Titanic Terastructures

By Jessica Augustsson

Rating: 4 stars

This is a great theme for an anthology – collecting stories relating to one of SF’s oldest and fondest tropes – the Big Dumb Object. From space elevators to arcologies to planet-sized cities to Dyson swarms; if it’s a giant megastructure, chances are it’s featured in a story in this book.

I only heard about it because a friend has a story here but I liked the concept enough that it immediately went on my wishlist. One birthday later and it’s sitting on my shelf. There’s a great breadth within the twenty six stories here, and the best of them contrast the size of the structure with the small scale of the characters.

The first story, Honeysuckle for Ashes features a witch, complete with Wizard of Oz style flying house, who lives around a ringworld and the child who stows away when the witch comes to help her mother through a difficult pregnancy. It’s a nice story, but could really be set anywhere, with the ringworld being more backdrop than an important part of the story. Better, in that regard, is You Too Shall Pass, a fable about hope in the face of endless toil and loss, as blue-collar workers strive to build a bridge to a New Earth and what they have to give up along the way.

Highlights for me included The What-The Tree about an interruption to a cold-sleep journey to another star system; Haunting House about a house that’s haunting a shipyard, which I loved for its evocative worldbuilding and clever mystery; and And the House Did Watch Over All about a planet-wide House that’s slowly dying but still has an awareness that tries to help its inhabitants.

There’s more than a few pretty dark stories in the mix, but those too shall pass, and you’ll find yourself reading about living starships, senile giant houses or outsized spacebourne life. A mixed collection, but with the good definitely outweighing the bad for me.

Book details

ISBN: 9798758871829

Toccata System:

By Kate Sheeran Swed

Rating: 4 stars

Part of a SFWA StoryBundle, I really bought the whole thing for this, and it was totally worth it. Starting with a space station AI that raises a daughter to be an assassin to kill a man who spurned her, it picks that up and runs with it.

Interstellar travel is mentioned in the series, but this story is all set in the Toccata star system, in the planets, moons and space stations that inhabit that system. Each of the three novellas that comprise this series take different PoV characters, the first being Astra and the AI SATIS who raises her. SATIS sends Astra to kill Conor, the son of the man who turned her programming, years before, but Astra discovers that Conor, a genius in his own right, has a device that can jam AIs – Astra could be free of her tyrannical ‘mother’.

The second and third books see the fallout of Astra’s attempts, but focus on different PoV characters. Something I wasn’t expecting from a space opera was a Phantom of the Opera story. The second novella in the series is a clear homage to that, with opera divas with masks (well, veils), secret passages behind mirrors and setpieces involving chandeliers. This one also deals with cyborgs and the prejudice they face. It’s never clear just why this prejudice evolved, and I guess there’s not much space to get into that in a short-ish story like this one, but it would have been interesting. Still, humans have never found it difficult to divide people into Us and Them.

I’ve had a lot of fun in the Toccata system. The bonus short story also in this omnibus edition deals with Fay and how she ends up with SATIS, deepening her character considerably. I’ve signed up to the author’s mailing list to get another short story in the same universe and while I was on her website, I found details about Swed’s other work. Both her superhero series and new space opera sound like something worth reading.

Book details

The Privilege of Peace (Peacekeeper #3)

By Tanya Huff

Rating: 4 stars

First, and to get it out of the way, the cover (the one with Torin leaning over what appears to be a dying Alamber, and another di’Taykan slumped in the background) isn’t a reflection of any scene in the book. I don’t know where illustrator Paul Youll pulled that from, but we don’t have to suffer Torin having to watch Alamber die.

So what do they actually get up to, if not being shot? The first half of the book is spent mostly on setup, showcasing the widening of the Strike Team programme within the Justice Department and how the teams are integrating and working together, as well as the wider politics of the Confederation – now that the war is over, many people are clamouring for the Younger Races to be grounded (literally – at the bottom of gravity wells on planets) until they lose some of their violent tendencies. Alongside that, we get the continuing adventures of Humans First, as they pirate and pillage through a xenophobic strop that just points out the validity of locking them in their rooms until they grow up.

It’s only about half way through that the two big set pieces of the book kick in – an incident with the Silsviss, who Torin helped bring into the Confederation; and the return of Big Yellow. This is handled deftly, as they split the party and head to both situations at once. Huff is very good at interweaving the two stories, not spending too long with any one, and constantly shifting points of view to keep the action moving.

While I think that the final resolution to both the plot in this book and that of the wider series has a whiff of deus ex machina about it, and I’ve never been fond of the plastic aliens, I still enjoyed this a lot. It’s a satisfying conclusion to a series carefully built up over the previous seven books. We get to see different sides of Torin over that span and get to know the team around her in the last three. I’ve always had a soft spot for Alamber (hence my leading with him not dying) and I’m glad to see him getting a chance to develop and take a big step here as well.

It’s been a pleasure following Staff/Gunnery Sergeant/Warden Kerr over the course of her adventures and I’m pleased with how her story, her whole team’s story, has ended.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785656699

A Peace Divided (Peacekeeper, #2)

By Tanya Huff

Rating: 3 stars

Having given up freelancing and become Wardens of the Confederation (the space police, basically), Torin and her team are sent to a planet where a group of archaeologists are being held hostage by a group of extremists looking for an ancient weapon that they could use against the sentient plastic that started and maintained the war between the Confederation and the Primacy for centuries. And since the kidnappers are composed of both Confederation and Primacy species, Torin has to take a group of Primacy in her team as well.

I found this book quite annoying. The main plot driver just didn’t make sense to me – you find some plastic in a latrine of a pre-industrial civilisation and my first thought is not that they obviously found a weapon to use against the sentient plastic. This is a galaxy with many, many spacefaring civilisations, some of them very old indeed. How do you know one of them didn’t just stop off for a picnic or something? And then you’ve got Torin’s huge leap of logic right at the end of the book about what happened to the dead race under investigation. And the annoying thing is that I bet she’s right, but only because she’s being a spokesperson for the author, not because it makes any sense at all.

The usual supporting cast are all present and correct, but the new Primacy group added to the team don’t really get a lot of characterisation and I struggled to remember who each of them were and what their important relationships were, and also what they looked like a lot of the time (although this last point is true of the main cast too).

In this one, the human extremist group Humans First (they’ve dropped the apostrophe by now) are still driving events, which is wearying, but the point bears repeating – concepts of “us” and “them” are entirely malleable and prone to changing. In a post-Trump, post-Brexit world, this shouldn’t need reinforcing, but it constantly does.

So not the best of the series, but I’ve already got the next, and last, book lined up. The cover illustration of my edition better not be a spoiler…

Book details

ISBN: 9781785656675
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2019

An Ancient Peace

By Tanya Huff

Rating: 4 stars

Out of the military, Torin Kerr now leads a small band of ex-marines and others in a freelance capacity, doing the work that the Justice department can’t be seen to be doing. And now Military Intelligence wants them to find the long-lost homeworld of the H’San, now a peaceful race and one of the founders of the Confederation, but then a warlike race, who left large caches of weapons behind, and stop grave robbers from starting a new war.

This is a fun book that keeps up a good pace. I love a bit of competency porn, and no-longer-Gunnery-Sergeant Kerr is a great example as she charges through every obstacle with a combination of careful, intelligent thought and brute force. I’d hoped that now that she’s out of the military, we’d get some characterisation for the group around her, as usually characterisation was a surefire indication that they were going to die. But other than Alamber, who they rescued at the end of the last book, there’s not much of that around. Still, this is military SF and there’s a satisfying amount of explosions and punches to make up for it.

As the war ramps down in the series, the politics of the situation is starting to take its place, to some degree. There was a little of that here, with the Human’s [sic] First nationalist organisation appearing (and yes, that misplaced apostrophe gets snarked on a lot) and a coda at the end connecting some dots that hadn’t been before. There’s tension between the elder races who have “evolved beyond violence” and the younger races that they recruited to do their fighting for them. I’m looking forward to seeing how the situation plays out over the course of the rest of the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781169766
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2015

A Desolation Called Peace (Teixcalaan, 2)

By Arkady Martine

Rating: 4 stars

The empire of Teixcalaan is at war with an alien species. Lsel ambassador to Teixcalaan, Mahit Dzmare, has returned home to her station not quite in disgrace, but still finds herself under threat. When Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus sends back home for someone to try to communicate with the enemy, former attaché Three Seagrass jumps at the opportunity, and she brings Mahit with her, jumping from one frying pan to another as she swaps the politics of her home for that of the fleet.

I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as I did its predecessor, but there was still a lot to like here. While not musing so much on the siren call of a dominant culture, it looks more at communication, mirroring the way that Mahit and Three Seagrass communicate (or fail to) with the attempts to communicate with the aliens. As well as these two main protagonists, we also have the PoV of Eight Antidote, the heir to the Empire, as he learns about war and politics, back on the homeworld, and what it means to be the future emperor. He’s also an eleven year old child, but he has to grow up a lot and very quickly if he’s going to prevent the war from expanding to fill all the space it can.

The big themes in this book involve not being able to go back home (although more because Mahit wants to avoid having her skull carved up, than for any metaphorical reasons). I think the idea that she has changed enough that she’s rejected by her home would have been a strong strand on its own, without needing the element of physical threat, but maybe that’s just me.

I think maybe the different plots were wrapped up a little too neatly, and too easily by the end of the book, but that’s not something that bothered me as much as it might have done. There’s a solid ending, but also lots of space left open to tell more stories, both about Mahit and Three Seagrass, and also in the wider universe that Martine has created. I’d read them.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529001648

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories

By Ken Liu

Rating: 3 stars

This is the hardest kind of book to review, because while I really appreciated it, I mostly didn’t enjoy it. Honestly, these stories are great speculative fiction. The science fiction stories often take that platonic ideal of extrapolating a single idea and asking, “what if…?”. Unfortunately, Liu often takes that extrapolation into directions that I really struggle with. The strongest iteration of this is in Thoughts and Prayers about how the memory of a young woman who died in gun violence can be weaponised, and how the defences to that can be as bad as the assault. Haunting, powerful and I wanted to take a shower after it.

A number of the stories are pretty grim and, to my mind, unnecessarily depressing. I loved the idea of The Message where a xenoarchaeologist and his newfound daughter explore alien ruins against a deadline, trying to figure out the meaning of a monument before it’s destroyed by terraformers. It was a neat tale with a clever idea and a strong emotional thread, that had a sting in the tail that soured the whole thing for me.

There’s a specific trilogy here, in The Gods Will Not Be Chained, The Gods Will Not Be Slain and The Gods Have Not Died in Vain, which were written for a apocalypse-themed trilogy of anthologies. But others in the collection touch on similar themes and some could be read to be set in the same universe, telling a grander future-history of the Singularity, the people who choose to remain behind and the directions post-humanity chooses to go after it.

The weakest story, to my mind, was probably A Chase Beyond the Storms, mostly because this was an excerpt from a novel, and not even the first novel, but the third in a trilogy, which meant that it was mostly incomprehensible for someone who hasn’t already read the first two books. My favourite story, on the other hand, is probably Seven Birthdays that follows a single life, starting before the Singularity and following it, post-upload into the far future.

There’s no doubting that Ken Liu is a powerful voice in science fiction in this period, both through his translations of other people’s work into English, and as this collection shows, in his own right. But having read the nineteen stories in this book, and having had a good selection of his work, I don’t think he’s a writer that I’ll be actively searching for. He’s good, but I didn’t enjoy most of what I read.

Book details

ISBN: 9781838932060
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Year of publication: 2021

Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen

By James Goss

Rating: 2 stars

This is based on a Douglas Adams unmade script treatment, which Adams himself then recycled into the third Hitch-hikers’ book, book: Life, The Universe and Everything. The plot involves killer robots, xenophobic aliens, cosmic plots and cricket. I didn’t particularly enjoy the book, mostly because it felt very much like fanfic of The Hitch-hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. It doesn’t really feel like a Who story, and the characterisation of both the Doctor and Romana feels off, particularly their internal monologues. There are loads of asides that felt much more like some of Adams’ wild asides in Hitch-hikers’ than anything that fits into the Doctor Who universe.

There are several sections that deal with invasions, massacres and tyrants, and they all have a jolly, slightly ironic tone to them which doesn’t really sit well with me at all. There’s also references to another unmade Douglas Adams story, Shada, which seems like a lot for the casual reader to take in (although I’m not sure how many casual readers would pick this up).

Not awful – there were bits that made me laugh out loud, almost despite myself – but definitely not one that I’d recommend to anyone except completists.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785941054
Publisher: BBC Books
Year of publication: 2018

Elder Race

By Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve got a bit of a love-hate relationship with Tchaikovsky. I love many of his ideas, and he’s a great writer, but he tends to take his work in a much darker direction than I enjoy. After Bear Head and (especially) Cage of Souls, I thought I was done with him. And then I read the description of this novella, and here we are again. Except this time, it turns out I quite enjoyed it.

It’s a story of Lynesse, the fourth daughter of the queen, always getting underfoot and and in the way, who decides to take action against the rumour of a demon stealing people’s minds when her mother won’t. She invokes the ancient pact with the last wizard of the Elder Race, whose tower is nearby. Except Nyr isn’t a wizard, he’s an anthropologist (second-class), who’s observing the locals while he waits for relief from an Earth that’s gone silent.

The book is told in alternate PoVs between Lynesse and Nyr, as we see how the young woman from a medieval culture sees the product of a science millennia in advance of her own – truly a wizard from Clarke’s point of view, and how the still-young Nyr tries desperately to fit the fact that he’s helping her, while not expecting there to actually be a demon of any kind, with his breaking of the Prime Directive.

At the same time, Nyr is in the throes of very deep depression – he’s used suspended animation to sleep away over three hundred years, and still no relief has come from Earth. The loneliness and lack of purpose are crushing, so he relies more and more on technology that disassociates him from his emotions, so that he can function. And that, of course, comes with its own problems. And while he’s going through all this, he’s learning about this young woman, Lynesse, who awakened him and dealing with the deep communication barrier, not just of language, but of culture and understanding. More than once he tries to tell her that he’s a scientist, not a magician, but all she hears is “I’m not a wizard, I’m a wizard”.

The threat they end up facing is quite icky, with a reasonable amount of body-horror. We don’t learn as much about it as I would like, but it’s not that kind of book. While being in the quest format, it’s much more about cultural communication and misunderstanding, and dealing with mental health issues. Internal issues, not external.

So Tchaikovsky gets a pass with this one. I’ll still be approaching his work with caution though.

Book details

Publisher: Tordotcom

Far from the Light of Heaven

By Tade Thompson

Rating: 3 stars

Michelle “Shell” Campion is first mate to the AI captain of the colony ship Ragtime. When Shell wakes up from suspended animation at the end of the journey, she finds the AI incapacitated and several passengers not just dead, but mutilated and dismembered. Investigator Rasheed Fin is sent by the colony world to solve the crime,

I love a good locked room mystery, so it’s just a shame that this otherwise intriguing book isn’t really one. I sort of feel that in a good mystery/whodunnit, the reader needs clues and to be able to play along with the detective, and I fear we didn’t get that here, where the solution to the locked room mystery is dropped into our laps with the introduction of a brand new character about three quarters the way through the book. The book also changes from locked room mystery to space survival horror part way through, which isn’t really my cup of tea.

There’s a lot of good worldbuilding, with an Afrofuturist vibe to it and some interestingly weird aliens. The Lagos system is trying to do things differently from Earth, working in conjunction with nature rather than wantonly tearing it apart. That sits somewhat uncomfortably with themes about what you’ll do to protect your own and what that means for the future.

I think the characters are really interesting – Campion is a model astronaut, uber-competent and stuffs her own panic down deep while there’s a job that needs doing (sort of reminds me of Granny Weatherwax not having time to bleed). Rasheed is a little bit of an Investigator-With-A-Hidden-Past, and Lawrence, the former test-pilot and somewhat washed-up governor of the system is probably my favourite. He knows his work and is happy to take orders to try and get everyone out safely.

Ultimately, while I think there’s a lot packed in here, it’s not the book I was expecting, and that disappointment tinges my view of the book, as well as the fact that it went into tropes that I don’t particularly like. A book with strong characters and well-written, but it didn’t entirely satisfy me.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356514321
Publisher: Orbit UK
Year of publication: 2021

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress