Starter Villain

By John Scalzi

Rating: 4 stars

Charlie Fitzer isn’t having a great time of it. His wife divorced him, he lost his job, and he’s back in his childhood home, after the death of his father (which he doesn’t, technically, own). And then his uncle Jake dies and his life gets worse. Jake was a billionaire, and, it turns out, a supervillain. And he’s left his villainous empire to Charlie. Despite Charlie never having met him since he was five years old.

Like its predecessor, Kaiju Preservation Society, Starter Villain is set in a present-day Earth that’s just a little… twisted. Charlie is thrown into the society of supervillains without any help, other than his uncle’s super-competent right hand woman, Mathilda Morrison. His new empire comes complete with volcano lair, giant laser and foul-mouthed dolphins. Oh, and sentient cats. This book is a huge amount of fun, but also manages to satirise late-stage capitalism, discuss labour relations, and the fecklessness of holders of inherited wealth in under 300 pages. It’s pretty light and easy to read but makes no bones about where it’s coming from and who Scalzi would have up against the wall when the revolution comes (spoiler: it’s billionaires). And in that, he’ll have my axe. Until that happens, I guess I’ll just keep buying his books.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529082951
Publisher: Tor
Year of publication: 2023

Full Share (Golden Age of the Solar Clipper, #3)

By Nathan Lowell

Rating: 3 stars

The third book in the Solar Clipper series starts promisingly, with what might be considered some plot – there’s an incident that leaves the Lois McKendrick damaged and the crew have to race to save her, and themselves. But this fizzles out quite early on and we’re back to the usual Ishmael shenanigans. This time he finds himself with a temporary promotion to systems engineer and with the officers of the Lois pushing him towards the officer academy.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Ishmael is a Mary Sue character. His abilities seem to know no bounds, from being a coffee expert, to magically deeply understanding women, to, as we see here, being an expert programmer and systems engineer. It’s enough to make me roll my eyes extra hard.

Despite that, I’ve come to like the characters as we’ve gone on, even if there’s not much in the way of actual plot. It’s been fun spending time with the characters and I don’t regret the time taken to read these books. Despite there being many more books in the series, this one seems to draw the Lois McKendrick trilogy to a close, and there’s enough closure that it seems like a good place to say goodbye to the series.

Book details

Year of publication: 2008

Half Share (Golden Age of the Solar Clipper, #2)

By Nathan Lowell

Rating: 4 stars

The second book in this series moves the focus from trading to interpersonal relationships, specifically between our protagonist, Ishmael Wang, and three of his fellow shipmates that he gets close to. There’s his new boss Brill, after his move from Steward to Environmental; his former bunkmate Beverly; and his new co-worker Diane. Ishmael is attracted to all three women, but his ship, the Lois McKendrick has a strict no fraternising rule. The book is mostly him working how to live with this situation.

There’s quite a bit of male gaze at the three women which isn’t great, and it’s not exactly balanced by the attention that they focus on his physical appearance – to remind people, this is an eighteen year old. But everyone is pretty respectful all the way through. Ishmael, in particular, shows a lot more emotional maturity than I would expect in a young man his age, as he comes to understand quickly about the limits of seeking comfort ashore.

There’s also a slightly unexpected strain of mysticism running through the book, related to some pendants that some of the crew buy for trade goods and which later ties in to Ish’s replacement on the mess deck, Sarah Krugg. Nothing that took me out of the story particularly, but just unexpected in this sort of book.

While I missed Pip and Cookie, who fade into the background here, the additional development of Brill, Beverly and Diane is lovely. I was a bit disappointed how quickly that Sarah’s story came out and how little a mark that her history seems to have left on her, although I guess we’ll see in future books, which I fully intend to read.

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Quarter Share (Golden Age of the Solar Clipper, #1)

By Nathan Lowell

Rating: 4 stars

After his mother dies, the company that runs his planet evicts Ishmael Wang within hours. He ends up signing up to the lowest position on to an interstellar freighter and we follow him as he makes friends on the ship and falls in love with the “Deep Dark” of space. It’s a gentle, cosy story with lots of food, trading, and so much coffee.

Despite the far-future setting, there’s very little science fiction in this book. Other than the really nice food, there’s little that would change if we moved from a space freighter to a sailing ship. But I enjoyed spending time with the characters, so I didn’t particularly mind that. There’s a lot of trading as well, where they pick up items from one world and take it to another to sell. It reminded me of a game of Traveller that my RPG group played a while ago. I found the trading aspect the least interesting part of the game and it’s one reason that we’ve never really gone back to that game.

I was also quite surprised by how quickly and easily Ishmael settled into the ship. There had been talk in the early chapters about hazing and lack of respect for the junior crew. But there’s no sign of that on the Lois McKendrick. I also couldn’t entirely believe that the drills were a surprise to Ishmael. Surely that would be front and centre in the Handbook and he’d have been instructed in that on day one. But then there didn’t seem to be much of an induction on the ship.

But despite the minor complaints, I enjoyed getting to know the crew of the Lois McKendrick. I’ll definitely be reading the next one in the series.

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Translation State

By Ann Leckie

Rating: 4 stars

Qven was created to be a Presger Translator, but things don’t go according to plan. The fallout from that brings them in contact with Enae, who’s been tasked with finding a two hundred year old fugitive; and Reet, a mechanic who’s adopted and interested in seeking out his past. Their paths collide in a way that could change them and those around them forever.

My big fear going into this book was that it would demystify the Presger Translators who, when they appeared in the Ancilliary trilogy, were always extremely other. They look human but their thought processes were very non-human. And to some degree that fear is realised. The internal politics of the Translators are depressingly similar to that of the rest of us, and Translator Dlar seems to just spend most of their time worrying about status and plotting. However, the time we spend with Qven learning to do human things (like making tea and polite conversation) is more convincing that these people have very different thought processes.

The two human PoV characters are interesting in their own ways. Enae has survived by keeping hir head down and not being noticed. Sie has to learn to stand up and be seen, while Reet is from a culture that is looked down by the ethnic majority and he has to navigate that, but through it, we see his adoptive parents being supportive and loving, offering a contrast to how they’re perceived.

The later part of the book takes place at the Treaty Administration Centre for the treaty with the Presger, and we spend a bit of time with some non-humans, including Sphene from the Ancilliary trilogy. There’s an enclave coming, which will determine if the AIs will be declared a “significant species”. That’s obviously running in the background here, but it’s not a major part of this book.

I do wonder if Leckie is going to write that book? I’d totally read it, but I almost want to leave it alone to just my imagination. This is a much smaller scale story than that of the Ancilliary trilogy. It affects the future of two people rather than the whole galaxy but I enjoyed the change of pace. Leckie has a sharp eye for characterisation and there’s a chunk of humour in there, amongst the angst over identity and belonging.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356517919
Publisher: Orbit

Central Station

By Lavie Tidhar

Rating: 5 stars

For me, books often fit into two moulds – either heavy plot driven where I skim the actual words in my excitement to find out what happens next, or slow and lyrical, where the plot is almost secondary to the language, which has to read slowly and savoured. For me, Ray Bradbury was a master of the latter form and whenever I find books of that type, it’s always to Bradbury that I compare them. And Central Station passes that test with aplomb. I was hooked within the first few pages and despite there not being much of a plot, that feeling stayed with me throughout.

In some ways, the book is a love letter to the great science fiction and writers of the 20th century. There’s references to CL Moore’s Shambleau; Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality of Mankind; Larry Niven’s Louis Wu and several others (and how many did I miss through not recognising the reference?). But the book is more than just nods to great writers of the past, it takes all those threads and weaves something beautiful from them. Central Station itself – a giant spaceport built between the cities of Tel Aviv and Jaffa – is a wonderful creation that will stick in the memory long after you put the book down.

The world-building is deft, slotted in between the glorious language as we explore the Station, the city and the characters who inhabit it. There’s Boris Chong, who’s returned from the Up and Out (itself such a Cordwainer Smith phrase) as his father is ill, with a sort of memory cancer; there’s Kranki, a lab-grown boy who’s more than the sum of his parts; and Carmel, a data vampire, drawn to Central Station by something she doesn’t understand. And that’s only a handful of the many characters that Tidhar makes us care about, in a fairly short book.

We see into their lives and how they cross and intersect both in the physical and the digital realms, through the ubiquitous network known simply as The Conversation. Everyone gets a node implanted at birth and it’s part of them as they grow. Those who don’t have one (like Miriam’s brother) are considered disabled, and lesser. Many things have changed in the future, but fear and distaste of those different to ourselves is still very much part of humanity and its digital descendants.

It’s not an entirely perfect book, I would have liked a stronger plot to weave these characters together, but I enjoyed my time spent with them all and would definitely add Central Station to my list of fictional megastructures to visit, given the opportunity.

Book details

ISBN: 9781616962142

Assassin’s Orbit

By John Appel

Rating: 4 stars

The setting of this book is a post-Earth society, where there was a nanotech plague on Earth and only those nearest the space elevators were able to escape and build a new civilisation in the stars. In the present, Ileri is about to hold a referendum to join the Commonwealth when the assassination of a government minister threatens to blow the lid on an already tense situation. Private investigator Noo is asked to work with police commissioner Toiwa and they end up working together with spy Meiko to solve it, and in doing so, they uncover a possible threat thought long defeated.

I didn’t see this book’s tagline of The Golden Girls meets Babylon 5 until after I’d finished it, but it suits it remarkably well. All the major protagonists are older women, but all still active players in their field. There’s also a lot of diversity in the wider cast of the book which I really enjoyed reading. The world-building is expanded slowly and organically, without any big infodumps, and makes for a fascinating setting, that I would happily read more stories in. And although this book was pretty standalone and ended satisfactorily, there’s definitely hooks for sequels, which I would be happy to read.

The fact that the characters are not all twenty-somethings makes it feel like they’ve really earned their depth, and you can feel that experience in their actions as well. They are parents and grandparents, but rather than mellowing over the years, they’ve retained their passion and anger.

I really rather enjoyed the way it started as a crime story and the way that the scoped widened and it became more of a thriller as the book went on. Overall, this is a fun space opera with a well-rounded and diverse cast of characters.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781089156

The Exorcism Engines (Girl Genius, #20)

By Phil Foglio

Rating: 4 stars

Volume 20 (20!) of Agatha’s adventures see us under the sea, with a big confrontation between Agatha and her mother, as well as finally getting Gil free of his father’s influence. Albia shows us some of what she can do and the deep dwellers come to the surface. In amongst all this, there’s time for some quieter moments too. Unexpectedly poignant is Oggie’s revelation about being married while being a Jagermonster, and the story he tells about his wife. And Airman Higgs finally comes clean about who he is to Agatha.

I’m really impressed at how well the plot coheres, despite how long-running the series is. Running a strip three days a week for decades at this point must make it difficult to keep track of. And I do always enjoy these paper collections that let us catch up with the story and read a year’s worth of story in an afternoon.

Book details

ISBN: 9781890856731
Publisher: Airship Entertainment
Year of publication: 2022

Galaxies and Fantasies

By Andy McKell

Rating: 4 stars

This was a find at a dealers’ room at a small con, where I was trying to collect at least one book from each table. For a small press, where you don’t necessarily know the authors, I thought you can’t go wrong with a collection of short stories. And I was mostly right. This collection has twenty seven stories, many of which are flash pieces, with a twist at the end. The collection is pretty varied, ranging from space opera and dystopian near futures, to high fantasy and ghost stories. Let the Children Sleep is a lovely example of the latter, while Why do Robots Shave? is a lovely horror-tinged dystopia involving a “bio-robot” needing maintenance. A Dying Craft brought a lump to my throat while Waiting for Ragnarök is a nice take on a classic theme.

There were some misses too (inevitable with any collection), but with a good number of stories, and none too long, if you’re not enjoying a story, another will be along shortly.

Book details

ISBN: 9781915304063

The Last Gifts of the Universe

By Rory August

Rating: 3 stars

This is a story about death and grief wrapped in an adventure story about chasing after artefacts from long-dead civilisations. Scout and Keiran are siblings, working for the Archivists, searching the stars for caches from civilisations that have come before theirs and which appear to have been snuffed out, leaving them alone in the universe. They hope to find something that might let them discover what wiped out the others and hopefully stop the same thing happening to them.

But behind all the running around and arguing that “it belongs in a museum!” (yes, of course there’s unscrupulous competitors wanting the booty for themselves), there’s the story of a woman telling the story of her life, and a quiet parallel with Scout’s own life.

I didn’t realise until probably too late what kind of book this was. Like Scout, I was focused on the adventure and the planet-killer, only realising right at the end that I’d been looking in all the wrong places. It’s quietly life-affirming, reminding us to live in the now and to make our lives worthwhile, no matter how long or short they may be.

It’s definitely a book that deserves a re-read, with that placed front and centre. The thing is, like many of us, I don’t want to think about death. Especially death of my loved ones, so I don’t know that I’ll give it that extra shot.

Book details

Year of publication: 2022

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