Rating scale from 1 (Nope) to 10 (Unmissable)
7.6 Ancestral Night (White Space Book 1), by Elizabeth Bear (Saga, March 2019)
An early moment in Elizabeth Bear’s expansive new space opera Ancestral Night has narrator Haimey Dz offer a meta-commentary on the ancient, 19th century novels she reads during the long hours spent drifting through space: “They’re great for space travel because they were designed for people with time on their hands. Middlemarch. Gorgeous, but it just goes on and on.” Ancestral Night is a busy and boisterous novel, complex and beautifully composed, but also with a tendency to labor its points.
Haimey and her team of salvagers spend their time searching for derelict ships and abandoned tech in “white space”, ripples in space-time that enable faster than light travel. On their latest job, a nano-parasite created by a mysterious, long vanished race called the Koregoi infects Haimey, guiding her mind to an advanced Korogoi ship hidden inside a black hole. They aren’t the only salvagers who know about the ship, and Haimey finds herself on a collision course with some very dangerous revolutionaries willing to use the ship to settle their score with the far-reaching galactic society known as the Synarche.
Recalling the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks, Bear depicts a space-faring civilization made up of a multitude of alien cultures and intelligences that uses advanced technology to care for its citizens needs. Differences compound the deeper Bear takes us into her world: unlike the Culture with its artificial Minds, the Synarche chooses its civil servants by draft lottery, doing away with the corruptible governing elites that less enlightened societies create.
Bear also takes technological augmentation to a new level. Haimey, like most of the Synarche’s citizens, has implants that allow her to interface with technology as easily as most of us breathe. These implants also allow her to turn emotions on and off and even alter her personality and psychological makeup at will. The cultish creche that raised her used them to brainwash her and make her complicit in their crimes, and later the Synarche uses them to remove her memories of those crimes. Bear highlights the philosophical conundrums inherent in these technological and social innovations and the complicated notions of consent that attend them.
Ancestral Night is saturated with moral and political ambition. Rich with conflict and action, though often slowed down by explication and discourse, the story sometimes loses its momentum. I look forward to the second volume in this planned duology with the hope that it moves at a more studious pace.
8.4 The True Queen (Sorcerer to the Crown Book 2), by Zen Cho (Ace, March 2019)
When an author is building a sequel, the path of least resistance is to figure out what the reader wants (or thinks they want) and give it to them. The better option, though, is to write the book readers didn’t know they wanted. That’s what Zen Cho delivers in The True Queen, the standalone sequel to her popular and acclaimed Regency-era fantasy novel Sorcerer to the Crown.
Rather than pick up with the further adventures of Prunella and Zacharias Whyte, The True Queen tells the story of two sisters, Muna and Sakti, who are found by the powerful Malay sorceress Mak Genggang on her home island of Janda Baik. Muna has no magical ability at all while Sakti has an abundance. Both appear to have been cursed, and the suspected culprit carries a surname that readers of Sorcerer to the Crown will be familiar with: Midsomer. Mak Genggang ships the sisters off to England, for Sakti to apprentice under the Sorceress Royal Prunella Whyte, and for Muna to keep her sister company. While taking a shortcut through Fairy to their destination, Sakti disappears, leaving Muna to fend for herself when she reaches England. Pretending at having magic while scheming to find a way back into Fairy, Muna befriends Prunella’s schoolmate Henrietta Stapleton, who has trials of her own to face.
The plotting in The True Queen finds the author weaving together several different threads, including a few left dangling at the end of its predecessor. I am impressed by the author’s ability to fashion a satisfying sequel to Sorcerer to the Crown while relegating that novel’s major players to minor rolls. I also found the structure of the novel strikingly democratic, shuffling through a multitude of perspectives from chapter to chapter while still keeping its focus on Muna and her hero’s journey.
The True Queen is just as enchanting as Sorcerer to the Crown and provides ample evidence that this wonderful setting has many novels worth of material for the author to mine from.
7.1 The Consuming Fire (The Interdependency Book 2), by John Scalzi (Tor, October 2018)
In his second Interdependency novel, John Scalzi picks up the threads he left dangling at the end of The Collapsing Empire: Kiva Lagos settles into her role as custodian of the House of Nohamapetan only to get a front-row seat to its matriarch’s treachery; Marce Claremont makes a stunning discovery (or re-discovery) while studying the collapse of the Flow streams; and Grayland II uses every tool at her disposal to consolidate power and convince the masses that the Flow collapse is real and urgent.
This sequel comes out of the gate swinging, with Scalzi’s crunchy humor and hyper-efficient prose delivering a raucous mini-epic of a prologue that sets up Grayland II’s use of her position as leader of the Interdependency Church to advance her agenda. Scalzi is at his best when he offers a heady but digestible mix of action, humor and philosophical inquiry, and his opening salvo delivers all three in spades. The rest of The Consuming Fire offers plenty of the first two but seems willing to leave us hanging with the questions it poses about mixing church and state and the role both play in civic life. Perhaps the problem is that it spends all its capital on the lives of the governing elite while the lives of the governed are little more than a blurry rabble taking up space in the background.
There are a lot of great action scenes and character moments in The Consuming Fire, and it has a “less talk more rock” edge over its more annotative predecessor. Two books in, the Interdependency is entertaining enough to satisfy Scalzi’s fans; here’s hoping some of its still dormant seeds will germinate in the next book.
5.9 A Star-Wheeled Sky, Brad R. Torgersen (Baen, December 2018)
Humanity once spread throughout the stars in huge, slow generation ships, but one day they discovered a massive alien superhighway called the Waywork. Humanity could use the Waywork to fast travel between habitable systems and a vast galactic human civilization was born. No trace of the alien race that built the Waywork remained. A thousand years later human civilization has splintered into five Starstates, with the two largest—egalitarian Constellar and the merciless, imperialistic Nautilan—mired in bloody territorial conflict. When a brand-new waypoint appears on the map, the race is on for the two warring states to claim the territory as their own. Solving the mystery of why the waypoint appeared and of the strange new world they find there may be bigger than any dispute between the two powers.
Author Torgersen packs his military space opera with the kind of hard sf action detail-obsessed nerds drool over, and the setting is keenly imagined. However, the stock characters—the gruff-but-earnest flyboy, more-than-meets-the-eye space princess, and vicious, snarling antagonist—are one-dimensional. This could work well as a series, assuming the revelations to its riddles live up to the hype.
6.1 Ten Thousand Thunders, by Brian Trent (Flame Tree, October 2018)
Brian Trent has spent time in the universe of his new novel Ten Thousand Thunders before, with his “War Hero” series of short stories. It’s obvious he’s thought about this setting a lot and packs a ton of detail into it. Set in a post-collapse future where technology and corporate dominance reignite with a vengeance and death is a minor inconvenience for those who can afford to clone a new body to house their consciousness. There’s a little bit of Altered Carbon meets The Expanse in its mix of bloody, hard-boiled action and solar-system spanning political maneuvering.
The plot machinations of Ten Thousand Thunders are so byzantine it’s impossible to encapsulate them, but for better or worse the novel follows InterPlanetary Council investigator Gethin Bryce as he tries to figure out who blew up the shuttle he was riding in, and why. He crosses paths with revolutionary soldier Celeste Segarra, whose organization wants to level the playing field for the haves and have nots, and together they try to keep their heads attached to their necks while uncovering a conspiracy as old as humanity itself.
About two-thirds of the way through I realized the plotting was just going to keep getting denser and denser, and even then, nothing prepared me for how outrageous it was going to get. The action is tough, the pacing perhaps a bit too fiendish, and its final revelations a little hard to swallow.