Book Review: A Spark of White Fire

spark of white fireA Spark of White Fire
by Sangu Mandanna
Science Fiction/Fantasy/Mythological Retelling
311 pages
Published September 2018

This book ripped my heart out and stomped on it. I started crying during one of the last scenes, and thought that was bad enough – then the next chapter just DESTROYED ME. It is the first book in a trilogy inspired by the Mahabharata (which I totally want to read now!) – the second book, A House of Rage and Sorrow, isn’t due out until September. September! What am I supposed to do until then?!

So. Wow. This is the first book I’ve read by Mandanna, though The Lost Girl sounds interesting. Given how good this one was, that one has moved higher on my list.

In A Spark of White Fire, we follow Esmae, a girl who was sent away at birth because her mother was told she’d destroy her family. Trying to subvert those kinds of curses never works out well. She’s grown up an orphan in a different kingdom, albeit one educated by royal tutors with the local princes, as requested by a goddess. (When the goddess of war asks you to educate an orphan girl with your sons, you do it.) All Esmae really wants is to return to her family; she believes the only way to do that, to claim her place with them, is to help her brother regain his throne. And she thinks she can best do that by winning this contest, earning the unbeatable space ship, and pretending to go join her uncle’s family so she has an inside channel to her brother’s enemies. It’s a little convoluted, but it is something that her brother desperately needs, so it kind of makes sense.

Things unfortunately don’t go as planned, and every attempt to escape fate only winds the net tighter.

I loved every character in this book, from the sentient warship Titania (who I wish we’d spent more time with!) to Esmae, her best friend Rama, her cousin Max, her brothers, even her uncle, the usurper king. And the gods. Everyone has such personality. They just leap off the page. Granted, some of them are trying to stab arrows into your heart, but they come to life regardless!

The family dynamics are really what the book is about – no one’s truly in the wrong, here, and no one really wants to kill each other, but pride, miscommunication, and bad advice rips them apart. Esmae and Max are doing their best to reconcile the two halves of the family, but the family resists them at every turn.

I actually picked this book for the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge January prompt, which is “Family.” I moved it up several spots in my To-Read list to make it a January book! I’m glad I did, though, it was absolutely amazing. I can’t wait for the next book!

From the cover of A Spark of White Fire:

When Esmae wins a contest of skill, she sets off events that trigger an inevitable and  unwinnable war that pits her against the family she’d give anything to return to.

In a universe of capricious gods, dark moons, and kingdoms built on the backs of spaceships, a cursed queen sends her infant daughter away, a jealous uncle steals the throne of Kali from his nephew, and an exiled prince vows to take his crown back.

Raised alone and far away from her home on Kali, Esmae longs to return to her family. When the King of Wychstar offers to gift the unbeatable, sentient warship Titania to a warrior that can win his competition, she sees her way home: she’ll enter the competition, reveal her true identity to the world, and help her famous brother win back the crown of Kali.

It’s a great plan. Until it falls apart.

Inspired by the Mahabharata and other ancient Indian stories, A Spark of White Fire is a lush, sweeping space opera about family, curses, and the endless battle between jealousy and love.

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Book Review: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?

how long til black future monthHow Long ‘Til Black Future Month?
by N. K. Jemisin
Anthology of short stories/Science Fiction/Fantasy
397 pages
Published November 2018

I’ve only read one other N. K. Jemisin book – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which is the first book of her NOT Hugo-award-winning trilogy. I really ought to read the rest of her backlist, as she’s an amazing author. How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is a collection of short fiction – windows into futuristic or fantasy or even contemporary worlds, all centering black characters. I think my favorite was The City, Born Great, about New York City waking up. L’Alchimista, about a talented chef given an impossible challenge, appealed to my baker’s heart, as did Cuisine des Mémoires, about a magical restaurant that can recreate any meal from any time. The Narcomancer sounded like something that could happen in my D&D game, and The Evaluators was slowly horrifying. The Storyteller’s Replacement and Cloud Dragon Skies both have dragons, one of my favorite fantasy features, as does the story Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters.

Every story in this book was amazing. I’ve only specifically named a few, but every single one is excellent. Jemisin runs the gamut from sci-fi to cyberpunk to medieval fantasy to magical realism and contemporary fantasy. There are stories in parallel universes, purely online worlds, shattered universes, and worlds that seem to be our own with a touch of magic. Every one of them is brought to vivid life. Jemisin is an extraordinary writer, and her short fiction shows it.

These are intelligent stories, full of commentary on the current state of our world. From the Jim Crow South to the abandonment of New Orleans to floodwaters, to future apocalypses brought on by our negligence and space exploration spurred by climate destruction, Jemisin’s stories have footholds in reality that are hard to ignore.

Fantastic book. (And that cover is FIERCE.)

From the cover of How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?:

Three-time Hugo award-winning and New York Times bestselling author N. K. Jemisin sharply examines modern society in her first short story collection.

N. K. Jemisin is one of the most powerful and acclaimed speculative fiction authors of our time. In the first collection of her short fiction, which includes several never-before-seen stories, Jemisin equally challenges and delights with narratives of destruction, rebirth, and redemption.

Dragons and hateful spirits haunt the flooded streets of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow South must save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo Award-nominated short story “The City, Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.

Book Review: The Dreaming Stars

the dreaming starsThe Dreaming Stars
by Tim Pratt
Science Fiction
384 pages
Published September 2018

I don’t read a lot of hard sci-fi. It’s just not where my interests lie. But every once in a while, I do enjoy a good space opera. Firefly/Serenity (before I learned about the Confederate connection, dammit), Dark Matter, even the occasional episode of The Expanse. Tim Pratt has written a fantastic space opera in his Axiom series. (The Forbidden Stars should be coming out sometime in 2019.) The story started with The Wrong Stars and continues here.

First, the diversity is fantastic. The crew runs the gamut of genders, sexualities, ethnicities, and religions. Our two main characters, Captain Machedo and Elena, are both bisexual women, and the Captain is also demisexual. (One of the first things she does in this book is crash her own funeral being held by her ex-husband!) I enjoyed seeing Elena and Callie’s relationship continue to grow.

Second, the dialog is hilarious. The Captain and her ship’s AI are both smart alecks, and sarcasm and snappy comebacks abound.

The action is also very well-done; the physics of traveling through space aside, most of the science is feasible. All of the Axiom-tech is pretty far out, and some of the other science is….well it’s such a long shot that it only worked because it’s in a book, but it IS conceivable it could work.

This is one sci-fi series I will continue to watch for. (And I wonder how long before it gets optioned for TV?)

From the cover of The Dreaming Stars:

In the breathtaking sequel to The Wrong Stars, Tim Pratt brings you much closer to that ancient race of aliens, the Axiom, who will kill us all – when they wake up. 

In deep space, a swarm of nanoparticles threatens the colonies, transforming everything it meets into computronium – including the colonists. The crew of the White Raven investigate, and discover an Axiom facility filled with aliens, hibernating while their minds roam a vast virtual reality. The treacherous Sebastien wakes up, claiming his altered brain architecture can help the crew deactivate the swarm – from inside the Axiom simulation. To protect humanity, beleaguered Captain Callie Machedo must trust him, but if Sebastien still plans to dominate the universe using Axiom tech, they could be in for a whole galaxy of trouble.

Book Review: Redshirts

redshirtsRedshirts
by John Scalzi
Science Fiction
317 pages
Published 2012

Some books are surreal suspensions of disbelief. Some books just make you go “WHAT the FUCK” every couple of chapters when a new twist is revealed, and this is one of the latter. Just – what the FUCK.

Imagine your average sci-fi space opera TV show on cable television with hand-wavey science and half-assed special effects – take those characters and make them realize they’re IN A TV SHOW. Let them realize all of their woes are due to shitty writing, and see what they do with that knowledge. THAT is this book, and it is crazy and hilarious and weird and eye-roll-inducing.

Between the time travel, the Box that does magic science behind the scenes so things work out on-screen, the Narrative taking control and making people say and do things they wouldn’t otherwise do – this book is wacky and just full of what-the-fuckery. It’s fun, though, and if you can keep yourself from groaning out loud every few pages, it’s a pretty good read.

From the cover of Redshirts:

Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is even more thrilled to be assigned to the ship’s xenobiology laboratory, with the chance to serve on “Away Missions” alongside the starship’s famous senior officers.

Live couldn’t be better . . . until Andrew begins to realize that (1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces, (2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations, and (3) sadly, at least one low-ranked crew member is invariable killed.

Unsurprisingly, the savvier members belowdecks avoid Away Missions at all costs. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is . . . and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.

Book Review: Autonomous

autonomousAutonomous
by Annalee Newitz
Biopunk
301 pages
Published 2017

Autonomous is an interesting story that poses a lot of moral questions. It doesn’t really take sides; both the pharmaceutical pirate and the agents tracking her down are painted in sympathetic ways, as if we’re meant to like them all. We see why Jack is a pharmaceutical pirate; medicine is only available to those rich enough to pay for it, so the poor stay poor and sick and short-lived. She wants to change that. She reverse-engineers drugs, manufactures them, and distributes them to the needy through her associates.

Meanwhile, Eliasz is a conflicted military agent who is sexually attracted to robots. Or at least to his partner, Paladin, though a flashback shows what might have been the start of his attraction to robots. Paladin is probably the single most interesting character in the entire book, as she muses on the nature of being indentured, and searches through her memories and the internet for information about her situation.

The book does have LGBT content – Jack is bisexual, and Eliasz is – robosexual? Is that a thing? Paladin could be called nonbinary or trans; she repeatedly mentions that gender isn’t a thing to robots, but because she’s a military robot, most people call her a he at the beginning of the book. She learns the brain inside her is female, and to make Eliasz more comfortable with his attraction, she decides to use female pronouns. Eliasz does use the F word to refer to himself being attracted to the robot at the beginning, when they were using male pronouns. This puzzles Paladin for a while, causing her to search the term and figure out what Eliasz meant by its use.

There’s a lot of complex world-building in this book that is barely brushed past. From the corporations who own patents covering everything, to the system of indenture that covers humans as well as robots, to the bio-domes that cover cities (but it’s livable outside the biodomes, so why are they needed?), to the new federations that cover continents that used to be divided into several countries – there’s a LOT going on. And there’s not just robots, but also some pretty advanced cybernetics implanted in humans as well as an everpresent network of data that can be tapped into with implants that everyone has.

Ultimately, for as complex as the world is, and cohesive as the plot is, I’m left wondering who, if anyone, was in the right in this story. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to be happy with the ending or not. I’ve seen other reviews saying Neuromancer was a way better book in a similar vein, and I actually have copy of that waiting to be read. So we’ll see.

From the cover of Autonomous:

When anything can be owned, how can we be free?

Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, a pharmaceutical Robin Hood traversing the world in a submarine, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack leaves a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, repeating job tasks until they become insane.

Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his partner Paladin, a young indentured robot. As they race to stop information about the hacked drugs at their source, they form an uncommonly close relationship that neither of them fully understands, and Paladin begins to question their connection – and a society that profits from indentured robots. 

Book Review: Guardian Angels & Other Monsters

guardian angels other monstersGuardian Angels & Other Monsters
by Daniel H. Wilson
Sci-fi short stories
280 pages
Published 2018

So I obviously didn’t read the description of this book closely enough, because it wasn’t until I hit “One For Sorrow – A Clockwork Dynasty Story” that I realized this was the same author that wrote Clockwork Dynasty, a book I read last year! We’ll blame it on my goldfish memory. My goldfish memory is a large part of why I keep this blog, so I can look back and remember what I’ve read and what I thought about it! I randomly plucked this book off the New Book display while grabbing my holds from the library; I didn’t recognize the author’s name at the time. So I’m highly amused.

These stories are . . . hard to quantify.  Some of them I really enjoyed – “Miss Gloria” is probably my favorite – she’s a little girl with a robot guardian. When kidnappers disable the guardian and take her, the guardian’s programming jumps to the closest possible hardware – being the getaway car. From there to one of the kidnappers’ smart helmets, and so on. I very much disliked “The Blue Afternoon That Lasted Forever” but to say why would spoil it entirely. The Clockwork Dynasty short story was quite good – I’m still hoping he’ll write another full-length novel in that world.

I haven’t read his other novel, Robopocalypse, and I wasn’t thrilled with the short story from that universe, but the synopsis of it sounds amazing. I don’t know if I want to read it or not!

This was a fascinating, if weird, collection of stories. I like how he explores the possible consequences of things like teleportation, AIs, robots, and battle armor. As a race, our capacity for invention tends to outpace our consideration of the consequences. We try to figure out how to do a thing before stopping to consider if we should. In this book, over and over again, I feel that Wilson is asking us “Is this the future we want?” which has often been the case with truly visionary science fiction. That’s why people complaining about politics in science fiction make me laugh – science fiction has ALWAYS been political!

This is a book for mature audiences. There are deaths, sacrifices, pain, sex, war, and other mature themes – it’s definitely not the lightest of reads. But it’s good.

From the cover of Guardian Angels & Other Monsters:

From the New York Times bestselling author of Robopocalypse and The Clockwork Dynasty comes an enthralling and fantastic collection of stories that explores complex emotional and intellectual landscapes at the intersection of artificial intelligence and human life.

In “ALL KINDS OF PROOF,”  a down-and-out drunk makes the unlikeliest of friends when he is hired to train a mail-carrying robot; in “BLOOD MEMORY, ” a mother confronts the dangerous reality that her daughter will never assimilate in this world after she is the first child born through a teleportation device; in “THE BLUE AFTERNOON THAT LASTED FOREVER,” a physicist rushes home to be with his daughter after he hears reports of an atmospheric anomaly that he knows to be a sign of the end of Earth; in “MISS GLORIA,” a robot comes back to life in many different forms on a quest to save a young girl. Showcasing the brilliance and depth of Daniel H. Wilson’s imagination, Guardian Angels & Other Monsters is a masterful collection that probes the profound impact of the rise of digital intelligence in a human world.