Book Review: Kingdom of Needle and Bone, Mira Grant

Book Review: Kingdom of Needle and Bone, Mira Grant

Kingdom of Needle and Bone

Science Fiction: Kingdom of Needle and Bone, Mira Grant

Morris Disease was named after the first victim, little Lisa Morris, age 8. A variant of measles, Morris Disease is highly contagious, often fatal, and has the additional terrible feature of resetting the body’s immune system. Anyone who catches Morris Disease, even if they survive the initial infection, no longer has immunity against any previous disease they have caught or been immunized against. Humanity faces perhaps its worst pandemic: a disease that either kills you or opens the door for something else to do the job.

 

Dr. Isabella Gauley, pediatrician and aunt to Lisa Morris, is devastated by her loss. She wants to change the world, provide a place where children will never again be cursed by virulent diseases. In the novella, Kingdom of Needle and Bone, we read of her efforts to create an island sanctuary, one where children can grow up safely, without fear of Morris Disease, or measles or whooping cough or any of the other illnesses that have been humanity’s constant companions throughout history.

 

Sometimes the greatest monsters are the smallest. Viruses and bacteria may not hide behind doors and jump out at the unwary, but when people intentionally fail to vaccinate their children these monsters are far more deadly than those with fangs and claws. Mira Grant (a pseudonym for author Seanan McGuire) often writes of a post-pandemic earth. Notably in her Newsflesh series, Grant examines the potential effects on the world of an illness that crashes the population and continues to wreak havoc for years after. (That illness resulted in zombies, so this is not quite the same scenario as we saw there.)

 

Mira Grant books tend to walk on the horror side of the sci-fi/fantasy genre. I will confess, I spent much of the time during my reading of this novella waiting for the other shoe to drop. I do not want to give away any spoilers, but I will say that this is not just a nice little story about survivors of a pandemic creating a new world for themselves. Kingdom of Needle and Bone is a Mira Grant book, and monsters are waiting for the unwary reader.

 

This is a short book and an easy read, but be forewarned: the effects of the illness on a child are described in detail. This may not be the best choice for a bedtime story for your little ones, unless they are hoping to grow up and become virologists. It is a well crafted story, though, in both plot and characters. It is also one that provokes thought. Kingdom of Needle and Bone may only have a little over 100 pages, but it probes deeply into questions of medical ethics, wealth and privilege, and how decisions about the future of the species should be made.

Kingdom of Needle and Bone

Book Review: Kingdom of Needle and Bone, Mira Grant

Book Review: The Fated Sky, A Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

Book Review: The Fated SkyA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

The Fated Sky

Science Fiction: The Fated SkyA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

In this sequel to The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal continues the story of Elma York, the “Lady Astronaut.” The Fated Sky tells how York came to be assigned to the first mission to Mars. As she did in the first book, Kowal gives us a moving and beautiful story that is full of humanity, grace, and rock solid science. It’s a geekfest with a heart. Anyone who reads these stories and is not blown away by the scientific detail or is not moved by the heart and soul of the characters really needs to check their pulse to make sure it’s still there.

 

Elma York has become the face of the space program. Perhaps the time is right, though, for her and Nathaniel to start a family. It is the 1960s, though, Having a baby would mean the loss of her job, would mean she would be confined to Earth and no longer able to live on the moon for several months every year. She would have to give up space.

 

When her flight home from the moon misses its landing site and instead lands several states away, the passengers are held hostage by a group of “Earth Firsters,” people who deny that the climate is changing and want the money spent on colonizing space to instead be used to help those still affected by the meteorite impact. Elma uses her fame and name recognition to help save her fellow passengers. This in turn prompts the space agency to name her to the first Mars mission.

 

The Mars mission will take three years. That timetable likely means she will never be a mother. Also, the Mars team has already been preparing for over a year. Putting her on the team means bumping someone else off the team, in this case, her friend Helen. Helen was one of the few non-white members of the team, and the only Asian member. The political realities of the early 1960s, though, meant that for funding to continue the program needed its most famous participant as the face of the team–and Asians were specifically NOT needed to be the face of the team. In fact, another one of the team members was specifically selected in part for reasons of funding–a South African supporter of the apartheid regime. This becomes problematic several times during the mission, as his distaste for the other non-white members of the team creates tension among the crew.

 

Apart from the racial tensions that challenge the crew, other interpersonal tensions arise. Kowal nicely weaves those tensions into the story, showing how they would be an expected and even natural part of a multi-year mission when the only other people you encountered were those on board your ship. Multiple external challenges also confront the mission. Two of the fourteen crew members died during the trip. Illness sweeps through one of the ships. One of the two ships was damaged, forcing the entire team to spend two weeks crammed onto the same ship while the other was repaired. Nathaniel York is hospitalized on earth, and another crewman’s wife dies while they are in transit. A terrorist attack hits far too close to home. These conflicts and perils, both in space and on Earth, make the journey feel real.

 

Space travel is the stuff of adventures and romance. It is also deadly serious and is done by people who love and fight and screw up and somehow keep on going in the face of every danger and crisis. We are fools to think putting flesh into tin cans strapped to the top of bombs is going to magically work without a cost in lives and loves. Kowal brings these human costs front and center, showing us both how hard and how important the journey will be.

 

Again, Kowal treats all of her characters with love and sensitivity. Elma York is not perfect. But she is good. In these days of fallen heroes, finding a heroine who is good in the midst of an excellent story is a treasure.

The Fated Sky

Book Review: The Fated SkyA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

Book Review: The Calculating Stars, A Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

Book Review: The Calculating StarsA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars

Science Fiction: The Calculating StarsA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

Shortly after reading this novel, I tweeted, “I am in love with the main character and the author. Luckily my wife is the understanding type.” The Calculating Stars is an achingly beautiful story, one that sometimes moved me to tears, sometimes made me laugh out loud, and one that constantly reminded me why I fell in love with science fiction so many years ago. Mary Robinette Kowal has created a character, Elma York, who is smart, courageous, human, flawed, noble, and relatable. The only reason I was willing to put The Calculating Stars down when it ended is that I already had the sequel in my hands.

 

Elma and Nathaniel York are enjoying a few days in the Poconos in 1952, enjoying the beauty of nature and the fresh air and…OK, let’s be grownups here. They are a young married couple, and they are having lots of sex. And that is more or less the tone that Kowal sets throughout the novel. It is told in the first person. This is Elma’s story. And she is as enjoyable a character as you will find in any novel. She is fresh, funny, sexy (but never crude or vulgar), sometimes foolish but never intentionally cruel, and brilliant. While they are there, the unthinkable happens. A meteorite hits, wiping out much of the US east coast–including their home in Washington, D.C. Elma’s parents also lived in Washington. They are forced to flee the effects of the meteorite in a frantic journey that sends them to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, OH, where what is left of the US government and military tries to come back together.

 

Elma is a physics and math genius, but it is 1952 and she is also a woman. Nathaniel had worked for the nascent space program, but the men who led the government were not looking for advice from a female. Fortunately, Nathaniel had no such qualms. Giving Elma the raw data available from the meteor, she calculates the planetary effects of the strike. For a few years, the Earth would cool down. Ash and dust ejected into the atmosphere would block sunlight and lower global temperatures significantly.

 

That was the good news.

 

The bad news was that the meteorite landed in water. After the ash and dust settled, the water vapor would trap heat and raise the surface temperature of the planet. Catastrophically. After enduring less than a decade of frigid temperatures the planet would return to normal. Then it would keep heating up. Within a century it would become essentially uninhabitable.

 

Using Elma’s numbers, the decision is made to jumpstart the space program with a goal of colonizing the moon and Mars. Astronauts are selected, training begins, and the goal of colonizing the solar system moves forward. Except…none of the astronauts are women. Or people of color. Women are involved behind the scenes. “Computers,” in the sense of calculating machines that crunch numbers, guide ships, and perform all the duties we take for granted today, did not exist in the 1950s. However, mathematically gifted women did exist, and just as they played a role in the real space program that developed during the 1960s, Kowal has them acting as the “computers” for her fictionalized space program of the alternate history 1950s. Elma takes a job as a computer, and from there launches an ambitious program of her own: becoming a lady astronaut.

 

I simply cannot emphasize enough how good The Calculating Stars is. With a deft touch, Kowal lays bare the racism and sexism that was the norm for the era. Although Elma quite naturally reacts to her accomplishments and abilities being dismissed because she is a woman, she can sometimes be completely oblivious to those same biases affecting her African American friends. When she becomes aware of the racist barriers to them, she occasionally shifts into “white savior” mode, failing to appreciate that her own interventions can be almost as belittling in their own way. She always means well, and her motives do matter, but her actions sometimes undermine her own ideals.

 

Elma also struggles with anxiety and is prescribed medication for it. Even today, mental illness is stigmatized and dismissed. Having some experience myself with anxiety and the absolute terror I felt before being officially diagnosed and taking medicine for it, I read those passages with a powerful sense of identification. Having a protagonist who shares some of the challenges I have faced is an amazing feeling. Seeing her wrestle with it in the highly judgmental 1950s made me appreciate both how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

 

The Jewishness of Elma York is also wonderfully handled. Some time after they arrive in Dayton, Elma recognizes her need to deal with the loss of her family. She visits a synagogue to speak with a rabbi. When Nathaniel comes home, she is sitting shiva. Elma has torn a ribbon and is wearing it as an outward sign of the broken heart within.

 

That was the first scene in The Calculating Stars where I cried. It was not the last.

 

The Calculating Stars is a triumphant book. It is moving and heartfelt and wonderful. I cannot recommend it enough. It is a terrific scifi/alternate history novel. More than that, Kowal gives us a powerful story of an extraordinary woman. Books just don’t get much better than this.

The Calculating Stars

Book Review: The Calculating StarsA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

Book Review: Record of a Spaceborn Few, Becky Chambers

Book Review: Record of a Spaceborn FewBecky Chambers

Record of a Spaceborn Few, Becky Chambers

Book Review: Record of a Spaceborn FewWayfarers Book 3, Becky Chambers

When a fictional world is well crafted, returning to it becomes an absolute delight. Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few is her third foray into the world she created originally in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and revisited in A Closed and Common Orbit. Record is very different. It travels to a different part of a now familiar galaxy, and in typical Chambers’ style it is warm, caring, intimate, thoughtful, deep, and surprising. She is a terrific writer, creates amazing characters, and takes them on unexpected journeys. Each of the books stands alone, but the depth of her writing can best be appreciated by taking all three of them together (and any more she chooses to create in the future).

 

Record of a Spaceborn Few follows several characters living on one of the Exodan ships. These are massive ships that were built using the metal from cities on Earth, cities which were becoming depopulated as the Earth was destroyed by human environmental destruction. Survivors used the ships to flee the Earth, eventually being rescued by an alien race which introduced them to the rest of the galaxy. Those ships still held a large number of humans even after years with opportunities to settle on other planets.

 

Tessa is the sister of Ashby Santoso, captain of the Wayfarer, whom we met first in The Long Way. She lives with her two children and (when he is not working mining asteroids) her husband in the family home, along with her father. Kip is a teenager struggling to figure out what he wants to do with his life. Sawyer is a young man who grew up on a planet but wanted something else and decided to return to his ancestral home onboard ship. Isabel is an archivist, charged with keeping a record of everyone and everything that happens on board the ships. And Eyas is one charged with caring for the dead, recycling their bodies so that the ship can benefit from their component elements.

 

These characters lives intersect from time to time, but the book is really the story of each of them living (well, mostly) through the same time period and being affected by the same events. Chambers does several things so well in her writing. Each of the characters has a voice, unique interests and motivations, perspectives that in common show their common shipboard experience and in separate that show their unique perspectives. Tessa is a tired mother working a dead-end job which might end with technological advances. Kip is desperate to get off the ships, but struggles to figure out who he is and what he really wants. These differences and those of the other characters are made clear in the conversations they have with others and the choices they ultimately make.

 

There are so many threads to follow in Record of a Spaceborn Few! What would a society be like that has lived in space, off planet, for generations? Who would leave if they could? Who would stay regardless? How would someone fit in who did not grow up in that society? Chambers does not ignore the technological aspects involved in building her world, but the real effort is in showing the society. Can humans truly ever live in a perfectly equal and egalitarian society? Or will we always want something more: power, wealth, authority, status, control? And if that equal status is disrupted by, for example, alien technologies, can the balance ever be fully restored?

 

Record of a Spaceborn Few is fantastic! If you read Becky Chambers first two books you will like this one. If you haven’t met her works yet, now’s the time to get started.

Record of a Spaceborn Few, Becky Chambers

Book Review: Record of a Spaceborn FewBecky Chambers

Book Review: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

Book Review: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

Book Review: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Wayfarers Book 1, Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a fun but thoughtful journey with the crew of the Wayfarer, a ship that bores wormholes through space to allow ships rapid transport between inhabited stars. The crew is quite diverse. Captain Ashby Santoso, Kizzy Shao, Jenks, and newbie Rosemary Harper are humans. The pilot, Sissix, is an Aandrisk. Dr. Chef (medical officer and cook) is a Grum. Ohan are a Sianat pair, and they serve as navigator. And Lovey is a sentient AI. Balancing the needs, wants, feelings, and skills of these species and individuals is challenging enough during the regular jobs, but when they have the chance to take on a larger job which has them traveling together for almost a year, things get quite interesting.

 

Becky Chambers does an amazing job building a world (well, galaxy) filled with very different and sometimes barely compatible people. AI may be sentient, but they are not regarded as “people,” and it is illegal to download a sentient AI into a physical body (normally they serve as the computer assistants for ships, buildings, and other similarly large and complex structures). When Lovey and Jenks fall in love, though, they might be willing to break that law. Aandrisk have the appearance (to humans) of feathered reptiles. They are very affectionate with each other and with their friends. On their planet, sex is a normal part of interacting with others, which makes traveling with the (by comparison) much more prudish humans a real challenge sometimes. The Grum are going extinct as a species. Only a few are left after centuries of war and genocide, and they have decided themselves that their crimes as a species are too great to allow them to continue in the galaxy. The Sianat are always referred to in the plural: they are a hybrid of an individual and a virus which allows them to navigate between space, the area where wormholes travel, but also dramatically shortens their lives.

 

The humans themselves are almost equally diverse. Rosemary grew up in privilege on Mars, but fled to escape her family name after her father was arrested for arms trafficking. Ashby spent his entire life shipboard and is uncomfortable on planets. Kizzy is bubbly, excitable, and friends with almost everyone. Jenks is extremely short, rejected as a child by people who believed that genetic misfits should die. Corbin is an unpleasant recluse, much happier tending his algae than interacting with others.

 

During their journey they face a variety of challenges: their ship is attacked and many things are stolen. They are stopped by an alien government that arrests Corbin. Ohan become sick. Dealing with these problems brings the crew together in new ways, finding strength in themselves and in each other that they did not know was there, realizing that family is not just the group you are born into or the species you are born from, but it is the people who are there when you need them the most.

 

Although Chambers works hard to build a consistent scientific framework, this is not a book to read in hopes that faster than light travel has been secretly figured out by a lone author working in her study. The magic of Chambers book is in the relationships between the characters and the histories of the species. Earth has been largely destroyed by pollution and global warming, so it was abandoned in two stages. The first stage was mostly rich people relocating to Mars. The second was the “Exodan,” multiple ships carrying the remainder of Earth’s population out of the solar system in a desperate attempt to find a new home. This second wave of refugees was not welcomed on Mars, and only an alien ship stumbling on them saved the bulk of humanity. Although efforts have been made since, there is still a vast gulf dividing the Solans (people born and raised in Earth’s original solar system) from the Exodans. That kind of effort to create new cultures is brilliant and amazing, and Chambers excels at it.

 

Chambers has published two sequels, which I will soon review, but this first book (2015) is so good that you should read them in order. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a trip well worth taking.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

Book Review: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

Book Review: A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers

Book Review: A Closed and Common OrbitBecky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers

Science Fiction Series: A Closed and Common Orbit Wayfarers Book 2, Becky Chambers

 

Most people do not get to choose their own names. Gamers and artists and writers may opt for names of their own, but they are generally the exceptions. It’s fun to think, though, that a name might mean more if it reflects who we’ve become or who we want to be instead of a parent’s hopes or dreams or ambitions or tastes. “Sidra” means “of the stars” or “like the stars.” The chosen name of an AI illegally ported into a human-appearing body, she is one of the few people who chooses her own name. In Becky Chambers’ book A Closed and Common Orbit we get to share with her the joys and terrors of choosing and discovering who she actually is following this transition.

 

A Closed and Common Orbit is set in the same universe as The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. In that earlier book we first meet Pepper, a human tech genius who lives with her artist boyfriend, Blue. Pepper gets called to work on the Wayfarer after it is damaged at the end of the first book. The crew realizes that their sentient AI, Lovey, has been damaged beyond repair. The only hope of saving her is to do essentially a factory reset. If it succeeds, they will restore Lovey. If it fails, everything that defined Lovey as a uniquely sentient person will be gone, replaced by someone or something different.

 

It fails, and the sentience known from the factory settings as “Lovelace” inhabits the Wayfarer.

 

“Lovey” was an integral part of the crew. More than that, the human technician Jenks had fallen in love with her, and had purchased a human simalcrum for her to inhabit so they could be together. Learning Lovey is dead almost destroys Jenks, and dealing with “Lovelace” (who has Lovey’s voice) is almost more than he can bear. Rather than simply replace Lovelace with another AI, Pepper offers her the option to inhabit the body Jenks had purchased for Lovey and leave the ship to live on a planet. Lovelace, seeing the effect her presence has on Jenks and the rest of the Wayfarer’s crew, agrees.

 

Living in a body, though, is very different than living in a ship. Instead of cameras positioned in the corners of ceilings to see everything in a room, you have eyes. Only two of them. Positioned awkwardly in the front of the head, leaving unobserved space above and below and behind. The body does not need food or sleep or air and can withstand submersion and frigid temperatures, but since she needs to pass as human she has to behave as humans do.

 

More than that, her body is not her own. That is, she is an alien, and interloper, possessing a body she was not designed to wear, that was purchased for another, that is illegal to own on any planet. Sidra chose her own name, but discovering she has agency and can make her own choices is constantly challenging.

 

Orbit also gives us the backstory of Pepper. Pepper was originally named Jane 23. She was one of many Janes, just another manufactured girl designed to clean scrap for recycling or reselling. She is a genetweaked human, not a machine, but she grew up on a planet with multiple other Janes being raised and trained by non-sentient android “mothers” to do busy work until she died. Escaping her factory after an accident opens a space to the outside world, Jane stumbles into a scrapped shuttle with a sentient AI, “Owl,” who helps her survive and guides her through adolescence. She, too, struggled to learn how to be human, and she never forgot the love and kindness shown to her by the mind and conscience of the ship.

 

For both Sidra and Jane/Pepper, the process to discovering who and what she is takes many twists and turns. Learning limitations. Making friends. Making mistakes. Deciding. Discovering. Accepting herself. Accepting others. Being human is not easy for humans. When you are a genetically engineered slave or a factory made AI, the process is more complicated. What Becky Chambers shows us in this warm and beautifully written book, the process may be painful and messy but the results can be absolutely joyous. Being a person is a dangerous journey, one that is best taken with friends. I might argue that it should also be taken with delightful books like this one.

A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers

Book Review: A Closed and Common OrbitBecky Chambers

Book Review: The Caledonian Gambit, Dan Moren

Book Review: The Caledonian GambitDan Moren

The Caledonian Gambit, Dan Moren

Science Fiction: The Caledonian GambitDan Moren

 

The Imperium was spreading inexorably through the galaxy. Earth was among the many systems under the thumb of Illyricum. Now, an unbeatable invasion force headed for Sabea. Eli Brody, one small part of that invasion force, was among the first through the interstellar gate in the vanguard of the attack. What he quickly found out is that he was also among the last. In an act of desperation, the Sabeans destroyed the gate, shutting their planet off from the rest of the galaxy, but also destroying the entire invasion fleet. Thousands of dead, trapped in the nothingness that was “between” areas of real space.

 

Five years later, a new gate opens and an agent of the Commonwealth visits Sabean space, their first visitor from the larger galaxy. He has one mission: get Eli Brody and take him back to Eli’s home planet of Caledonia. The Commonwealth is at war with the Imperium, and the Imperium is building a weapon on Caledonia that threatens to change the shape of that war. The information that the Commonwealth has received about the weapon has come from one source: Eamon Brody, Eli’s brother. And that source is missing.

 

The Caledonian Gambit is a lot of things, but most of all it is just fun. It careens through the dark alleys of an Irish-inspired planet. It has spies and secret networks and terrorists/freedom fighters. It has family tensions and a pretty girl who can knock you out with her fists. It is spy thriller and space opera and snarky humor all rolled up into one neat package. Dan Moren is a fan of science fiction, and his love for the genre shows in the pages of this delightful novel.

 

Science fiction is a very versatile genre. It has plenty of room for social commentary: economic disparity and racial inequality and social engineering. It let’s us explore scenarios of nuclear holocaust and climate catastrophe and computer meltdowns and global pandemics. It gives us hope in a future that is welcoming for LGBTQ and POC and the differently abled and the non-neural typical. And it leaves room for romps through space that just want to play with heroes and bad guys and secret agents and leave the deeper questions to others.

 

And I’ll admit it: as much as I love the works that shine a light on our present by exploring a potential future, sometimes it’s fun to just see heroes do heroic stuff and chase the secret weapon and fight the bad guys and let the music swell at appropriate times and let the credits run at the end. (Literally, there’s a long list of people at the end of the book that the author thanks.)

 

This may not be one of those books that makes me reflect on our world as it is. This is not a book that changed me or moved me or challenged me. Frankly, I read a lot of those books, and sometimes I don’t mind taking a break. This is a book that I had fun reading. I smiled, I cheered, and I hope that Dan Moren has some further adventures to come for his team from The Caledonian Gambit.

The Caledonian Gambit, Dan Moren

Book Review: The Caledonian GambitDan Moren

The Consuming Fire, John Scalzi

Book Review: The Consuming FireJohn Scalzi

The Interdependency, Book 2

Consuming Fire, John Scalzi

Fiction: Consuming Fire, John Scalzi

Emperox Grayland II is in deep. Most believe she is in over her head. She is the unexpected, unprepared ruler of the Interdependency, a series of worlds held together by their mutual need for each other and their connection through the “flow,” a poorly understood current outside the bounds of normal space which allows travel between select points in normal space. Humans cannot control the flow. They can access it in certain areas, then exit back out from it in other areas, but they are utterly dependent on the direction and current of the flow itself to get from one system to another.

 

But the flow is changing. Places that were connected to each other are losing that connection. Few know this, fewer accept that it’s happening, and fewer still believe the Emperox’s latest pronouncement: she has had a vision of the flow ending. Beset by enemies, facing inevitable environmental catastrophe, ill-prepared for the throne (she became Emperox because of the untimely death of her older brother who was the heir), and now of questionable sanity, it seems only a matter of time before her accidental ascendancy comes to an abrupt and likely terminal end. The question is whether humanity itself will be snuffed out in the consuming fire.

 

In The Consuming Fire, John Scalzi continues the story begun in The Collapsing Empire. We pick up the threads of Emperox Grayland II; of Lord Marce Claremont, the scientist who brought predictions of the flow’s end to the Emperox; of Lady Kiva Lagos, unlikely ally to the Emperox who loves money and sex with near equal fervor; and of Lady Nadashe Nohamapetan, in jail for a failed assassination attempt but still with cards to play in the game for power and control of the Interdependency. Scalzi weaves these threads together against a backdrop of impending environmental doom. Only one planet in the entire empire is self sustaining. All of the others were settled because of their locations near access points to the flow. None of them are naturally inhabitable. They all rely on each other for something: food, air, water. When the flow is no longer there, they will continue for awhile. But the end will come, sooner rather than later, and everyone will die.

 

Scalzi wrote The Consuming Fire in a two-week burst in June, 2018. (He does NOT recommend this as a model for writing a novel!) Given the timing, during a US election year and in the middle of political battles over climate change, it is easy to see parallels between real life and this book. But don’t think this is simply a parable for modern readers. The characters in Scalzi’s works are involved and complex. The universe he has created for them may face environmental challenges, but these are also people who forced hostile planets and empty space to make room for them. The Interdependency has involved and interconnected political, social, economic, and religious systems, and their differences from any current situation are as significant as any similarities we may see.

 

It may be a couple of years before the next book in this series is published. Considering that the author has multiple active series going at this time, he should be able to keep himself busy until then. I look forward to returning to the Interdependency, though. The Consuming Fire is full of the typical Scalzi wit and irreverence, and is a page-turning space opera that hurtles toward an exciting and climactic finish. If the next installment is as enjoyable as the first two have been, it will be worth the wait.

 

Even if it takes him three weeks to write it!

Consuming Fire, John Scalzi

Book Review: The Consuming FireJohn Scalzi

Book Review: Orleans, Sherri L. Smith

Book Review: OrleansSherri L. Smith

Science Fiction: OrleansSherri L. Smith

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were only the beginning. Sea levels rose, hurricanes came with increasing force and frequency, and by the mid-2020s New Orleans and most of the south had been abandoned. Then came the plague, Delta Fever, which forced the remainder of the United States to build a wall enforcing the quarantine of the south. Within a generation New Orleans was gone, and what was left, Orleans, was violent, disease-ridden, and divided by gangs of angry, desperate, often bloodthirsty survivors. Into this lost world, a baby is born.

 

Sherri L. Smith’s Orleans tells the story of Fen de la Guerre, a teenaged survivor who is part of the O-positive tribe. Delta Fever follows different disease arcs based on a person’s blood-type. Type Os are the most resistant to the disease and suffer the least from its ravages. Fen was not born in the tribe but her blood-type has made her welcome, and she repays that generosity by serving as the protector and guard for the tribe’s leader. Lydia is very pregnant, but is still determined to lead her people into a peaceful alliance with the other type O tribe, the O-negatives. When their parlay is interrupted by a violent attack, though, Lydia goes into labor and dies giving birth. Fen is entrusted with guarding Lydia’s baby, and hopefully finding a better place for her to live.

 

Daniel Weaver is a scientist working on a cure for Delta Fever. He is close, but the engineered virus he has created not only kills the fever but also the host–the person–carrying it. Needing samples and data from affected areas which are still quarantined and off limits to everyone, Daniel dons protective gear (which he can wear for days on end) and sneaks into Orleans.

 

Fen and Daniel meet and soon develop an uneasy alliance with each other. Daniel realizes that he needs help to get the information and samples he needs, and Fen recognizes that Daniel gives the best hope for the baby to have a life outside of Orleans. Dangers mount as their journey progresses. It may no longer be part of a country, it may no longer have as many people as it did, but Orleans has no shortage of ways to kill you.

 

Orleans is very well written. Fen and Daniel are both compelling characters, and their journey together is revealing. Fen is the daughter of scientists committed to finding a cure for Delta Fever, scientists who gave their lives while seeking that goal. As such, she is a bit cynical of Daniel’s ambitions: seeking the cure killed her own parents, after all. Daniel is sincere in looking for a cure to the disease that killed his little brother, but he has no idea about the conditions in Orleans. Without Fen, he would have been killed soon after crossing the wall.

 

The world built by Sherri L. Smith is ugly, deadly, and brutal. This is a compliment to her writing. Flood waters have transformed New Orleans to a landscape where people can walk across grassy areas that can collapse under your feet because the grass is actually growing on the rotting roofs of abandoned houses. If you know the pattern, you can walk on water to a statue of Jesus–a statue standing in the middle of a lake where cars have been parked to form a walkway that is still invisible but safe to use during low tide. Orleans has been abandoned to tribalism and violence by the rest of the country, and the pressures of plague, climate, and anarchy make for a dangerous and imaginative world.

 

Smith is African American, writing about African American characters living in a landscape that is barely recognizable. Her Orleans reflects the impacts of a series of hurricanes, rising ocean levels, and a plague. The good news is that it is speculative fiction. The post-Katrina/Rita hurricanes listed in the book have not happened. Given the recent news from the UN climate report, though, perhaps that good news should be tempered by saying that it has not happened, yet.

Book Review: OrleansSherri L. Smith

Book Review: Heroine Complex, Sarah Kuhn

Book Review: Heroine ComplexSarah Kuhn

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Science Fiction: Heroine ComplexSarah Kuhn

Heroine Complex is funny, smart, and snarky. Any book that starts with the protagonist dodging an attack by a demonically-possessed cupcake with teeth stands out from the crowd. There are certain tropes familiar to fantasy-genre fans. Flying killer pastries? Not so much.

 

Sarah Kuhn was a finalist for the John W. Campbell award for best new writer in SciFi/Fantasy, not only because of Heroine Complex and its sequels, but also for her shorter pieces and comics. Her novella, One Con Glory, is in development as a feature film. She is also a popular speaker at conventions, often encouraging writers of color to tell their own stories, create their own worlds, and establish their own heroines. That is exactly what she has done in Heroine Complex.

 

Evie is the long-suffering assistant to Aveda Jupiter, San Francisco’s own superheroine, who uses a combination of killer moves and amazing fashion sense to show demonic interlopers the door back to hell (or wherever they came from). Evie and Annie (Aveda Jupiter’s real name) have been inseparable since kindergarten. Annie’s parents are Chinese Americans, while Evie is half Japanese/half white. Both of them received powers during a demonic invasion. Annie’s powers are not great, but they imbued her with a sense of purpose and mission. Evie’s powers are more dangerous and less easily controlled. Trying to keep them under control, while also raising her sister and managing Annie/Aveda’s outsized personality is as much as she can handle. So when Aveda is injured and asks Evie to take her place temporarily, Evie’s world quickly starts spinning out of control.

 

But this is a story of heroines! Evie finds more strength than she ever imagined. Aveda finds deeper character. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but in a world with killer flying cupcakes, heroines are needed and these heroines step up.

 

(BTW, between Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series and Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine series, San Francisco is a MUCH stranger place than I ever realized!)

 

Being the spouse of an Asian American and the father of three children, I loved reading these characters. Being “the only Asian Americans in Mrs. Miller’s kindergarten class” is a perspective that is fully American, but not the pale suburban experience of my own childhood. Evie is a complex, strong yet vulnerable character who fears her own strength and fails to appreciate her own value. She is far from perfect. Kuhn has bravely drawn characters who may be fully fictional but are still fully functional. I think sometimes the fear authors have in creating characters that do not fit the traditional “hero” roles (and I deliberately changed the gender for this point) is that if they are less than perfect they will be seen as less. Given the sad reality that even great Asian fictional characters have been “whitewashed” when put on screen, and the equally sad reality that publishers still reject books with non-white protagonists thinking they won’t sell, a book with flawed women of color who experience doubt and pain and failure and troubles and still kick butt is refreshing, bold, and Kuhn pulls it off with elan.

 

I’d hate to tell you that Evie’s story ends with a “happily ever after,” because that would mean that Evie’s story ended. Fortunately, Kuhn has continued the series with two more books that I am excited to read. Hopefully, Evie and Aveda will have many more demons to slay and personal issues to conquer. Heroine Complex is a great start to what promises to be an exciting series, and I look forward to seeing what happens next.

 

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Book Review: Heroine ComplexSarah Kuhn