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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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.

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ISBN: 9781781089156

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.

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Year of publication: 2022

Seven Mercies (Seven Devils, #2)

By L.R. Lam

Rating: 3 stars

The concluding volume of this duology sees the Devils on the run from the Empire and in tatters, after almost half their members desert. Clo and Rhea are dispatched to the Evoli empire as spies to see if they can find out how they managed to wake up the enslaved “husks” of the gerulae – people whose minds have been wiped and are completely under the control of the Oracle. Then the Oracle goes rogue and it’s up to this small group of rebels to save the empire from itself.

While I really liked having PoV chapters from all seven of the Devils, this time adding Cato and Kyla to the characters we’ve already come to know, I didn’t think this entirely worked as well as I’d hoped. Having Clo and Rhea away on their own mission for most of the middle of the book meant splitting the party and slowing the whole story down.

It did also feature one of my least favourite tropes of people having Big Feelings, not talking about them, and doing stupid things because of them. And then there were a couple of things that just didn’t seem to go anywhere. There was a big hint that the Evolians were as corrupt as the Tholosians, but that didn’t go anywhere, and then there’s Ariadne’s walking away with a minimal plan, and even what the book implied at one point that she was working on didn’t amount to anything in the end. It sort of felt like someone had forgotten to do a final editorial pass over it.

But it was still pretty readable, and the revelations with Cato were entirely unexpected. It was also sort of nice to spend time with Damocles to make him into less of a 2D villain and give him some motivation.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473225183
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2023

Seven Devils (Seven Devils, #1)

By L.R. Lam and Elizabeth May

Rating: 3 stars

The characters in this found-family space opera are great. You’ve got Eris, bred and trained from birth to rule, having killed the vast majority of her genetic siblings to become Heir to the Tholosian empire. And she walked away from it all to join the resistance. And Clo, an engineer from the vast slums outside the palace complex. Whose native dialect, for some reason, seems to be Scots. They’re on a mission together to gain intel on a mysterious new weapon that Eris’s replacement as Heir seems to be developing. They run into Nyx, Ariadne, and Rhea, who have combined their skills to escape their various own traps. They end up working together to stop the empire from destroying the last remaining couterweight to the Tholosians.

Eris and Clo on their own are great, but when you throw a soldier, teenage tech genius, and courtesan into the mix, you end up with something quite explosive, and seeing them start to tentatively trust each other is great.

Where the book falls down, IMO, is in the worldbuilding. The two empires at war here are said to inhabit different galaxies. Even if you accept that their FTL drive can span that distance (let’s not forget, as a wise man once said: space is big, really big!), I can’t believe that this empire, in less than a thousand years, has filled all inhabitable planets in their home galaxy. Once again, space is big, and yes, a lot of that is er, empty space, but even if 1% of the ~100 billion plus stars in a galaxy have planets and a further 1% have planets that are either inhabitable or capable of being terraformed (a technology we know the Tholosians have) that’s still millions of planets. I don’t buy resource shortage as a reason for war, and the idea of having one planet that provides water, or one that provides the food is just laughable on the scale of a galactic empire.

But I tried very hard to put those sorts of thoughts out of my mind. This is a grittier take on Star Wars, showing the real costs of a Rebellion against an almighty interstellar Empire and with a small group of heroes fighting incalculable odds with the power of Friendship. And I loved that aspect of it.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473225152
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2021

The Last Watch (The Divide, #1)

By J.S. Dewes

Rating: 4 stars

A group of soldiers are stationed at the literal edge of the universe (“the Divide”) watching out for an ancient enemy who nearly wiped out humanity, and did wipe out several other alien species. Now the Viators are thought to be extinct but the Sentinals still keep watch (although I’m not entirely sure how keeping a watch at the edge of the universe is supposed to help them detect enemies). Anyway, the Divide is now starting to contract – ie the universe is starting to shrink – and Adequin Rake, commander of the Argus, one of the Sentinal ships, has to protect her crew from this threat, and the indifference of her chain of command, while dealing with a new recruit with an Attitude and a Past.

There’s a lot of fun ideas here, from the soldiers isolated from their chain of command, to the insolent new recruit, to the commander out of her league. The story is told from the PoV of commander Rake and new recruit Cavalon, who we learn at the very start is actually a member of the royal family, who’s been exiled here for causing mischief at home. I never really bought Rake as this super-competent commander, who inspires loyalty in everyone around her (including, very quickly, Cavalon). She’s, no doubt, an ultra-competent solider, a member of the elite Titans, but she doesn’t really seem to be very good at being in charge of people. I’m enough of a hippie that I hate the whole idea of chain of command (even line management!) and even I can tell that. She sort of falls apart when her love interest is in danger and has trouble dealing with the reality of the situation.

The characters seem to settle down as the book goes on, although it seems a little tidy that Cavalon just happens to be a multi-degreed polymath who is able to help with all the technobabble that is required later on (although, not gonna lie, some of it is pretty damned awesome, and definitely triggers the old “sensawonda” that science fiction, at its best, does so well).

In terms of world building, the military of this society is based on the Roman army, and it’s possible that the rest of the society is as well (the most powerful man in the government is called Augustus, for goodness sake). I didn’t particularly understand the Viator threat. It was never really explained why this species seemed determined to wipe out all other sentient life in the universe, nor how humanity, which seems technologically vastly inferior to their enemy (much of their own advanced technology is based on that of the Viators) won the war against them.

Hopefully some of this will be explained in future volumes. There was some pretty exciting stuff towards the tail end of the book, and I’m intrigued to see where Dawes takes the story. I’ll definitely be looking out for the next one.

Book details

ISBN: 9781250236340

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

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