Book Review: Young Adult: Warcross by Marie Lu

 

Player, Hunter, Hacker, Pawn
a 3D Warcross logo of raindow letters in a cube

For the millions who log in every day, Warcross isn’t just a game—it’s a way of life. The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. Struggling to make ends meet, teenage hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down players who bet on the game illegally. But the bounty hunting world is a competitive one, and survival has not been easy. Needing to make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships—only to accidentally glitch herself into the action and become an overnight sensation.

Convinced she’s going to be arrested, Emika is shocked when instead she gets a call from the game’s creator, the elusive young billionaire Hideo Tanaka, with an irresistible offer. He needs a spy on the inside of this year’s tournament in order to uncover a security problem . . . and he wants Emika for the job. With no time to lose, Emika’s whisked off to Tokyo and thrust into a world of fame and fortune that she’s only dreamed of. But soon her investigation uncovers a sinister plot, with major consequences for the entire Warcross empire.

Title: Warcross
Author: Marie Lu
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Near-future Science Fiction (Dystopia?)
Publisher: G.P Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: September 12th, 2017
Format: Hardcover
Length: 368 pages
ISBN-10: 0399547967
ISBN-13: 9780399547966

Series or Standalone: Warcross #1

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Augmented reality, virtual reality, revenge, poverty, hacking, esports, mmos
POV: First person
Tense: Present

Why I Read It: I mean, duh.  Virtual reality gaming tournaments?  Hacking?  Augmented reality?  Diverse cast?  Yeah.

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

Review:

Y’all, I’m about to drop some harsh news.  This was one of my most anticipated reads of 2017.  I even shelled out for the hardcover when Nick couldn’t score us an ARC, where normally I wait for the paperback.  And I’m not sure I got my money’s worth.

If you’ve read the other reviews of Warcross, especially by the book blogging community, you’ve seen pretty much only four- and five-star reviews.  There are a few one and two star reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.  And they tell the most accurate tale.

 

First, let’s touch on the world-building.  This is a near-future Earth, and the action takes place primary in New York and Tokyo.  There should be some world-building to support our premise: brain-computer interfaces plus Google Glass, and the popularity of Warcross.  But the world-building here is sparse and insubstantial.  And the description of the tech is lackluster.  Especially if you read manga, watch anime, or read adult SF, there’s very little new here, and no neat details to make the tech stick out.  Something that even a smidgin of world-building could have accomplished easily.  Although New York and Tokyo are beautiful and diverse cities, we barely see any of them, and what we do see is very generic and cliche.  We hear about the mass poverty and decline of world culture, but a couple college girls living in a shitty apartment about to be evicted is not a convincing interpretation.  Showing a bit more of Em’s roommate Keira could have done a lot to shore up this world-building claim.

Now let’s talk tech.  Our main character is a skilled gamer and talented hacker.  But do Lu’s descriptions live up to the hype?  Not really.  It didn’t seem like Lu knew very much about hacking, and her portrayal of hacking, VR, and the dark pits of the Internet is very old school Neuromancer.  And a pale imitation at that.  Her descriptions of how the tech works are jumbled and confusing, discounting the whole “your brain fills in the gaps”.  If brains could fill in the gaps in VR/AR tech, we’d be at Warcross levels of it right now, much less decades in the future.  Like, that’s even harder to manage than just coding it yourself.  Lu has a history as an artist in the game industry and a rep for being an avid gamer herself.  But it doesn’t feel like she learned much about coding from those experience.  Her security vulnerabilities, which shift major tonnage for the plot, are not particularly believable, much like the hacking sequences.  if you want me to believe a character is a genius hacker, you can’t gloss over her skills to focus on the thriller aspects of your storyline.

Which brings u to my next gripe.  The book is a bit of a page-turner.  The pacing moves very fast.  And that’s not an asset.  The gaming aspect is unconvincing laid over a technological thriller skeleton, kind of like a poor man’s version of the Bourne plot.  And we get barely any time to rest.  This plot and the book in general would have been well-served by another hundred pages or so of development.  Both for the plot and the characters.  On the plot side, the esports aspect is very unrealistic.  Why in the world would a company sponsor a pro sports team in a make-it-or-break-it single tournament?  The way esports and related offline gaming competitions tend to work is with a season very much like a traditional sports season, where players climb up the rankings, build their team, and fine-tune their coordination.  Not going from taking apart last years teams, throwing in newbies in a draft, and hurling them straight into combat.  Not buying it.

And speaking of character development, we get basically zero.  A bit for Em, some standard billionaire playboy for Hideo Tanaka, tinged with stereotypical Asion-dude reticence to engage.  I hated the whole romance plotline, which was boring, insta-lovey, and followed every YA romance trope known to man or woman or alien.  There’s was no excitement and zero chemistry.  And a boss-employee relationship with the man having age, power, and money on his side?  Gross.  I wanted to see “Brought another boy home with you tonight?” Em as hinted at by her roommate in the opening scenes.  Perhaps a fling or romance with a Warcross teammate or opponent.  Maybe she met a cool hacker dude in her claimed deep exploration of the Dark Net.  Look, I loved the childhood crush element present at the beginning.  But the development came nowhere near to my expectations from the dozens of solid YA romance plotlines available these days.

And what did we learn about her team?  A bit of interesting backstory for Roshan, some tidbits of Asher, and zero development from when they met her to when they put everything on the line for a goal she wouldn’t even tell them about for most of the book.  Nuh-uh.  You gotta do better than that.

Now, the last major issue I had was the description.  The world-building was shallow and the character interactions marginal, but what really killed it was the dearth of actual gaming scenes and the bad play-by-play description.  Much like Hideo’s NeuroLink, Lu gave us the barest of suggestions and left most of the work to our brains.  Normally fine in a book, but definitely not when we’re trying to visualize a very poorly-described and unfamiliar video game with supposedly fantastic settings and terrain.

Which is sad, because the game itself had some of the parts I most enjoyed.  Totally dug the random power-ups on the map, which created strategic dilemmas for the players.  Leave yourself open to send someone after permanent flight or go all in on charging your opponent?  Tough decision that makes sense even without vast knowledge of video game mechanics.  I wasn’t so much in love with the whole keeping power-ups between matches and cash money purchases of same.  Definitely overbalances the chances of winning in favor of the wealthy and takes a lot of the skill out of the game.  And you can enter them into official tournaments?  No way.  I could see if they were restricted to ones you got in the actual tournament.  But from regular matches you could grind for special abilities?  Hell no.  I also loved the idea of Emika’s Architect class in between the more traditional Fighters and Thieves.  But we weren’t really given a good idea of the role of any of the classes, what their abilities were, or what Captain Asher’s class was.  It’s difficult to build tension describing a game when you don’t know the rules.  Everyone knows the rules of baseball, which lets the author ratchet up the tension, even when using cliche set-ups like bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, three runs down.  When you invent a game, or use a little-known game as a story element, one of the toughest tasks as a writer is to teach the reader enough about the game so that the action creates tension for them.  The second toughest task is inventing a good game.  It’s unclear if Lu accomplished this because we just don’t know that much about how Warcross works.  J.K. Rowling’s Quidditch is the archetypal examples of an invented game being used as a plot point in fiction.  Lu comes nowhere close to that level of success.

Thus, the two twists at the end are simultaneously predictable and come out of left field, leaving you with a nasty cliffhang-nail.  And all the final pieces seemed to just fall into her hands like magic.

If you take anything away from this review, let it be this:  The idea was great, but the author didn’t give the story, the world, or the characters enough time to fully develop into the fantastic book this could have been.  And you have no idea how much I wanted that to happen.

 

Conclusion: 59 /100 (I was had!!!)
Premise: 9 /10 (So much potential)
Plot: 5 /10 (Serviceable but unoriginal thriller plot)
Setting: 5 /10 (Under-utilized)
Main Character: 5 /10 (Show, don’t tell)
World-building: 4 /10 (Was there any?!)
Romance 3 /10 (No shocks, no butterflies)
Supporting Characters: 6 /10 (Cool, but underdeveloped)
Writing: 5 /10 (Description needs work)
Themes: 8 /10 (So much potential!!!!)
Resolution: 4 /10 (Cliffhanger!)

Buy Or Borrow:  Borrow unless you are already a Marie Lu fan.

Similar Books:

Arena by Holly Jennings
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
Chicago Review of Books
The Book Smugglers
Broadway World
The Young Folks
Publishers Weekly Children’s Book Review
School Library Journal
A Page with a View

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Book Review: Young Adult: The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie

The Abyss Surrounds Us cover

Cas has fought pirates her entire life. But can she survive living among them?

For Cassandra Leung, bossing around sea monsters is just the family business. She’s been a Reckoner trainer-in-training ever since she could walk, raising the genetically-engineered beasts to defend ships as they cross the pirate-infested NeoPacific. But when the pirate queen Santa Elena swoops in on Cas’s first solo mission and snatches her from the bloodstained decks, Cas’s dream of being a full-time trainer seems dead in the water.

There’s no time to mourn. Waiting for her on the pirate ship is an unhatched Reckoner pup. Santa Elena wants to take back the seas with a monster of her own, and she needs a proper trainer to do it. She orders Cas to raise the pup, make sure he imprints on her ship, and, when the time comes, teach him to fight for the pirates. If Cas fails, her blood will be the next to paint the sea.

Title: The Abyss Surrounds Us
Author: Emily Skrutskie, Twitter
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Post-apocalyptic SF
Publisher: Flux, Twitter
Publication Date: February 8, 2016
Format: Paperback
Length: 273 pages
ISBN-10: 0738746916
ISBN-13: 9780738746913

Series or Standalone: The Abyss Surrounds Us #1

Literary Awards: N/A

Themes: QUILTBAG, Romance, Pirates, climate science fiction
POV: 1st Person Singular
Tense: Present

Reviewer: Marisa Greene

Where I Got It: Recced by a friend

Cover Notes:  Holy crap, guys.  Loved this cover!  Normally I’m not much for textured titles, but this just fit so well.  The light effects are a bit flashy for me, but they’re story related, so I’m dealing with it.

Review:  

There are good and bad things about this book.  I don’t love the first person present here.  It doesn’t feel like it serves the purpose I expect that set-up to serve.  The pacing doesn’t match it, mainly.  But I did like Cas’s voice, so that’s something, I guess.  I appreciated her snark in the face of adversity.  I wish the main characters were fleshed out a bit more, too.  Like, I get Swift is the mysterious stranger.  But I could have done with a bit more personality.

Now, the premise of the book is fantastic.  War leviathans?  Sign me up.  Also, the romance angle.  Although the execution was a bit lacking in this book, there’s a sequel.  It gets better, I think.  I should take now to mention I’ve already read the sequel.  A lot of stuff makes more sense, and more plot lines get tied up or at least explored, if you read the sequel.  It’s basically one story rather than two sequential stories.  I could still wish some things developed faster, but that’s how this structure works.

Although I liked Cas’s voice, I wish her character had been a bit less bland.  Besides her Reckoner training training, there’s not a ton to the character.  Perhaps it’s because the action/adventure part started so early.  But I would have liked more understanding of her relationship to her family.  More about who she was besides being a trainer in training.  I think this lack of development hurts her character in this book and the sequel.  It’s a lot more interesting for me when someone has to make tough decisions if I feel I know enough about them to justify both the internal conflict and their choice.

One of the main things I liked about this book was that Cas was both not white and not straight.  The sexual orientation aspect was really well handled, to me.  Not preaching, judging, ham-handedness.  But she seems so bland it’s hard to see any influence from her Asian heritage.  Maybe that’s how it should be.  Either way, it’s nice to see some diversity.

The setting for this story is pretty important.  It’s something of a climate science fiction story, with rising water levels and the break-up of big countries into smaller political units.  Thus the need for the Reckoners.  Although it’s only vaguely sketched out in the book, I think it works well as a backdrop, and there’s nothing that makes you feel like it’s a cheap gimmick.  It informs the attitudes of both the privileged “shore” people with national citizenship, and the nation-less “pirates”.

The supporting characters here, especially as you read the sequel, are very neatly-drawn.  Although the main villain in the first book is a bit one-note, banging the cruel manipulation drum non-stop, the rest of the “bad” characters have some nice nuance to them, which is something you don’t always see in these sorts of stories.

Because it’s the first of a duology, the conclusion leaves a bit to be desired, but it pays off by the end of the second book.  The only plot-hole was the whole trope of animals tasing human blood.  It was played up a lot by Cas, but in the end, as the SBTB review says, it didn’t seem to have much effect?

Finally, the romance angle was cool.  There’s a really fantastic scene where the concept of consent comes up.  You’ll know it when you see it.

Conclusion: 78/100 (Has its flaws, but totally worth it for the awesome sea monsters)
Premise: 10/10 (For awesome, even if the science is bullshit)
Plot: 7/10 (Pretty standard kidnapping story)
Setting: 8/10 (Could have been deeper but worked well)
Main Character: 7/10 (Pretty standard YA protag)
Orientation: 8/10 (No yuck, but little relevance?)
Romance: 8/10 (An extra point for dealing with consent issues)
Supporting Characters: 8/10 (Loved ’em)
Writing: 8/10 (Very smooth aside from the tense and perspective issues)
Themes: 7/10 (Standard but well-executed)
Resolution: 7/10 (First-book-itis)

Buy Or Borrow:  Buy or borrow, either one is a good choice here.

Similar Books:

Can’t think of any obvious similar books off the top of my head.  Paolo Bacigalupi’s Shipbreaker series, maybe?

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
Kirkus Reviews
Publishers Weekly
Books, Bones, and Buffy
Rich in Color
The Lesbrary (major first-half spoilers!)

Buy Links:
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Book Review: Science Fiction: Lightless by C.A. Higgins

lightless cover

The deeply moving human drama of Gravity meets the nail-biting suspense of Alien in this riveting science fiction debut. With bold speculation informed by a degree in astrophysics, C. A. Higgins spins an unforgettable “locked spaceship” mystery guaranteed to catapult readers beyond their expectations—and into brilliantly thrilling new territory.

Serving aboard the Ananke, an experimental military spacecraft launched by the ruthless organization that rules Earth and its solar system, computer scientist Althea has established an intense emotional bond—not with any of her crewmates, but with the ship’s electronic systems, which speak more deeply to her analytical mind than human feelings do. But when a pair of fugitive terrorists gain access to the Ananke, Althea must draw upon her heart and soul for the strength to defend her beloved ship.

While one of the saboteurs remains at large somewhere on board, his captured partner—the enigmatic Ivan—may prove to be more dangerous. The perversely fascinating criminal whose silver tongue is his most effective weapon has long evaded the authorities’ most relentless surveillance—and kept the truth about his methods and motives well hidden.

As the ship’s systems begin to malfunction and the claustrophobic atmosphere is increasingly poisoned by distrust and suspicion, it falls to Althea to penetrate the prisoner’s layers of intrigue and deception before all is lost. But when the true nature of Ivan’s mission is exposed, it will change Althea forever—if it doesn’t kill her first.

Title: Lightless
Author: C.A. Higgins
Category: Adult Fiction
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Del Rey Spectra
Publication Date: September 29, 2015
Format: eARC from NetGalley
Length: 239 pages
ISBN-10: 0553394428
ISBN-13: 9780553394429

Series or Standalone: Lightless #1

Literary Awards: N/A

Themes: Machine Intelligence, Dystopia, Autocracy, Betrayal, Rebellion
POV: 3rd Person Limited
Tense: Past

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

Where I Got It:  Stumbled across it on NetGalley, seemed interesting.

Review:  While the book was readable and interesting with nothing else on my plate, it failed to make a strong showing in three major areas:

1. Characters:

The characters were all fairly standard science fiction archetypes in my mind–the tech nerd in love with her machine; the autocratic, sociopathic interrogator; the loyal captain lacking in agency; the wacky computer;  the wily rogue.  I didn’t particularly care for any of these characters, and while I liked the conflict between their internal motivations on paper, the characters don’t quite seem to make them 3d.  They didn’t stand out from their archetypes, or from the page.

2. Science:

The scientific principles involved, especially the use of entropy, had the potential to be very interesting.  However, the execution was lacking.  What could have been neat and exciting came across as either dull or science babble, and wasn’t as deeply exploded as I would have liked.

3. Plot:

A very standard plot, borrowing a bit from police procedurals.  There’s just not a lot of excitement here, and the plot twists are not foreshadowed in such as way as to give the reader any hope of predicting them.  We were not deep enough into any individual’s perspective to justify these sudden twists, and the author could easily have given the reader more clues without making the characters look dumb.

 

Overall, I found the book readable, but I’m glad I got an ARC instead of buying the book.  It’s not something I’d keep in my collection long-term, and while it’s quite good enough to be published, it’s nothing new or amazing.

 

Conclusion: 62/100 (Competent but uninspiring)
Premise: 6/10 (Seen it before, and better, but reasonably-handled and a unique spin)
Plot: 7/10 (Few plotholes, but been done many times before)
Setting: 6/10 (Poorly-explored, but could have been interesting with more elaboration)
Main Character: 6/10 (All characters are standard SFF cliches)
World-building: 7/10 (Interesting, though not thoroughly explored)
Antagonist: 7/10 (Well-constructed, don’t see nearly enough of them)
Supporting Characters: 6/10 (All characters are standard SFF cliches)
Writing: 7/10 (Well-written in some places, poorly in others)
Themes: 5/10 (Interesting in some cases, but poorly explored and cliche)
Resolution: 5/10 (Un-creative and poorly-constructed)

Buy Or Borrow: Definitely get this one from the library if it’s your kind of story.

Similar Books:

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
New York Times
Tech Times
Dark Futures
RT Book Reviews
YA Books Central

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Book Review: Young Adult: The Harvest by Chuck Wendig

The Harvest cover

It’s been a year since the Saranyu flotilla fell from the sky, and life in the Heartland has changed. Gone are the Obligations and the Harvest Home festivals. In their place is a spate of dead towns, the former inhabitants forced into mechanical bodies to serve the Empyrean—and crush the Heartland.

When Cael awakens from a Blightborn sleep, miles away from the world he remembers, he sets out across the Heartland to gather his friends for one last mission. As the mechanicals, a war flotilla, and a pack of feral Empyrean girls begin to close in on the Heartland, there isn’t much time to make their next move. But if they can uncover a secret weapon in time, Cael and his friends might just find themselves with the power to save the world—or destroy it—resting in their hands.

Title: The Harvest
Author: Chuck Wendig
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Dystopian/Near-future SF
Publisher: Skyscape
Publication Date: July 14, 2015
Format: DRC
Length: 437 pages
ISBN-10: 1477830022
ISBN-13: 9781477830024

Series or Standalone: The Heartland Trilogy #3

Literary Awards: N/A

Themes: Power Corrupts, Evil for Evil, Family
POV: Third Person, Multiple POVs
Tense: Present

Reviewer: Nick Morgan

Where I Got It: A digital ARC from NetGalley.  Since I reviewed the second book, I figured I might as well see what’s changed.

Review:

(The first thing I want to say is, normally I leave cover commentary to Marisa, but the whole set of covers for this series were fantastic.  The whole design, even.  I really enjoyed the visual look of the series.)

There were a lot of things to love about this book.  The supporting cast is complex and well-drawn.  They have goals beyond helping the protag do whatever he’s doing.  The villain was lovely.  Sort of a secret, but worked brilliantly with the themes of the book without sacrificing narrative consistency.  You can totally believe all the characters’ motivations while simultaneously seeing the trainwreck they are leading up to.  Cael’s opponent and allies all have their own goals, and are often blind to each other’s understanding of the world.  The Empyrean are more than just villains or dupes.  They may not care much about the Heartlanders, but they care a lot about each other.  It’s rare to see characters reflect the way that everyone is the hero of their own story and has their own narrative through which they view the world.

You learn a great deal about the world of the story that was always in the background but unknown to the readers and characters.  As usual, Wendig’s world-building is beautiful.  Not only is it rich without info-dumping, but it really draws you into the setting.  In so many ways, it seems like it could be real.  Many fantasy and science fiction authors don’t and will probably never have the ability to create a world that seems like it exists beyond the confines of the story.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a MacGuffin in the book.  But it’s a beautiful one.  It does so much more than just provide a quest object for Cael and his enemies to fight over. It reveals things about many of the supporting characters, the way the world of the Heartland is built and functions, and to what lengths the main characters are willing to go to achieve their goals.

The book also has another SFF staple: the Epilogue.  Personally, I felt this one was a bit more of an easy hook to leave space for writing other stories set in Wendig’s world.  I don’t think it was necessary for the story told in this novel.

The themes of the novel, and the series, are both clear but not ham-fisted.  The events of the story just naturally seem to support them.  The structure of the novel just fits these things in so well.

But, as a book, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have.  I was constantly putting the book down at the slightest opportunity.  And it was often hard to make myself pick it back up.  I admire Wendig’s skills as a writer in a lot of areas.  But novel pacing is not very high among them.  There was far too much down-time, often unnecessary.  Then all the action would be packed into tiny little bits of the book.  Perhaps that lack of focus was the thing that allowed Wendig to do all the things I loved in this book.  But as strictly a reader, it made it hard to keep reading.

I’m just waiting for Wendig to take all the things he does so well and tie them in with a well-paced story that keeps me reading.  From a writer’s standpoint, this book was incredibly interesting as something to analyze for craft, but as a novel, it was eminently put-down-able.  That may seem odd given the score I gave it.  But I know I have a bit of an odd view on what makes a good book, and I think many readers will have an easier time keeping their eyes on the page than I.

Conclusion: 80/100 (Lovely in its parts, quite flawed as a whole)
Premise: 9/10 (As nifty as it was in the first book)
Plot: 7/10 (Some cool twists, but nothing brilliant)
Setting: 10/10 (As usual, Wendig delivers)
Main Character: 6/10 (Kinda dull, also a douche)
The Villain: 8/10 (Worked brilliantly with the theme)
The Weapon: 8/10 (Loved it)
Supporting Characters: 8/10 (Well-drawn and interesting)
Writing: 8/10 (Well above competent)
Themes: 9/10 (Favorites well-executed)
Resolution: 7/10 (Cool, but coulda been better)

Buy Or Borrow:  If you liked the rest of the series, you’ll probably love this.  If not, it might be better to borrow from a friend.

About the Author:

Chuck Wendig is a novelist, screenwriter, and game designer. He’s the author of BLACKBIRDS, DOUBLE DEAD and DINOCALYPSE NOW, and is co-writer of the short film PANDEMIC, the feature film HiM, and the Emmy-nominated digital narrative COLLAPSUS. He lives in Pennsylvania with wife, taco terrier, and tiny human.

Similar Books:

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Michael Patrick Hicks – Author Website
Article 94
Froggy Chemist
Dantastic Book Reviews

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Book Review: Adult Science Fiction: Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress

Yesterday's Kin Cover

Aliens have landed in New York. After several months of no explanations, they finally reveal the reason for their arrival. The news is not good.

Geneticist Marianne Jenner is having a career breakthrough, yet her family is tearing itself apart. Her children Elizabeth and Ryan constantly bicker, agreeing only that an alien conspiracy is in play. Her youngest, Noah, is addicted to a drug that keeps temporarily changing his identity. The Jenner family could not be further apart. But between the four of them, the course of human history will be forever altered.

Earth’s most elite scientists have ten months to prevent a disaster—and not everyone is willing to wait.

Title: Yesterday’s Kin
Author: Nancy Kress
Category: Adult Fiction
Genre: Near-Future Science Fiction
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Publication Date: September 9, 2014
Format: Digital Review Copy via NetGalley
Length: 115 pages
ISBN-10: 1616961759
ISBN-13: 9781616961756

Series or Standalone: Standalone

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Family, Panspermia
POV: Multiple Third Person
Tense: Past

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

Where I Got It: Nick got a DRC from NetGalley which I was happy to review, since I’ve not had the chance to tackle this author before.

Review:

Yesterday’s Kin is a story of alien contact. Unlike many, it is not a war story, or about alien technology. I find that incredibly refreshing. I wish there was more near-future SF out there like this. It’s much more about the characters’ personal issue: for example, the fragmenting family to which both narrators belong. There was also some nice stuff about how people frame extraordinary events. The alien contact, in particular. Kress generally writes things that are closer to soft science fiction, and this book is no exception.

Something else I really enjoyed was the aliens. They had a very interesting focus in terms of what they valued. It was both understandable to humans and yet very few humans really share the values themselves. Instead of being ravenous world-conquering insects, these aliens were both human and inhuman in a way that involved positive values and yet creates a sense of discomfort in the reader. They’re sort of the “uncanny valley” of human values as opposed to appearance.

The book itself is fairly short, being more of a novella, so there’s not as much to analyse without getting into major spoilers. Suffice it to say the book had a nice twist ending that, although I saw it coming before it actually happened, wasn’t completely obvious from the beginning of the book, and did not involve any major plot-holes or deus ex machina. I was slightly annoyed at how it affected the stakes for the human characters, but overall I was okay with it. And I think most other readers would be, too.

Definitely pick this up if you enjoy soft science fiction. Also, if you mainly read short stories, or just like reading them at all, this book is a bit reminiscent of one, in a good way.

Conclusion: 81/100 (Overall, a great book)
Premise: 9/10 (Been done, but a nice variant)
Plot: 9/10 (No plots holes, nice if not uncommon twist)
Setting: 8/10 (Well-depicted, but so common it’s hard to be unique)
Main Character(s): 8/10 (Two everyday people with believable motivations)
Aliens 9/10 (Not unique, but quite interesting)
Science: 7/10 (Well-founded, if slight)
Supporting Characters: 8/10 (Thinly sketched, but well done)
Writing: 8/10 (As good as you’d expect from this author)
Themes: 7/10 (Appropriate but not incredibly engaging)
Resolution: 8/10 (Interesting but could have been better)

Buy Or Borrow: Definitely worth owning a copy.

Similar Books:
Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
Contact by Carl Sagan

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Publishers Weekly
John’s Notes
SFFWorld
Nerds in Babeland
Armed and Dangerous
Read What I Like

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Barnes and Noble
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Book Review: Science Fiction: Echopraxia by Peter Watts

watts cover art

It’s the eve of the twenty-second century: a world where the dearly departed send postcards back from Heaven and evangelicals make scientific breakthroughs by speaking in tongues; where genetically engineered vampires solve problems intractable to baseline humans and soldiers come with zombie switches that shut off self-awareness during combat. And it’s all under surveillance by an alien presence that refuses to show itself.
Daniel Bruks is a living fossil: a field biologist in a world where biology has turned computational, a cat’s-paw used by terrorists to kill thousands. Taking refuge in the Oregon desert, he’s turned his back on a humanity that shatters into strange new subspecies with every heartbeat. But he awakens one night to find himself at the center of a storm that will turn all of history inside-out.
Now he’s trapped on a ship bound for the center of the solar system. To his left is a grief-stricken soldier, obsessed by whispered messages from a dead son. To his right is a pilot who hasn’t yet found the man she’s sworn to kill on sight. A vampire and its entourage of zombie bodyguards lurk in the shadows behind. And dead ahead, a handful of rapture-stricken monks takes them all to a meeting with something they will only call “The Angels of the Asteroids.”
Their pilgrimage brings Dan Bruks, the fossil man, face-to-face with the biggest evolutionary breakpoint since the origin of thought itself.

Title: Echopraxia
Author: Peter Watts
Category: Adult Fiction
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tor [Forge]
Publication Date: August 26, 2014
Format: NetGalley DRC
Length: 299 pages
ISBN-10: 076532802X
ISBN-13: 9780765328021

Series or Standalone: Companion Novel (Blindsight)

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Consciousness, Free Will, Transhumanism
POV: 3rd person
Tense: Past

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

How I Got It: I’ve always been a fan of Peter Watts’s fiction. So I was very happy when Nick told me he’d gotten approved for this book on NetGalley.

Cover Notes: This cover is not very emblematic of the content of the book. It’s not bad, but I think a less generic sci-fi cover might have been better.

Review:

This is a hard review in some ways. Much like Blindsight, Echopraxia is the quintessential science fiction of ideas. They’re there, they’re big, and they’re fascinating, whether you agree with Watts’s conclusions or not. Watts explores free will and consciousness from a very scientific and logical perspective. On top of the idea of digital reality. And his idea of vampires is one of my favorite from a sci-fi perspective. Well-done hard sci-fi is incredibly difficult to find, and from the concepts and themes side of things Peter Watts is one of the few authors who always delivers.

My major issue with the story was the story itself. Watts spends so much time on the ideas that the story gets less attention that it deserves. The reader is left to fill in many gaps, and the concept of determinism and the layers upon layers of external control over what would normally be seen as acts of free will can make the plot very hard to follow. I think the basis of the plot is sound, but the execution could use a bit more work.

As far as the characters go, I loved them. Watts manages to have many characters with very unconventional motivations and beliefs that are at the same time utterly believable and relatable, even if most of them aren’t very likable. Valerie the vampire in particular was one of my favorite characters, and Watts managed to give enough exposition of his vampire concept to make her consistent in all the right ways, and unpredictable in the same.

Overall, I enjoyed reading the book, but it may not be something the casual science fiction fan would be interested in.

Conclusion: 79/100 (Good, but not the best story-telling in the world)
Premise: 7/10 (If it was more clear, I might have given it more points)
Plot: 5/10 (Not the most coherent, was back-seated to the ideas/themes)
Setting: 9/10 (Great)
Main Character: 9/10 (Not the most likable, but well-crafted and interesting)
World-building 8/10 (Pretty good, and very interesting)
Science 9/10 (Very well-researched. That appendix was… frightening?)
Supporting Characters: 7/10 (Not bad)
Writing: 6/10 (Not awful, but not brilliant)
Themes: 9/10 (Great themes, well-executed)
Resolution: 10/10 (Loved it)

Buy Or Borrow: Borrow, unless you’re really into the science fiction of ideas.

Similar Books:
The Ware Tetralogy by Rudy Rucker
The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter
Queen of Angels by Greg Bear
Permutation City by Greg Egan

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
Publishers Weekly
Speculiction
The Taichung Bookworm
Armed and Dangerous
Drunken Dragon Reviews

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Book Review: Young Adult: Blightborn by Chuck Wendig

blightborncover

Cael McAvoy is on the run. He’s heading toward the Empyrean to rescue his sister, Merelda, and to find Gwennie before she’s lost to Cael forever. With his pals, Lane and Rigo, Cael journeys across the Heartland to catch a ride into the sky. But with Boyland and others after them, Cael and his friends won’t make it through unchanged.
Gwennie’s living the life of a Lottery winner, but it’s not what she expected. Separated from her family, Gwennie makes a bold move—one that catches the attention of the Empyrean and changes the course of an Empyrean man’s life.
The crew from Boxelder aren’t the only folks willing to sacrifice everything to see the Empyrean fall. The question is: Can the others be trusted?
They’d all better hurry. Because the Empyrean has plans that could ensure that the Heartland never fights back again.
Chuck Wendig’s riveting sequel to Under the Empyrean Sky plunges readers into an unsettling world of inequality and destruction, and fleshes out a cast of ragtag characters all fighting for survival and, ultimately, change.

Title: Blightborn
Author: Chuck Wendig
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopia
Publisher: Amazon Publishing (Skyscape)
Publication Date: July 29, 2014
Format: Kindle Ebook
Length: 528 pages
ISBN-10: 1477847707
ISBN-13: 978-1477847701

Series or Standalone: The Heartland Trilogy #2

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Environmentalism, Terrorism
POV: 3rd Person, Multiple POV
Tense: Present

Reviewer: Nick Morgan

Why I Read It: Despite my disillusionment with the dystopian genre in the past few years, I decided to give this book a shot after receiving a digital review copy from the publisher through NetGalley. I have no regrets.

Review:

Chuck Wendig demonstrates his powerful storytelling abilities in his Heartlands series. Both Blightborn and the previous book were page-turners with interesting characters and a beautifully crafted setting in the Heartland of what used to be the United States, and is now the dominion of the Emyperean. Corn has spread like a weed across vast swaths of the old Midwest, and the economy is based on the trade of corn derivatives with the builders of great floating cities in the sky.

Mild spoilers for Under the Empyeran Sky follow:

Following Gwennie’s ascent into the flotilla of Ormond Stirling Saranyu as a Lottery Winner, Wendig introduces us to Gwennie’s new protector, Balastair, and are slowly introduced to the rest f the Empyrean cast. We also start to get some hints of what happened to Cael’s sister Merelda. And it’s quite an interesting story, too.

We also get to learn more about the world of the Heartland and Empyrean. Some of the history and the secrets come to light during Cael’s journey. The reasons why the world is the way it is are pretty well constructed, and they add wonderfully to the (urban) mythology of Wendig’s world.

I would say Blightborn is an improvement on Empyrean Sky, instead of the slump that many middle books in a trilogy tend to be. The action ramps up, but it’s not filler. There are no training montages or sitting around waiting for the enemy to make a move. Wendig has created one of the more proactive dystopian MCs in a long while, and he takes full advantage of it.

Now, with all that said, there are some things that are not so great about the book. For example, Wendig still hasn’t really explained the reason for the Obligation ceremony. The ceremony serves to drive much of the story, both in the form of the conflict over Gwennie between Cael and Boyland, and in the character arc of Wanda. The idea of the Obligation certainly provides some convenient tension and motivation for Wendig’s characters, but it’s rather unclear why the Empyrean have imposed it on the Heartlanders when their own society is so much more free in terms of sexual and romantic relationships. Perhaps Wendig has some answers, but he hasn’t seen fit to share them with his readers, and I found it a bit frustrating.

Something of a bit more controversial nature is the relationship between Merelda and her friend from the Provisional Depot. I won’t spoil it here, especially this close to publication, but it’s something that would certainly push this towards the 14+ crowd if you went by the standard media ratings systems. I haven’t actually decided how I feel about it. It fits with the way many teenagers think, and it creates one of the most interesting sources of tension in the novel. But it did make me rather uncomfortable in a way not a lot of YA books do. In some ways, that’s actually a compliment to Wendig. If I just hated it, or wasn’t at all bothered, it wouldn’t be nearly as powerful of a situation, and it would probably mean it was just handled poorly.

My final nitpick has to do with a world-building issue. Considering the technology obviously available to the Empyrean, it seems a bit odd they would have so much trouble creating the pegasus that drives so much of the first part of the novel. They Empyrean clearly has access to some incredible genetics and bio-engineering technology, as you’ll see if you read the book. So why do they find this one issue so difficult? I note this as an example of the cracks that run through Wendig’s world-building. As long as you are pulled along by the story itself, and keep turning pages, you might be able to ignore these cracks. But for those who do care a bit more about the world-building aspects of the story, I want to be honest about my feelings on this issue.

Still, despite a few reservations, I did enjoy this book, and I’m sure there are many others who would also enjoy it. I can’t say everyone should go out and buy this book right now, but neither can I let anyone dismiss it out of hand. Certainly, anyone who enjoyed the first book in the series will find this a worthy successor.

Conclusion: 74/100 (Very readable)
Premise: 9/10 (Convinced me to read the series, no problem)
Plot: 7/10 (Coherent if unambitious)
Setting: 8/10 (Well constructed, intriguing, mysterious)
Main Character: 8/10 (Well-crafted, engaging)
World-building 7/10 (Great base, shaky details)
Romance Sub-plot 5/10 (Cliche and forced)
Supporting Characters: 8/10 (Well-constructed, engaging)
Writing: 7/10 (More than competent, kept me reading)
Themes: 6/10 (High aspirations, low execution)
Resolution: 9/10 (Action-packed)

Buy Or Borrow: Worth buying if you love YA Dystopia.

About the Author:

Chuck Wendig is a novelist, screenwriter, and game designer. He’s the author of BLACKBIRDS, DOUBLE DEAD and DINOCALYPSE NOW, and is co-writer of the short film PANDEMIC, the feature film HiM, and the Emmy-nominated digital narrative COLLAPSUS. He lives in Pennsylvania with wife, taco terrier, and tiny human.

Similar Books:
Divergent series by Veronica Roth
The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins
Matched by Allie Condie
Across the Universe by Beth Revis

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Michael Patrick Hicks – Author Website
Bones, Books, & Buffy
Melanie R. Meadors – Author Website

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