Book Review: Science Fiction: The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

She believed in the mission with all her heart.
But that was sixty million years ago.

How do you stage a mutiny when you’re only awake one day in a million? How do you conspire when your tiny handful of potential allies changes with each shift? How do you engage an enemy that never sleeps, that sees through your eyes and hears through your ears and relentlessly, honestly, only wants what best for you?

Sunday Ahzmundin is about to find out.

Note from the publisher: The red letters in the print edition (and highlighted letters in the e-book) indicate special bonus content from the author.

Title: The Freeze-Frame Revolution.
Author: Peter Watts
Category: Adult fiction
Genre: Hard Science Fiction
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Publication Date: June 12th, 2018
Format: Paperback
Length: 192 pages
ISBN-10: 1616962526
ISBN-13: 9781616962524

Series or Standalone: Sunflower Cycle #4

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Autonomy, Consciousness, Evolution, Obsolescence
POV: First-person
Tense: Past

Reviewer: Atsiko

Why I Read It: Because Peter Watts.  No further explanation needed. (I guess the blurb sounded cool, too.)

Review:

Like most Peter Watts works, I loved this one.  It had some flaws I’ll get to in the body of the review, but overall it was great.  Would have bought it if I didn’t get an ARC.

Several other reviews I read while prepping for my own review talked about confusion and opaqueness as far as the plot and premise.  I didn’t see that personally, but I’ve read a lot more SF than most people.  It should be mentioned this is the fourth work in a “series” of short fiction pieces. which can be found on the author’s website linked above under the series title “Sunflowers”.  However, I disagree with most other reviewers in that I don’t feel that they must be read in order to really understand this novella/novel.

To save you all some trouble, the basic premise of the story is that a crew of people born and bred for the purpose have set out on a journey around the galaxy to see it with stargates between worlds.  Although they are travelling in a relativistic spacecraft limited by the speed of light, those following after them through the gate network will not be.  In order to live through what will be a multi-million year journey, they are put in cryo-sleep for most of the trip.  A-less-than-human-level AI runs most of the voyage, only waking up humans when there are too many variables for it to work out a problem computer style.  The majority of the story takes place some 69 millions years after they set out from 22nd century Earth.

The characters must figure out how to stage a revolution against their AI overlord while only being awake a few days in a million, compared to a machine that’s always on and runs far faster than the human brain, including running the functions of the entire ship such as engines, computers, the “internet”, and life support.

Something that you don’t find in much science fiction or science news these days is a writer who really understands how AI works and how it’s different than human intelligence.  But Peter Watts is that rare gem, and it was wonderful to read a story that really captures a realistic-seeming artificial intelligence, both in the ways its sees the world and the mission, and in its interactions with the human crew members.  The second part of what makes Watts brilliant here is his ability to recognize the blindspots of both his characters and his readers towards AI and weave them into a suspenseful if not exactly rollicking techno-thriller.  Recent sci-fi blockbusters along similar themes may be more exciting, but can’t at all compare to the realism and humanity of Watts’ AI. On that along, science and especially AI buffs will find this book worth a read.

I should warn you that it’s a quintessential hard SF story, in that it expects you to know how to process the tropes and conventions of the genre, both tech wise and in the narrative.  More casual SFF or general fiction readers may find some of the science and its presentation in the book either intimidating or tedious, and the tricks the characters use to keep their revolution a secret are not blindingly unique nor particularly entertaining.

Both the setting and the characters lack the level development one would get in a longer work.  Certainly the length limits the story quality in that regard.  Reading some of the other stories could remedy that to an extent, but they too suffer from some of the shortcomings of short fiction compared to the novel.

Finally, I need to address one of the main themes of this series as well as Watts’ work in general: free will.  What is it and do humans really have it?  Especially if you read the other stories in the series you’ll see this theme running through the novel.  Some people might enjoy the exploration, and others might find it off-putting.  I like the concept, but I felt the execution was a bit ham-handed.

But, there’s another more interesting, far more relatable theme in the novel: your place in the world.  Many of the characters struggle mightily with the meaning of their existence in a world where there’s a good chance the rest of humanity has died out or evolved into something else.  Especially given that there seems a strong chance that their intermittent existence will be prolonged far beyond and interest they might have in it by the ship AIs commitment to their mission.  Because the characters have been removed so far out from the normal context of human society, they question not only the purpose of continuing their mission, but even of continuing to live.  It’s on a bigger stage than most of us will ever experience, but the question of what gives life meaning is a universal one.

It probably sounds like I have a lot of criticism for this book.  But that’s more a function of the review genre.  I can’t tell you the details on the things that most excite me about the book because *spoilers*.  But if nothing else, the on-again/off-again platonic relationship between the main character and the ship AI will give you reason enough to keep turning pages.  Especially with the book only being about 140 pages long.

All that’s left to say is grab your copy and enjoy!

 

Conclusion: 77/100 ()
Premise:  8/10 (Not new, but a very new spin)
Plot: 7 /10 (Some holes)
Setting:  9/10 (Amazing and well-researched)
Main Character:  6/10 (Could have used more development)
World-building  9/10 (Well-structured and executed)
Technology 8/10 (Some handwavium, but on a hard science foundation)
Supporting Characters:  6/10 (Needed more development)
Writing:  8/10 (More than competent)
Themes:  8/10 (Great concepts, needed a bit more exploration)
Resolution:  8/10 (Brilliant twist, no “resolution” as such)

Buy Or Borrow: Definitely worth the cost if you like hard sf with really solid philosophical/ethical commentary, especially as you can get the other three stories in the series for free on the author’s website.

Similar Books:

There aren’t really any similar books.  Some reviews I read cited generation ship novels, but that’s not really what this is.  If you liked it, you might like Heechee Saga, but that’s about all I’ve got that feels really similar, and it’s an old, old series.  Maybe the Rama series by Clarke.  Still not really “similar”, but the network of travel routes and the time span are close.

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Publishers Weekly
Medium
Foreward Reviews
File 770
Teleread.org
Little Red Reviewer

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
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Book Review: Fantasy: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

thepoppywar

Title: The Poppy War
Author: R.F. Kuang
Category: Adult
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication Date: May 1, 2018
Format: Hardcover
Length:  544 pages
ISBN-10: 0062662597
ISBN-13: 9780062662590

Series or Standalone: Series (The Poppy War #1)

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Revenge, Anger, Genocide, War
POV: 3rd Person
Tense: Past

Why I Read It: Because there was tons of hype and the setting and premise sounded really interesting.  I managed to borrow a review copy from a friend, but I also bought the book in hardcover.  Drug-induced magic?  Obviously.

Reviewer: Atsiko

Disclaimer:  I want to be very clear from the beginning that I am a white dude from the Midwest, in case there was any confusion.  See how this figure into the review blow.

Review:

I struggled a bit on whether to review this book or not.  There was a lot of hype I didn’t feel the book lived up to it.  Also the Twitter controversy in which I was partially involved.

However, I realized I was being unfair to the book.  The Poppy War is a very solid debut, and I’m really looking forward to what the author does with the sequels and especially with her next step after this series is complete.

I want to start off by saying that the book is certainly grimdark, though not your traditional such novel.  And it’s not nearly as “brutal” as advertised.  There were only one or two scenes I would describe with that adjective, and most of the brutality in the novel takes place off the page, often relayed to the character after the fact by acquaintances.

But, where the brutality is written, it is very effective, creating in the characters exactly what I would expect to see their reactions be given the situation.  Major points for that, even if it was a bit heavy-handed.

The magic system was a delight.  I’ve always loved the idea of mixing drugs and addiction with magic, and Kuang has done so extremely well in this book.  I would also cite it as a shining example of how you can construct and interesting and useful magic “system” without getting bogged down in the rules and mechanics.  Now, you all probably know from here and my blog that I love getting bogged down in the inner workings of magic systems.  But when a writer shows how you can add enormous tension and excitement to a story without digging into the gears and shafts, I sit up and take notice.

The main character was interesting.  I loved how she was willing to take any measure to succeed at her goals and that she was willing and able to be a pro-active instead of reactive character.  A lot of books, fantasy and otherwise, are plagued by reactive characters whose enemies and circumstances drive the plot, but not so with Rin.

Now, although the magic system was top tier, the world-building was a bit shallow and shaky for me.  I confess I may just not have the right culture context to really appreciate everything going on in the book.  Perhaps someone more immersed in Chinese history and culture would have appreciated Kuang’s work more knowledgably.  I do know the history Kuang is referencing in the book, although I learned it mostly from the Japanese perspective in college.  And I’ve also read primary sources of the atrocities committed by the Japanese in the Rape of Nanking.  But that’s not the same as being raised with the spectre of these atrocities ever in the background of your mind.

That said, I felt that the author maybe relied a little too heavily on the reader knowing the real-world history the novel is based on.  There were lots of names and concepts thrown around, but not a lot of meet for the reader to bite into.  I did like how the information on all three powers was introduced in political context, almost being war propaganda by default.  But I would have liked a bit more detail.

The plot of the novel and the pacing were both problem points for me.  I didn’t feel like the military boarding school parts were very fleshed out.  They felt like the author leaned heavily on the tropes of that genre to carry the plot.  The legacy/aristocratic bully, the harsh teacher, the goofy teacher who teaches the protag how they are special.  Etc.  I also felt it passed fairly quickly.  Then, the war aspects also felt rushed.  Although there were some powerful climaxes, they didn’t have the build-up to really make them shine.  Which is too bad, because there were the seeds of some great story in here.

Finally, the writing itself was lacking for me.  There were some odd repetitions, sometimes in the same paragraph.  There were good parts, too.  I was invested enough to read the book all in one five-hour sitting.  The writing is obviously good enough to be published.  I think the book is overall quite competently constructed.  But the small holes nonetheless exposed some of the thinness of the frame, and on occasion it threw me out of the story for a bit.

Overall, this was a solid debut.  I do look forward both to the sequels and to future work from R.F. Kuang.  I sincerely hope the hype drives enough sales to keep her interested in publishing.

 

ETA:  There’s been a lot of conversation on Twitter about the issue of tired tropes and how they may be tired for white cishet people but not for LGBTQIUA or non-white folks.  As a cishet white person, I can’t always speak to that issue in my reviews.  While I don’t retract my opinion on the novel on that basis, people should take it with a sack of salt when I’m discussing a book by a marginalized author or a marginalized character.

 

Conclusion: 72/100 (A solid debut, author is one to watch)
Premise:  8/10 (I’m a sucker for magic and drugs mixed)
Plot:  6/10 (A bit formulaic)
Setting:  6/10 (Clear influences, no real originality)
Main Character:  7/10 (Interesting but shallowly drawn and a bit plot-driven)
World-building  7/10 (The concepts rocked, the execution was a bit lackluster)
Magic System 10/10 (Fantastic examples of a rule-less magic system)
Supporting Characters:  6/10 (A few interesting ones, little real development)
Writing:  7/10 (Readable but with some odd flaws)
Themes:  7/10 (Straight-forward, cool ending)
Resolution:  8/10 (Dramatic, but not really explored)

Buy Or Borrow: Definitely worth buying if you’re looking for non-European fantasy or fantasy with a good female protagonist.

Similar Books:

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Publishers Weekly
The Skiffy and Fanty Show
Tor.com
Reddit
The Quill To Live
Fantasy-Faction
Huntress of Diverse Books
The Illustrated Page

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

Buy Links:
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Barnes and Noble
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E-Books:
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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

Buy Links:
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Book Review: Fantasy: The Dark Defiles by Richard K. Morgan

thedarkdefilescover

Ringil Eskiath, a reluctant hero viewed as a corrupt degenerate by the very people who demand his help, has traveled far in search of the Illwrack Changeling, a deathless human sorcerer-warrior raised by the bloodthirsty Aldrain, former rulers of the world. Separated from his companions—Egar the Dragonbane and Archeth—Ringil risks his soul to master a deadly magic that alone can challenge the might of the Changeling. While Archeth and the Dragonbane embark on a trail of blood and tears that ends up exposing long-buried secrets, Ringil finds himself tested as never before, with his life and all existence hanging in the balance.

Title: The Dark Defiles
Author: Richard K. Morgan
Category: Adult Fiction
Genre: Science Fantasy
Publisher: Del Ray Spectra
Publication Date: October 7, 2014
Format: Netgalley DRC
Length: 692 pages
ISBN-10: 0575077948
ISBN-13: 9780345493101

Series or Standalone: A Land Fit for Heroes #3

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: The Creation of a Myth, What is a Hero?
POV: Third Person, Multiple POVs
Tense: Past

Reviewer: Atsiko

Why I Read It: I’d heard a lot about Richard K. Morgan’s foray into the fantasy genre, how ground-breaking it was. There was a lot of hype, and I’d never read any of his
science fiction books before. Sounded over-hyped, so I read other things instead. Then Nick managed to score an ARC of the third book in the series. I figured I might as well give it a shot, and it was outside my normal reading, so why not?

Review:

There’s a lot of talk about Richard Morgan breaking new ground in the fantasy genre with this series. First, to get things straight, this series is the bastard child of sword and sorcery and science fantasy, with the Grimdark aesthetic so popular in fantasy right now being the icing on the cake. In that sense, it’s not even part of the high or epic fantasy genres. Now that we have that out of the way, the book on its actual merits.

1. World-building: This is one of the major points of fantasy or speculative fiction in general. Morgan shows himself to be a very competent world-builder in this book. Although he makes use of a lot of subverted cliches, or even cliches played straight, there aren’t any major wholes in the world-building. What he does best is history and the other-world part of the setting. Quite interesting, lots of cool takes on older fantasy staples. The main world of the story, though, doesn’t fare so well. There’s an Empire, a “League of Free Cities”, and some barbarians in the form of “steppe nomads”, but with the steppe replaced by the Great Plains of middle America. Nothing new or even particularly interesting here. Although, he has improved a great deal on the previous novels.

2. Characters: The characters have much improved in this book. They are more developed, and make more interesting decisions. Ringil in particular develops his anti-hero personality, much more. Especially vis-a-vis his family. And yet without any of the over-indulgence that was present in the last book. Further, he comes more into his powers, and Morgan shows more of the process.

Archeth, too gets a boost in ability, and her relationship to the absent Kiriath and the Helmsmen they left behind is greatly expanded upon.

Egar Dragonbane also receives much more development. A good thing considering he was the weakest character in the previous two books.

3. Story: The threads of the story are much better balanced than in the preivious two books. A great deal of info-dumping occurs, as Morgan attempts to set up for the climax and resolution of the story. A climax that could have been very interesting if handled better, but here fell rather flat and felt rushed. There were several interesting scenes, and the book recovers incredibly well from the second-book-slump of The Cold Commands. In fact, the middle two-thirds of the story is perhaps the best part of the entire trilogy.

In the end, as much as it does to counteract the weaknesses of the rest of the trilogy, it can’t quite manage to bring the trilogy from your average mid-list fantasy series to the heights promised by the initial hype leading up to the release of The Steel Remains.

Conclusion: 69/100 (Readable but not the brilliance it’s made out to be)
Premise: 6/10 (Meant to be ground-breaking, isn’t)
Plot: 8/10 (Coherent and interesting)
Setting: 6/10 (Fairly standard fantasy cliches)
Main Character(s): 8/10 (Standard tropes, well executed)
World-building 8/10 (Some very interesting points but not brilliant)
Magic system 7/10 (Fairly standard)
Supporting Characters: 4/10 (Very cliche)
Writing: 4/5 (More than competent, not brilliant)
Voice: 5/5 (Very strong voice, easy to distinguish between characters)
Themes: 7/10 (Good, poorly expressed)
Resolution: 6/10 (Predictable and boring)

Buy Or Borrow: Worth buying if this review intrigues you.

Similar Books:
The Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman
The Corean Chronicles by L. E. Modesitt
The Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock
The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
_
_
_
_
_

Buy Links:
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E-Books:
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Book Review: Young Adult: Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Afterworlds Cover

Darcy Patel has put college and everything else on hold to publish her teen novel, Afterworlds. Arriving in New York with no apartment or friends she wonders whether she’s made the right decision until she falls in with a crowd of other seasoned and fledgling writers who take her under their wings…

Told in alternating chapters is Darcy’s novel, a suspenseful thriller about Lizzie, a teen who slips into the ‘Afterworld’ to survive a terrorist attack. But the Afterworld is a place between the living and the dead and as Lizzie drifts between our world and that of the Afterworld, she discovers that many unsolved – and terrifying – stories need to be reconciled. And when a new threat resurfaces, Lizzie learns her special gifts may not be enough to protect those she loves and cares about most.

Title: Afterworlds
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Category: Young Adult/New Adult
Genre: Literary Fiction/Paranormal
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication Date: September 23, 2014
Format: Paperback ARC
Length: 599 pages
ISBN-10: 1481422340
ISBN-13: 9781481422345

Series or Standalone: Standalone

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: GLBTQ
POV: Alternating 3rd and 1st person
Tense: Past

Reviewer(s): Atsiko and Marisa

Where I Got It: Anyone who’s been following this blog for awhile may be wondering what I’m doing reviewing a Young Adult title. That’s supposed to be Nick and Marisa’s job. There happen to be some extenuating circumstances for this one. First, the only version of this book available on NetGalley is the UK edition from Simon and Schuster UK Children’s. I’m a huge Westerfeld fan, so I was very disappointed when Nick told me that. But then, conveniently, another friend of mine happened to stumble across a cache of ARCs for 2013-2015, and this was one of them. I asked Nick and Marisa if I could review this, and they said yes. I am a huge Westerfeld fan, so this made my year.

Review:

Atsiko

Another major reason I’m reviewing this book is that technically speaking, we agreed it’s a New Adult book. No offense to Westerfeld and his marketing campaign. Plenty of gap year books exist in YA. Plenty of teenagers hang out with older folks. And it does have a first love. However, the plot and themes of one of the two interlocking stories felt strongly NA to us. Again, that would still be in Marisa’s ballpark normally, especially as the other half is somewhat of a paranormal romance. But for scheduling reasons and because it there’s a strong fantasy element to the main character’s novel, so much so that it really blurs the line between PR and Urban Fantasy. I promise all this is actually relevant to my review.

How? Because this book was something of a disappointment to me. And also to Marisa. You may have noticed we’re sharing the “Reviewer” spot here. This will be a joint review, something we figured we might as well try, since it’s a group blog anyway.

Marisa

Hey, guys. Welcome to the first joint review on Notes from the Dark! As you may know, I’ve been looking for some NA books that aren’t pure romance. I don’t mind romance sometimes, but as a college student and thus a New Adult, I think the category has so much more to offer than just a hot steamy romance. I had high hopes for this book. As Atsiko mentioned, we agreed it had many elements of NA in our opinion. And despite having romance as a major element in both stories lines, that wasn’t the only part of part of it. I wouldn’t call it a true romance novel. To me, it’s literary fiction, one of my other loves in literature. I found a lot to like in this book, but there was a lot I think could have been better. Since Atsiko has previously blogged about cultural appropriation in YA fantasy and literature in general, I’m going to let him handle the story-within-a-story part, while I deal with Darcy’s part of the book. Then at the end, we’ll both share our conclusions together.

Atsiko

Despite being billed a single novel, this book is really two books in one. There’s not a great deal of interaction between the two story-lines. I’m rather disappointed, since there could have been quite a bit. I kind of wish we had been treated to Lizzie’s story in draft(s) form, rather than as a final copy, since it removes some of the suspense in Darcy’s story, and takes out some really cool narrative and thematic possibilities. If you separated the two stories, there wouldn’t be many clues to show you had done so. For something as much of a trope as a writer writing about a writer, I was hoping for something more from a writer of Westerfeld’s caliber.

Lizzie’s story, about a girl who survives a terrorist attack by fleeing to the afterlife and becoming something of a reaper/psychopomp(guide to the afterlife), is actually a fairly decent paranormal romance/urban fantasy on its own. It’s got a fun premise, contains some lovely and uncommon (in PR and much UF) horror elements, and is fairly dark in some ways. I would have loved to read that book, written as a standalone and self-contained novel by Westerfeld. I won’t spoil it, but the villain was cool, the love interest more original than your average vampire, and the paranormal aspects an old trope with a new twist.

I wouldn’t read Lizzie’s half as a true paranormal romance. Romance readers will understand that warning once they finish the book. But it had some decent tension even if it wasn’t as “swoon-worthy” as something by Stephanie Perkins.

Marisa

I really loved Darcy’s part of this story. Aside from our concerns about target audience appropriateness, I thought it was a nice light YA/NA romance. There were some interesting issues with Darcy’s relationship. Some people might find certain elements uncomfortable. Obviously some people don’t like same-sex or interracial relationships. There are some other factors I won’t spoil. I know other reviewers have felt Darcy was a bit clingy, but I don’t think it was gratuitous. There was decent reasoning behind her behavior, and it never descended into an unhealthy relationship. Especially for a first love kind of story, it felt pretty realistic. Darcy’s romance isn’t sweep you off your feet, either. It was more of a sweet, awkward style of love. I really liked it. When I do read romance, I tend not to prefer the insta-love type, or the aggressive partner type. If you do, just be warned. I think there’s still plenty to enjoy, even if it takes a more gen/lit fic approach to romance than a true romance novel.

I think Darcy was a good every-girl character, without being totally bland. She definitely reminds me of me and my friends at that age (four years ago), and how we approached our writing, although there’s some fun wish-fulfillment in that she actually has a publishing contract.

Atsiko

Stepping on Marisa’s toes a bit–with permission!–one of the themes of the book is literary inclusiveness and cultural appropriation. Several of Darcy’s writer friends make use of mythos outside their own ethnic heritages, including native Australian mythology. Darcy herself writes within her own Indian heritage, using a character from Vedic mythology. In one scene she asks her family about whether they feel she has done justice to the mythology or stepped on it. There were some insightful and pragmatic answers. Not everyone may agree with them. Personally, there were parts I liked, and parts I didn’t, but rather than spoil those scenes, I think readers should make up their own minds.

There’s also the fact that Westerfeld, a straight, white, cis male author wrote Darcy’s story itself, the story of a lesbian Indian girl. As someone who is not Indian either, I thought Westerfeld managed a respectful balance, getting his facts mostly straight and making some good points on the issue of cultural appropriation. I can’t give him a 100% pass, of course, since I’m sure he did more research and fact-checking than I could do for this review. But I’ve seen no complaints from readers about his handling of the issue, either. If there are problems, I’d love to hear about them. There were a few small connections between the the writing of Lizzie’s story and Darcy’s story, and I thought they were interesting twists. One of the medium twists in the novel involves an incident that both stories shared versions of, and I think Westerfeld made some cool comments about being a writer with it. But I still wish there had been more of an interplay.

Marisa

I happen to be a white cis straight girl, so while I try to keep up with the latest in diversity in literature and respecting other cultures, I can’t verify the accuracy of Westerfeld’s portrayal of Darcy. I can say that I found Lizzie quite realistic and relatable. Darcy seemed like a pretty reasonable character outside of my previous caveat. I liked her and felt I could relate to her.

Atsiko

There are elements of a send-up or satire of the life of a writer in this book. I wonder if most readers would catch these, since they revolve around in-jokes and self-deprecation on the part of Darcy and her writer friends. I think that sharing the writing life with YA readers might have been better accomplished if the book hadn’t split it’s focus so much. I’m sure others will disagree. A variety of tastes is what keeps the fiction market interesting.

Marisa

Much like Atsiko, (and Nick), I’m something of an aspiring writer. I’m an English major, and I read… a lot. So I really enjoyed Westerfeld’s scenes on the issues of writing. I don’t know what the average YA reader’s experience with writing and publishing is. Maybe they’ll totally get all the jokes. “Publishers Brunch”, for example. Revisions. Writer parties. I’m not a hundred percent sure I agree it’s satire of publishing, and with that in mind I did find what I felt were some annoying cliches. Again, that’s to the individual reader’s taste.

There is something we talked about among ourselves that I’m going to take the lead on. There are obviously drinks at these parties, since the majority of authors are of age. Both Atsiko and I were a little uncomfortable with the characters’ willingness to flout the law with regards to alcohol consumption. Casually handing a beer to a minor, no matter how you feel about drinking laws or the idea that teens drink anyway, why be so uptight? It bothers me. Other readers may disagree. I don’t believe YA writers have some sort of moral responsibility to their readers, or to support the law as written with no room for disagreement. But still.

Together

Overall, we both felt it was a decent book. Certainly no complaints that it got published. There were some issues we had, and to an extent they did detract from our enjoyment of the book. And it’s quite a long book. Our ARC was 599 pages, and the published version is listed as 608. That’s a lot for a YA novel. But we don’t regret reading it. We didn’t struggle to get through it. It didn’t blow us away, but we liked it. Perhaps that’s not a ringing endorsement. But no book is perfect. We’re still giving this book the equivalent of 3 and a half stars.

Marisa

Conclusion: 77/100 (A solid piece, but not fantastic)
Premise: 7/10 (Fun, but could have been done better)
Plot: 8/10 (No major issues for me)
Setting: 9/10 (Felt like I was there)
Main Character(s): 8/10 (Loved Darcy, Lizze made sense in context)
World-building 7/10 (Good, but could have been better)
Romance Plot(s): 8/10 (Fun but not very original)
Supporting Characters: 6/10 (Nothing great)
Writing: 8/10 (Well-written)
Themes: 8/10 (Thoroughly addressed)
Resolution: 8/10 (I like this kind of ending)

Atsiko

Conclusion: 70/100 (Needed more editing)
Premise: 6/10 (Writers writing about writers/writing is not my thing)
Plot: 7/10 (Like Lizzie’s, Darcy’s could have been better)
Setting: 8/10 (Well-depicted)
Main Character(s): 7/10 (Mostly liked ’em)
World-building: 7/10 (Not bad)
Romance Plot(s): 7/10 (Standard issue)
Supporting Characters: 5/10 (Needed more)
Writing: 8/10 (Good, not brilliant)
Themes: 8/10 (With 600 pages, could have been better examined)
Resolution: 7/10 (Didn’t hate it)

Buy Or Borrow: If you’re looking for NA without a primary romantic element, buy this. If you like litfic and stories about writers, buy it. Otherwise, it might be better to borrow.

Similar Books:
There aren’t any, but we wish there were.

Nick

An administrative note! Due to school issues, Marisa’s review of Love is the Drug will be slightly delayed. This review, being a joint review, was written well in advance. We apologize for this. It shouldn’t be a common occurrence.

Further, to avoid over-posting, my review of Dead Zone may also be a bit late. However, all late reviews will be out by Sunday, and then we will be back to our regular review schedule.

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Publishers Weekly
Kirkus Reviews
Good Books and Good Wine
Proud Book Nerd
Reading Lark
cuddlebuggery

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
nook

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

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
nook