Tag Archives: science fiction

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

It kind of seems like everyone has either already read this book or already intends to, but I still want to talk about it because WOW.

Actually, I’m going to instantly contradict myself and say that this book probably works best for a particular kind of reader, one who has a strong tolerance for gory stuff and a willingness to trust the narrative a bit. Lee throws us right into the world and the characters, and both are complicated and demanding. In particular, the system of magicky science, or sciencey magic, is confuddling at first.

However! I also think that all of the disclaimers about the difficulty of this book, my own included, probably make it sound more daunting than it needs to be. If you are a reasonably astute genre reader, who’s comfortable with worldbuilding and weirdness, this shouldn’t be necessarily a tricky read. I certainly didn’t find it easy, but neither did it make me so utterly confounded that I wanted to scream (unlike, say, Alan Garner’s Red Shift, another recent read).

And ultimately this ends up being a very rewarding story. The characters and world are complex and compelling–while most of the characters aren’t exactly likeable, they certainly command attention. The exception here is Cheris, the main character: thoughtful and kind and competent as well as out of her depth through most of the book. The fact that she’s not completely overshadowed by Jedao, the murderous ghost that she’s forced into, uh, let’s say partnership, with shows Lee’s ability to write different kinds of characters convincingly.

I don’t want to be spoilery, but I do want to talk a bit about what I found to be a very impressive trick, which may give some things away. So if you absolutely don’t want to know anything about the rest of the book, here’s the place to stop. (For what it’s worth, this is one I completely avoided spoilers for and was glad I did.)

Okay.

The thing is, Ninefox Gambit is all about trust and who we trust and who we don’t. And it’s also very much about Cheris’s relationship with Jedao–not an overtly romantic one, but incredibly, awfully intimate. Their dynamics as well as the world and the questions the story raises were so immersive that it’s not until I finished the book that I realized something. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, the reading experience mirrored Cheris’s own arc with regard to Jedao in a fascinating and entirely disturbing way. That is quite a trick to pull off, but Lee managed it so smoothly that I didn’t even notice.

In short, this book has a lot to recommend itself, and I’ll absolutely be back for the sequel.

Yoon Ha Lee previously:

  • A short story collection, Conservation of Shadows, which I HIGHLY recommend if you liked Ninefox Gambit and want more before Raven Strategem is out.

Other reviews of Ninefox Gambit:

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Star’s End by Cassandra Rose Clarke

I was hovering on the edge of a reading slump when I read this one (symptoms of a reading slump: picking up and setting down a number of books, trying books you expect to like and finishing them with a grim sense of ennui, the inability to pinpoint exactly what you actually want to read) and I wasn’t really expecting this book to be the one to pull me out of it, but I was wrong.

This is a far-future scifi set on a group of distant planets belonging to the Coromina Group, an all-powerful corporation that operates a corpocracy. It controls everything about its citizen-employees and in turn supposedly ensures their lives are smooth and they have everything they need. Esme Coromina, the main character of Star’s  End, is the oldest daughter of the founder of the Coromina Group and his assumed successor. As the book opens, her father calls her in and reveals that he’s dying, asking her to find her estranged sisters. The story unfolds in alternating chapters between Esme’s third person current life and first person past narration.

Star’s End does a couple of that I found interesting and liked quite a bit. Although it’s definitely science fiction and I found the SF elements plausible and interesting, it’s main focus is on the family dynamics and their ripples across the world. For all the planets, and technological innovation, and scifi warfare, it’s a very intimate story; at the same time, because everything the Coromina family does carries power with it, that very intimacy lies in an unresolvable tension with the wider implications and effects on the world.

It can’t be denied that in his family life as well as the planet, Phillip Coromina is a driving force. And yet the true heart of this books is Esme and her three sisters. In a way that reminded me of my beloved Girls at the Kingfisher Club*, Clarke shows a sisterhood that is complex and fraught, full of distance and tensions and misunderstandings, but which is for all of that as vitally real as can be. We can see Esme’s strengths and her flaws most clearly in the ways she deals with her sisters, and it’s in these moments that her struggle becomes the most palpable.

While I love books that talk about working against a system from inside of it (the Imperial Raadch books, for instance), Star’s End has a lot to say about the limits of that possibility. Esme’s desire in working to achieve her current status in the company has always been to become unlike her father, and to take the company in a different direction. She’s committed to that course already, in the changes she made while working in Planetary Management. But at the same time, the book lays her failures out starkly. And although the end is hopeful, the fact remains that the corpocracy is still in place; the system has not been demolished so much as made benign. Esme is not her father, and she learns over the course of the book how to be even less like him and more truly herself. The ending is hopeful and feels earned and true. But I think, quite deliberately, Clarke also wants us to see the gaps.

All in all, the combination of themes and concerns in this one really struck me, and I’m glad I read it! I really like intimate scifi, especially when it also has some interesting SF elements, and I’d like to read more of it.

* Obligatory, Jooooooooo, my heart

Book source: public library

Book information: 2017; Saga Press, adult scifi

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Icon by Genevieve Valentine

icon(Orthodox readers, this is not an Orthodox book, despite the title! I’ll talk about this a bit more below but I wanted to make it clear right away.) (Everyone: There are spoilers for Icon below. I couldn’t talk about what I wanted to in this book without spoiling it, I’m sorry, please don’t read any more if this bothers you!)

Oh, friends. This book. However this review turns out, please understand that the temptation to just add that Community “MY EMOTIONS” gif and hit schedule is going to be super high. Genevieve Valentine is really good at making me feel lots of things, it turns out. Also, she writes books that I possibly would not read from anyone else but which are so good that I consider her an auto-read author at this point. I’m pretty sure she could imbue the phone book with strong characters and a tense plot, also that I would like it.

In this case, Icon is a sequel to last year’s Persona. Both are near-future political thrillers, about the same main characters, Suyana and Daniel. I finished Persona and was astonished that both of them made it out of the book alive.

Well, they don’t both make it out of Icon alive.

Icon has a sense of narrative inevitability from page one, and a sense of tension and doom that increases to an almost unbearable extent over the course of the book. I both knew and felt that things were gong to end badly. I kept finding myself holding my breath until the most immediate danger had passed. And yet, I kept reading, even knowing I was going to cry.

I cried so much.

Suyana and Daniel are completely compelling, partly because Valentine has a keen sense for what to tell us and what to leave out. Asking the reader to fill in the blank spaces makes us more invested, keeps us caring, keeps us turning the page. In Persona, we had a sense of them as unlikely partners. Here they’re separated. But they keep fighting and fighting, for the soul of the IA, for the people they care about, for each other. They never get a break or a rest, they hardly have a single moment alone together, and yet their relationship is so potent that it becomes the center around which the story turns.

(I also love that Suyana gets to be calculating without being heartless.)

But Valentine is also excellent at throwing her characters into tense, impossible situations. In Girls at the Kingfisher Club and Persona, they manage to win some sort of space, peace, love. Icon, on the other hand, refuses any way out. I have always thought that West Side Story is more tragic than Romeo and Juliet, because one of them lives and has to go on living. In Icon, not only does Daniel die, and in dying save them, but Suyana “wins” at a horrific personal cost. She ends the book almost entirely alone, muddied by politics. She has done the right thing for the IA and therefore the world. It’s not exactly a bleak ending. But it is a hard one.

Now, I do have to say that I’m not a fan of the title. I understand what Valentine is trying to conjure–the complexity boiled down into a symbol. But since I am Orthodox and the word icon has a primarily religious connotation for me, and since that religious understanding is quite different than Valentine’s usage, it just…doesn’t work for me. I realize this is a personal issue, and one not every reader will share.

I’d recommend this book for people at the unlikely intersection of: invested in Hiddleswift (I have not even gotten into Suyana’s fake relationship with Ethan!), interested in politics, and the red carpet, and into Code Name Verity. (Weirdly enough, I feel like I know multiple people who fit that profile.) Actually, you don’t have to be interested in all of those things, or maybe even any of them. You just have to be willing to let these characters in and then let them break your heart a little.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016, Saga Press; adult science fiction

 

Other reviews: Amal El-Mohtar at NPR; Mahvesh Murad at Tor.com; Bridget Keown @ RT; you?

 

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Mirror in the Sky by Aditi Khorana

mirror in the skyMirror in the Sky is Aditi Khorana’s debut, and it’s a pretty neat take on YA speculative fiction. Tara Krishnan is an outsider in her rich, white school. But when a mirror planet is discovered–a version of Earth that’s just a little different from ours–Tara is jolted out of her usual life. Her mother might be joining a cult, she becomes friends with unexpected people, and she starts to wonder about the other paths she might have taken. Essentially, this book takes an SF premise, the discovery of Terra Nova, and uses it to tell a quiet, thoughtful story of family, friendship, and identity.

The family strand is the one I had the most conflicted reaction to, which is mostly down to the depiction of Tara’s mom. I had mixed feelings about the fact that her choices are seen as selfish, that her decision to go to California is shown as being a bad mother. On the other hand, we’re seeing everything so much from Tara’s point of view, and from a teen perspective it rings pretty true. And by the end of the book, Tara has come to see some of why her mother might have made those choices. In the end, while I wasn’t wild about this storyline, I felt comfortable with the way it resolves.

Tara also becomes friends with Halle Lightfoot, one of the most popular people at their high school, and through Halle with a group of tight-knit kids. This opens her world, but also complicates it. A lot of this book engages with questions about friendship: who’s really a friend? How and why do we choose our friends? and having chosen them, when do we leave them behind? There aren’t really easy answers here, but the depiction of a group that is both close and at odds with each other was really well done.

And for Tara herself, the discovery of Terra Nova and her changing relationships call into question a lot of her identity. As the only brown, poor kid at Brierly, she’s often felt herself to be an outsider. Late in the book, there’s a powerful moment when Tara realizes, “I was afraid of the messiness that closeness brings, afraid of friendships that turn to something else, afraid of my own petty jealousies and the monstrous things that can come of them.” This is partly a book about learning to let people in and also stay yourself.

There are definitely some clunky moments in the story. Sometimes the images and thoughts are a bit repetitive and sometimes Tara’s conclusions are a little pointed. Nonetheless, this is an accomplished and impressive debut that’s both thoughtful and thought-provoking. I definitely recommend it for readers who are looking for a quiet, complex story.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016, Penguin Random House; YA speculative fiction

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Favorite science fiction from the last five years

I thought it would be fun to take a look back at some of my favorite SF from the last few years. These are not necessarily books published in the last five years, but ones that I’ve read in that time span. (I feel like I’ve read less SF this year than normal, but I know there are also several I haven’t gotten around to yet.)

ancillary mercyscorpion rulesconservation of shadows

Ambassador by William Alexander: I read Ambassador for the Cybils back in 2014 and loved it. It’s nice to have an SF book about a Latino boy, and Alexander does a great job of incorporating Gabe’s identity and culture into the story. The concept that drives the book works well as a way to combine kids and politics.

Quicksilver and Ultraviolet by RJ Anderson: This is a really fascinating SF duology from one of my favorite authors. I’m never sure what to say about these books, because they have some great twists I don’t want to spoil. But I loved the main characters a lot, and I enjoy the way they have an SF plot with kind of a fantasy sensibility–if that makes any sense whatsoever.

Dove Arising by Karen Bao: I read this YA for the Cybils last year, and it’s really stuck with me. Less the plot (I just had to Google because I couldn’t remember) and more the characters and worldbuilding Bao was doing. I really liked Phaet, and I felt like her outlook on life is one we don’t get very often in YA.

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow: This book. THIS BOOK. It’s terrifying and tense and smart and every time I drink apple cider, I wince. Terrible things happen in it, and yet I also cried because it’s so hopeful and affirming. I can’t say how much I love Greta, and Xie, and all the Children of Peace.

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold:  I love Bujold’s Vorkosigan series in its entirety, as I’ve documented here many times, but I was really fascinated by some of the turns and choices she made in the latest installment. It was also really lovely to have another story from Cordelia’s point of view.

The Foreigner series by CJ Cherryh: If you’ve been following my blog for a few years, you’ll know that I’ve been glomping my way through Cherryh’s massive series. I love the way she writes the atevi and the political and social customs and issues that arise. While I occasionally quibble with the depiction of the human women, overall the characters are really engaging and wonderful as well.

Promised Land by Cynthia DeFelice and Connie Willis: This is a lighter SF romance, which has turned out to be one of my comfort reads. It’s kind of a space western, but in a very different vein than Firefly.

Jupiter Pirates by Jason Fry: A fun middle-grade space adventure about a family of space privateers. Tycho and his siblings have to compete to win the captain’s seat, but there are also bigger contests going on. Fry has written a number of Star Wars chapter books, and he clearly knows what he’s doing.

And All the Stars by Andrea K Höst: I love Höst’s books, and this was the first one I read. It’s an intimate story, almost quiet, even though it’s about a terrifying world-wide event. Rather than a sweeping epic, Höst keeps the scale on a human level, and makes me care so much about Madeleine and her friends and the outcome of their story.

Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie: I basically always want to be reading this trilogy; Leckie writes ambitiously about identity, loyalty, families, and imperialism. She also pulls it off, mostly because of her rich characters and worldbuilding which also give an emotional core to the big concepts she’s engaging with.

Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee: I was really impressed by this short story collection, which features so many fascinating and strange worlds, as well as some really striking characters. The prose itself is also beautiful, even when the subject matter is not. I can’t wait till I get a chance to read Nine Fox Gambit.

Persona by Genevieve Valentine: I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but it turns out that near-future socio-political thrillers are very much my thing when Valentine is writing them. Persona is smart and sleek and tense. If UN + red carpet + spies sounds intriguing, this book is probably for you.

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Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

too like the lightningToo Like the Lightning is Ada Palmer’s fiction debut, and it is part one of at least a two part series. (I wasn’t warned about this, and I kind of wish I had been. My expectations are different when reading a story that won’t be finished for another book.) And, I liked this book. I think. Mostly. It’s very peculiar and difficult to explain, which makes it sound awful. It’s not awful, but it is a kind of book that I found it hard to grapple with.

Too Like the Lightning is set in the future, in a sort-of utopia, which has achieved its status by a careful balance of alliances and interests. This occurs less across national and international divides and more through clusters of philosophical outlook and tradition which people subscribe to. These are called Hives, and are the main political and personal forces. Public displays of religion have basically been outlawed.

So, this is science fiction, but it’s the kind of science fiction that talks about Thomas Carlyle and Voltaire all the time. The Enlightenment is as powerful a force in this society as any other point in history–we are given a sense of the great philosophers and thinkers of the fictional near past, but they also hearken back to the 18th century. And there’s the kind of science that basically looks like magic, also possibly real magic in the form of a mysterious child named Bridger. This is what I mean by peculiar.

It is mostly narrated by a man named Mycroft Canner–everyone in this book has that sort of name–and he is not entirely reliable. This fact is hammered home a little too forcefully towards the end of the book, but it’s fairly clear from early on*. Mycroft is a Servicer, sentenced to a lifetime of usefully helping society after having committed a serious crime. Mycroft, we’re given to understand, is an extra-specially notorious criminal whose identity has to be obfuscated for his own protection.

We do also have occasional interjections from other characters and points of view, although how many of these are in fact filtered through Mycroft is an open question. But this book is full of other people, because Mycroft has his fingers in all of the pies and knows all the powerful people in this world. This is a book about power and who wields it and how it is balanced and unbalanced. Most of these characters are sketched in quickly, but some of them are given more depth. The sheer number of names and the relationships between them can be pretty overwhelming at times.

And that, I think points to my main lingering puzzlement about this book. It’s almost 400 pages long and I read them all. I feel that I should be able to say if it’s interested in plot (things definitely happen!) or characters (there are lots, and they’re interesting!) or philosophy (there’s so much of it. SO MUCH.) but in the end it all seems somehow very detached. My point earlier about it being interested in power and the shifting and balancing of power is as close as I can come to any kind of a theory of what this book is about, and why you might be interested in it. (Unless you are the kind of person who automatically perks up at the mention of Enlightenment philosophy, in which case this is the book for you.)

I have other lingering puzzlements, however. First: how do I feel about Mycroft at the end of the book? I don’t know. Palmer is playing with the reader’s expectation of trust and I’m not entirely sure if it’s not working, or if it’s working perfectly and I just don’t like it. Second: how do I feel about everyone else? WHO KNOWS? They are all kind of awful in a fascinating way, even–I would argue–Bridger. The narrative really seems to want us to care about Bridger, who is the force of innocence and goodness, but who ends up coming across as Charles Wallace Murry x 10.

Also, two related further puzzlements. Why does everyone seem so pro-Mycroft? Is it simply that we’re getting the story filtered through his perspective? I ended up wondering if I would like the story better if it were about Thisbe. Further: the social understanding of gender in this world confounds our gender expectations, which would be really interesting. Except that Mycroft’s narration, which often puts gender back onto the characters, seems to reinforce them, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. It seems less successful than, say, Leckie’s use of “she” as the default pronoun in the Imperial Radch books.

Finally, this is less of a puzzlement and more of an outright nope–I got very frustrated with a section about icons that does not understand icons or their religious significance and use. I shouldn’t be surprised about this, because it happens all the time, but I found it annoying, and it made me wonder what else the book got wrong.

Sometimes when I’m not sure how I feel about a book, writing the review helps me solidify that. In this case, I still don’t know! It’s a mostly-positive befuddlement. And I’m not exactly sure who I would recommend this book to, either. You don’t need to have an in-depth knowledge of philosophy to be able to read it, but you do have to be patient enough to work through all the names and social conventions and mini-history lessons. Ultimately, for that patient reader, it is a rewarding book, even though I still can’t say exactly why I liked it.

* Yes, yes, arguably all first person narrators are unreliable to a certain degree. Mycroft is a bit beyond that.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016, Tor Books; adult science fiction

Other reviews: Jason Heller at NPR; Liz Bourke; Crooked Timber; yours?

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Recent reading: 7-13-2016

The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos: YA mystery about a girl whose father disappears. It’s a quiet-ish book that’s less about the mystery as such and more about Imogene’s journey as she tries to find out the truth about her parents. Podos grapples with the complexities of family and identity, as well as the stories we tell ourselves. There’s also an understated romance and an important friendship, which really help to round the book out. This is a debut, and I look forward to seeing what Podos writes next.

The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly: This is Erin Entrada Kelly’s second middle grade book, about two sisters trapped with an actual evil stepmother. There’s a colorful cast of characters, but the heart of the book is really centered on Sol and Ming. From an adult perspective, I felt frustrated with the ending, and yet I can also see the realism there. Not every story ends perfectly, but this one does end well.

Gena/Finn by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson: For me, I think this is the standout of the recent crop of YA titles about fandom. I really saw the involvement with fandom, the relationships and how life-changing they can be. The last, oh, third? of the book took a turn away from this with some twists and revelations. I didn’t mind these, but I also wasn’t that invested in them. I’m also curious because I feel like several reviews and comments downplayed any romantic tension between Gena and Finn, and I saw quite a bit. Am I alone here?

Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan: A YA fantasy retelling of A Tale of Two Cities, set in an alternate world where New York City is divided into the Light city (with Light magicians) and the Dark city (with Dark magicians). Lucie Manette becomes the main character, and we see the story unfolding from her point of view. SRB did a great job overall of engaging with the source text in interesting and resonant ways. However, this fell pretty flat for me at the end, when the plot seemed rushed and constrained by the original; I wanted to understand what this meant, for Lucie and for the other characters. I wanted to really feel something, and I almost did–but not quite. All in all, this is a really fascinating book, although maybe not for the reasons that I expected.

False Hearts by Laura Lam: Lam has written a couple of YA books, I believe, and this is her first adult. It’s set in a futuristic San Francisco, as Taema must rush to save her twin, Tila. They were once conjoined twins who were born into a cult and after their escape they were surgically separated. If that sounds like a lot to fit into a story, I had the same concern. But Lam pulls it off, by keep the focus pretty squarely on Taema, and weaving in the different strands around her. I also liked that Lam shows the shadowy side of San Francisco’s society, with its insistence on being perfect and blemish free, as well as conveying the very complicated relationship the twins still have to the cult. This rang pretty true with accounts I’ve read from cult survivors; that you never ever want to go back, and yet you still miss the good things about it. All in all, this was a fast, immersive read that pulled me in right away.

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