Top Ten Tuesday: Books with summery titles that aren’t really summer books at all

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is  Books that Give Off Summer Vibes.

Since I just did a Top 5 Tuesday post about summer books a few weeks ago, I thought I’d switch it up a bit and instead talk about books whose titles sounds full of summer themes… even though the books themselves aren’t exactly light, beachy reads.

  1. On the Beach by Nevil Shute: On the beach? Excellent! Except not, because it’s the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust and radiation is coming to wipe out the last remaining survivors.
  2. Dune by Frank Herbert: Glorious rolling sand dunes along a beautiful beach? Sorry, nope. It’s sci-fi on a desolate world. With killer sand worms.
  3. The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian: Little girls playing in the sand with their parents on a sunny day? No. This one is set during and after the Armenian genocide.
  4. Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Green: An epic summer romance about star-crossed lovers? Not at all. It’s about a lonely American girl and a German POW.
  5. The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach by Pam Jenoff: Yes, there’s a beach! But it’s really a wartime love story with lots of sadness and loss.
  6. Sunshine by Robin McKinley: A bright sunshiny day? Ha ha. No. This is one of my very favorite vampire stories, very dark and creepy.
  7. Firefly: Big Damn Heroes by Nancy Holder: Chasing lightning bugs on a summer lawn as evening falls? Nope. A super fun sci-fi space western, but nothing to do with actual fireflies. (Or summer.)
  8. Summer Knight by Jim Butcher: A chivalric tale about knights and ladies and a summer joust, perhaps? No, it’s all about Chicago wizard Harry Dresden and the dangerous, deceptive faerie courts.
  9. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: A little beach town, with a country lane leading to the shore? Sorry again. This is a terrific fantasy… but it’s not about a beach vacation.
  10. In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien: Ooh, a country get-away by a romantic lake? Well, there’s a lake, but it’s not peaceful or romantic. This is really disturbing suspense, without a hint of summer fun and relaxation.

Can you think of more books with summer-themed titles that just aren’t summery at all?

If you wrote a TTT post, please share your link with me! Tell me about your favorite books with summer vibes!

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Shelf Control #215: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.pngTitle: Autonomous
Author: Annalee Newitz
Published: 2017
Length: 303 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Autonomous features a rakish female pharmaceutical pirate named Jack who traverses the world in her own submarine. A notorious anti-patent scientist who has styled herself as a Robin Hood heroine fighting to bring cheap drugs to the poor, Jack’s latest drug is leaving a trail of lethal overdoses across what used to be North America—a drug that compels people to become addicted to their work.

On Jack’s trail are an unlikely pair: an emotionally shut-down military agent and his partner, Paladin, a young military robot, who fall in love against all expectations. Autonomous alternates between the activities of Jack and her co-conspirators, and Elias and Paladin, as they all race to stop a bizarre drug epidemic that is tearing apart lives, causing trains to crash, and flooding New York City.
 

How and when I got it:

I bought myself a copy over a year ago, when I had an Amazon gift card burning a hole in my pocket.

Why I want to read it:

I mean… it just sounds amazing, right? A pharmaceutical pirate traveling in a submarine? A military robot who falls in love? A mystery drug epidemic? And whoa, a drug that “compels people to become addicted to their work”? *shudder*

This book sounds quirky and exciting and so much fun! I need to make it a priority!

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: The Last Emperox by John Scalzi

Title: The Last Emperox (The Interdependency, #3)
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: April 16, 2020
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The collapse of The Flow, the interstellar pathway between the planets of the Interdependency, has accelerated. Entire star systems—and billions of people—are becoming cut off from the rest of human civilization. This collapse was foretold through scientific prediction… and yet, even as the evidence is obvious and insurmountable, many still try to rationalize, delay and profit from, these final days of one of the greatest empires humanity has ever known.

Emperox Grayland II has finally wrested control of her empire from those who oppose her and who deny the reality of this collapse. But “control” is a slippery thing, and even as Grayland strives to save as many of her people from impoverished isolation, the forces opposing her rule will make a final, desperate push to topple her from her throne and power, by any means necessary. Grayland and her thinning list of allies must use every tool at their disposal to save themselves, and all of humanity. And yet it may not be enough.

Will Grayland become the savior of her civilization… or the last emperox to wear the crown?

Bravo to John Scalzi for this masterful conclusion to an entertaining and exciting sci-fi trilogy! Not every trilogy sticks the landing, but The Last Emperox absolutely does.

The story picks up right after the end of The Consuming Fire, as the Interdependency’s existence is threatened by the collapse of the Flow, the impossible-to-explain time/space stream that connects the various star systems of the empire. The Flow is what allows humankind to survive, since the empire was designed specifically to make each settlement and star system not self-sustaining, but dependent on all the others. As the Flow starts to disappear, the worlds of the Inderdependency will find themselves cut off and lacking vital resources, and unless a solution is found, the people there will be doomed to a slow, inevitable extinction.

As if that weren’t enough to deal with, Emperox Grayland II, the supreme leader of the Interdependency, has already survived a couple of assassination attempts and failed coups, and her future’s not looking too great either. Despite the threat to their very existence, the noble houses can’t seem to stop their endless backstabbing and manipulation, each attempting to grab as much power as possible for themselves, without worrying too much about the fate of the billions of commoners whose lives are at stake.

As always, John Scalzi’s writing is full of snark and snappy dialogue, as well as complex political machinations and intricate science fiction scenarios to drool over. Also, I just get such a kick out of his unique names for characters, including two of my favorites, Senia Fundapellonan and Nadashe Nohamapetan.

(To be clear, Nadashe Nohamapetan is a terrible person. I just love her name.)

My favorite character (although it’s hard to choose) would have to be Kiva Lagos, who is super smart, totally kick-ass, and never met a sentence that wouldn’t be better with a few f-bombs. I love this interchange between her and Senia (who’s speaking first here):

“It’s not a great idea to be too in love with your own cleverness.”

“What are you, my mother?”

“If I were your mother, I’d use the word ‘fuck’ more often.”

“It’s a perfectly good word.”

“Sure,” Senia said. “Maybe not as every other word that comes out of your mouth, though.”

“I don’t even hear myself saying it, half the fucking time.”

Senia patted Kiva. “I know that. You’d hear it if I used it as much as you did.”

“No I wouldn’t.”

“Fucking yes you fucking absolutely fucking would.”

“Now you’re just exaggerating.”

“Not by much.”

I won’t go into plot developments, because I don’t want to ruin anyone’s fun. I will say, though, that the ending goes in a way I never would have imagined, and it totally threw me for a loop! It’s cool, though, and makes sense, and even though the story comes to a satisfying close, I’d love to get an update on these characters and this world down the road and find out how it all worked out for them in the long run.

The Interdependency is, plain and simple, a great, funny, exciting, intricate sci-fi space opera. I had a blast reading these books. Read all three!

Interested in The Interdependency? Check out my reviews of books 1 & 2:
The Collapsing Empire
The Consuming Fire

Book Review: The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

Title: The Consuming Fire (The Interdependency, #2)
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: October 16, 2018
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Consuming Fire―the sequel to the 2018 Hugo Award Best Novel finalist and 2018 Locus Award-winning The Collapsing Empire―an epic space-opera novel in the bestselling Interdependency series, from New York Times bestselling author John Scalzi

The Interdependency―humanity’s interstellar empire―is on the verge of collapse. The extra-dimensional conduit that makes travel between the stars possible is disappearing, leaving entire systems and human civilizations stranded.

Emperox Grayland II of the Interdependency is ready to take desperate measures to help ensure the survival of billions. But arrayed before her are those who believe the collapse of the Flow is a myth―or at the very least an opportunity to an ascension to power.

While Grayland prepares for disaster, others are preparing for a civil war. A war that will take place in the halls of power, the markets of business and the altars of worship as much as it will between spaceships and battlefields.

The Emperox and her allies are smart and resourceful, as are her enemies. Nothing about this will be easy… and all of humanity will be caught in its consuming fire.

If you like scheming and backstabbing, interplanetary exploration, geeky scientists, and kick-ass women, have I got a book for you!

The Consuming Fire is the second book in John Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy, and it goes ten thousand miles per minute from start to finish. No middle-book doldrums here!

We pick up where we left off at the end of The Collapsing Empire. The Flow is collapsing, meaning that the shortcuts through space-time that allow interplanetary travel are starting to disappear without warning. Planets find themselves completely cut off from the rest of human settlement, and any ships in transit who are unfortunate enough to be caught in a Flow stream when it collapses don’t simply float off into space — they basically just blink out of existence.

How does the Flow work? It’s like a river, except it’s nothing like a river, as the story’s Flow physicists continually remind other characters. So, for mere humans like us (I’m assuming you and I are in this together), just accept the fact that SCIENCE. We wouldn’t understand.

Meanwhile, the people of the Interdependency are crafty and clever and absolutely not to be trusted. Most would (and maybe already have tried to) sell their own grandmothers for a chance at greater power. The leader of the Interdependency, Emperox Grayland II, is a smart, savvy, deceptively calm leader who refuses to bow to the nasty, murderous families who want to unseat her.

There’s plotting and faked deaths and bank fraud, prison assassination attempts (toothbrush and spoon shivs are involved) and space battles, previously undiscovered civilizations, and lots of random hook-ups. The characters are classic Scalzi, smart and full of smart-ass commentary and loads and loads of fun .

The 3rd book in the trilogy, The Last Emperox, was just released, and I’m eagerly waiting for my copy to arrive.

If you enjoy sci-fi with plenty of action and a great sense of humor, then you should absolutely check out this trilogy.

Book Review: The Book of Koli by M. R. Carey

Title: The Book of Koli
Author: M. R. Carey
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: April 14, 2020
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Beyond the walls of the small village of Mythen Rood lies an unrecognizable world. A world where overgrown forests are filled with choker trees and deadly vines and seeds that will kill you where you stand. And if they don’t get you, one of the dangerous shunned men will.

Koli has lived in Mythen Rood his entire life. He knows the first rule of survival is that you don’t venture beyond the walls.

What he doesn’t know is – what happens when you aren’t given a choice?

The first in a gripping new trilogy, The Book of Koli charts the journey of one unforgettable young boy struggling to find his place in a chilling post-apocalyptic world. Perfect for readers of Station Eleven and Annihilation

I got a story to tell you. I’ve been meaning to make a start for a long while now, and this is me doing it, but I’m warning you it might be a bumpy road. I never done nothing like this before, so I got no map, as it were, and I can’t figure how much of what happened to me is worth telling.

Meet Koli. Koli lives in the village of Mythen Rood, a town of 200 people — which to Koli, is a “terrible big place”, located in “a place called Ingland”. Mythen Rood is surrounded by walls, because everything in the outside world can kill. Koli is the youngest child of the town’s woodsmith — and in a world where trees are deadly, this is indeed a dangerous job.

Everything that lives hates us, it sometimes seems. Or at least they come after us like they hate us. Things we want to eat fight back, hard as they can, and oftentimes win. Thing that want to eat us is thousands strong, so many of them that we only got names for the ones that live closest to us. And the trees got their own ways to hurt us, blunt or subtle according to their several natures.

The world of Mythen Rood is protected by Ramparts, people who have a special connection to old-world tech, and use the tech to fight off the dangerous elements — like wild animals, deadly drones, and killer trees — that threaten the town. According to the town’s rituals, fifteen-year-olds enter a year of seclusion called Waiting, then undergo a test to become a Rampart. If the tech wakes when they touch it, then they become a Rampart too. But in Mythen Rood, it seems that one family in particular has the gift of waking tech, so despite Koli’s dreams of becoming a Rampart, it’s a long shot.

And when Koli learns a secret that might upend the world of Mythen Rood and threaten the power of the dominant family, he faces punishment and exile, and is cast out into the harsh world to fend for himself… or die.

Koli’s story fits the pattern of the hero’s journey, and the new world in which the story takes places is absolutely fascinating. The setting is centuries into the future, when old cities have all died, tech is something people view as practically magical, human settlements are scattered and isolated, and the natural world is deadly. The idea of trees being able to move, hunt, and kill is simply terrifying. People only venture into the forest to hunt for food and catch wood for lumber when it’s cloudy, because the trees wake up and become active when the sun shines, and if you’re caught out in the forest when it’s sunny, you’re most likely not coming back.

The interweaving of technology and mythology is so well done. Because of course, to people who have no access to technology and the knowledge of how it works, such things would appear to be magic, and the people able to use them must be favored with great powers.

Koli himself is a terrific characters, smart but illiterate, aware of his own flaws and honest about them. Koli’s life changes when he comes into contact with an old Sony music player powered by AI. The Dreamsleeve is programmed with the voice of a Japanese pop star from the old days, whose voice is perky and full of Tokyo party slang and attitude. Monono becomes the central focus of Koli’s life, and his interactions with her are what propels his story out of the safety of village life and into the unknown.

I can’t say enough good things about this book! I’ve heard that some readers find Koli’s voice irritating. I didn’t experience it that way. The author has created a unique personality in Koli, and his speech patterns let us know right away how different his world is from ours.

The Book of Koli is the first book in a trilogy, with the second book, The Trials of Koli, due out later this year. I will absolutely be reading #2 the second I can get my hands on it!

Book Review: Hearts of Oak by Eddie Robson

Title: Hearts of Oak
Author: Eddie Robson
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: March 17, 2020
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The buildings grow.

And the city expands.

And the people of the land are starting to behave abnormally.

Or perhaps they’ve always behaved that way, and it’s normality that’s at fault.

And the king of the land confers with his best friend, who happens to be his closest advisor, who also happens to be a talking cat. But that’s all perfectly natural and not at all weird.

And when chief architect Iona wakes from a long period of blindly accepting the status quo, she realizes there’s a mystery to be solved. A strange, somewhat bizarre mystery, to be sure, but no less dangerous for its improbability.

And the cat is almost certainly involved!

How does a book featuring a king with a talking cat turn into science fiction?

I’m not telling!

But I will say this: Hearts of Oak is all sorts of awesome, and was exactly the sort of punchy, engaging read I needed this week.

The setting is weird and perplexing. We’re in a city where everything seems to be made of wood, and the entire focus of the city is building. Architects are practically rock stars, and the only city functions that seem to matter are building and planning.

And then there’s the king (and his cat Clarence), who observe the growth of the city from their window in the king’s tower, reading daily reports and signing off on plans, but really not doing much of anything else.

Everything seems to change when chief architect Iona is approached by a woman asking to be tutored in architecture. Something about Alyssa seems off, and her presence starts to bring forward words and images that Iona associates with her odd, recurring dreams.

And I’m not going to say what happens next! There are plenty of cool twists, and I actually laughed out loud over certain developments — like, OH, so THAT’s where this is going!

Seriously, this book just needs to be read! It’s great fun, full of surprises and really amazing and inventive elements, and I just could not put it down. I can see returning to Hearts of Oak and reading it again from time to time — it’s that good!

And a final great thing — it’s worth taking a closer look at the cover! I love the detail!

Book Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

Title: The Collapsing Empire (The Interdependency, #1)
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: March 21, 2017
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The first novel of a new space-opera sequence set in an all-new universe by the Hugo Award-winning, New York Times-bestselling author of Redshirts and Old Man’s War.

Our universe is ruled by physics and faster than light travel is not possible — until the discovery of The Flow, an extra-dimensional field we can access at certain points in space-time that transport us to other worlds, around other stars.

Humanity flows away from Earth, into space, and in time forgets our home world and creates a new empire, the Interdependency, whose ethos requires that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war — and a system of control for the rulers of the empire.

The Flow is eternal — but it is not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well, cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that The Flow is moving, possibly cutting off all human worlds from faster than light travel forever, three individuals — a scientist, a starship captain and the Empress of the Interdependency — are in a race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.

It’s been a while since I’ve read John Scalzi — about a year and a half, in fact, since I finished his Old Man’s War series. And I gotta say, it’s great to be back!

The Collapsing Empire is the first book in the Interdependency trilogy, which concludes with the upcoming The Last Emperox, to be published in April 2020.

In this trilogy, humanity has left Earth behind and has settled in a vast collection of systems known as the Interdependency, which functions as an empire ruled by hereditary royalty (the Emperox), with a leadership council made up of representatives of the ruling houses (the nobility), the church, and the parliament. The Emperox is the supreme leader and is also the head of the church. Whew. Kind of complicated.

The planets of the Interdependency are far-flung and without (non-existent) faster than light travel, would be completely isolated from one another. But there’s the Flow, a space-time current that, well, flows between the different system and allows for interplanetary commerce and travel. It’s been assumed that the Flow is stable, but a new, secret study shows that it’s collapsing… and once it collapses, the worlds it connects will once again be isolated. And given how interwoven economically the worlds of the Interdependency are, isolation will likely mean the eventual extinction of the human race, as none of these worlds are capable of self-sustenance.

That’s a lot to take in, right? I actually started this book as an audiobook, as I usually love Scalzi audiobooks thanks to (a) the humor and (b) the awesome narration by Wil Wheaton. With The Collapsing Empire, though, I had to switch to print before I even made it through the prologue. There was simply too much detail to take in, and for me at least, absorbing it all merely by listening just wasn’t going to work.

Thankfully, once I switched to print, I definitely got into the flow (ha!) of the story. It’s not terribly long, but the author absolutely packs it full of people, governmental systems, intricate family relationships, backstory on trade and rebellions, and much, much more.

But beyond how much world-building there is to adjust to, there’s the fun of the characters and their craziness. Scalzi books are always funny, and his characters here are not comic, but so clever and snarky that they made me giggle anyway. There ‘s a lot of scheming and manipulation and threats and bribery and intimidation, and it’s all great fun. Not to mention the fact that the story itself is pretty compelling — I’m going to want to get my hands on the next book, The Consuming Fire, just as soon as I can.

While I really enjoyed this book, I think it was perhaps just a little too packed for my taste. I had to stop and reread paragraphs all the time, just to make sure I was absorbing all the points about the government and the planets and the laws and the houses… like I said, it’s a lot.

Do I recommend this book? Definitely! But just be aware that while it’s mostly light-hearted, it’s not actually a light read. Be prepared to put in a bit of effort, and it’ll be fine.

Book Review: The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

Title: The Vanished Birds
Author: Simon Jimenez
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Publication date: January 14, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A mysterious child lands in the care of a solitary woman, changing both of their lives forever in this captivating debut of connection across space and time.

“This is when your life begins.”

Nia Imani is a woman out of place and outside of time. Decades of travel through the stars are condensed into mere months for her, though the years continue to march steadily onward for everyone she has ever known. Her friends and lovers have aged past her; all she has left is work. Alone and adrift, she lives only for the next paycheck, until the day she meets a mysterious boy, fallen from the sky.

A boy, broken by his past.

The scarred child does not speak, his only form of communication the beautiful and haunting music he plays on an old wooden flute. Captured by his songs and their strange, immediate connection, Nia decides to take the boy in. And over years of starlit travel, these two outsiders discover in each other the things they lack. For him, a home, a place of love and safety. For her, an anchor to the world outside of herself.

For both of them, a family.

But Nia is not the only one who wants the boy. The past hungers for him, and when it catches up, it threatens to tear this makeshift family apart. 

The Vanished Birds is both lovely and perplexing, a science fiction story about space travel and corporate domination that’s also a deeply personal story about love, identity, and home.

The book opens on what we come to learn is a Resource World owned by the ubiquitous Umbai corporation. At first glance, we’ve arrived in a rural, agricultural community that seems quaint and unsophisticated. The people of the village work in the dhuba fields; their crop is collected once every 15 years by the space travelling ships that carry out trade across the galaxy.

A boy in the village, Kaeda, is seven years old when he sees the ships arrive for the first time, and he’s immediately captivated by their beauty as well as by the mysterious allure of Nia Imani, the ship’s captain.

The trick here, though, is that ships travel through Pocket Space, secret folds through time that allow them to travel faster than the time passing on the planets. The fifteen years in between visits to Kaeda’s world take only eight months on Nia’s ship. The beautiful first chapter of The Vanished Birds traces the strange relationship between Kaeda and Nia, as each of her visits reintroduces her to Kaeda at a different point in his life, from boyhood to youth to adult to elder.

Later, a strange boy arrives in Kaeda’s world, seemingly out of nowhere. Mute, naked, and scarred, he’s taken in by Kaeda, but because it’s clear that he’s from elsewhere, he’s then given into Nia’s care.

The story shifts to Nia and her crew as they travel with the boy, trying to unravel his secrets and keep him safe. From here, the plot expands outward. We meet Fumiko Nakajima, the brilliant scientist who leaves behind her strange upbringing on a dying Earth to become the creator of the interplanetary systems of travel that fuel the next thousand years. And we learn more about the end of Earth, the expansion of Umbai and their tight control, and the different concepts of space travel.

But what really is essential here is the language and the people. The writing in The Vanished Birds is almost poetic at times, filled with unusual imagery and looping writing. The characters are complex, as are their relationships with time and memory.

While we see the unspeakable cruelty of Umbai and the degradation of the lives considered lesser, the exploitation of the Resource Worlds, and the easy dismissal of the value of life, most of science fiction elements are in soft focus. We learn about the methods of travel, the research institutes and their obscene experimentation, but very little of it is explained in great detail. This book is less hard science fiction and much more a meditation on the meaning of it all.

While beautifully written, at times The Vanished Birds frustrated me, as I do tend to gravitate toward a more literal science fiction approach, and occasionally wanted more straight-forward answers and explanations.

Still, this book overall is an unusual and emotionally powerful read. I think it’ll be on my mind for quite some time, from the almost folkloric beginning to the tragic but inevitable end.

Highly recommended.

For more on The Vanished Birds, check out:

Review – The Captain’s Quarters
The Big Idea – from John Scalzi’s Whatever blog
Review – AV Club
Review – Locus Magazine
Review – Tor.com

Book Review: The Toll (Arc of a Scythe, #3) by Neal Shusterman

Title: The Toll (Arc of a Scythe, #3)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: November 5, 2019
Length: 625 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

It’s been three years since Rowan and Citra disappeared; since Scythe Goddard came into power; since the Thunderhead closed itself off to everyone but Grayson Tolliver.

In this pulse-pounding conclusion to New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman’s Arc of a Scythe trilogy, constitutions are tested and old friends are brought back from the dead.

 

The Toll wraps up the futuristic story begun in 2016’s Scythe and continued in 2018’s Thunderhead. In these books, author Neal Shusterman presents a post-mortal world, where an all-knowing AI has become sentient and has solved all of the world’s problems, from starvation to disease to crime to poverty. Humankind is essentially immortal.

To preserve the fine balance of resources and needs, the only authority left in the world is the scythedom — people given the authority and responsibility to “glean” a certain percentage of the world’s population in order to make sure that the perfect world can continue to support everyone who’s left. And it works, for the most part… except that it’s still true that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and there are those among the scythedom who revel in their own power and the thrill of the kill, rather than seeing themselves as servants of the greater good.

In The Toll, the world is, basically, going to hell in a handbasket. The reasonable and responsible old-guard scythes have mostly all been eliminated, and the most corrupt and power-hungry scythe of all has taken over, with the goal of nothing less than world domination.

In this scary world, there are still scythes on the fringes, working to evade or undermine this new order, as well as a group hand-picked by the Thunderhead to create a mysterious settlement in an unknown tropical location. Meanwhile, the oddball religious cult known as Tonists have a new prophet, and their popularity and power seems to be on the rise as well.

At 625 pages, The Toll is longer than either of the preceding books, and while I get that there’s a lot to wrap up, it’s also overstuffed and often meandering. What I really loved about Scythe, in addition to the fascinating world created in its pages, are the characters and their moral dilemmas, as well as their personalities and their relationships.

Much of that is sacrificed in The Toll for the sake of plot, plot, and more plot. We spend very little time with the young heroes from the previous two books. Instead, the cast of characters is even broader than before, and we jump around the globe constantly. On the one hand, it’s pretty remarkable how the author keeps so many plot strands in play and connected; on the other hand, this book feels much less personal and much more action-driven.

Also, for a YA trilogy, this final installment spends a lot more time with its adult characters than with its younger, teen/young adult people, which is perhaps an odd choice.

Did I enjoy The Toll? Yes, for the most part. I’m actually quite satisfied with the wrap-up to the trilogy and the clever solutions and outcomes. However… there were lots of moments within the book where the length just made me downright tired. I think a lot could have been trimmed, and I would have preferred a more intimate scale rather than trying to encompass the entire world.

Still, the trilogy as a whole is mesmerizing, presenting a flawed utopia and showing how a society can only be as perfect as its most imperfect members. I loved the concept and the world-building, and have no hesitation about recommending these books.

And now, for those who have already read the books, here are my lingering questions and quibbles.

WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS!

Just a few of the little fiddly bits that continue to bug me after reading the book:

  • The Thunderhead is not able to break the laws that govern its interactions. Who created those laws?
  • Did the founding scythes program the Thunderhead so it would have no contact with the scythedom? Or did the Thunderhead institute the scythedom and then create the separation itself?
  • How did the founding scythes first form and settle upon their purpose? Again, were they created by the Thunderhead?
  • We only know that the Thunderhead can’t break the law because it repeatedly says so. Can the Thunderhead change its own programming? Could someone else change it?
  • How did the founding scythes create the scythe diamonds in the first place? We know that scythe technology is way behind what the Thunderhead can do, and that without the Thunderhead, technology just isn’t particularly reliable.
  • Why wouldn’t people rise up in protest against the scythes and their mass gleanings long before the events in The Toll?

Okay, those are just my initial random thoughts and questions immediately after finishing the book. If you’ve read these and have thoughts on any of these (or anything else related to the story!), please add your comments!

Book Review: Cibola Burn (The Expanse, #4) by James S. A. Corey

Title: Cibola Burn (The Expanse, #4)
Author: James S. A. Corey
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: June 17, 2014
Length: 581 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The gates have opened the way to thousands of habitable planets, and the land rush has begun. Settlers stream out from humanity’s home planets in a vast, poorly controlled flood, landing on a new world. Among them, the Rocinante, haunted by the vast, posthuman network of the protomolecule as they investigate what destroyed the great intergalactic society that built the gates and the protomolecule.

But Holden and his crew must also contend with the growing tensions between the settlers and the company which owns the official claim to the planet. Both sides will stop at nothing to defend what’s theirs, but soon a terrible disease strikes and only Holden – with help from the ghostly Detective Miller – can find the cure. 

One of my reading goals for 2020 is to make progress with the sci-fi book series The Expanse — and now that I’ve read book #4, I can safely say that I’m off to a great start!

Before going into the book, its plot, or why it’s so great, I should state up front that there will be spoilers! I can’t talk about the 4th book in a series, or a book with an amazing TV adaptation, without getting into specifics.

There. You’ve been warned. Turn away if you don’t want to know!

Cibola Burn picks up after the events in book #3, Abaddon’s Gate, in which a mysterious alien ring provides a conduit of wormholes leading to thousands of unknown worlds. As the story continues in book #4, humans are eager to explore and exploit the resources of all of these new planets, but caution and legal complications are keeping a land rush on hold — for now.

One group of settlers, after being in homeless, planetless limbo for years, makes a dash through the rings and sets up a new colony on the planet Ilus, where they find a rich source of lithium ore, potentially representing enough value for them to truly create a livable world for themselves and their children.

But because there are fortunes to be made, the squatters’ rights aren’t allowed to stand, and an Earth corporation, the RCE, is granted a charter to explore and develop the planet, which they call New Terra.

Tensions are high, and when a militant group of settlers blows up the landing pad RCE is about to use and deaths result, it seems like violence is inevitable.

Enter our heroes, Captain Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante. Holden is the idealistic man who has time and again found himself at the center of interplanetary intrigue and war, and who always follows his conscience and does the right thing, even when it’s counter to his own interests or the interests of the political factions who think they own Holden’s allegiance. Rounding out the crew are pilot Alex Kamal, XO Naomi Nagata, and mechanic/muscle Amos Burton. Over the years, these four have formed a family, and their loyalty and love is a wonderful thing to behold.

The Rocinante is send by the UN to act as mediator between the settlers and the RCE, and of course, it all goes to shit pretty much from the start. There’s a murderous head of security, settler terrorists, and the not minor fact that the planet is populated by both deadly organic species and seemingly dormant alien artifacts that — obviously — have the potential to wipe out all human life… if the humans don’t manage to kill each other off first.

“Apocalyptic explosions, dead reactors, terrorists, mass murder, death-slugs, and now a blindness plague. This is a terrible planet…”

Yup. Death-slugs. How would you like to be surrounded by death-slugs while losing your eyesight? Shudder. Space exploration is clearly not for me. I prefer a death-slug-free environment, thank you very much.

The writing is fast-paced and exciting, so much so that I finished this almost 600-page book in about 2 and a half days. The dictionary should have a picture of Cibola Burn as the definition of “page-turner”.

The action isn’t at the expense of character: Each of our four main characters get a chance to shine. I’m particularly fond of Amos, the sociopathic enforcer who loves his captain, his crew, and his weapons. The authors (yes, James S. A. Corey is actually two people) seem to take special delight in writing for Amos.

“What,” Holden said, “is all this?”

“You said to gear up for the drop.”

“I meant, like, underwear and toothbrushes.”

“Captain,” Amos said, almost hiding his impatience. “They’re killing each other down there. Half a dozen RCE security vanished into thin air, and a heavy lift shuttle got blown up.”

“Yes, and our job is not to escalate that. Put all this shit away. Sidearms only. Bring clothes and sundries for us, any spare medical supplies for the colony. But that’s it.”

“Later,” Amos said, “when you’re wishing we had this stuff, I am going to be merciless in my mockery. And then we’ll die.”

Another Holden/Amos conversation:

“Okay. Murtry’s pissed about the rescue.”

“Yeah, but fuck him.”

“I also,” Holden continued, “may have shoved him down and stolen his hand terminal.”

“Stop making me fall in love with you, Cap, we both know it can’t go anywhere.”

Besides the Rocinante crew, there are several other POV characters, including both RCE and settlers, and I enjoyed seeing the unfolding events from their perspectives.

I will say thought that the only thing that bothered me in Cibola Burn was scientist Elvi’s infatuation with Holden. It was unnecessary and oddly demeaning for her character, and even though it eventually unfolds that it was more about her hunger for human connection that about Holden himself, it’s an off-putting choice to have this amazing scientist suffering through school-girl crush symptoms.

Now, you may be wondering how the books relates to the (excellent) TV series, currently airing its 4th season via its new home on Amazon Prime. The 4th season has the events on Ilus/New Terra as its centerpiece, but also includes quite a bit of action with Earth politics, Mars crime, and Belter terrorism. None of this really comes into play in book #4, although based on what I’ve read about book #5, I’m guessing those plots will all feature heavily there.

Listen, if you haven’t read any of these book or watched the TV series — and if you’re a fan of science fiction — then start one or the other, or both! The books are long but absolutely obsession-worthy, and the massive page volume just flies by.

The TV series is brilliantly done, and I’m tempted to start over again from the beginning just to enjoy it all once more.

And I can’t wrap up talking about The Expanse without a shout-out to Chrisjen Avasarala, who is a great book character but an absolutely AMAZING TV character. Played by the glorious Shohreh Aghdashloo, Avasarala is a glamorous, powerful, foul-mouthed woman who is always ten steps ahead and gives zero fucks for anyone or anything that gets in her way.

So let’s finish up with a look at Avasarala’s greatest hits, because even though this is a book review, it’s all from the same world, and any day I can hear Avasarala dropping f-bombs is a glorious day indeed.

Oh yeah. Back to the book. Read it. It’s terrific. Start at the first book, and keep going! As for me, because of the huge size of these books and the frighteningly huge size of my TBR pile, I’m going to hit pause on the book series and wait a bit before starting #5, Nemesis Games. Still, I don’t think I’ll be able to wait for long… I may just need to power through the remaining four available books long before 2020 grows much older.