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: Science Fiction: Echopraxia by Peter Watts

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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: Horror Novella: We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory

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Harrison was the Monster Detective, a storybook hero. Now he’s in his mid-thirties, and spends most of his time popping pills and not sleeping. Stan became a minor celebrity after being partially eaten by cannibals. Barbara is haunted by unreadable messages carved upon her bones. Greta may or may not be a mass-murdering arsonist. Martin never takes off his sunglasses. Never.

No one believes the extent of their horrific tales, not until they are sought out by psychotherapist Dr. Jan Sayer. What happens when these seemingly-insane outcasts form a support group? Together they must discover which monsters they face are within—and which are lurking in plain sight.

Title: We Are All Completely Fine

Author: Daryl Gregory

Category: Adult Fiction

Genre: Fantasy, Paranormal, Horror

Publisher: Tachyon Publications

Publication Date: August 12, 2014

Format: NetGalley Digital Review Copy

Length: 112 pages

ISBN-10: 1616961716

ISBN-13: 9781616961718

Series or Standalone: Standalone

Literary Awards:

N/A

Themes: Trauma

POV: Multiple Perspectives, Blended

Tense: Past

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

How I Got It: Daryl Gregory, writer of beautifully bizarre fiction such as Afterparty and Pandemonium is a writer I have long followed but never read. I’d only heard good things, and I always liked his premises, but I hadn’t gotten around to it. An ARC from NetGalley seemed like just the impetus I was lacking, and I’m very grateful to Nick for providing it.

Review:

I don’t often read horror, but Gregory is an eclectic writer, so I figured I’d take the chance this time. I don’t regret it. Gregory has a strong command of his characters, something speculative fiction has oft been accused of lacking. The horror elements of the story were more like seeds or remnants, rarely seen in the flesh–even in psychological horror terms-but I think that’s part of what makes the idea of the story so intriguing, and it lets Gregory make good use of his characterization skills in a way pure horror doesn’t always allow.

The therapeutic setting may not be the most original, but it managed to remain quite active despite the obvious sedentary nature of such sessions.

Harrison plays the sort of mentor character by way of providing a great deal of elegantly inserted exposition, background, and validation to the other characters. I thought of him as the main character, despite the shifting perspectives, and I think he did a good job anchoring the narrative and the dynamics between the other characters.

Jan, as she likes to be known, is the therapist who creates the inciting incident of the story, and Gregory’s light touch in imparting the reasons for the group’s existence is a nice change from the heavy-handed foreshadowing one often comes across in pulp horror. The same goes for the unraveling of the web of history that connects the characters, history they themselves ma be unaware of. You’d think a story that deals so much with the past would drag, but it doesn’t, and the tantalizing hints of back-story definitely left me wanting more about these characters. It felt like I only got a snapshot of the characters’ lives, and that their stories existed long before that snapshot and will keep going long after. And yet the snapshot itself was still very satisfying. That’s something I consider a mark of a superior story–there are loose ends and secrets and histories the reader is unaware of, but it adds to rather than detracts from the story.

Also, +1 for using augmented reality in a horror story.

It’s safe to say I’ll be picking up a few other Daryl Gregory books after reading this, and I urge everyone else to do the same.

I think anyone who reads speculative or literary fiction would enjoy this book, no matter what they usually read.

Conclusion: 87/100 (An 87 is actually a really high rating, coming from me.)

Premise: 9/10 (Fresh and engaging)

Plot: 9/10 (Compact, but well-constructed)

Setting: 8/10 (Strongly evoked)

Main Character: 10/10 (Citing Harrison, lovely aged boy wonder)

World-building 9/10 (No info-dumping, great details)

Horror Elements 6/10 (Not all that much horror, even psychologically)

Supporting Characters: 10/10 (Well-crafted)

Writing: 8/10 (Well-written)

Themes: 8/10 (Trauma and related themes lovingly conveyed)

Resolution: 9/10 (Made sense, left you thinking)

Buy Or Borrow: Totally buy.

Similar Books:

Other Reviews:

GoodReads

Publishers Weekly

Kirkus August Picks

LitReactor BookShots

Eric Christensen

Bookworm Blues

Thinking About Books

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Book Review: Fantasy/Romance: The House of the Four Winds by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory

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The rulers of tiny, impoverished Swansgaard have twelve daughters and one son. While the prince’s future is assured, his twelve sisters must find their own fortunes.

Disguising herself as Clarence, a sailor, Princess Clarice intends to work her way to the New World. When the crew rebels, Clarice/Clarence, an expert with rapier and dagger, sides with the handsome navigator, Dominick, and kills the cruel captain.

Dominick leads the now-outlawed crew in search of treasure in the secret pirate haven known as The House of Four Winds. They encounter the sorceress Shamal, who claims Dominick for her own—but Clarice has fallen hard for Dominick and won’t give him up without a fight.

Title: The House of the Four Winds
Author(s): Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory
Category: Adult Fiction/New Adult
Genre: Fantasy/Romance
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: August 5, 2014
Format: Digital Review Copy from NetGalley
Length: 231 pages
ISBN-10: 0765335654
ISBN-13: 9780765335654

Series or Standalone: One Dozen Daughters #1

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Pirates
POV: Third Person
Tense: Past

Reviewer: Marisa

How I Found It: I’ve always been a big Lackey fan, so when Nick told me he could get an ARC of her new series, of course I jumped at the chance.

Cover Notes: I thought the cover was lovely, but to start on a theme you can expect to see a lot of in my review, it felt very Pirates of the Caribbean to me.

Soundtrack: It might be a bit mean of me, but you won’t be surprised to know I read this one to the tune of my PotC soundtracks. Unsurprisingly, they fit it pretty well.

Review:

Maybe I over-hyped this book to myself, since I love Lackey so much. Perhaps I went into it with slightly inaccurate genre expectations. Either way, I found myself quite disappointed with this book. That’s not to say it’s awful. It’s a passable mix between a pirate romance and a fairy-tale. The plot mostly holds together, and most of the characters are interesting. But there’s nothing special about the book that grabs, and despite portraying itself as a fantasy romance, the fantasy elements are few and far-between, for the most part, and the romance has no meat to it. There’s insta-love on the part of Clarice, but 99% of the story pushes her relationship with Dominick towards friendship rather than romance. In fact, there’s something of a warm bro-mance between Dominick and Clarice’s alternate persona Clarence. I think the book might have been better if Clarice had been a boy, perhaps a disposable 12th prince instead of the 1st of twelve princesses.

The main plot of the story started out quite interesting, and up until half-way through the portion of the novel set in the eponymous House of the Four Winds, I thought the story was quite interesting. Despite a few small quibbles. But the direction the story took after that had horrible pacing, little suspense, and was chock-full of sailor lore cliches that added little to the story. There were three major conflicts in the story. The first, involving the mutiny, was fairly interesting and what at first appeared to be bad characterization in fact turned out to be an intriguing plot twist. I have to congratulate the authors on that one.

The second conflict/sub-plot, involving the aftermath of the mutiny and the character’s arrival at the House was also interesting. But it was rushed through, and the swash-buckling, pirate-wrangling adventure I was anticipating was almost immediately done away with.

The third conflict was cliche, rushed, and boring, with only one or two sparks of interest to carry me through it.

In the end, while this isn’t an awful book, and I don’t think I completely wasted my time reading it–short as it was, I’m not particularly excited to see the next few books in the series either. This was not of the quality I had come to expect from Mercedes Lackey. I haven’t read any of her other collaborations with James Mallory, so perhaps his influence has something to do with the lack. I’m not very motivated to find out, at this point.

Conclusion: 61/100 (A very cliche and rather boring Pirates of the Caribbean clone)
Premise: 6/10 (Fun and an old standard, but no interesting twist)
Plot: 5/10 (Cliche and a bit dull, but coherent)
Setting: 8/10 (Our world, but nicely re-imagined)
Main Character(s): 7/10 (Loved Clarice/Clarence, found Dominick rather flat)
World-building: 5/10 (paper-thin facade of an alternate earth, but coherent enough)
Romance Sub-plot: 5/10 (Sweet, but way under-developed)
Supporting Characters: 8/10 (Fun and diverse)
Writing: 7/10 (Decently-written, but not fantastic)
Themes: 4/10 (No real theme to add depth to the story)
Resolution: 6/10 (Rushed and hollow)

Buy Or Borrow: I’d say borrow unless you’re a huge Lackey fan or love nautical romance.

Similar Books:
I don’t read a lot of romance, but I’m sure there are similar books. As for fantasy, I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Dear Author
Bibliophilia, Please
There Were Books Involved
Between the Pages
Imaginary Reads
Gun In Act One

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Book Review: Fantasy: Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

Fool's Assassin Cover

Nearly twenty years ago, Robin Hobb burst upon the fantasy scene with the first of her acclaimed Farseer novels, Assassin’s Apprentice, which introduced the characters of FitzChivalry Farseer and his uncanny friend the Fool. A watershed moment in modern fantasy, this novel—and those that followed—broke exciting new ground in a beloved genre. Together with George R. R. Martin, Robin Hobb helped pave the way for such talented new voices as Scott Lynch, Brandon Sanderson, and Naomi Novik.

Over the years, Hobb’s imagination has soared throughout the mythic lands of the Six Duchies in such bestselling series as the Liveship Traders Trilogy and the Rain Wilds Chronicles. But no matter how far she roamed, her heart always remained with Fitz. And now, at last, she has come home, with an astonishing new novel that opens a dark and gripping chapter in the Farseer saga.

FitzChivalry—royal bastard and former king’s assassin—has left his life of intrigue behind. As far as the rest of the world knows, FitzChivalry Farseer is dead and buried. Masquerading as Tom Badgerlock, Fitz is now married to his childhood sweetheart, Molly, and leading the quiet life of a country squire.

Though Fitz is haunted by the disappearance of the Fool, who did so much to shape Fitz into the man he has become, such private hurts are put aside in the business of daily life, at least until the appearance of menacing, pale-skinned strangers casts a sinister shadow over Fitz’s past . . . and his future.

Now, to protect his new life, the former assassin must once again take up his old one. . . .

Title: Fool’s Assassin
Author: Robin Hobb
Category: Adult Fiction
Genre: Fantasy, High Fantasy
Publisher: Del Ray Spectra
Publication Date: August 12, 2014
Format: Electronic Review Copy
Length: 580 pages
ISBN-10: 0553392425
ISBN-13: 9780553392425

Series or Standalone: The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy, #1

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Family/Parenting
POV: Dual First Person
Tense: Past

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

How I Got It: Nick received an electronic review copy of this book from NetGalley, and being a huge Robin Hobb fan, of course I said I’d review it.

Review:

I always try to write my reviews as soon after finishing the book as possible, because the longer I wait, the more I notice things that weren’t actually so great about it. But as a reader, if the author can manage to sweep those things under the rug long enough for me to finish the book, I’m willing to give them a bit of wiggle room. But, even having only been done for a day or so, I still had a few issues with this book, even though I mostly enjoyed it.

World-building

Judging a book in a series is always harder than a standalone. Especially a book that continues a larger series after ten years or more. I loved the rest of Hobb’s Fitz series, and all her stories set in the same world, to be honest. So she has the weight of all her previous (and incredible) world-building work behind this book. That said, I think she still did a great job with her world-building in this novel, tying in with the older books with barely the knot even showing. The Six Duchies still stands out as one of the most beautiful and fully-realized fantasy settings I’ve ever had the pleasure to encounter. And the setting of Withywoods is in the same vein. I felt just as present there as I did at Buckkeep in the previous novels.

Characters

The first major issue I have with the book–and many other reviews apparently agree with me–was the characters. Nettle, Fitz’s daughter with Molly, was almost perfect. A bit clueless about some things, but more by authorial edict than character development. Molly, too, felt like a natural progression of her previous character. But beyond that, the main characters had some serious flaws in their portrayal. Fitz himself seemed to be his old smart self or a complete idiot as the plot dictated. He would ignore his daughter Bee’s problems at one point, and a page later he would be almost the ideal father to her. It was incredibly frustrating in some places. It didn’t ruin the book for me, but it contributed to several concerns I had with the way the plot was constructed. When Hobb was on the ball, she was on fire, but when she was off it, she was terrible in this respect.

Bee was another problem character. Again the plot seemed to force her into some unnatural behavior, such as her lack of communication in areas where even a girl her age would have known it was needed. She was portrayed as wiser than her years in many ways, and yet she also had the instincts of a child and the apparent knowledge of how adults are so divorced from children’s politics to be good allies. In many ways, she was an expertly constructed character, despite my issues with the rather cliche “old soul”/ mystical waif character Hobb assigned her. I was so split on Bee. I wanted to love her when sparks of Hobb’s first person characterization brilliance showed themselves. But often I found her annoying.

Finally, several characters were caught up in the authorial persecution of Bee’s character. FitzVigilant(Lant), Shun Fallstar, even Fitz, on occasion. Hobb had so many other seeds she could have nurtured in pursuit of her goal with Bee, and yet she fell back on mediocre conspiracy between characters. Certainly Fitz often joined this conspiracy by being a complete idiot on several occasions.

Shun’s character was quite irritating in that regard. And others. I never figured out why Chade was such an idiot regarding how her temperament might conflict with Bee and Fitz. Why he even let her retain such a temperament in the first place. Several of the characters are getting a bit old, perhaps losing some of their edge. A great route to take, I think, if only Hobb had made better use of it. But it doesn’t excuse their utter failure to think ahead more than three seconds when convenient to Hobb’s plot.

In fact, I might have enjoyed Shun and Lant’s personalities in isolation or in another context. But as is, they frustrated me quite a lot.

Plot

For obvious spoiler reasons and the fact that this is an advance review, I won’t be able to discuss the plot issues as fully as I’d like. The main plot was quite interesting. On it’s own, it might warrant a 9/10. But Hobb’s obvious desire to accomplish her set-up and character introductions meant the pacing in this book was off quite often, and the book dragged in areas. Even with the large time-skips near the beginning of the novel. If Hobb had focused more on the main plot, and not dropped such a brutally lazy cliff-hanger at the end of the book, it would have been a great re-entrance into the Farseer universe. There was a lot of potential in the book, and I’m very hopeful that the rest of the series, having its set-up completed her, will be a vast improvement in terms of actual story.

Conclusion

This definitely felt like a Fitz novel, and though it may seem like I hated everything about the book, it was actually a mostly enjoyable read, even if I have to admit it’s not Hobb’s best work. I do think it’s worth reading, and the portion of Fitz fans who were desperately waiting for more Farseer novels will definitely want to read this. It was great to feel the old characters around me again. Even though there wasn’t a lot of new action and mystery in the novel, it was still interesting, and I wanted to know what would happen as I turned the pages.

That said, for someone just getting into the Farseer novels or Robin Hobb as an author, I would not start here. I would read the Soldier Son trilogy or the original Fitz trilogy first.

Conclusion: 80/100 (Worth the read, but my expectations were much too high)
Premise: 8/10 (For anyone whose ever wanted an “after the quest is over” narrative)
Plot: 8/10 (Coherent and interesting, but had some holes)
Setting: 9/10 (I definitely felt like I was in the Six Duchies. Withywoods especially was great)
Main Character(s): 7/10 (Mostly well-drawn and interesting, but Bee had some issues)
World-building: 8/10 (Lovely, few holes)
Magic System 9/10 (Very solid and integrated to the world, though rarely flashy)
Supporting Characters: 7/10 (The newer characters felt a bit shallow)
Writing: 8/10 (Very evocative, but awkward in places)
Themes: 8/10 (Good themes, and well executed for the most part)
Resolution: 8/10 (Interesting, but an annoyingly massive cliff-hanger)

Buy Or Borrow: Definitely worth buying this. I can’t wait to read the next one.

Similar Books:
The Demon Child Trilogy by Jennifer Fallon
Winds of the Forelands by David B. Coe

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
Publisher’s Weekly
SciFiNow
I Smell Sheep
Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist
Kobold Press

Buy Links:
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Barnes and Noble
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