, start with Element of Fire and then go on to Necromancer. Why do I think this is important? Because the first time I read Death of the Necromancer, my reaction was a bit befuzzled: I liked it, but I didn’t quite get all the fuss. This time, I really, really liked it. I think the difference is that I read Element of Fire in between.

The plot of Necromancer is a bit like Les Miserables, if Jean Valjean was a burglar and he teamed up with Javert to fight sorcerous crime. That’s incredibly over-simplified–there’s a LOT going on here plot-wise–but it does sum up the main motivations of the protagonist. It’s also got a lot more humor than Les Mis, but then that wouldn’t be hard.

Once again, the book opens with a bang, and another house-breaking. This one is completely illegal. I think one of the reasons I like Wells’ books so much is that she knows how to begin them–we’re dropped into the middle of a situation and we have to figure out what’s happening and who these people are. It’s the mark of an author who trusts her own writing, and also trusts her readers to pick up on the clues that she’s given. (You can read this as a subtle rant against prologues, if you’d like.)

Vienne has changed over the hundred years since Elements of Fire. With the description of the city nights, I kept thinking of Whistler’s Nocturnes, or some of Renoir’s paintings. Interestingly, the timeline here made me revise my estimate of when Element of Fire takes place. It has to be a good bit later than I was thinking–the early 18th century or so. I really love settings that seem to have a life of their own, and Vienne certainly fits into that category.

Nicholas and Madeleine are the two main point of view characters, although we get a couple more through the book. I really like both of them, and how we (I, at least) have a lot of sympathy for Nicholas which gets much more complicated by the end of the book. Madeleine is less of an outwardly apparent force than, say, Kade. But I think she’s no less strong for all of that, and I suspect that in many ways she is the one who keeps the whole thing grounded enough to work. Which is a nice touch, since she’s an actress and stereotypically would be silly and flighty.

I have to admit that, as much as I liked Nicholas and Madeleine and Ronsarde and the rest, my favorite character was probably the Queen. Talk about scene stealers! I loved the way she was a bit like Elizabeth I and a bit like Queen Victoria, and just…awesome. She appears to be quiet and shy, but appearances are more than a bit deceiving.

So, lots of fun here, with plenty of serious parts to move the plot along, and incidentally create complications for the next generation. (She says, having stayed up too late finishing The Wizard Hunters last night.)

Book source: public library
Book information: Avon Eos, 1998


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Emilie and the Hollow World by Martha Wells

hollow_world250Opening: “Creeping along the docks in the dark, looking for the steamship Merry Bell, Emilie was starting to wonder if it might be better to just walk to Silk Harbor. So far, her great escape from Uncle Yeric’s tyranny hadn’t been great, or much of an escape. It’s going to be embarrassing if I don’t get further than this, she thought, exasperated at herself.”

When I heard about Martha Wells’ Emilie and the Hollow World, I was really excited. Wells is a favorite author of mine, with lots of great historical fantasy books to her credit. Emilie is her first foray into the YA world, and part of a series from Strange Chemistry. I find the Strange Chemistry model fascinating and their packaging awesome. So far, they haven’t had any books that completely wowed me, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed several. Martha Wells was a huge draw for me, plus the gorgeous cover: maps, airships, Victorianesque portraits. In fact, I was so excited that I immediately went and pre-ordered the book.

Sooooo. My reaction with this one is a little hard to parse out. In its way, it’s a perfectly fine pseudo-historical fantasy–a little more blatently steampunkish than anything else I’ve read from Wells which is an interesting tack to take. It has a feisty main character in Emilie, and plenty of adventures, with a whole world to explore. In short, there are a lot of the ingredients of a book I would really, really enjoy. And yet I found myself mostly frustrated.

There are a couple of facets to this. First, I had was reading or re-reading two of Wells’ adult books (Elements of Fire and Wheel of the Infinite) at the same time as I was reading Emilie and it suffered in comparison. Whereas there I saw a wonderful sense of inhabiting the characters, not only their actions but their emotions, their past, their way of looking at the world, in Emilie I felt that more often than not we were told how people felt, how they reacted, rather than experience it. So the reading experience was oddly distanced–I didn’t have stakes in the characters and their continued happiness/survival.

Second, again in comparison to Wells’ adult books, Emilie has a quite different way of negotiating the world. The characters in her other books are frequently unhappy or rebelling against their world and society, but at the same time they remain part of it. They’re struggling from within, usually with a strong sense of duty and–if not selflessness, unselfishness. They’re committed to something outside of their personal desires. If Emilie were, in a sense, the journey of someone younger becoming that, I think it would be pretty amazing. But what we get instead is a jump from a girl running away from family to a girl involved in a wider community. We are, in my opinion, missing the vital links that connect the inward journey to the outer. In fact, Emilie is literally outside of her world for most of the book. This difference is perhaps involved in the younger audience–that teens are still trying to find their way in the world, negotiate who or what they ought to respect and give loyalty to. But it also strikes me as a somewhat simplistic view of teenagers. All teens will not rebel in the way Emilie does, all teens are not explicitly separating themselves from their families.

Which brings me to the question of complexity. Overall, this book is simplistic rather than complex. From the characters to the writing, I felt that the depth of feeling and thought that characterizes much of Wells’ writing was absent here. Even the worldbuilding is essentially a blank–we know almost nothing about Emilie’s world aside from a few place names and a general sense of a changing society. There’s more about the Hollow World and its people and customs, but even there I found some of the Cirathi’s body language to be suspiciously human-like. There were no real moments of dislocation when Emilie realizes that the people she has genuinely come to like and admire are really not like her at all. And I couldn’t help wondering about the science of Emilie’s worlds–I know this is fantasy and so I’m trying to just leave it at that, but how does all of this work?

So, based on everything I’ve just mentioned, it seems to me that this is really not a YA novel. It’s much closer to middle-school level, in my opinion, and probably should have been marketed as such. YA these days practically demands complexity and that’s exactly what’s not here. Middle grade is still comfortable with black and white, with backstories that aren’t filled in. I’m not trying to make a value judgement of either, but rather to say that the needs of readers in those two areas are quite different and that Emilie really falls into the latter rather than the former. Now, I had read a review or two of Emilie before I read the book, so I already had some sense that this might be true. In that way, I was much less disappointed than some readers because I expected what I got. But I think it’s a bit of a shame that this wasn’t marketed as middle-grade; I think it’s ripe for some book talking there. For YA readers, I would suggest jumping straight into Wells’ adult fantasy, which has the kind of tension and high stakes that teens would enjoy.

In the end, I’ve written almost 1000 words about this book and I’m still not quite sure what I’m trying to say. Is it a bad book? Not exactly, though I think there were certain aspects which could have been better handled. It’s a pity that this one didn’t live up to my (admittedly high) expectations for it, but I’m certainly not blacklisting either Martha Wells or Strange Chemistry because of it. In fact, I continue to have a lot of respect for both, and I’ll probably even be back for the sequel (out next year).

Book source: purchased
Book information: Strange Chemistry, 2013; upper middle grade/younger YA


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