Review: The Last Emperox (Interdependency Book 3), by John Scalzi

Last EmperoxRecommended – Through no fault of its own, The Last Emperox couldn’t have arrived at a better time. John Scalzi’s novels are uniformly brief and briskly paced, with rapid fire action and dialogue—in other words, ready-made for binge reading. And with the current coronavirus pandemic forcing people to spend most of their free time at home, that’s what many people are doing. Haven’t read the first two books in Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy? Each can be gobbled up in a single sitting while you hunker down for the evening, then you can slide right into the freshly printed one by day three. The series is also thematically timely; civilization coming apart at the seams through neglect, short-sightedness and inaction in the face of an unforeseen cataclysm sound familiar? Though completed months prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, alarming echoes of current day events reverberate from the pages of The Last Emperox. It’s a not uncommon trait in science fiction, nor is it surprising coming from this science fiction author, who has managed to keep his finger on today’s pulse for much of his writing career.

For those unfamiliar with the premise of The Interdependency, it is set fifteen centuries into our future in an empire spanning multiple star systems. All these systems, save one, are incapable of supporting human life on their own, so each depends on the whole to survive. The whole is, not unexpectedly, ruled by a small cadre of wealthy elites whose families control all commerce between systems. Intersystem commerce is only made possible by traversing the Flow, naturally occurring streams that cheat the otherwise untenable distances of time and space. Discovery of the impending collapse of the entire system of Flow streams is therefore a civilization-ending disaster.

I found the opening volume of the trilogy (The Collapsing Empire) entertaining, if uneven; too reliant on long passages of exposition, overly plot-centered and heavy on oration. The abrupt ending was also jarring, coming right as the story was picking up steam. This was likely intentional—a feature of its being intended not as a standalone but as the first third of a complete story—but I still found it lacking. I thought the first sequel (The Consuming Fire) was a little more comfortable in its own skin and possessed of a much more satisfying (if only temporary) outcome. The Last Emperox is perhaps the most neatly balanced of the three volumes, a harmonious convergence of well-oiled plot machine, smart-alecky dialogue and fully rounded characters.

The ostensible hero of the story is Cardenia Wu-Patrick, also known as Emperox Grayland II, the reluctant leader of the Interdependency in this time of unfathomable crisis. When The Last Emperox begins, Grayland II has just survived another deposition plot (following a prior assassination plot) only to find myriad others sprouting up hydra-like in their place. None of this bodes well for her and her scientist-lover Marce Claremont’s goal of figuring out how to transport the entirety of Human civilization to a single planet that has neither the room nor the resources to handle a sudden, massive influx of migration. Grayland is also aided by shrewd, potty-mouthed Lady Kiva Lagos, tasked with unraveling the various plots against the Emperox, as well as the artificial construct known as the Memory Room, which houses facsimiles of all the previous Emperox. This is where Scalzi’s grand design engages with current events: questions of having the leadership qualities necessary to mitigate a catastrophe are front and center, of the willingness of the few to sacrifice the many for personal gain, of the wisdom (or lack thereof) in concentrating power in the hands of those few to begin with, allow Scalzi to flex his philosophical and political muscles with his customary piquancy.

But if The Last Emperox represents the culmination of the trilogy’s strengths, so too do its faults climax. Taking its cue from Marvel, Star Wars, and most other blockbuster franchises, Scalzi’s Interdependency espouses an axiomatic neoliberal worldview, one in which the predations of the greedy elite class can only be countered by putting our faith in other, more benevolent ruling elites and the martial forces they command. This strategy can acknowledge class struggle while discreetly tip-toeing around it, since (according to this philosophy) the unwashed masses have no other legitimate recourse for bettering their condition than to hope someone rich and powerful will handle it for them. It is even more frustrating that this novel both acknowledges and shrugs at this position in the same breath.

Reservations aside, I still enjoy a good blockbuster as much as the next person. So shelter in place, microwave some popcorn and have a rollicking good time with one of the more appealing sci-fi writers of his generation.

2020 Hugo Nominations – Impressions, Surprises, Disappointments

Here we are again with my second annual post on the final Hugo ballot! First of all – Congrats to all the nominees! Of course, as nominators, things only rarely go the way we hope, but that doesn’t mean every single work and human on this list isn’t well-deserving of the honor (except Rise of Skywalker – honestly, what a complete turd pile of movie that was). So, on to my personal reactions.

Best Novel

The Nominees:

The City in the Middle of the Night, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor; Titan)
The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow (Redhook; Orbit UK)
The Light Brigade, Kameron Hurley (Saga; Angry Robot UK)
A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (Tor; Tor UK)
Middlegame, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com Publishing)

My Ballot:

The Light Brigade, Kameron Hurley (Gallery/Saga Press)
Tiamat’s Wrath, James S.A. Corey (Orbit)
A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (Tor)
Edges, Linda Nagata (Mythic Island Press)

Impressions

It’s impossible to look at this list of nominees and not point out that this is the first time the category is made up entirely of novels written by women. This should, of course be contrasted with the fact that the best novel category has fielded a male-only slate of nominees 21 times in the award’s history, as recently as 2009. For those keeping score, an all-woman list needs to happen at least 20 more times for the playing field to be equalized.

I should also point out that the six novels on the list are all quite excellent: unique, diverse, exciting, entertaining and compelling. Overall, a phenomenal group of choices for ConZealand voters to pick from.

Some other firsts:

Though she has been nominated 4 times as Mira Grant, this is the first time Seanan McGuire has been nominated in this category under her own name. I personally feel that Middlegame is her best work under any name, so I’m pleased to see it honored here.

With the additional exception of Anders, who was also nominated for  All the Birds in the Sky in 2017, all the other nominees are Best Novel first-timers. Kameron Hurley’s The Stars are Legion just missed the cut a couple of years ago. As with McGuire’s, I think The Light Brigade is her best-to-date and I’m very excited about the nomination.

The other three first timers – Martine, Muir and Harrow – also happen to be their authors’ debut efforts. Quite a feat for each of them!

Surprises

Maybe Middlegame a little – though it shouldn’t be a surprise considering how popular McGuire is with Hugo voters. Same with Hurley. The Light Brigade is easily my favorite of the bunch, and Hurley has gotten some love from Hugo voters in the past. Perhaps due to my own overwhelming preference for it, I’ve felt that it hasn’t received nearly the attention it deserves. I thought it was on the bubble, so I’m very mildly surprised it got through.

Disappointments

Tiamat’s Wrath, obviously. As much as I’m a fan of The Expanse I haven’t nominated every book – previously, only Abaddon’s Gate and Nemesis Games have made my ballot. I thought this one was especially deserving, possibly the best in the series.

Certainly I was rooting for Edges, too, but its chances were so low it’s hard to classify it as a disappointment. Nagata has her fans among the Hugo crowd so there was definitely a chance, but it was still the longest of long shots. Indie-pubs don’t get as much attention and have never had any traction with Hugo voters. I only put it on the ballot because it was among the most thrilling and imaginative sci-fi novels I’ve read in recent years, and I felt it deserved to be there.

My fave – The Light Brigade, obviously. Fingers crossed.

If I were a betting man – City in the Middle of the Night. One cannot underestimate Anders’ sway with the Hugo crowd. Her debut All the Birds in the Sky came very close to overtaking The Obelisk Gate in 2017, only dropping a smidge behind it on the 6th pass:

2020-04-07 (2)

In a year that, for now, appears to have no clear favorite, I’ll go with the horse that lost her last race by a hair’s breadth.

This is the first time in my personal voting history that more than one of my picks made the final tally, so I hope I’m wrong and one of them takes home the rocket!

Best Novella

The Nominees:

To Be Taught, If Fortunate, Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager; Hodder & Stoughton)
“Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”, Ted Chiang (Exhalation)
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
This Is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone (Saga)
In an Absent Dream, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
The Deep, Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes (Saga)

My Ballot:

“New Atlantis”, Lavie Tidhar (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction May/June 2019)
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com)

Impressions

Excellent work in this category, and a laudably diverse list to boot. Happy to see old pro Ted Chiang – whose first Hugo nomination dates back nearly 30 years to 1991 – nestled among the more recent Hugo luminaries. Seanan McGuire would otherwise be the godparent of this group: her first nomination/win was for the Not-a-Hugo formerly known as the Campbell, all the way back in 2010, which seems like an eon ago in Hugo time.

Tor.com has dominated this category so thoroughly for the last several cycles. I like seeing other publishers get a slice of the pie.

Surprises

None. Four of the nominees in this category also scored Nebula nods, and the other two – McGuire and Chambers – are well-established Hugo favorites.

Disappoinments

Next to Clark’s story, “New Atlantis” was my favorite of the year in this category. Standalone novellas have been the trend for the last few years, only a handful of magazine-published entries have made the cut recently. This year there were none.

My fave – The Haunting of Tram Car 015, obviously.

If I were a betting man – This is How You Lose the Time War. I don’t even think it’ll be close.

Best Novelette

The Nominees:

“For He Can Creep”, Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com 7/10/19)
“Omphalos”, Ted Chiang (Exhalation)
“Away with the Wolves”, Sarah Gailey (Uncanny 9-10/19)
“Emergency Skin”, N.K. Jemisin (Forward)
“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye”, Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 7-8/19)
“The Archronology of Love”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed 4/19)

My ballot:

“By the Warmth of Their Calculus”, Tobias S. Buckell (Mission Critical; Solaris)
“Sacrid’s Pod”, Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 112, September 2019)
“For He Can Creep” Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com July 10, 2019)

Impressions

Chiang scoring dual nominations is further evidence that he is one of the true SFF luminaries of our time. Very few authors inspire this level of devotion among multiple generations of fans. It is especially impressive for someone whose output is so sparse; he has published only 17 stories in 30 years time, nine of them nominated for Hugos (and there would have been a tenth had he not turned it down for personal reasons).

Surprises

Gailey is no stranger to Hugo nods, but I’m a little surprised to see this particular story here. It’s perfectly fine, but didn’t make that much of an impression on me when I first read it. I am looking forward to revisiting it.

Considering she’s the only Hugo newbie of the bunch, one might classify Carroll’s nomination as a surprise, though after also scoring a Nebula nomination it’s hard to call it that.

Disappointments

I always thought the Castro story was a longshot, but I was really pulling for Buckell to make the list. “By the Warmth of Their Calculus” has all the makings of a modern day classic, and also serves as a welcome rejoinder to Tom Godwin’s excessively cynical Golden-age classic “The Cold Equations”.

My fave: “For He Can Creep”, obviously.

If I were a betting man: This category is a tough one, but I’d put my money on Carroll ftw.

Best Short Story

The Nominees:

“Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, Alix E. Harrow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 1/31/19)
“As the Last I May Know”, S.L. Huang (Tor.com 10/23/19)
“And Now His Lordship Is Laughing”, Shiv Ramdas (Strange Horizons 9/9/19)
“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”, Nibedita Sen (Nightmare 5/19)
“Blood Is Another Word for Hunger”, Rivers Solomon (Tor.com 7/24/19)
“A Catalog of Storms”, Fran Wilde (Uncanny 1-2/19)

My Ballot:

“Such Thoughts are Unproductive”, Rebecca Campbell (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 156, December 2019)
“The Message”, Vanessa Fogg (The Future Fire 2019.48)
“The Robots of Eden”, Anil Menon (New Suns; Solaris)
“Blood Is Another Word for Hunger”, Rivers Solomon (Tor.com July 24, 2019)
“A Bird, a Song, a Revolution”, Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 112, September 2019)

Impressions

Voting in this category usually finds the widest dispersion among the largest number of works, so it’s hard to be either surprised or disappointed by any of the results. That said…

Surprises

I’m more surprised by what didn’t make it than what did. I really thought the Bolander story was a shoe-in. Shows how much I know.

Disappointments

Again, hard to gauge disappointment in this category. Along with Bolander, I thought “The Message” was a beautiful story and a very relevant one. I can probably count the number of Hugo voters who have even heard of The Future Fire on one hand, so really another longer than long shot there.

My fave – “Blood is Another Word for Hunger”, obviously. Honestly it’s so rare that any of my Short Story picks make the final list, for me it’s already a win.

If I were a betting man – High-concept stories usually grab the most attention from Hugo voters, so for me it’s a toss-up between Sen and Wilde.

Other Categories of Interest (to me, at least)

I only voted in two other categories:

Best Series, where enough of us Expanse fans got together to pull off a nod for the authors Corey. I also drop Cherryh’s Foreigner on my ballot every year, and every year I hang my head in despair.

The other was Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form, where there were a few unexpected pleasantries. Us was the only one from my ballot to make it, but I’m happily surprised to see two streaming series – Russian Doll and Good Omens – grab nominations. I hope this trend continues. I also had Claire Denis’ High Life on my ballot, along with two uneven but commendable indie films, Fast Color and Starfish. Personally, I would like to see more films like these make the Hugo Ballot. Marvel and Star Wars are fun (usually) though they hardly represent the best that genre filmmaking has to offer. Yeah, I’m one of those snobs. Big studio franchises get their awards at the box office; Hugos should be for artistic merit. Don’t @ me.

That’s all for now. I look forward to perusing all the remaining works and people on the ballot before casting my final votes.

Review: Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed

Beneath the RisingHighly Recommended – Premee Mohamed’s globe-trotting sci-fantasy cosmic horror alt-history adventure debut doesn’t exactly shatter genre conventions as much as pants them and run away giggling. The novel has a kind of nervous energy that is both puckish and disarming, like a court jester whose council the king values.
Beneath the Rising begins in Alberta, Canada, not long after the September 11, 2001 hijackers failed to bring down the World Trade Center in New York. Many of the world’s biggest problems have already been solved—or soon will be—thanks to teenaged super-genius Joanna “Johnny” Chambers, a multi-billionaire who has been making earth-shaking scientific breakthroughs since the age of four: rewriting the laws of physics, curing every illness from HIV to Alzheimer’s, etc., and who now has her sights set on renewable energy. You would think this gender-reversed take on the “boy genius” trope would be the hero of the novel, but that burden rests on the shoulders of Johnny’s long-suffering, distressingly ordinary best pal Nick Prasad, who also narrates. Soon after Johnny shares her latest triumph with Nick, an extra-dimensional eldritch terror called Drozanoth harasses and tries to threaten Nick into handing over Johnny’s newest invention. Johnny already knows exactly what Drozanoth is, where it comes from and what it wants. With their families’ lives and the world’s survival at stake, Johnny drags the hapless Nick into a world of international conspiracies and secret societies, Ancient Ones and Elder Gods, as the two teenagers search for a way to stop unimaginable evil from overrunning the Earth.
Despite being a little plot-heavy at times, Beneath the Rising is an attention grabbing romp that separates itself from the pack with its brisk pace, acerbic humor and fiendish world-building. Mohamed exploits the contrasts between the two lead characters to great comedic and dramatic effect. Johnny—white, pretty, blonde, rich and absurdly good at everything—can’t help but take the lovelorn, otherwise friendless Nick for granted. For his own part, Nick must tamp his pride down and keep his unrequited feelings in check just to hang on to her coattails, but he’s also self-aware enough to question the wisdom of his devotion. Mohamed never lets us forget that these differences matter: conflicts born of class, gender and race periodically bubble to the surface in the tension between them.
Sometimes I felt the novel was too narrowly focused on Nick and Johnny, leaving secondary characters to serve as little more than props and obstacles. But overall, Beneath the Rising is way too imaginative and way too much fun to miss.

 

Novel Reviews and Recommendations for (1/31/2020)

Time WarThis is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (Saga Press, July 2019)

Recommended – I had something of a mixed response to the first half of This is How You Lose the Time War. The plot of this epistolary novella concerns two agents (Red and Blue) belonging to rival organizations, fighting the titular time war while leaving messages behind for each other to find. Over the course of their correspondence, they fall in love. My initial problem was that I wasn’t entirely convinced by the transition from snarking enemies to starstruck lovers, which I felt was a little too abrupt. Additionally, there are scant details given about the background conflict that drives the story, or what the two protagonists’ overall goals might be if not for their budding romance. This makes sense from a structural standpoint: the story is only told from Red’s and Blue’s perspectives, and they have little reason to explain to one another what’s going on. But however intriguing a story’s world-building is, vague hints and cryptic asides can get a frustrating if that’s all you’re getting 20,000 words in. Thankfully, Time War is authored by two of the more accomplished wordsmiths in genre fiction, and that was enough to carry this reader through to the sterling second half, a thrilling, suspenseful and gloriously self-aware remix of Romeo and Juliet, with a climax as thrilling and surprising as any you will find in science fiction. It is also an ending that promises more to come, hopefully with a deeper dive into what makes this Time War tick.

ten thousand doorsThe Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow (Redhook, September 2019)

Must Read! – Anyone who has read Alix E. Harrow’s Hugo award-winning short story “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” knows the author has a thing for opening doors to other worlds. That story, about a studious librarian who nudges a troubled teenager toward the titular tome, knowing it would give him the tools he needs to magically extricate himself from his difficulties. Aside from tipping its hat to the good work librarians do, the metafictional tale offers one simple but powerful conceit: that fiction, specifically fantasy fiction, speaks truths to readers in more than just a figurative sense – it can have a direct impact on the choices they make. It can compel readers to change the circumstances of their lives if those circumstances are not to their liking.

January Scaller, the heroine of Harrow’s debut novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January, grew up in a life of privilege, a sort-of orphan cared for by the kindly, rich Mr. Locke. January’s mother died when January was a baby, and her father Julian spends most of his time traveling the world finding rare artifacts for Mr. Locke’s personal collection. One day, when January is a teenager, Julian goes missing on one of his trips for Locke and is presumed dead. Right after Julian disappears, January finds a strange, roughly bound book called “The Ten Thousand Doors” among her belongings, though she has no idea how it got there. The book tells the story of a young woman named Ade who finds a door to another world, and there she meets a young man she falls head-over-heels for. But the door disappears, so she goes on a quest to find another way into this magical realm. As January reads on, she discovers alarming connections to her own life and soon the book’s presence creates a scandal that turns her life upside down and forces her from the comfort of Mr. Locke’s patronage. But discovering the true meaning of book’s contents are also the only thing that inspires hope when her world falls apart.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is entertainment of the highest order: twisty, roller coaster plotting, rich and colorful characters led by an impossible-not-to-root-for heroine, all propelled by meaty, electric prose that begs to be read out loud. This is a can’t miss fantasy adventure that more than capitalizes on the promise of Harrow’s short fiction.

AftershocksAftershocks, by Marko Kloos (47 North, July 2019)

Recommended – Aftershocks is the first novel in a new series by the Kloos, a gifted writer of military SF who is as steady writing scenes of action and peril as the smaller character moments that make stories tick. The author is clearly trying to show off his versatility and range with The Palladium Wars, and the kickoff mostly succeeds. Unlike the single perspective of his popular Frontlines series, Aftershocks follows several characters across multiple worlds. This is also not a story about war, but the uneasy calm of war’s aftermath: more of a slow burn space opera than a smack-in-the-pants action adventure.

The novel is set after a multi-planet war in which the main aggressor, Gretia, was defeated by a multi-planet alliance. Much of the focus of the story is on Aden Robertson, a former Gretian soldier trying to reintegrate into society after serving mandatory prison time as recompense for Gretian atrocities. Various other character threads elucidate the social and economic circumstances of the tense, uneasy peacetime reconstruction.

While it may evince a more temperate demeanor than the Frontlines novels, Aftershocks doesn’t skimp on the spectacle. The plot’s catalyst is a doozy, showing the brazen scuttling of a fleet of captured warships by unknown conspirators. This sequence, along with Aden’s desperate escape from a hijacked freighter and the thrilling chase finale, remind us of Kloos’ talent for jaw-clenching suspense and terrifyingly violent action. If I have any complaints about Aftershocks, it’s that while it teases a big reveal to come, it still leaves a little too much hanging at the end for the resolution to be truly satisfying. There is, however, a lot of solid groundwork laid for what promises to be a great series.

unravelingUnraveling, by Karen Lord (DAW, June 2019)

The hero of Karen Lord’s knotty, sometimes confounding fantasy thriller is Miranda, a therapist pulled out of time and into a labyrinthine netherworld to help solve a series of murders that baffles the gods themselves. The title of Lord’s novel is appropriate, the drawback being that the story unravels a bit too methodically and deliberately. The characters, human and god, are appealing. Miranda brings a surprising amount of consideration to her role in these events, even as she is unceremoniously hijacked into service. The Trickster, too, makes an interesting companion and foil. On the downside, we get way too deep into the book before a genuine antagonist shows up, and while the conclusion was satisfying enough, the trip there was too circuitous to fully captivate this reader.

song for a new dayA Song for a New Day, by Sarah Pinsker (Berkley, September 2019)

In Pinsker’s near-future character study A Song for a New Day, public gatherings have been outlawed after a series of devastating terrorist attacks. This brings an end to live music shows, legally speaking, so StageHolo arrives to fill the void. Users wear a Hoodie to “attend” pre-recorded shows in virtual reality Hoodspace, which begs the question: how do these bands get discovered in the first place? Enter Rosemary Laws – green thumbed, good-hearted, naïve-minded, and StageHolo’s newest talent scout. Rosemary is given an expense account and a directive to find the Next Big Thing amidst the barely thriving illegal underground music scene. What she finds is Luce Cannon, one-hit wonder whose near-fame arrived a split-second before the world changed and left her behind. Luce is a fierce performer and advocate for live music, generous with fans and friends alike. Rosemary wants StageHolo to sign Luce’s band – and many of the others she finds in Luce’s circle – but fails to realize in time that her activities threaten to overturn the delicate ecosystem that fostered all that talent in the first place.

A Song for a New Day features engaging characters and sets up its themes and conflicts nicely. It does feel a bit padded as it goes on though. I constantly felt overwhelmed by backstory details, and the more we learn about this future history the less credible it seems. The resolution also strains believability, and left me with a sour taste.

 

 

 

Novel Reviews (10/7/2019): Gods, Monsters, and Mercenaries

The Monster Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson (Tor, October 2018)

monster baru
Cover Art by Sam Weber

Highly Recommended – The start of Seth Dickinson’s sequel to The Traitor Baru Cormorant backtracks a little, relating moments just prior to Tain Hu’s execution, as Baru fastens her chains and whispers in her ear before leading her down to the bluff where the waves will crush her against stone. That the two lovers share an intimate moment in plain view of witnesses without breaking their cover serves as both a reminder of the shocking events that transpired at the end of Traitor (as if anyone could forget) and of the new normal for readers. Now entrenched as a cryptarch in the Masquerade, Baru still has her secrets from the empire of masks but she can’t hide from us anymore.
The specter of Tain Hu’s death haunts Baru throughout The Monster Baru Cormorant. While her betrayal of Aurdwynn moves her closer to her goal—the destruction of the Masquerade—the loss of her lover at her own hands creates a split in Baru, where she must weigh her desire for revenge against the emotional cost of carrying it out. Her ambition drove her when she started, then quashed, the rebellion on Aurdwynn. Now entrenched in the imperial capital city of Falcrest, Baru finds herself amidst a dizzyingly complex and layered political guessing game with countless enemies looking to expose her secrets. Her mentor, the cryptarch Cairdine Farrier, deposits her right into the middle of a conflict with their mysterious neighbor to the south, the Oriati Mbo. Baru’s journey takes her on a collision course with old friends, vengeful military commanders, and a unique culture that stands in sharp contrast to the Masquerade.
Like its predecessor, The Monster Baru Cormorant has a dense and purposely convoluted plot, though you can add temporal and perspective shifts to all the thumbing through reports and notes and accounting ledgers this time around. If this kind of storytelling wonkiness didn’t put you off in the first book, you should have no problem adjusting to the heightened, brutal swirl of intrigue this time around. The first novel’s greatest strengths—its emotional core and its expansive world-building—remain intact.

Thin Air, by Richard K. Morgan (Del Rey, October 2018)

Thin Air
Design: David G. Stevenson and Susan Schultz; Illustration: Christian McGrath

Hakan Veil is a gene-enhanced gun-for-hire on Mars, strong-armed by the local police into playing bodyguard for Madison Madekwe, an auditor looking into corruption in the state-run lottery. When Madekwe disappears on his watch, Veil finds himself in a morass of corrupt officials and police, organized crime, corporations with conflicting interests and a revolutionary movement.
Thin Air spins off from Morgan’s 2007 novel Thirteen (known as Black Man in the UK), another noir-ish action novel about a gene-enhanced soldier caught in a whirlwind of corruption. While the action in that novel mostly took place on Earth, in Thin Air we get a first-hand look at COLIN (Colonial Initiative)-run Mars, and what life is like for an exiled “overrider” there.
Morgan’s knack for electrifying, hard-boiled prose and his dark, fatalistic worldview have long been his strongest assets as a writer, and he delivers the goods in Thin Air. He also has a good eye for detail and lived-in futuristic settings and kinetic action. But so much of the novel feels like old hat: the same bitter, violence-prone hero and cynical outlook, the over-the-top, bone-crushing action grind. The novel is fairly long and tries for an epic sweep, but often it is more bloated than sprawling.

Edges (Inverted Frontier Book 1), by Linda Nagata (Mythic Island, April 2019)

Edges // Linda Nagata
Cover Art by Sarah Anne Langton

Must Read! – The remnants of humanity hide in the furthest reaches of known space on the planet Deception Well, on the lookout for any appearance of the Chenzeme, automated alien warships programmed to eradicate all life in the universe. They believe their worst fears realized when a Chenzeme ship arrives in their system, but the crisis is short-lived: Urban, a long absent member of the expedition that founded the settlement on Deception Well, discovered how to overtake the Chenzeme ships and has piloted this one, called Dragon, home. The new scientific endeavor he proposes would take humanity backward through its frontier to the Hallowed Vasties—the legendary systems surrounding the cradle of their civilization devastated by the Chenzeme incursion—to uncover both the artifacts of their past and to discover what has replaced them.
Edges is the first volume of a new space opera series by Nagata, who most recently has penned a sequence of stunning near-future military thrillers (The Red Trilogy, The Last Good Man). If it sounds like a lot of backstory for a first-in-a-series novel, it is. Inverted Frontier is a sequel series to her Nanotech Succession, four standalone novels that speculate, across huge leaps in time, how humanity might evolve through the use of nanotechnology. While there is a lot of future history to unpack, Nagata provides more than enough background for Edges to work as an entry point for new readers. I would also propose that new readers then take their own backward journey of discovery and read the Nanotech novels in reverse chronological order, starting with its far-future conclusion Vast, and ending with the near-future prequel Tech Heaven.
Edges takes its time setting the table: it is more than a third of the way through before the expedition makes its first major discovery. The slow burn is worth it; Nagata depicts a human civilization so far removed from our present understanding that time is almost meaningless, and the notion of life correlating to physical presence was long ago abandoned. Its technology a hybrid of human and alien, both near-unfathomable in complexity and capability that even the brilliant minds who wield it don’t always fully understand it. All this background comes in handy when the crew of Dragon encounter something so sublime and terrifying it regards the Chenzeme with little more than curious indifference. Nagata raises the tension one notch at a time as the ship moves closer to its destination, and by the end, somehow creates stakes that even a god would fear. Edges will satisfy any readers of Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Trilogy jonesing for a new “big idea” space opera operating on that scale.

 

2019 Hugo Nominations Post – Impressions, Surprises, Disappointments

First of all – Congrats to all the nominees! Fandom is a diverse bunch with a wide range of tastes, and as usual the variety and quality of the nominated works is exemplary.

Some quick thoughts before we move on to the categories – one of the things I like about Worldcon’s itinerant ways is that local heroes sometimes find their way onto the ballot. In this case, Irish author Peadar O’Guilin was nominated for his YA novel The Invasion. I expected a larger contingent of UK folks to make the ballot, considering the proximity to Dublin and the likelihood of more attending and supporting members from England and Scotland. Zen Cho, Jeanette Ng and Rivers Solomon are there, though all three authors have a strong fan base on both sides of the pond. Gollancz editor Gillian Redfearn likely received a boost from UK voters, as non-American editors rarely make the cut.

I’m not going to labor through every category on the ballot. Fiction is the main thrust of this blog, so I will stick to the fiction categories.

The opinions expressed below are not intended to divide the nominees up into things that “deserve” to be there and things that don’t. Every work/person on the ballot deserves to be there because their fans were passionate enough to make it happen. Fans are an opinionated bunch: we think some things are better than other things and we like to argue about it. That’s what I’m doing here.

Best Novel

Impressions

Rev Gun 2Only one novel from my nominating ballot made the final ballot: Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee. You can probably guess which work I’m going to rank at the top, and I genuinely hope it wins. The trilogy has now scored a Hugo nom hat trick and the other two recent series to do this – Leckie’s Radch novels and Jemisin’s Broken Earth – have at least one win each to their credit (three in Jemisin’s case). I think the Machineries of Empire deserves to be in such company.

Spinning Silver was on my initial ballot longlist but didn’t quite get my vote. It will place on my final ballot, for sure. Trail of Lightning was a terrific debut novel that has cemented Rebecca Roanhorse’s ascension to the SFF A-list. It will place as well.

The other three novels did not light my fire, but all three authors have very loyal and passionate fan bases and I expected them to be serious contenders. The Calculating Stars is a high quality work: expert plotting, solid characters, good sciencey sci-fi action. But I felt the way I feel when I see one of those “prestige” films that gum up the Oscar nominations every year. Much to admire, but more medicinal than inspiring. Becky Chambers confounds me because if you were to describe her novels to me in precise detail they would sound exactly like everything I could ever want from science fiction, but when I actually read them they just don’t do it for me. Record of a Spaceborn Few did not change my mind. On the other hand, Catherynne Valente is an author I routinely enjoy, but the Douglas Adams-esque Space Opera probably suffered from the fact that I list Douglas Adams as one of the most overrated writers in SF history.

Surprises

head on 3The distinct lack of Scalzi. He had two novels published last year, Head On and The Consuming Fire. Neither made my nominating ballot, but both were very good and considering his Hugo track record the odds were in his favor. Perhaps either or both fell just short, or maybe the Scalzi loyalists split their vote between the two. It will be interesting to see if or where they longlisted on the final report.

Disappointments

I really wanted The Poppy War and/or Witchmark to get a nod, and I thought at least one of them stood a good chance. Both novels were powerful and thrilling and turned genre tropes upside down in unique ways. It’s great to see R.F. Kuang get shortlisted for the Campbell, but I was holding out hope for the Big One.

My Ballot

The Poppy War, R.F. Kuang

Revenant Gun, Yoon Ha Lee

Noumenon Infinity, Marina J. Lostetter

Witchmark, C.L. Polk

Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar

Best Novella

Impressions

tea master 2None of this year’s novella nominees was on my nominating ballot, but all of them were works I enjoyed immensely. I expected Tor.com to run the table like they did last year. Their novella game is strong and their marketing machine is without equal.

Sequels and series entries were popular this year. Artificial Condition was my favorite of the Murderbot sequels so I’m happy it’s the one that got the nod. I think I may have liked Beneath the Sugar Sky even more than Every Heart a DoorwayBinti: The Night Masquerade was a satisfying conclusion to an outstanding trilogy.

As far as my favorite among the six nominees, I’m torn between Bodard’s elegant Xuya tale The Tea Master and the Detective and the two remaining works. The Black God’s Drums and Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach are singular and challenging stories that I may have to re-read before I make a final decision.

Surprises

I fully expected Carolyn Ives Gilman’s “Umbernight” to break through the Tor.com blockade. Gilman has a strong base of Hugo voters, most recently scoring a nod in 2017 for her novelette “Touring with the Alien”. And it was a phenomenal story.

Disappointments

FFR2One in particular. Umbernight Umbernight Umbernight. It was my favorite thing made by a human last year. I really wanted it to shortlist and win and now my heart is crushed and broken. Literally nothing else I picked could have made the ballot and I would have been overjoyed by this one thing.

The lack of Peter Watts’ The Freeze-Frame Revolution is a mild disappointment. It was probably a long shot. Watts most recent nomination was in 2011 for the short story “The Things”, so it’s possible he’s not as favored with the current crop of voters as he used to be. Also, it was in the word count fuzzy zone where the administrators could have moved its votes to either the novel or novella category at their discretion, and that may have affected its final tally.

My Ballot

“Umbernight”, Carolyn Ives Gilman

“We Ragged Few”, Kate Alice Marshall

“The Emotionless, In Love”, Jason Sanford

The Freeze-Frame Revolution, Peter Watts

Best Novelette

Impressions

nine last 2Score! Daryl Gregory’s “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” was one of my Desert Island Picks in my Epic Three Part Recommended Reading List. I was disappointed when it missed out on the Nebula, but for some reason I still had faith in its Hugo chances and yay! This almost-but-doesn’t-quite make up for the Umbernight snub.

The other five nominees are a solid bunch, though Gregory’s story is the only one of the six I nominated. “The Thing About Ghost Stories” may only be my third favorite Naomi Kritzer story published last year, but it’s still excellent in all the ways that make her writing special: it’s probing and whip-smart, wickedly funny and deeply felt. “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” and “When We Were Starless” are both good works. I love Brooke Bolander’s prose. I wasn’t as excited about The Only Harmless Great Thing as many others were, but her writing can rip through you like a serrated knife so she always gets my attention.

It’s been a few years since there was a nominated work I hadn’t already read, but that’s true of “If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again”. I’m a huge fan of Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal novels so I’m thrilled to have it on my plate.

Surprises

I was surprised when “When We Were Starless” grabbed a Sturgeon nod earlier this year, and surprised again now that it listed for the Hugo. Looks like I may be the only person surprised by this. I appreciated it on my first read but it didn’t strike me as award-caliber stuff. Now it’s number one on my “must re-read” list. It’s possible I missed out on its greatness the first time and a revisit will yield a different response.

Disappointments

Several, though Will McIntosh’s “What Is Eve?” was one I was holding out hope for. It’s so damn smart and hilarious and incisive about the triumphs and drawbacks of being one of the smart kids. Again, it was probably a longshot, and it may be one of those things that spoke to my sensibilities more than anyone else’s.

My Ballot

“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth”, Daryl Gregory

“Fleeing Oslyge”, Sally Gwylan

“The Privilege of the Happy Ending”, Kij Johnson

“What Is Eve?” Will McIntosh

“The Sweetness of Honey and Rot”, A. Merc Rustad

Best Short Story

Impressions

fireside 52-2Of all the fiction categories this might be the hardest one to handicap. The vote tends to spread thin among a wide number of works and the results are often a complete surprise to everyone.

When I started working on my nominating ballot I had twenty-four stories to narrow down to five. None of my final five made the shortlist, and only one of the initial twenty-four did: P. Djèlí Clark’s “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington”. That and Sarah Bailey’s “STET” are great examples of the boundary pushing, formally innovative fiction that Fireside publishes. I’m really glad to see both stories there. “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon) and “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander are fun stories from two Hugo fan favorites. Alex E. Harrow’s “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” has been one of the most talked about stories of the year since its publication so I’m not surprised to see it here. I’m a huge Sarah Pinsker fan, but “The Court Magician” didn’t make much of an impression on me when it first appeared last January. Now that it has both Hugo and Nebula nods under its belt it may be another story ripe for revisiting.

My favorite here is “Secret Lives”. It’s a shoe-in for the top slot on my final ballot, and I will have to ponder where to place the other five.

Surprises

With a category this hard to predict, there’s not much room for surprise. There were a lot of quality short stories this year, with the favorites maybe being Clark’s and Harrow’s stories and possibly Pinsker’s. The rest were a craps shoot.

Disappointments

Twenty-three of them, to be exact. My two favorite short stories – Nibedita Sen’s “Leviathan Sings to Me In the Deep” and James Beamon’s “A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” – both failed to make the cut. “Leviathan” is a horror story, and for one of those to score a Hugo nod is the exception not the rule. Beamon’s military steampunk adventure seems to be more in the Hugo wheelhouse – I thought it had a lot of the same appeal as Caroline M. Yoachim’s “Carnival Nine”, but I guess it just wasn’t as popular as I hoped it would be.

Vanessa Fogg’s “Traces of Us” was another longshot I was really rooting for. I fell in love with it right away and that never changed after multiple re-reads. Hugo voters aren’t all that familiar with Fogg, possibly because she publishes in venues – GigaNotoSaurus, Kaleidotrope, The Future Fire – that are off the beaten path. Her most recent story, “The Message“, is my reigning favorite of 2019 so far, so I hope next year’s voters have a chance to read it.

My Ballot

“A Song of Home, The Organ Grinds”, James Beamon

“Traces of Us”, Vanessa Fogg

“Field Biology of the Wee Fairies”, Naomi Kritzer

“Sour Milk Girls”, Erin Roberts

“Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep”, Nibedita Sen

My Stats

Not good. I did not have my finger on the pulse this year. Only two of my picks – one novel and one novelette – were nominated. This is a far cry from last year, when I had two novels, two novellas, three novelettes, and two short stories on the final ballot.

The Locus finalists are a few weeks away from being announced, and since they do ten per category I like my odds a little more. I’ll check back in then.

 

Finder by Suzanne Palmer

Cover Art by Kekai Kotaki; Design by Adam Auerbach

FinderRecommended – One advantage of being an accomplished short story writer is knowing how to get the ball rolling. It doesn’t take Suzanne Palmer long to ingratiate readers to Fergus Ferguson, the hero of her debut novel Finder: he has an appreciation for ironic self-deprecation and for little old ladies who can survive out in “The Gap”, a sparsely populated region of space near the outskirts of the galaxy. Being nice to old ladies may be a cheap ploy for sympathy by the author, but it works, and it’s undeniably efficient. No sooner are Fergus’ profession (a kind of interstellar repo man called a “finder”) and goal (to retrieve a stolen ship called Venetia’s Sword) and prospective enemy (small-pond robber-baron Arum Gilger, who stole the ship) established through his salty banter with tough-as-nails native Mattie “Mother” Vahn, than an escalating sequence of obstacles come cascading down in front of Fergus, and the novel picks up the breathless pace it sustains through the end. This narrative formula serves Palmer’s celebrated shorter works well, as her Hugo-winning novelette “The Secret Lives of Bots” can attest. Palmer’s writing doesn’t sacrifice subtlety or nuance, she just knows how to use such tools without disrupting the tempo. The pace she sustains in Finder mostly benefits it, and it’s so entertaining that the ways it falls short are easy to forgive.
Fergus is a Scotsman, Earth-born but allied to the generations of Martian émigrés living under harsh earther occupation. He’d rather avoid bringing up his past: people know him as a hero of the Mars resistance even as far out as anarchic Cernee, a rock ruled by a loose confederation of chieftains and the loyalists in their employ. He doesn’t see himself the way others do, but he has a penchant for executing outrageous schemes to achieve his ends. The heist he must pull off to retrieve Venetia’s Sword is akin to jacking a smart car with a keyless entry, though getting past the ruthless Gilger and his enforcer Borr Graf prove to be the most harrowing part of his task: Gilger has chosen the day of Fergus’ arrival to make a play for total domination of Cernee. Now Fergus and his allies—Mother Vahn’s family of identical offspring who swear they’re not clones and Gilger’s longtime rival Harcourt—find their plan to put the squeeze on Gilger turned into a brutal fight for survival. Further complicating matters are the Asiig, a mysterious and terrifying alien race who mostly carry out ominous flybys over Cernee in their black triangle-shaped ships, abducting random citizens then returning them days later in, shall we say, a different state from how they found them. And the Asiig have taken an interest in Fergus and the conflict on Cernee.
It would be an understatement to say Palmer has a gift for piling on the plot factors. That she can sustain such an approach over the course of a story that is something like a dozen-fold longer than the stories she usually writes is impressive. She takes a block-by-block approach to building her world and her characters’ back stories, distributing little bits of context clues and expository statements to brace up the larger context. This combination of depth and efficiency elevates Finder above the rabble of space operas that crowd the current SF marketplace.
The story stretches out like a rubber band from Cernee back to Sol System and Mars, then snaps back to Cernee for the grand finale. This is the only element of the novel that didn’t sit well with me. I understand the author’s need to reconnect Fergus emotionally with his past on Mars, and while the reason she contrives to get him there is integrated into the plot early on it still came across as forced. There was perhaps also a sensible desire to liberate the action from the confines of a single location. I felt that the mcguffin Palmer uses to lure him back to his roots isn’t developed well enough beyond its functional purpose and is a non-factor once Palmer returns us to the main storyline.
None of that changes the fact that Finder is a thrilling space adventure from an expert hand who loves the art of genre storytelling. There is so much happening with this setting and so much potential for growing it even more. It’s also a welcome slice of madcap fun, full of rich, fully realized characters and delightful far future odds and ends.

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

Memory called empireMust Read! – Ambassador Mahit Dzmare, the protagonist of Arkady Martine’s debut space opera A Memory Called Empire, has more than one identity crisis on her hands: she has a deep affinity for the empire that wants to annex her home and she also literally has someone else’s personality nested in her brain. Dzmare’s internal conflicts correlate with the external ones that drive the novel’s plot. Living within the Teixcalaan Empire has been her heart’s desire since childhood, yet her primary aim as ambassador is to keep Teixcalaan from assuming control of her home, Lsel Station. This same conflict between personal desire and professional duty may have gotten her predecessor Yskandr Aghavn killed. It is Yskandr whose “imago” (an impression of the man built from his recorded memories) is implanted in her head. Imago technology is a Lsel state secret, yet the Teixcalaanlitzlim find it during Yskandr’s autopsy, and this discovery could embolden those who wish for Teixcalaan to consume Lsel.
To the author’s credit, her plotting is far less complicated than her world-building. Martine is a Byzantinist, and her Teixcalaan society is as relentlessly sophisticated as her discipline implies. At one point Mahit even refers to her passion for Teixcalaan ciphers as “byzantine”, and one can presume that when Teixcalaan survives but in memory and in the pages of history books will also invoke its name adjectively. The Teixcalaanlitzlim are a people in love with the idea of itself, where individual identity ties to a variety of cultural meanings and referents and even simple acts of communication come with layers of contextual baggage. The story, however, has a straightforward goal for its hero to achieve, muddied as it is by reactionary obstructions and elusive secrets. Mahit and her long-outdated, malfunctioning imago must find out how and why Yskandr was killed before forces inside and out overtake Teixcalaan and Lsel.
While the plot may be clear and linear, the novel’s architecture leaves room for more elaborate readings. Except for a few structured divergences, the tight third-person POV almost exclusively follows Mahit Dzmare from her arrival at the Teixcalaanli capital city-planet through the end. Those divergences—a prologue, epilogue, three interludes, and multiple historical excerpts and quotes heading each chapter—refer the reader to the broader political and historical circumstances at play. Together with Dzmare’s immersion in her beloved Teixcalaanli culture, Martine’s project offers a snapshot of a future history at least as rich and variegated as found in Frank Herbert’s Dune Chronicles, with almost limitless potential for return visits.
A Memory Called Empire does an exceptional job of balancing precise, consequential storytelling with layered world-building. Explicating a culture as multifaceted as Teixcalaan has the potential to overwhelm readers with exegetic digressions and overstuffed lexicons but Martine keeps the exposition plot-centered without painting her presumably copious notes and research all over the page. The novel is also rife with the kinds of amenities that inspire fannish devotion, such as the delightful (and precious) Teixcalaanli naming system. What really makes the novel work, though, are the fundamentals: Dzmare and her confidants Three Seagrass and Twelve Azealia make for excellent company, and the suspenseful, well-paced mystery plot keeps the pages turning with escalating tension and perfectly measured revelations.

Novel Reviews – March 2019

Ancestral Night (White Space Book 1), by Elizabeth Bear (Saga, March 2019)

Ancestral NightRecommended – 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.

The True Queen (Sorcerer to the Crown Book 2), by Zen Cho (Ace, March 2019)

The True QueenHighly Recommended – 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.

The Consuming Fire (The Interdependency Book 2), by John Scalzi (Tor, October 2018)

consuming fireRecommended – 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.

A Star-Wheeled Sky, Brad R. Torgersen (Baen, December 2018)

Star Wheeled SkyHumanity 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.

Ten Thousand Thunders, by Brian Trent (Flame Tree, October 2018)

ten thousand thundersBrian 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.