Got an advance copy but DNF’d, I really like the premise, but the writing style wasn’t working for me. Pity as I enjoy the author’s Twitter threads.
Winter’s Orbit – Everina Maxwell
I received a free e-copy in exchange for an honest review.
But honestly, I already knew I would like it, as I’d read an earlier version on AO3. This rewrite preserves all the best elements of this sci-fi-romance-thriller mashup, while adding an overarching galactic politics plot that adds extra pressure to our heroes’ personal issues.
Jainan is a diplomatic representative from a vassal planet in a space empire, sealing the deal with marriage to an imperial prince. His previous partner just died in a suspicious accident, and with the faceless Auditor of the inter-galactic government potentially about to revoke the empire’s link to the rest of the galaxy, there’s a lot of pressure on him and his new husband, Prince Kiem, to be perfect and unsuspicious.
Only Jainan’s previous marriage was not what it seemed, and the fallout is throwing off all his and Kiem’s efforts to forge a partnership. Plus, the people behind the “accident” may be planning something even worse, with multi-planet implications. If Jainan and Kiem can’t solve the mystery before the Auditor pulls the plug on their link, both their planets are doomed.
Maxwell excels at psychological observation and manages a complex feat with Kiem, who views himself as irresponsible and stupid due to past actions and the distrust of people around him, but is actually a very perceptive people-person when it comes down to it. Both the main characters are very likable in their different ways, with Jainan convinced that he must do his duty whatever it costs him personally while Kiem sees that people as individuals also matter and can’t be sacrificed to politics.
The worldbuilding is very fleshed-out compared to the earlier version, and I loved the little details about the planet’s killer birds and the potentially alien “remnants,” artifacts with mysterious psychological powers. It’s also more self-aware about imperialism than it’s past incarnation, I think. I will say that if you read this as either pure sci-fi or pure romance, you will find a lot of stuff irrelevant to either genre–but embrace the mash-up and this is really well put-together.
Content warnings for torture and domestic violence.
In the Vanishers’ Palace- Aliette de Bodard
I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.
There was nothing wrong with this book. In fact it had several things going for it. Ethical complexity, an amazing setting/premise, and some linguistic coolness (watch the pronoun shifts). But ultimately it didn’t dig into the things I thought were interesting in the setting and characters, and I became a bit bored.
To summarize briefly: the Vanishers, powerful and cruel creatures, have left Earth, leaving a fractured and sickened (both literally and metaphorically) society and environment in their wake. Yên, a young scholar from a small Vietnamese village, is traded to a (female) shapeshifting dragon by the unscrupulous local elders after her mother calls on the spirit for a healing.
Yên soon finds she is not going to be eaten, but rather will tutor the dragon’s children. She also finds herself falling for the dragon, but they have plenty of obstacles to overcome in their relationship, including the dragon’s tendency to make decisions for other people and the true identity of her children.
The background about the Vanishers and how the world is still dealing with the consequences of their reign long after they’ve left Earth behind is amazing. I particularly liked Yên’s revelation as to how the Vanishers shaped the people’s conceptions of power and resources, leading to the misrule of the elders of her village. However, only four characters were deeply explored: Yên, her mother, the dragon, and one of the children, Thong. Even the second child, Liên, didn’t get much exploration, and interesting side characters like Yên’s loyal village friend who is healed by the dragon, or Elder Giang, who feels conflicted and damned by her role in the village’s power structure, were picked up and dropped. Obviously, not everything can be explored in a short novella, but I found the side characters consistently more compelling than the major ones and wondered if their story might have been more interesting.
There were a lot of deep ethical questions raised, and I loved Yên’s duty-bound scholar morality, but ultimately the main message was rather obvious: don’t make decisions for other people without asking them. I would have liked thornier dilemmas.
Basically, the setting is amazing and as a novel with more room to explore this might have worked better, but as it stands it left me a bit cold.
The Will to Battle – Ada Palmer
Ada Palmer’s fiction gets a lot of attention for its voice and ideas, but I think her greatest strength is actually characterization. The Will to Battle features a large ensemble cast and somehow manages to give all the characters devastating and/or moving moments. Structure-wise it’s a bit off (suddenly a lot of things happen in the last quarter that are not resolved) and the engagement with Hobbes simply doesn’t work, but what do I care when I can wallow in characterization?
Furthermore (and this extends the comparison with Hugo I made in my review of Seven Surrenders), her characters, while all in conflict with one another, are mostly of an elevated, well, character. The few base ones stick out, and undoubtedly have a role to play as the true villains of the story (though I wish Perry/Kraye would just GO AWAY ALREADY, he’s no fun to read about). This is made explicit when Mycroft, the narrator (more passive than usual in this book) confronts Thisbe, the woman with whom he raised Bridger. There’s no love lost between them, however, and Mycroft says of her family members, “…Sniper’s a noble creature, and Propero’s a noble creature. They’re all noble creatures, Thisbe, except you, you’re a….You’re a tick…..A tick, and you feed, and you bloat, and you crawl, and you think it makes you something poetic and exciting, like a vampire, and you’re so wrong.”
They’re all murderers, Mycroft, Prospero, Sniper, and Thisbe, so the difference isn’t in their deeds but in their–there’s the word again–character, their position on the scale of nobility to baseness. Their motives, and their acceptance of consequences. It reminds me, as I said, of Victor Hugo’s novels, where one must never confuse a Javert with a Thenardier, however much they’re both antagonists.
Aside from all that, there’s also some great humor in this book. Achilles, or a version of him, features in this book, and one of the characters has an obvious crush on him. Thus the following bon mot: “‘I know my sister broke your heart, and a rebound is natural, but Achilles? Really? There is such a thing as asking for it!’ Death in the guise of MASON blushed.”
I don’t know that this review will convince anyone to read the book–at this point in the series, either you’re thoroughly enjoying yourself or you’re off the hype train. There’s only one book left to go, and I hope it resolves some of the mysteries of this one. Moreover, I can’t wait to read it and immerse myself once more in the world of these fascinating people.
Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee
I expected to like this book more than I did. It had spectacular worldbuilding–based on the principle that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” but internally consistent. It also featured a deliciously villainous antagonist, a horrific and original dystopian government that nonetheless made sense, and a great character in the allegedly “mad” general, Shuos Jedao. The problem is, Shuos Jedao wasn’t the main character. Kel Cheris was. And Kel Cheris’s development was not, in my opinion, handled properly.
While Cheris does grow and change over the course of the book, we don’t see her internal debates and longings as she does so. Everything is understated to a fault. Cheris is duty-bound and repressed, a character type I usually enjoy, but her point of view doesn’t get far into hidden depths.
That said, I did enjoy the book, even if a lot of it felt like set-up for the trilogy as a whole. There are great twists–pay attention to the inserted “intelligence reports”–and some set-piece scenes as Jedao manipulates Cheris into doing what he wants and as Cheris finds out more about Jedao’s past. I just wish Cheris were more compelling.
We – Yevgeny Zamyatin
In my quest to remedy my ignorance of 20th century Russian literature, I tackled the grandfather of all dystopian novels, Zamyatin’s We. We tells a story similar to 1984 (unsurprisingly, since Orwell read and reviewed Zamyatin’s book), but where 1984 is concerned with how people break psychologically, We is more about how the main character has long since internalized the rules of his society and how a rebel (a genuine rebel, whereas in 1984 there’s the suspicion that all opponents of the regime are sockpuppets) changes his views.
Zamyatin joined the Bolsheviks in Tsarist Russia and was arrested several times. An engineer, he worked for the Imperial Russian Navy (apparently they didn’t mind his record) and traveled to the UK for his work. He missed the February Revolution due to being in the UK, but returned just in time for October. However, he grew disillusioned with his own party for their censorship, and decided to have We smuggled out for publication in the West.
We‘s dystopia is based on Communism, Taylorism/scientific management, and Christianity (it is remarked several times that the Christian churches were forerunners of the society in We, and the rebels are named after Mephistopheles). I also detected the influence of Plato–the secret police are known as the Guardians. The Big Brother character (or, I should say, prototype) is known as the Well-Doer or the Benefactor depending on the translation. Interestingly, Zamyatin’s protagonist, D-503, actually gets to meet this character face to face.
There’s also a space ship.
D- is an engineer building a space ship for the government, and writing a record of life in the United State (singular, not plural) to be transported to the aliens that the spaceship will presumably meet. But as he falls for the revolutionary I-330, his record becomes ever more exciting–and problematic for him. He believes in the ideology of the United State, and is confused by his attraction to a woman he knows is against it–and, as the book goes on, his own “criminal” actions.
There is a scene in which the revolutionaries attempt to hijack the spaceship, and generally the book is more exciting than the classic dystopian novels. There’s real hope that the state will be defeated, and the cracks are showing by the end, though the main character is lost forever to a forced operation that destroyed his imagination and made him a conformist again.
I have to agree with Orwell that the loose plotting is a flaw–the same effect could have been achieved in many fewer pages. I also felt the portrayal of O-, D-‘s initial lover, was misogynistic, though this may have just been because we’re seeing it through the eyes of D-, who is definitely sexist. I- is a very different sort of female character, so I’m willing to attribute some of the sexism to D-‘s narration.
The Dispossessed – Ursula K. Le Guin
This is the first Le Guin that I’ve read cover to cover– I tried The Left Hand of Darkness but couldn’t get into it. Here, however, I was hooked from page one.
The Dispossessed tells the story Shevek, a physicist from an anarchist planet, Anarres, and his journey to a wealthier “archist” planet as he seeks to expand the horizons of his self-limited society. But he soon discovers there were very good reasons why his ancestors left the rich world of Urras behind.
I found the anarchist world of Anarres more convincing and interesting than the capitalist society Shevek explores on Urras. Because the country he lives in on Urras is basically an exaggerated version of our own capitalist society (this was written in the seventies, the era of Nixon, Vietnam, and Kent State), it was simultaneously less new and exciting and harder to believe. At the really bad parts (when the government turns helicopter gunships on strikers), I could tell myself, “But we’d never do that!” rather than taking the whole society as it is presented. Anarres, on the other hand, was totally different from anything I’ve ever experienced, and absolutely fascinating. It’s not a perfect society; in fact it’s stagnating and becoming conformist. This just makes it more convincing. I did wonder why the rebels in Anarres always were pure anarchists trying to go back to the original ideology–we didn’t see anyone having a completely different ideology, only contrasting takes on the same ideas–but this made for a more complex exploration of anarchism in its different forms.
One small section that I thought was very well-observed was when the Anarresti children, having just learned that other societies have prisons, play at prisoners and guards and end up going too far. This section really got to the heart of power exchange games and dynamics, while also being convincing as the actions of children.
The interactions between men and women were very odd from my 21st century perspective. There was a lot of emphasis on sexual difference and the frisson this leads to, which perhaps as a bisexual, I cannot understand.
The physics, which works differently from our physics, was nonetheless both convincing and easy to follow. Shevek’s theories of simultaneity and sequency were mirrored in the nonlinear structure of the book, which alternates between Shevek’s past on Anarres and his present on Urras, each chapter following an internal sequence while happening, from the reader’s perspective, simultaneously with the other narrative.
The quotations within the book from the fictional anarchist leader Odo were beautifully written, though the prose of the rest of the book alternated between lovely and overly plain and direct. However, as I was reading another book at the same time which was very densely written, the directness was a bit of a relief. Anyway, I now want to read the short story focusing on Odo, “The Day Before the Revolution.”
The Swan Riders – Erin Bow
You may have noticed that I loved The Scorpion Rules. I loved this one too. It doesn’t come out till September, so you will have to wait to get your hands on it, or you could enter the Twitter contest run by the author to get an ARC.
My number one, somewhat idiosyncratic concern with the sequel was that Elián not be made a bad guy, though he often does things that run counter to how Greta does things and the flap copy hinted at violence on his part. Anyway, he remains a wonderful character and very brave, so I was happy. He and Talis even come to a sort of understanding, which is great.
This is very much Talis’s book, maybe even more so than the narrator Greta’s. Talis is the one who learns and grows, on whose choices the climax turns. Greta’s still great, dignified and selfless and clever, but she’s mainly dealing with the consequences of her choice to become AI in the previous book, rather than making new choices. Her big moments are more epiphanies than actions. Talis, on the other hand, is thrust into a brand-new, identity-altering situation, and learns a great deal as a result about what it means to be human, to be AI, and to love, until finally he has to make a choice.
One thing that I think had improved from the previous book was the handling of race– where in the previous book many nonwhite secondary characters didn’t feel right, in this book, they’re more individual.
Some things I loved:
– Greta’s attempts to hang onto her memories and feelings as an AI, even though they risk destroying her. Talis can help her by taking away the memories’ emotional content, against her will if necessary, but as this goes on, Greta becomes less and less the person she was. “I have lost none of the data,” she repeatedly says, revealing how much she has truly lost.
– Sucking chest wound. Nope, not saying anything more about that.
– The scene where they pretend to torture Elián (and for real dislocate his shoulder). It was the right combination of funny, tense, and revealing of both character and plot.
– The complex motivations of the titular Swan Riders
I was a bit ambivalent about the very end, which I will do my best to discuss with minimal spoilers. Greta divests herself of unjust power, which is very, very important, but I’m not sure she has a plan for what comes next. And while it is morally incumbent on her to get rid of that power regardless, I would be happier if she made a plan for how to do so with the least bad consequences.
A side note: Greta is queer, but her girlfriend is off-stage (though a major motivating force) during this book. So don’t go in expecting more Greta/Xie. I think readers of the previous book will enjoy this one (I couldn’t put it down), but it’s important that they have the right expectations.
Sacrifice of Fools – Ian McDonald
This was my first Ian McDonald book, and I’m afraid to read any more because I don’t think they can top this one.
At the time it was written (1997) it was set in the future (2004) but now it’s a sort of AU/AltHist. What if aliens landed just as the Troubles in Northern Ireland were coming to an end, and a large number settled in that area? The political future McDonald projects is different from the one that came to pass (joint sovereignty rather than power-sharing, and on a more minor note, the PSNI are instead the much more mockable NIPS). So, obviously, is the arrival of aliens.
Andy Gillespie, former getaway driver for Loyalist paramilitary hits, gets out of jail thoroughly disillusioned with sectarian politics, and fluent, due to a series of traumatic circumstances, in the aliens’ language. He starts a new life as a mediator between aliens and humans, but due to his past, when an alien family he works with is murdered, he’s the prime suspect. So he sets out to find the real murderer, teaming up with an alien lawyer or “knight-advocate” who’s investigating a disappearance, and followed by Roisin Dunbar, a Catholic cop whose marriage is under strain.
Along the way he re-encounters a prison friend of his, who is trying to assimilate to the alien culture and become one of them. The process is compared to sex reassignment, and the book as a whole is in dialogue with the trans serial killer trope. The book has a lot to say about the dark side of assimiation– as the aliens encounter human culture, they pick up the link between sex and violence, a link previously foreign to their culture. By contrast, when Andy Gillespie plans to become a knight-advocate himself, it’s presented as positive that he’s not doing this to feel a sense of belonging in the alien culture.
The alien culture is well-developed and so was Gillespie’s character. I don’t read a lot of books by men or with male protagonists, so this was a nice change for me- a male hero and former “tough guy” whose emotional journey is depicted with nuance. The climax was incredibly intense and full of dread, but the denouement/final chapter was a bit confusing and abrupt. Both Roisin and the alien lawyer’s threads are dropped without much resolution, which makes me disagree with how Jo Walton’s post presents them as equal protagonists with Andy Gillespie (who gets more resolution). I should say, however, that Jo Walton’s review inspired me to read this, and that it is every bit as good as she says it is. Read it.
The Cold Between – Elizabeth Bonesteel
Elizabeth Bonesteel’s debut novel, The Cold Between, is blurbed by a RITA award winner and begins, after a prologue, with the main character, Elena, being picked up in a bar by the mysterious Trey Zajec (the picture to the left is from the excellent cover depiction of them). They’re soon having sex, in a lengthy scene that nonetheless reveals little about their characters. Is this sci-fi, romance, or both?
I can think of some excellent crossovers– Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honor being an example– but I was worried this book might prove “too much romance, not enough roller derby,” to borrow a phrase. I needn’t have worried. While Bonesteel doesn’t have Bujold’s flair for characterization, relying too much on telling about each character from the point of view of the others rather than showing, she’s a much smoother prose stylist. And the plot soon picks up, with murders, wormholes, and mysterious explosions. I also enjoyed the heroine being an army mechanic, an unusual occupation which comes in handy at various points.
The setting is a Russian-influenced future space colony, and I was amused to see some characters’ last names taken directly from Russian politics, like Putin and Limonov. While the villains of the story were too obvious for my liking, both in terms of their identities and their motivations, they did have a few redeeming qualities and interesting povs. For example, one villain refuses to be part of the heroes’ plans to thwart a technology that could be world-ending…or life-saving. I really liked that the hypotenuse of the love triangle, Elena’s captain Greg, gets to be a strong and likable character despite Elena not being attracted to him.
Ultimately, the weakness of this story is in the tell-don’t-show characterization. Rather than letting us see their attraction in their actions, Bonesteel has Trey and Elena mentally praise each other– a tactic that didn’t work for me in Graveyard Sparrow, either. Nor is the character development subtle. One particularly obvious quote: “His heart warmed, and all of his insecurity washed away as if it had never been.”
However, there’s plenty of action and tension, all in a very readable style, and Bonesteel ties up the plot while leaving plenty for the sequel to explore. I’ll probably be reading the sequel, Remnants of Trust, when it comes out later this year.
And as to the genre question? I’m waiting for later books to resolve that. The Cold Between doesn’t have the Happily Ever After or Happy For Now ending required of genre romance, but we’ll see what happens as the series goes on.
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