Meru (The Alloy Era, #1)

By S.B. Divya

Rating: 3 stars

Jayanthi is a young woman living in a post-capitalist world where humans now live in tune with nature and the world around them, and try not to extract resources and abuse it. Her parents are post-humans, known as alloys, who are anthropologists who have chosen to live on Earth, but she’s fascinated by the new habitable planet Meru that has been discovered and which could support a human colony, except that humans are prohibited from doing so by their ancient compact with the alloys. But Jayanthi gets permission to travel to Meru as part of an experiment to see if she can live there without contaminating the planet. She travels with an alloy pilot named Vaha, someone who is still living with zir parent’s disappointment in zir.

There’s quite a lot to unpack here. I veered between finding this future world utopian and dystopian. A world with high technology and nobody going hungry, but where ambition is discouraged and humans are prevented from most space travel and the sorts of scientific experimentation that might lead to new discoveries and having their name recorded for posterity in the repository of knowledge that they call the Navid. Genetic manipulation is commonplace, using a combination of designing and randomness (which is how Jayanthi ended up with sickle cell disease), although it seems that alloys have much more control over this than humans do.

I didn’t really find Jayanthi that compelling a character. Her motivation seemed a little all over the place. Vaha is much more interesting to me. Zie spent zir whole life disappointing zir parent, who eventually abandoned zir in disgust, something which is shocking to the reader, and which left Vaha with a crushing inferiority complex. Putting these two together leads to a rather weird romance, which is almost buried under all the politicking. Throw in an amnesia plot and it feels a bit soapy.

There’s a lot to enjoy here. The world-building, the relationship between the human and alloy societies, the people who live on the edges of the society. But for all that, it didn’t entirely work for me. I struggled to put myself into the mindset of this human society where everything is considered conscious and worthy of protection, even non-living things. I couldn’t really work through the implications of that mindset. It feels like you’d spend your life metaphorically hunched over, trying not to take up any space, and apologising for every step.

An interesting constructed universe, but I’ll not be jumping to seek out the sequel.

Book details

Publisher: 47North
Year of publication: 2023

Descendant Machine

By Gareth L. Powell

Rating: 4 stars

This book returns us to the Continuance fleet about fifty years after the events of Stars and Bones, this time following another navigator – a young woman by the name of Nicola Mafalda – whose trust in her Vanguard scoutship, the Frontier Chic is severely dented by the severe measures it takes to keep both of them alive after an unexpected attack. Some months after this, the Chic comes to her with a mission, one that involves an old flame of hers, and which she can’t turn down. This leads her into a plot to reactivate a giant machine that’s been dormant for millennia, or longer, something that could have terrible ramifications for the galaxy.

I enjoyed this book a lot. It seems that half a century in the Continuance makes a lot of difference. It feels more self-assured now, and they’ve run into many more alien species and are taking part in a loose galactic society. Nicola fits well into this new, more assured Continuance, or she did until the event that leaves her hiding out in a cottage half way up a simulated mountain. She’s a great protagonist, and most of the book is told from her point of view, with occasional deviations to the Chic and one or two others.

Powell does scale well. He showed this in Stars and Bones with the scale that was going on there. In this one, he introduces megaships that dwarf even the arks of the Continuance; mechanisms that require whole stars to power them; and a galaxy turned almost entirely into computronium. And yet, he manages to keep the scale at a human size as well, with the focus being on Nicola and the people around her. Her friends, her rivals, her lovers, the ones she trusts with her life and the ones she’d give her life to protect.

So a huge amount of fun, with a lot of fantastic world-building, and a climax that doesn’t descend into ultra-violence. Powell has created a fantastic sandbox of a world here and he’s enjoying playing in it. In the best possible way, this reminded me of Iain M. Banks Culture novels. It’s got the same scope for telling stories, without needing them to be connected. I look forward to whatever he does with it next.

Book details

ISBN: 9781789094312

Stars and Bones (Continuance #1)

By Gareth L. Powell

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve been burned by Powell’s work before, but this is a new series in a new universe and the premise sounded really interesting. About seventy-five years ago, the human race was evicted from the Earth by a member of a godlike, benevolent alien race, just as we were about to annihilate each other in a nuclear war. The chance opening of a small, experimental wormhole just as the missiles started to fly convinced this “Angel of the Benevolence” that we were worth saving, rather than letting the planet wipe us out and start again. So it built us a fleet of a thousand giant arks and every single human on the planet was transplanted on to them, along with AIs to run them and matter printers to cater to physical want, warned to travel the stars and never to try to settle another planet. Now Eryn King of the scoutship Furious Ocelot has pulled a number of strings to be assigned to a rescue ship after her sister disappeared, but what they find there follows them back and threatens the entire fleet.

There’s a lot of world-building going on here, to construct the world of the Continuance. A universe where sentience does develop, but is mind-bogglingly rare, and worth shattering moons to preserve. Where billions of people live, work, and die on ships really too big to imagine. We could spend a whole series just exploring the arks and their inhabitants, seeing what sort of societies that they’ve made. How would religion, for example, change in these circumstances? We find out that most of the fleet runs on “godless space communism” but that there is a rump of people who have congregated on a minority of ships that insist on maintaining the old order, and have recreated a form of capitalism.

But there’s a plot to be had, so I reluctantly tear myself away from the world-building to the threat facing the Continuance. This goes through several stages, with a number of different genres represented. There’s an Alien-like “it’s in the ducts” stage; body horror; disaster porn; right up to unstoppable galaxy-threatening menace (not to mention deus ex machina). The one thing that I did sort of struggle with was the scale of destruction here. It’s really hard to get your head around arks that hold over a hundred million people in relative comfort, so when a disaster threatens whole ships, it doesn’t have the impact that it should. There was also an issue where people would be introduced to the story, even get PoV chapters, and then be bumped off before we got much feel for them, leaving Eryn the only character who get any real depth.

But the plot really does fly by, throwing so many ideas at you that it doesn’t matter that some of the characterisation is sometimes thin and that not all the ideas stick. From giant arks with networks of wormholes as public transit; to navigators dream-linked to their AI-governed ships; to Dyson spheres; to “a world-swallowing hurricane with the soul of a librarian and the casual supremacy of a god” (such a good line!). Anyone who enjoys strongly plot-driven SF with lots of big ideas will have a great time.

Book details

ISBN: 9781789094282
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2022

Winter’s Orbit

By Everina Maxwell

Rating: 4 stars

The Iskat Empire is at the heart of a solar system where they rule several of the terraformed planets through a system of treaties and intermarriages. An important renewal event is coming up that will rebind them to the wider galaxy, but Prince Taam has died in a flyer crash, so his widower, Jainan, is quickly rushed into a political marriage with one of the emperor’s more disreputable grandchildren, Kiem, in a bid to keep things running. But then it turns out that Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and Jainan is a possible suspect. The newlyweds must solve the murder and prevent interplanetary war.

This was a fun story of an interplanetary empire in crisis, with a strong romance at its heart. Kiem is thrown right into the arranged marriage on the first page, with no warning and he and Jainan spend the first half of the book circling each other warily. Kiem because he feels Jainan must be grieving, and Jainan because he wants to fulfil his duty but thinks he’s not good enough for Kiem. It’s a punch the air moment when they finally fall into each others’ arms.

The story is told from both Kiem and Jainan’s points of view. We, the audience, are seeing inside Jainan’s head and slowly coming to the realisation that Jainan’s former marriage may not have been as perfect as it seemed, and screaming that Kiem should be able to see this. But, of course, he doesn’t have our luxury of being able to follow his partner’s thoughts on the written page.

Maxwell teases the conspiracy at the heart of the novel for quite some time, and it’s fun to see it slowly be exposed, along with the wider galactic civilisation and how Iskat and its empire fits into that.

A lot of fun, with some great secondary characters as well, particularly Kiem’s aide, Bel, who’s properly of the non-nonsense, hyper-organised variety. There’s a lot to enjoy here, even though I did find myself repeatedly rolling my eyes and yelling “just talk to each other” at the book.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356515885
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2021

Terminal Uprising (Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse #2)

By Jim C. Hines

Rating: 4 stars

The second volume of Hines’ Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse series is just as fun and engaging as the first. Mops and her motley crew have been on the run from the Alliance aboard the Pufferfish for four months when their contact in Command sends them to a mysterious rendezvous who, in turn, provides information that leads them back to the one place they don’t want to go: Earth.

What they find on Earth isn’t really going to be a surprise to anyone with any experience in the genre (heck, or even in storytelling as a whole). Well, the first thing they find, at least; the second is more of a surprise. Wolf gets some decent characterisation here, as a secondary PoV character, and learns that war isn’t as much fun as she thought. Especially when others are looking to her for leadership in Mops’ absence.

It’s all change by the end of the book, and I really have no idea where Hines is going to go from here. He seems to have set up a bit of a Kobayashi Maru for himself in the war between the Alliance and the Prodryans. I look forward to seeing where he takes Mops and her crew and how their actions change the balance of power in the galaxy.

Book details

Terminal Alliance (Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse, #1)

By Jim C. Hines

Rating: 5 stars

Despite the blurb describing this as a “hilarious” book, it’s much more serious than I was expecting from a group of space janitors accidentally being left in charge of a spaceship, while still being an awful lot of fun to read. I was expecting the out and out comedy of something like Red Dwarf, but Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos and her crew are remarkably competent.

The book is set after the zombie apocalypse on Earth, where humanity pretty much destroyed itself. The alien Krakau discovered and started curing us, in exchange for helping fight in their Alliance’s war against the Prodryans. Mops is head of the hygiene and sanitation team aboard the EMCS Pufferfish (I do like how the Earth warships are named after the most deadly things on the planet, including the EMCS Mantis Shrimp, the EMCS Hippopotamus and, my favourite, the EMCS Honey Badger) and after a battle, her team is the only one unaffected by a bioweapon that undoes the cure, reverting humans to shambling biters. They have to save their crew, learn to work the ship, and stop the weapon being unleashed throughout human space.

Like I said, I was expecting an out and out farce, but the book is played much straighter than I was expecting (notwithstanding the Clippy-like Puffy, who appears to offer tutorials on how to work the ship (“It looks like you’re trying to fire the weapons. Would you like some help…?”). The menace is real, and the aliens are all interesting and well-created species. When they try to contact Command for help, they’re basically told that they can’t afford to take any chances with the bioweapon and that the affected crew will be “put down”. This is what prompts Mops to effectively hijack her own ship to try and save her crewmates.

The worldbuilding is intriguing, the rest of Mops’ crew are all good characters, even if they don’t get the same characterisation as Mops herself. There’s the ex-marine, Munroe, with an intelligent prosthetic arm; Kumar, who reads technical manuals for fun; and Wolf, young and eager to fight.

There’s some major revelations towards the end of the book and it’ll be really interesting to see if Hines can pull off the consequences for the rest of the series. Either way, I enjoyed this a lot and I’m looking forward to more adventures of the Pufferfish and her motley crew.

Book details

Year of publication: 2017

Saga, Volume 10

By Brian K. Vaughan

Rating: 3 stars

It sort of breaks my heart to say it, but after waiting four full years for a resolution to the massive cliffhanger that the story got left on back in 2018, I think I might be done with Saga. I was desperately hoping that Marco would have had some way to get out of the situation he was in, but, if he did, it wasn’t in this volume. And the misery porn keeps piling up. As much as I adore Hazel and Alana, their story is getting darker and darker, and the bodies are piling up. The number of people who want to kill a ten year old girl is sickening. And sure, that might be part of the point, of what unending war does to people, and to societies, but it’s not something I want to read any more. I might come back one day, once the story is complete but for the moment, I’m bowing out.

That’s not to say anything bad about Staples’ art or Vaughan’s storytelling. The art is as consistently good as ever and Vaugan is good at what he does. The overall story is moving along, and some of the dialogue is just brilliant, but the story no longer makes me want to eagerly read the next volume.

Call me back when The Will gets a much more horrible death than the one Marco refused to give him.

Book details

ISBN: 9781534323346
Publisher: Image Comics
Year of publication: 2022

Space Opera

By Jack Vance

Rating: 3 stars

In this pun-tastically titled story, Jack Vance gives us a space opera about, er, opera in space. Roger Wool’s rich, eccentric aunt is very into opera and when she encounters a troupe from another world, she is determined to return the favour and bring an opera company into space, travelling the stars and ending finally at the mysterious planet Rlaru. Needless to say, things don’t go according to plan.

This is an odd book, and one that took a while to grow on me. I think the author was going for wry humour, which didn’t entirely work for me. Dame Isabel’s snobbishness and the fawning of her entourage should have been funny, but I mostly just rolled my eyes. The first section that actually worked for me was the visit to the prison planet, which was actually quite clever, and I quite liked the way that Madoc Roswyn manipulated so many of the crew (even though it was fairly transparent, from the outside, at least). Her story was interesting in its own right, complete with sunken, lost continent!

The question on whether music is universal amongst sentient species is a fascinating one, and what sort of tones and scales might be used. There’s a bit of that here, but it’s mostly steamrollered over in Dame Isabel’s snobbishness on the subject, and her unwillingness to attempt to understand or appreciate music outwith her narrow operatic obsession.

To me the book felt competent and solid, but the humour didn’t work for me.

Book details

ISBN: 9780340267752
Publisher: Coronet Books
Year of publication: 1982

Fault Tolerance (Chilling Effect, #3)

By Valerie Valdes

Rating: 4 stars

I had a huge amount of fun reading this third (and final?) book of the adventures of Captain Eva Innocente and the crew of La Sirena Negra. In this one, beacons appear all over the galaxy, next to travel gates, all broadcasting the same message – surrender or be exterminated! Somehow, it’s up to Eva and her crew to find the superweapon that will be all that stands between civilisation as we know it and annihilation!

Despite the fact that the stakes were nominally really high in this book (the destruction of the Earth!), I don’t think I ever felt like Eva and her crew were ever in real peril throughout this book, or that they would fail to win, but that never mattered to me. It was all about how they solved the puzzle and made it to the next step. They’re all likeable characters, and the crew have gained a bit of depth over the books. Leroy (plus girlfriend Momoko) comes back for this one, after being mostly shelved for the last one, but he doesn’t get much to do, and there’s still no details on his past, which is a shame. But there’s so much going on, that I only realised this well after I finished the actual book.

The Transformers giant, shapeshifting robots from the climax of the previous book make a return here, and we learn more about them and the neverending war between the two factions, and we get to see our gang face off against them in giant mechs, which is just as cool as it sounds. Also, the mechs’ “final form” completely cracked me up.

As with the other books, there was a liberal sprinkling of Spanish throughout the book, which I mostly ignored – I tended to assume that it was inventive swearing or other stuff that wasn’t vital the the plot. There were a handful of times I was moved to load Google Translate, but I don’t think it was hugely important.

I’ve very much enjoyed spending time with this series, which I first discovered when the first one was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which I thought was unusual, since the Clarke usually goes for more literary works, so an old-fashioned space opera on the shortlist made me sit up and take notice. I’m very glad that I did as the whole series has been fun, and I feel that Valdes has grown as an author as the series has progressed. Recommended to any fan of space opera, giant robots and/or cats.

Book details

ISBN: 9780063085893
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Year of publication: 2022

Galactic Hellcats

By Marie Vibbert

Rating: 4 stars

Ki is a small-time thief. Her best friend wills her a solo flier and rather than fencing it quickly to make some money, like a sensible person, she flies away, gathers some other lost souls to her and fights crime. Well, cops. Same thing, mostly.

This was another book I discovered through Scalzi’s big idea at Whatever and it was a huge amount of fun. Ki, former military store clerk Margot and bored rich girl Zuleikah are all broken, in their own different ways but are thrown together, along with prince Thane, who Zuleikah persuades the others to “rescue” from a life of misery, all come together as a found family – one of my favourite tropes.

They get up to lots of stupid adventures, some of them not even their fault, and obviously all need a lot of therapy, but instead make do with space motorbikes. (The cover paints these like the floating cars from Star Wars, although I imagine them more like Tron’s light cycles.)

One thing I sort of would have liked to see more of was Ki’s grief over Ethan’s death. Once things start to happen, there’s rarely enough time for personal reflection, but that seems like it’s quite an important part of Ki’s history and personality. We get a bit of time with Margot, who’s out of the military, failing to find a job and dealing with disapproving parents. We spend less time in Zuleikah’s head. We have hints that her family life is tough as well, but I’d have liked to see more of that. Thane gets more development – a prince whose life is anything but pampered, as he’s put on show in a matriarchal society, with staff around him that are contemptuous of him, and a mother who tortures him – where it won’t show, obviously – for minor infractions.

While there could be many further adventures of the Galactic Hellcats, the ending was satisfying, and I’m actually happy to let them go on to their adventures together without needing to bear witness to them. I salute the Hellcats (while keeping a very close eye on my property)!

Book details

ISBN: 9781952283079
Publisher: Vernacular Books
Year of publication: 2021

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