Book Review: Tom Clancy Line of Sight, Mike Maden

Book Review: Tom Clancy Line of SightMike Maden

Tom Clancy Line of Sight, Mark Maden

Fiction Series: Tom Clancy Line of Sight, Mike Maden

Fans of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series know that the world Clancy created continues in a series of novels about Jack Ryan, Jr. Using his cover as a financial analyst, Jack and his colleagues at the Campus serve as an off-the-books intelligence agency for his father, President Jack Ryan. In this latest offering, Line of Sight, from a new author to the series, Jack is sent on a mission of a different sort. His mother, eye-surgeon Cathy Ryan, hears he is heading to central Europe. She asks her son to look up an old patient of hers, Aida Curic. Dr. Ryan had operated on the little girl twenty years earlier and wanted to know how she was doing.

 

Jack’s trip starts in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where he has a financial consultation–and where he faces an attempt on his life by a beautiful hit woman. After successfully turning the tables on her, he flies to Sarajevo to look for Aida Curic. After several days unsuccessfully searching, Curic shows up on his doorstep, and the two of them quickly connect.

 

I do not believe in doing negative reviews, but I do have a couple of criticisms of this book. I am a red-blooded cis straight male, but wow! One character is described as a busty blond girl-next-door. Jack’s would-be assassin, or more accurately his first would-be assassin, is a beautiful woman who attempts seduction as her prelude to murder. When Aida Curic shows up on his doorstep, her curves are described in vivid detail–and in very short order Jack and she begin an affair. Given that both her Muslim faith and his Catholic faith are supposed to be central parts of their characters, and furthermore that Ryan is supposed to be a highly trained and disciplined operative who (we would think) is already on his guard after an attempt on his life, this seems more James Bond than Jack Ryan, Jr.

 

The other is probably more of a general criticism of the entire series, but it does specifically apply to this book. Recent novels in this series have been less overtly political–maybe because they were written during an era when Democrats were in the real White House. This book feels at times like a Republican campaign commercial. Granted, you don’t go into a Tom Clancy novel expecting subtlety or nuance in its politics, but the tone is much stronger in this offering, and I found it occasionally distracting.

 

Those criticisms aside, Maden checks the boxes for a Tom Clancy thriller. Multiple intractable foes, bringing both personal danger and global destabilization. The hero needing to use his spycraft, his brilliance, and his physicality to resolve the situation. Familiar names from the Campus bringing their skills to the party. (Though this book does spend much less time with other characters than other authors in the series have.) President Ryan and his cabinet being on-top-of-everything-in-amazing-fashion. These are expectations that fans of the series have, and Maden delivers.

 

Something else that Clancy fans have come to expect is detailed exploration of challenging subjects, whether that is the specs of a Russian sub or the destructive capability of a jumbo jet crashing into a government building. Maden writes with impressive sensitivity and detail about the aftermath and political consequences of the Balkan wars. NATO, America, and Western Europe may not have had any good options during those wars, but the failure to act and the refusal to protect civilians led to the worst atrocities and genocide seen on the continent since World War II, and the scars are still fresh in the region.

 

Tom Clancy Line of Sight is not a perfect novel, but it is a worthy continuation of a series that has entertained generations of readers since the 1980s. I look forward to seeing how the Ryans and the Campus next save the world–though Jack may want to ask a relative to set him up with dates in future books!

Tom Clancy Line of Sight, Mark Maden

Book Review: Tom Clancy Line of Sight, Mike Maden

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: Heroine’s Journey, Sarah Kuhn

Book Review: Heroine’s JourneySarah Kuhn

Heroine’s Journey, Sarah Kuhn

Book Review: Heroine’s JourneySarah Kuhn

Book 3 of the Heroine Complex series

 

Bea Tanaka is not just the little sister of superheroine Evie Tanaka. She has super powers of her own: the ability to project emotions onto others and the ability to channel intense anger into a “sonic scream” (or “canary cry,” depending on your taste in comics) which can totally destroy most demon-possessed objects that are attacking. So it’s way past time for Aveda Jupiter and Evie to promote her to full-fledged superheroine and stop treating her like a child. In fact, she has put together a posterboard presentation to convince them of this very thing. To make the point even more compelling, she has used glitter. Lots. Of. Glitter. She even has her own superheroine costume, complete with cape. They totally have to promote her!

 

Heroine’s Journey is the third book of the Heroine Complex series. Like the first two, it is smart, breezy, and snarky. Told in the first person, this time by the aforementioned Bea Tanaka, it follows the ongoing story of our Asian-American superheroines as they protect San Francisco from the threats posed by demons crossing over through portals from another dimension. Bea is now 22, working part-time at a bookstore and hanging out with best friends Leah and Sam. She still lives at the house which serves as HQ for the superheroines Aveda and Evie, but tensions are high between the sisters. Bea knows she is ready to step up. Evie is not so sure. Then, on the same day, two things happen. Demons attack, and Bea is able to step in and make a difference.

 

And, Evie and Bea’s dad returns after 10 years away with virtually no contact.

 

Kuhn really does an amazing job of balancing humor and pathos. Bea’s feelings for her father and her late mother are powerful. Her longing and sorrow drive the character to make some questionable decisions, including hurting people who love her. But Kuhn also shows Bea is usually self-aware, knowing that she is making poor decisions and (usually) able to pull herself back from the brink. She is passionate and proud and simultaneously vulnerable and scared.

 

The characters are the reason to read these books. The plots are cute and funny: demonically possessed rocks and spider-rides from carnivals and killer pens attacking and porcelain unicorns coming to life. (Can anything really surpass the killer demon-possessed cupcakes from the first book in the series? That may be unbeatable.) But Kuhn’s magic is in her characters. I literally cried during one scene near the end when Bea and Evie are having a heart-to-heart. Kuhn writes characters that are truly super. Not just in their fantastic abilities: telekinesis, fire, hair-tentacles, empathic projection, etc. They are super in their feelings, their relationships, their passion, their sexuality, their friendships.

 

Balancing feelings for sisters and lovers and friends and mothers and fathers and enemies is hard in real life. It is seldom done effectively in literature. Kuhn’s characters are transcendent in the power of their emotions. Kuhn is not afraid of conflict or lust or even confusion. Emotions don’t have to make sense. They don’t have to follow a logical progression. Humans, especially those in their early 20s, are allowed to have strong and confusing and sometimes paradoxical reactions to other people. They can and do make mistakes and hurt people and manage to apologize and change and heal those wounds. Seeing it happen on the page makes you really care about these characters.

 

If the Heroine Complex stories are finished, then Heroine’s Journey is an outstanding conclusion. It did not feel like a conclusion, though, and I hope it is not. I feel like there are more stories from these characters, and Sarah Kuhn is the perfect storyteller for them. Read them for the fun, read them for the feels, but read them knowing that in the end you will care more than you thought you would going in.

 

See our reviews of the other stories in this trilogy, Heroine Complex and Heroine Worship.

Heroine’s Journey, Sarah Kuhn

Book Review: Heroine’s JourneySarah Kuhn

Book Review: The Brightest Fell, October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

Book Review: The Brightest Fell: October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

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Urban Fantasy: The Brightest Fell: October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

October Daye is part human and part fae. A “changeling,” she constantly lives with one foot in the mortal world and one foot in the fae kingdoms. After years of trying to balance between these worlds, she finally sees hope. Her love, Tybalt, King of the Cats, plans to marry her. Her friends are near and safe. She even gets to attend her own bachelorette party. Everything looks amazing, until her oldest and possibly deadliest enemy resurfaces: her mother.

 

The request itself is not unusual for a private detective: find a missing daughter. But August has been missing for more than 100 years. And Amandine does not simply ask. She demands. And to make sure October follows through, Amandine kidnaps Tybalt and Jazz, another friend of October. What follows is a dangerous journey through fae and mortal lands looking for someone who may not be alive, relying on an old enemy to provide assistance, and facing challenges that force October to confront questions about who and what she is, and just where she belongs.

 

Seanan McGuire is one of the hottest writers in science fiction and fantasy. She is a 2018 Hugo finalist for another series she writes, Incryptid. She also writes under the name of Mira Grant, and has had multiple works nominated for the major awards in science fiction and fantasy under that name as well. She won the John W. Campbell award for best new author in 2010, won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2013 for her novella Every Heart a Doorway, and also in 2013 became the first person ever to appear 5 times on the same Hugo ballot. Despite her amazing output–or maybe because of it–her writing is crisp, exciting, and full of characters that are deep and surprising.

 

McGuire’s characters leap fully-formed off the page. They are passionate, infuriating, terrifying, tender, brave and cowardly. They are gay and lesbian and straight. They are human and inhuman. They are like anyone you might meet and unlike anyone you will ever know. October Daye is probably her best known character at this point, and in every book she grows and matures and becomes something new and something more. Some writers might lose their edge after 11 books. If possible, McGuire seems to be just hitting her stride.

 

McGuire’s plots also challenge. No one escapes a Seanan McGuire novel unharmed–especially her protagonists. She demands a lot from her characters, and she is not afraid to kill even major characters to tell the story.  (Fortunately, she usually doesn’t kill all of them. Well, except in Rolling in the Deep. Spoiler alert: it gets ugly.) The Brightest Fell has sacrifice and redemption, and in a major twist on an ageless theme, in this case one precludes the other. Normally sacrifice consecrates redemption. Seanan McGuire just doesn’t do normal.

 

You might be able to jump into the series with The Brightest Fell. McGuire is able to backfill the story without getting pedantic. But you will be rewarded by going back to the beginning and catching up. October Daye grows as a character throughout the series. And it is fair to say that Seanan McGuire grows as a writer through the series. Reading as a character matures and as a writer hones her craft can be a very rewarding experience, and the October Daye series is a delightful way to watch both happen.

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Book Review: The Brightest Fell, October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

Book Series Review: Faye Longchamp Series: Artifacts, and Findings, Mary Anna Evans

Book Series Review: Faye Longchamp Series: Artifacts, and FindingsMary Anna Evans

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Book Series Review: Faye Longchamp Series: Artifacts, and FindingsMary Anna Evans

 

Artifacts is a solid debut novel from Mary Anna Evans. Originally published in 2003, this introduction of the character Faye Longchamp won some awards and began a series that continues still.

 

Faye Longchamp is a mixed race woman trying to make ends meet. She works part time at an archaeological dig near her Florida home, not so much for the money as for the hope that she will find a way to continue her collegiate studies in the field. Her former professor is leading the dig, and this is her way of trying to help. Longchamp, though, needs much more money than a low wage part-time job would provide. She has inherited a large home on a barrier island, one that is in poor repair and is far behind in tax payments. Needing money to refurbish and keep her home, she engages in a legally questionable side job–selling artifacts she finds near her house on the gray market. She knows enough and cares enough to avoid contaminating significant sites, but some of her finds are on public lands and therefore legally cannot be sold for personal gain. Her desperation, though, makes her willing to break the law.

 

During one of those illegal digs, she unearths a body. Clearly not recent, but not from the far distant past either, she realizes that she has stumbled across a murder victim whose murderer may still be alive. The next day, two of the other assistants at the dig are murdered. Though a relationship between the two crimes is not obvious (since they are in different locations), the timing can hardly be coincidental, and Faye finds herself swept into the middle of finding justice for her two colleagues and for a teenager killed forty years earlier.

 

Mary Anna Evans has written many more books in this series. So far, I have only gotten to read one other. Findings is a few years later than Artifacts. Longchamp has secured some funding streams to restore her beloved home, Joyeuse, and to pursue doctoral studies in archaeology. She is in a relationship with a lawyer from Atlanta who would like to see things progress further. Faith is now pursuing more academic and legitimate archaeological work. Many of her findings go to the Museum of American Slavery, run by her friend and mentor, Douglass Everett. On the night when she discovers an exquisite emerald hidden in a box of otherwise worthless junk covered by dirt, Douglass is murdered in the basement of his own museum. The emerald is not taken, having been hidden by Douglass in his last act before his brutal murder. Later, an old associate of Faye’s from her free-lance archeology days is also murdered, dying in her arms. This leads Faye on a search for buried treasure: the rest of the emerald necklace, rumored Civil War gold, and the buried secrets within her own heart.

 

I liked Artifacts, but I loved Findings. Seeing a writer grow from a first novel is a joy I am beginning to appreciate, and Mary Anna Evans’s skills have grown appreciably. The story is deeper, the characters more evolved, and the descriptions of the Florida coast are more evocative. This is a series worth coming back to, and now there are 11 books to explore and enjoy. Faye Longchamp is a strong woman of mixed race, a characteristic which makes her unusual in genre-fiction. She is also a woman who grows and matures through the series. When we first meet her, she is skirting the law by selling artifacts to make ends meet. Through the series we see her get her academic degrees, become a strong ally of the law, fall in love and get married, and mature as a character. We see her positively change the lives of her friends and loved ones. In short, we see her “grow up.” Often in series a character remains much the same, never aging, never maturing, never learning. This makes for a timelessness which is useful to the author. Having your protagonist change makes life harder for the writer, but is very rewarding to the reader. There is value in reading the books in order (although I admit that is not what I have done). We see the growth in the characters. We also see the growth in the writer. Both of these make for compelling reasons to come back to this series again and again.

 

Artifacts and Findings are both terrific books, and both make me eager to continue with this series. If you are into mysteries, strong female characters, archaeology, and even historical fiction, this is a series worth your attention. It is also one which, although it features adult characters, could be enjoyed by teens who want something a little more mature but who don’t want one with excessive violence or “adult” themes.

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Book Series Review: Faye Longchamp Series: Artifacts, and FindingsMary Anna Evans

 

Book Review: Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

Book Review: Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

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Fiction: Senlin AscendsJosiah Bancroft

Senlin Ascends is the first book in the series, “The Books of Babel.” Thomas Senlin and his wife Marya are on their honeymoon. Senlin is headmaster of the school in a small fishing village. He has long studied and taught about the most amazing technological achievement in the world: the Tower of Babel. Newly married, the couple decides to spend their honeymoon visiting this marvel. Almost immediately after arriving, they are separated and Marya becomes lost. It takes Thomas a couple of days to realize this. By the time he does, the trail has gone cold and his only hope is that Marya has successfully made it to their intended destination on the third floor of the tower. Thomas embarks on a journey into the tower. There he finds that nothing is as it seems, no one is who they say they are, and everything he thought he knew about the tower was wrong.

 

Senlin Ascends is set in a dark dystopian world. The tower is a technological marvel, still under construction after 1,000 years. Most of the world has very limited access to technology. Marya and Thomas travel to the tower via steam engine train, and later we see Thomas’s amazement when he encounters electricity for the first time. The tower has access to more advanced technologies, but Thomas finds the rules governing behavior and organization in the tower are unique and often must be discovered by breaking them. Failure to follow the rules can have severe consequences. Failure to know the rules is irrelevant.

 

After spending several days surmounting the obstacles that face travelers on levels one and two of the tower, Senlin finds his first clue that Marya is still alive when he is on level three. Level three, though, is also where he begins to appreciate just how much trouble she–and really, both of them–are in. Their short honeymoon journey is going to be a trial of many months, and there are many challenging enemies who oppose them finding each other. And a mild-mannered intellectual headmaster is ill-equipped to meet the challenges of a world that doesn’t make sense. If Thomas Senlin is to find his beautiful bride, he will have to become something he never expected: a hero.

 

The two journeys of Senlin Ascends are both fascinating. The physical journey through the tower is vividly imagined. Each floor has its own culture, its own set of rules, its own internal logic that must be mastered before one can proceed. There are no shortcuts. Failure to follow the rules means banishment from the tower…or worse. But the rules change on each floor, the people in charge owe nothing to anyone else, and following the rules can require compromising your own ethics. Senlin finds that the price of success, the price of moving forward, the price of finding Marya, gets higher the further he goes. But he has no choice if he hopes to be reunited with his love.

 

The physical journey requires a hero’s journey for the protagonist. Thomas Senlin thinks he knows who he is. Intellectual. Calm. Reserved. A man of peace. The kind of man the tower destroys and spits out before passing the first floor. Senlin discovers that he can become more, but he also discovers that the price is high. The man of peace must seek out confrontation. The loyal husband must walk away from friends. The man who understands the world must understand that he knows nothing about this world. These are not easy transitions, and one suspects that the man who eventually finds Marya inside the tower will not be the same man who lost her outside those walls.

 

The second book in this series is Arm of the Sphinx. The third book, The Hod King, is due out in early 2019. Josiah Bancroft has started an interesting fable with Senlin Ascends, and I look forward to reading the subsequent adventures set in this curious and dark world.

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Book Review: Senlin AscendsJosiah Bancroft

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

Book Review: The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi

Book Review: The Collapsing EmpireJohn Scalzi

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Science Fiction: The Collapsing EmpireJohn Scalzi

*2018 LOCUS AWARD WINNER OF BEST SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL*

*2018 HUGO AWARD FINALIST FOR BEST NOVEL*

 

“The Interdependency,” a galactic empire spanning dozens of far-flung human settlements, has stood for a thousand years. The descendants of Earth long ago discovered how to access “the flow,” a current that runs parallel to real space and allows ships to travel vast distances in very short times. The flow only intersects with real space in certain areas, so human habitation and the empire cluster around these access points. Without the flow, interstellar travel is impossible. Without the flow, most humans would die, since the access points are usually near stars which have no naturally habitable planets, so the various planets of the empire are truly interdependent. Without the flow, the empire collapses. And the flow is collapsing.

 

The Collapsing Empire is the first book of a planned new series by John Scalzi, and it has exploded onto the science fiction scene. Winner of the 2018 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, it is also a 2018 Hugo Award finalist for the same award. Scalzi brings his trademark humor and irreverence to this novel of an empire potentially facing destruction. He cares about the science, avoiding things like faster-than-light travel that violates known physical laws. But his gift is in imagining complex worlds and populating them with complex people. His characters include an “emperox” who never planned to become a ruler, a scientist who did not want to leave his home planet, a very horny and foul-mouthed mercantilist who does some of her best thinking while amorously engaged, and a family of ruthless and ambitious nobles who do not mind shedding blood to reach their goals.

 

The worlds of The Interdependency are quite different from the norm in science fiction. Scalzi imagines an empire connected only by access to transportation. Earth became inaccessible long ago. When humans discovered the flow, they learned they could travel unimaginable distances but only reenter real space at specific points. This meant that settlements were limited to the stars that were accessible via the flow, whether or not they had inhabitable planets. The capital planet of the Empire is Hub, a planet tide-locked to its sun. One side always faces the star, one side always faces away. Humans have created a vast underground settlement where millions of people live. Many essentials must be imported from other places in the empire. Some stars have no inhabitable planets, but huge space stations housing vast populations have been built there to support mining and other extraction of resources. Only one planet in the entire empire, “End,” is capable of sustaining human life on the planet itself. Hub became the lead planet of the empire because all currents of the flow led to it. (This reminded me of the saying, “All roads lead to Rome,” which Isaac Asimov adapted in his Foundation series to “all roads lead to Trantor.”) All planets in the Empire directly connect to Hub, while few of them have direct connections to any other planet. If the flow is disrupted, though, Hub and most other human settlements will become isolated and alone, and within a very few years will be incapable of supporting life.

 

The Collapsing Empire shows both the power and the danger of interdependency. It was written before the 2016 US election (but after the Brexit vote), so it is not a direct commentary on contemporary politics. It is, though, a compelling statement. A surface reading would say, “independence is good, interdependency is bad” because the flow is failing. Without the flow, interdependence is impossible and the settlements that rely so heavily on each other would fail. But the better understanding is to see that humanity was only successful because of interdependence. They may be facing a crisis because of environmental change (and I assume future novels in the series will further explore that crisis and human responses to it), but the only reason they have come this far is because of their interdependence. Because of interdependence, humans were able to spread across the galaxy. They were able to build settlements on moons, on space stations, on ridiculously inhospitable planets, and they were able to maintain a coherent, unified government for a thousand years. Yes, it’s a work of speculative fiction. It is also, though, a powerful statement of hope in the collective power of humanity when they pull together and rely upon each other. Scalzi is not one to ignore the venal and self-serving ambitions of individuals. His characters are petty and lusty and greedy and ruthless. But some of them are also caring and passionate and thoughtful and deeply committed to the survival of humanity. I am eager to see what happens next, when The Consuming Fire is released in October, 2018.

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Book Review: The Collapsing EmpireJohn Scalzi

Book Review: Head On, John Scalzi

Book Review: Head OnJohn Scalzi

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Science Fiction/Mystery: Head On, John Scalzi

Fans of John Scalzi’s previous novel Lock In will be delighted with this 2017 sequel. Head On features the return of FBI agent Chris Shane, his partner Leslie Vann, and the world of the “Hadens,” people who have survived a usually fatal illness only to be completely frozen in bodies that cannot move. They are awake and aware, but permanently immobile. In this world, Hadens are able to physically interact by using “Integrators,” people who have had a neural implant inserted to allow their bodies to be remotely controlled, and by using “Threeps,” androids also designed to be remotely controlled by Hadens.

 

Agents Vann and Shane specialize in crimes involving Hadens. In Head On, an athlete is killed during a game of Hilketa. Hilketa is a sport where specially designed Threeps physically assault each other, with the goal being the literal decapitation of a specified opponent Threep and sending that removed head into a goal. Since Threeps are not alive, what could go wrong? Apparently quite a lot, as Agents Vann and Shane explore the world of professional sports, where sex and money lead to a trail of bodies that hits too close to Shane’s home.

 

Scalzi specializes in these genre-bending novels and stories. Head On is fully science fiction. A world reshaped by a global plague which led to specific new technologies and adaptations? Check. But Head On is also a mystery and FBI procedural. Two agents pursuing clues that lead to a surprising conclusion? Check. The beauty of Scalzi is that neither genre suffers from the combination, and both are essential to the story. This is not a story that could be written into any other world than the Lock In universe. Agents Shane and Vann know Hadens. He is “locked in,” and spends most of his time in a threep–often one that will soon be destroyed. She was an integrator. Their relationship is often familiar to the mystery/procedural fan: good cop/bad cop, grizzled veteran/young rookie. But it is their experience with Hadens that gives them the extra insight needed to solve these challenging crimes.

 

Some series do not require their books to be read in order. This is not one of those series. If you have not read Lock In, stop. Go buy it or check it out, and read it first. Trust me, you will thank me. Scalzi is a funny writer, and one of the most humorous passages of Head On is in chapter 1. If you have not read Lock In, you won’t get it, and that would just be a shame. It is funny enough that I had to read it aloud to my family, but then I had to explain the background before I could read the passage, and that just took some of the joy out of the joke. Read Lock In, then read Head On, and laugh out loud. In this case, the sequence matters.

 

John Scalzi is one of the top writers in science fiction today, and with Head On he proves that he can be equally effective when writing mysteries. He is a busy man, with four active series currently in development (in 2018). Fortunately, the quality of his writing, his plots, and his characters, are all excellent. Head On is a winner!

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Book Review: Head OnJohn Scalzi

 

Book Series Review: MaddAddam Trilogy, Margaret Atwood

Book Series Review: MaddAddam Trilogy, Margaret Atwood

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Book Series Review: MaddAddam Trilogy, Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam Trilogy: Oryx and CrakeThe Year of the FloodMaddAddam

 

What can be said about Margaret Atwood that has not already been said? Winner of the Booker Prize, perennial finalist for the Nobel Prize for Literature, author of poetry, fiction, non-fiction. Margaret Atwood is one of the greatest living writers in the world today. With current television series inspired by her works The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace airing on Hulu and Netflix, she may be more well-known and well-loved than at any previous point in her amazing career.

 

Her MaddAddam Trilogy takes place in a future dystopian world that is vividly drawn and frighteningly believable. Many of the characters are in all three books, but the books are not set sequentially and the stories stand very well on their own. Oryx and Crake tells the story of Snowman. Known as “Jimmy” before the plague that destroyed most of humanity, Snowman thinks he may be the last human left alive. He has been put in charge of watching over the “Crakers,” a group of genetically modified humans who were designed by his friend, Crake. The Crakers are a simple people. They know they were created by Crake. They remember their first teacher, Oryx. They know that Snowman is their friend, sent by Crake to tell them stories. But Crake designed them with limited intelligence, believing that high intelligence was one of the problems of humanity. The story unfolds in two ways, with Snowman telling the Crakers a version of history that they can grasp, and with Jimmy remembering his life and his relationships with his best friend Glenn–later known as Crake–and the woman they both loved who took the name of Oryx. Crake and Oryx is unsparing. Jimmy does not look at his life heroically. He is an indifferent student, his family stinks, and he is emotionally distant and cruel toward women. Glenn/Crake is brilliant but cold, dismissive toward most people and disgusted with humanity as a species. The story of how Jimmy became involved with Crake’s experiments is revealed gradually, as Jimmy reflects on his own childhood and adolescence, as he tells fanciful tales to the Crakers, and as he prepares to leave the Crakers in search of food and supplies that he needs to stay alive. Through most of the book we are uncertain whether Jimmy/Snowman is the last remaining human. The book ends, though, with Jimmy learning that a small group of other survivors passed through the Crakers’ village while he was away. He follows their trail, uncertain whether these fellow survivors may be a threat to the Crakers.

 

The Year of the Flood is set in the same world, but is a very different book. Told from two perspectives, it jumps back and forth between characters and time, each section introduced by a sermon and a hymn from the “God’s Gardeners” religious sect that flourished shortly before the plague began. Ren is a dancer and prostitute in a men’s club. She spent part of her childhood with the God’s Gardeners sect, where she became friends with Amanda. At different times both she and Amanda dated Jimmy, the protagonist of Oryx and Crake. Toby did not completely buy into the doctrines of God’s Gardeners, but she appreciated their help rescuing her from a dangerous situation and became one of their leaders. Ren and Toby’s stories intertwine, and also connect them with Snowman/Jimmy, Crake/Glenn, and the events introduced in Oryx and Crake. Their perspective, though, is different. Pre-plague society stratified into wealthy compounds inhabited by employees of high-tech companies and the “pleeblands,” inhabited by ordinary people. The pleeblands were poor, gang-riddled, and dangerous. Jimmy and Glenn grew up in the wealthy, high-tech compounds. God’s Gardeners were in the pleeblands, as were Toby and Ren through most of the story. There were some limited opportunities to move between the two strata, and Toby and Ren do spend time in both, but the perspective of this book is clearly a view from the bottom. When the plague strikes, both are fortunate to be isolated and avoid infection. Eventually they find each other and go after Amanda, who has been captured by some ex-cons who also survived the plague. They find her with her captors at the same time as Jimmy shows up. We learn then that this was the group Jimmy was pursuing also, and realize that they are indeed a threat to the Crakers and to any other survivors they might prey upon.

 

MaddAddam moves the story forward in time. Toby is the main character, but we also learn the story of her companion, Zeb, and the story of the beginnings of God’s Gardeners. Zeb was also one of the leaders of God’s Gardeners, and through his story we learn more about the group and its founder, Adam. MaddAddam revisits much of the same time period as the previous books, this time through Zeb’s story, but it also moves forward as a band of humans and the Crakers come together to create a new type of community. Toby also takes over for the injured Snowman/Jimmy as the narrator of stories for the Crakers. This book has a great deal more humor in it than the other two books, as Toby finds her way through telling stories to people who like to interrupt with questions, songs, and other challenges.

 

Margaret Atwood describes her work as “speculative fiction,” differentiating it from “science fiction.” Her distinction is controversial, but very important to her. Science fiction (to her) involves stories about things that can’t happen yet. Interstellar travel, time travel, or aliens may or may not ever be possible, but they are not possible yet. Speculative fiction, by comparison, involves stories of things that actually could happen. Climate change is happening. Pollution is happening. Plagues have happened, and genetically engineered plagues (and animals and people) are real possibilities based on current technology.

 

I am not convinced there is a bright red line distinguishing “science fiction” from “speculative fiction,” but if she is writing about a world that might happen, it is chilling. The world of MaddAddam is terrible before the plague. Much of the world has been altered through global warming, with major coastal cities flooded and large swaths of agricultural land desertified. Pollution has made air in many cities almost toxic. Greed and corruption have sharply separated the haves and have nots. The plague does indeed clear pollution from the air rather quickly, but survivors struggle to find food. Not every human who survived the plague is willing to work together–those who were criminals before do not change their character after. This is a dark and dangerous world, and the trilogy does not end with “and they lived happily ever after.”

 

Not everyone will enjoy this trilogy, but it is well worth the time to read it. Margaret Atwood has an extraordinary gift with language. Her prose is often beautiful but can also be spare and blunt when it needs to be, utterly hilarious in one chapter and wrenchingly painful in the next. Each of the three books is different enough that they could be mistaken for works from three authors, yet they are also seamlessly woven together into one inseparable story. The story itself is frighteningly realistic. Atwood may not write about aliens, but her monsters are all the more real because they are the monsters we rightfully fear the most: those that dwell in the hearts of humans.

 

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Book Series Review: MaddAddam Trilogy, Margaret Atwood