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: 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: The Wrong Stars

the wrong starsThe Wrong Stars
by Tim Pratt
Science Fiction/Space Opera
396 pages
Published 2017

I’ve watched my fair share of Space Opera (Firefly, Dark Matter, Farscape, Star Trek, Star Wars – don’t try to tell me those last two aren’t Space Opera, THEY TOTALLY ARE) – but I haven’t read much of it. I picked up The Wrong Stars mostly because reviews said it had a demisexual main character, rather than because it’s a Space Opera. Regardless, I am SO GLAD I DID. The book is excellent.

First off, the diversity! Over the course of the story, we meet people who are, in no particular order, gay, bisexual, demisexual, asexual, transgender, and non-binary. The story is set 500 years after Earth sends out its first colony ships, and in that time, culture has evolved. Marriage is not common, but contractually-bound relationships exist. Promiscuity and non-monogamy aren’t viewed any different than monogamy, and in the same way, the distinctions between gay, straight, and bi don’t carry any negative connotations. It’s not a complete utopia – it’s still a capitalist society, and there is still scarcity – but socially, at least, it has definitely evolved a lot from the present!

Elena, one of our main characters, was a biologist sent out on one of the first colony ships. Stocked with seeds, crude replicators, and cryo-sleep pods, a small crew was sent out, in stasis, on a five-hundred year journey to a system with probable life-supporting planets. They were called Goldilocks ships, in the hope they’d find a planet that was “just right.” What humanity didn’t expect was that in the intervening five hundred years, they would make contact with an alien species and be given the means for true space travel via wormholes. Some of the ships arrived at their destinations to find human colonies already thriving on their target planets! Elena, however, found something quite different, and it’s a very disconcerting difference. She is rescued by the motley crew of the White Raven, and they quickly get drawn into the mystery.

I really enjoyed the world-building and characterization in The Wrong Stars. The science of it made sense to me, but I’m not very versed in science, so I can’t really say how realistic it is. It was at least pretty internally consistent. I’d like to learn more about how the AIs are created, though. Luckily, there is a sequel coming! The Dreaming Stars should be coming out this September, and I’m DEFINITELY going to read it.

If you like Dark Matter, Firefly, or Farscape, you should definitely read The Wrong Stars. There’s a little bit of light romance threaded into the larger plot, and one fade-to-black sex scene. It’s definitely not the focus of the book. There is some violence, but nothing incredibly graphic. I would put it at about the same maturity level as Star Trek.

From the cover of The Wrong Stars:

The shady crew of the White Raven run freight and salvage at the fringes of our solar system. They discover the wreck of a centuries-old exploration vessel floating light years away from its intended destination. When they revive its sole occupant, she wakes from cryosleep with excited news of First Alien Contact.

The crew break it to her that, in the many years that she has been in stasis, humanity has already met and made an alliance with an alien race. But she reveals that these are very different extra-terrestrials . . . and the gifts they bestowed upon her could kill all of humanity, or take the human race out to the most distant stars.

Book Review: The Empress

the empressThe Empress
by S.J. Kincaid
Fantasy Space Opera
378 pages
Published 2017

The Empress is an excellent follow-up to The Diabolic; Tyrus and Nemesis have claimed the throne, but now they have to keep it. Due in part to ancient machines, that is harder than it sounds. Despite Nemesis’ cold practicality, she is also somewhat idealistic. She picks freeing the servitors (slaves, basically) as her big goal for when she becomes Empress – with shocking results.

Tyrus’ and Nemesis’ combined goal is to bring science back to the people; in the first book we were introduced to the concept of ruined space – space that had been torn apart by hyperspace jumps and now consumes everything it touches. But since the Helionic religion had banned all science, no one knew how to do anything about it other than avoid it. Their solution is to go to the head of the religion itself and talk him into reversing that decree. In doing so, we learn a lot more about why the empire is floating out in space, and why the decree was given.

It’s always hard to talk about middle books in trilogies without giving too much away about the first book, or the plot as a whole. So I’ll just say that, like the first book, this kept me guessing, and the twists of the plot came as incredibly shocking surprises. S.J. Kincaid has an amazing ability with plot twists. And the end of this book – oh man. I do not want to believe that things truly are as bad as they seem. I want this to be a redemption story. But at the same time, things have been done that can’t be undone.

If you read and liked The Diabolic, you should continue the trilogy with The Empress. However, while The Diabolic ends in a way that could leave it as a standalone, The Empress ends on a clear cliffhanger. The third book has neither a title nor a cover yet, but is supposed to release this fall? I’m guessing that will be delayed, which is bad, because I NEED IT.

From the cover of The Empress:

An Empress is GRACEFUL.

An Empress is a PARTNER.

But most important, an Empress is HUMAN.

It’s a new day in the Empire. With Tyrus on the throne and Nemesis at his side, they can find a new way forward – one without hiding or scheming or bloodshed. They can form a galaxy where science and information is shared with everyone and not just the elite.

But having power isn’t the same as keeping it, and change isn’t always welcome. There are those who have no intention of letting this teenage Emperor and Nemesis, who’s considered a mere killing machine, rule without a fight.

In order to protect Tyrus, Nemesis must prove her humanity to the Empire. But if this means she and Tyrus must do inhuman things, is the fight worth the cost of winning?

Friday 56 – The Empress

the empressThe Friday 56 is hosted by Freda’s Voice. The rules are simple – turn to page 56 in your current read (or 56% in your e-reader) and post a few non-spoilery sentences.

This week my quote is from The Empress, the second book in the trilogy started by The Diabolic. The main character, Nemesis, is talking to the Emperor, who also happens to be her betrothed.

I’d feared he was reckless. Insane. Suicidally stupid. But he’d been underhanded, and he was even underhanded with me. And not without reason. I had posed a genuine threat to him. The part of me that wished to be his partner seared with the knowledge he hadn’t trusted me, and yet the part of me that scorched with love for him knew this was the instinct that would preserve him.

“Tyrus,” I finally said, my thoughts growing clear. “it vexes me. I’m offended you clearly don’t trust me. I resent knowing you are underhanded and a liar with me at times and I’m also . . . I fully understand why you do it. I believed Cygna’s fabrication. I believed her – and not you. I was foolish. So . . . so what am I to say? I’m glad you keep yourself alive and safe. Even if it’s against me. I’ve warranted your mistrust.”

This trilogy continues to be excellent, and I’m looking forward to book three! (My full review should be up next week.)