Title: Citizen of the Galaxy Author: Robert A. Heinlein Publication date: 1957 Length: 282 pages Genre: Science fiction Source: Purchased
Rating: 4 out of 5.
In a distant galaxy, the atrocity of slavery was alive and well, and young Thorby was just another orphaned boy sold at auction. But his new owner, Baslim, is not the disabled beggar he appears to be: adopting Thorby as his son, he fights relentlessly as an abolitionist spy. When the authorities close in on Baslim, Thorby must ride with the Free Traders — a league of merchant princes — throughout the many worlds of a hostile galaxy, finding the courage to live by his wits and fight his way from society’s lowest rung. But Thorby’s destiny will be forever changed when he discovers the truth about his own identity…
What a treat to “discover” a classic sci-fi that I might have missed if not for my book group. This was an unusual choice for us, but we do like to mix things up on occasion, and I’m so glad Citizen of the Galaxy made this year’s list!
Citizen of the Galaxy is the story of Thorby, a boy captured and enslaved at such a young age that he has no memory of anything else. Alone, mistreated, and hopeless, he’s sold at auction to a beggar named Baslim the Cripple, who is not at all what he seems. Baslim raises Thorby with love, morality, and an education. Upon Baslim’s death, teenaged Thorby must escape from the repressive planet they lived on and find his own way, assisted by subliminal messages implanted in his mind by Baslim. From there, Thorby’s adventures take him to a family of Free Traders, a military ship, and finally back to Terra, where he discovers his true origins once and for all.
This is a fast-paced book, and Thorby is a sympathetic, likable main character. His adventures take us into unusually structured societies which are fascinating to read about. Ultimately, as he reclaims his heritage on Terra and assumes adult responsibilities, he realizes that freedom isn’t about running off to follow his heart’s desire, but taking on the job he knows he needs to do in order to fix at least some of his family’s wrong-doings.
I had a great time reading Citizen of the Galaxy, although the final sections bog down a bit in untangling corporate schemes and dealing with the legal system. Still, this is a top-notch science fiction from an earlier era of sci-fi writing, and I appreciate the messages and themes tucked in amidst the fun and action.
It’s been ages since I’ve read any Heinlein, and Citizen of the Galaxy has sparked my interest in reading more.
Are you a Heinlein fan? Any favorites to recommend?
Title: In the Lives of Puppets Author: TJ Klune Publisher: Tor Books Publication date: April 25, 2023 Length: 432 pages Genre: Science fiction Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley Rating:
Rating: 3 out of 5.
In a strange little home built into the branches of a grove of trees, live three robots–fatherly inventor android Giovanni Lawson, a pleasantly sadistic nurse machine, and a small vacuum desperate for love and attention. Victor Lawson, a human, lives there too. They’re a family, hidden and safe.
The day Vic salvages and repairs an unfamiliar android labelled “HAP,” he learns of a shared dark past between Hap and Gio-a past spent hunting humans.
When Hap unwittingly alerts robots from Gio’s former life to their whereabouts, the family is no longer hidden and safe. Gio is captured and taken back to his old laboratory in the City of Electric Dreams. So together, the rest of Vic’s assembled family must journey across an unforgiving and otherworldly country to rescue Gio from decommission, or worse, reprogramming.
Along the way to save Gio, amid conflicted feelings of betrayal and affection for Hap, Vic must decide for himself: Can he accept love with strings attached?
Author TJ Klune invites you deep into the heart of a peculiar forest and on the extraordinary journey of a family assembled from spare parts.
It absolutely pains me to give a TJ Klune book anything less than 5 stars… but alas, In the Lives of Puppets just didn’t hit the mark for me. This makes me sad! I’ve loved so many of the author’s books, but this tale of robots and found family — which is also a Pinocchio retelling — left me oddly uninvested.
In the Lives of Puppets is the story of a family of oddball robots and machines, living in an isolated forest grove, raising a human child named Victor. As the story gets underway, Victor is now 21, and spends his days in the company of his two best friends, a Roomba-type vacuum robot named Rambo and a medical care robot named Nurse Ratched, who seems to delight in heartless provision of medical treatments (except when she engages her Empathy Protocols and offers a soothing “there, there” to her potential patient).
The trio also live with Gio (Giovanni), an older android who loves inventing, creating, listening to jazz music, and enjoying peaceful family time. Everything changes when Victor discovers a broken down android in the Scrap Yards that seems to still have a little power left in it. Once Victor repairs Hap, hidden secrets come to life, and soon the family’s entire existence is in peril.
In the Lives of Puppets is part exploration of love, family, and what it means to be a “real” human, and part road trip/adventure/quest. By the midpoint of the book, Victor and friends are off on a journey to the City of Electric Dreams to rescue Gio and, hopefully, restore him to his true self.
The writing can be very funny, especially Rambo and Nurse Ratched’s lines. These are probably my favorite parts of the book.
“Are we lost?” Rambo asked nervously.
“Of course not,” Nurse Ratched said. “I know exactly where we are.”
“Oh. Where are we?”
“In the forest.”
“Whew,” Rambo said. “I was worried for a moment that we were lost. Since we’re not, I will instead focus on the fact that we’re in the middle of the woods at night by ourselves. Do big animals like to eat vacuums?”
“I am sure they do,” Nurse Ratched said.
“Oh no,” Rambo whispered. “But I’m a vacuum.”
As the for story threads about emotions and connection and humanity… I was left largely unmoved, and the quest elements mostly failed to hold my interest.
I have to admit, overall this book was a letdown. As I mentioned, I usually adore this author’s work, and can’t really understand why In the Lives of Puppets just did not click for me. In any case, I’ll still be tuning in for whatever he writes next, and meanwhile will look to read some of his backlist titles too.
Title: To Be Taught, If Fortunate Author: Becky Chambers Publisher: Harper Voyager Publication date: August 8, 2019 Length: 153 pages Genre: Science fiction Source: Purchased Rating:
Rating: 5 out of 5.
A stand-alone science fiction novella from the award-winning, bestselling, critically-acclaimed author of the Wayfarer series.
At the turn of the twenty-second century, scientists make a breakthrough in human spaceflight. Through a revolutionary method known as somaforming, astronauts can survive in hostile environments off Earth using synthetic biological supplementations. They can produce antifreeze in subzero temperatures, absorb radiation and convert it for food, and conveniently adjust to the pull of different gravitational forces. With the fragility of the body no longer a limiting factor, human beings are at last able to journey to neighboring exoplanets long known to harbor life.
A team of these explorers, Ariadne O’Neill and her three crewmates, are hard at work in a planetary system fifteen light-years from Sol, on a mission to ecologically survey four habitable worlds. But as Ariadne shifts through both form and time, the culture back on Earth has also been transformed. Faced with the possibility of returning to a planet that has forgotten those who have left, Ariadne begins to chronicle the story of the wonders and dangers of her mission, in the hope that someone back home might still be listening.
The title of this novella is a line from former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim’s message carried on the Voyager space probe in 1977:
We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship — to teach, if we are called upon; to be taught, if we are fortunate.
These lines provide a beautiful summary of the theme of Becky Chambers’ deeply thoughtful novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate. The novella tells the story of the four-person crew of the Lawki 6 mission — a team of astronauts sent on a decades-spanning mission to explore four potentially life-supporting planets located outside Earth’s solar system. The astronauts embark on their journey knowing that their friends, families, and colleagues will all be gone by the time they return to Earth some 80 years in the future — but knowledge is their holy grail, and they’re devoted to their higher purpose.
We learn about the mission through Ariadne, the mission engineer, who writes a letter back to Earth — this is the narrative we read. Ariadne describes the ship’s journey through space — the years of torpor (deep sleep/stasis in which the crew members pass the years of long transit, awakening when they reach their destinations), the glory of discovery as they set foot on each new world, and the traumatizing despair that sets in when they seem to have reached a dead end with no means of continuing the journey.
The story is full of moments of sheer joy, as the team revels in each new world and its wonders — but there’s also sorrow, as communications from Earth inexplicably stop arriving, and the crew is left to consider what, if anything, they might find upon their eventual return.
I’ve described Becky Chambers’ books as “gentle science fiction”, and I’d say the same applies here. Not gentle as in boring or uneventful, but gentle meaning focusing on the people, their emotions and relationships, their hopes and fears. There are no evil forces, no catastrophic invasions, no epic tragedies, and certainly no space battles or laser guns! This is science fiction on a human scale — it’s what the people experience, think, and feel that matters here, and that’s plenty.
We are human. We are fragile. Are we who you want out here?
The writing is lovely, and through the medium of Ariadne’s letter back to Earth, we get to know her on a deep and intimate level. What would a person feel in these circumstances, cut off from home, living in a restricted space with three other people, seeing the passage of time by the changing length of her hair and fingernails each time she emerges from torpor? This book makes the reader feel it all as well, all within just 153 pages.
To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a spare, finely-tuned portrait of humanity’s quest for knowledge and pursuit of higher purpose, as well as a moving depiction of particular people in a unique circumstance.
Title: Sea of Tranquility Author: Emily St. John Mandel Publisher: Knopf Publication date: April 5, 2022 Length: 272 pages Genre: Science fiction Source: Purchased Rating:
Rating: 5 out of 5.
The award-winning, best-selling author of Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel returns with a novel of art, time travel, love, and plague that takes the reader from Vancouver Island in 1912 to a dark colony on the moon five hundred years later, unfurling a story of humanity across centuries and space.
Edwin St. Andrew is eighteen years old when he crosses the Atlantic by steamship, exiled from polite society following an ill-conceived diatribe at a dinner party. He enters the forest, spellbound by the beauty of the Canadian wilderness, and suddenly hears the notes of a violin echoing in an airship terminal–an experience that shocks him to his core.
Two centuries later a famous writer named Olive Llewellyn is on a book tour. She’s traveling all over Earth, but her home is the second moon colony, a place of white stone, spired towers, and artificial beauty. Within the text of Olive’s best-selling pandemic novel lies a strange passage: a man plays his violin for change in the echoing corridor of an airship terminal as the trees of a forest rise around him.
When Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a detective in the black-skied Night City, is hired to investigate an anomaly in the North American wilderness, he uncovers a series of lives upended: The exiled son of an earl driven to madness, a writer trapped far from home as a pandemic ravages Earth, and a childhood friend from the Night City who, like Gaspery himself, has glimpsed the chance to do something extraordinary that will disrupt the timeline of the universe.
A virtuoso performance that is as human and tender as it is intellectually playful, Sea of Tranquility is a novel of time travel and metaphysics that precisely captures the reality of our current moment.’
I’m not sure how to even begin describing the beauty of Sea of Tranquility. The writing here is so precise, and the narrative arc so carefully constructed, that I was spellbound from start to finish.
Part of me hesitates to describe the plot at all, other than what’s already shared in the book’s synopsis. I read the book without first reading anything about it, and I’m so happy that I did. Letting the wonder unfold around you is really the best way to experience Sea of Tranquility.
But to give a brief idea — the various sections of the book occur in completely separately timelines and locations. From 1912, across time and space all the way to the 2400s, there are vignettes — some very short, some with more detail and length — delving into specific actions and moments in the lives of the characters.
As you might guess, there is a connection that ties all these vignettes together eventually. As each piece slotted into place, I experienced continuous “aha” moments as elements became clearer. And while some concepts are more mind-blowing than others, there’s a sense throughout that there’s more to the book, and more to our lives, than we could possibly even hope to truly understand.
If you haven’t yet read Sea of Tranquility, then what I’ve written probably makes little sense, but I truly don’t want to discuss specifics and risk lessening the pleasure of discovery for anyone considering reading the book.
At under 300 pages, Sea of Tranquility is easy to get through quickly, but the images and ideas linger long after reading the final lines. This is my first 5-star read of 2023, and will absolutely be going on my “favorites” list.
Title: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within Series: Wayfarers, #4 Author: Becky Chambers Narrator: Rachel Dulude Publisher: Harper Voyager Publication date: April 20, 2021 Print length: 336 pages Audio length: 9 hours, 55 minutes Genre: Science fiction Source: Library Rating:
Rating: 4 out of 5.
With no water, no air, and no native life, the planet Gora is unremarkable. The only thing it has going for it is a chance proximity to more popular worlds, making it a decent stopover for ships traveling between the wormholes that keep the Galactic Commons connected. If deep space is a highway, Gora is just your average truck stop.
At the Five-Hop One-Stop, long-haul spacers can stretch their legs (if they have legs, that is), and get fuel, transit permits, and assorted supplies. The Five-Hop is run by an enterprising alien and her sometimes helpful child, who work hard to provide a little piece of home to everyone passing through.
When a freak technological failure halts all traffic to and from Gora, three strangers—all different species with different aims—are thrown together at the Five-Hop. Grounded, with nothing to do but wait, the trio—an exiled artist with an appointment to keep, a cargo runner at a personal crossroads, and a mysterious individual doing her best to help those on the fringes—are compelled to confront where they’ve been, where they might go, and what they are, or could be, to each other.
Reading (or listening to) Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series is like being immersed in a cultural study, learning traditions, histories, and sociological norms… but here, the cultures are alien rather than human, and the action takes place in far-flung locations within the Galactic Commons.
In fact, in book #4 of the series — the final book — there’s not a human to be found. Instead, we settle in with a group of sapient non-humans from four different species as they wait out a space emergency that leaves then all stuck at a transit point, with only one another for company, support, and distraction.
Ouloo runs the Five-Hop with her exuberant child Tupo. Together, they welcome travelers with snacks, a garden, a bath house, and a place to restock and refuel before continuing on their way. Most visitors only stay for a couple of hours. There’s really nothing of interest on the planet Gora, but it is conveniently located between wormhole tunnels, so Ouloo does a pretty good business at her interplanetary version of a truck stop.
However, an accidental satellite collision leads to explosions and debris, and all travel on and off planet is halted while the emergency is dealt with. This strands the current batch of travelers at the Five-Hop, with no way to leave and no communications with the outside world. With no other options, the visitors settle in and start getting to know one another.
As with the other books in the series, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is fairly gentle for a science fiction story. In fact, when the first explosions rocked Gora, I thought for a split-second that the planet was under attack… but no. Such violence would not be in keeping with the overall tone of the series. Yes, war and battles and calamities occur, but mostly as background or off the page. Throughout the Wayfarers books, the focus is on the people and their relationships, and the same is true in the 4th book.
One of the characters in this book is familiar from book #1 — Pei, of the Aeluon species, a cargo ship captain who faces a life-changing decision about her own destiny. The others, however, are all new, although most belong to species we’ve at least seen in passing before. As they spend time together, they learn about their lives, their differences and similarities, and find ways to bridge the cultural gaps between them.
In many ways The Galaxy, and the Ground Within feels like an anthropological study (although maybe that’s not the right word for a book about non-human species?). Through the characters, we’re introduced to the different species’ societal norms, traditions, physical features, dietary needs, and more. It’s all quiet fascinating, and a real tribute to the author’s skilled world-building and imagination.
At the same time, there’s not a ton of plot going on, other than strangers are stuck together, forge bonds, then go their separate ways. There are ups and downs, arguments and reconciliations, and even a medical emergency that requires everyone to put aside their differences and work together… but honestly, that’s about it.
That doesn’t mean this book is boring. It’s not! As I said before, for a science fiction novel, it’s very gentle. That’s not a bad thing, just unusual for the genre.
As with the other three books in the series, the audiobook narration by Rachel Delude is very well done. She provides distinct voices and inflections for each of the characters, and it’s quite a wonderful listening experience.
The Wayfarers series has been a reading goal of mine for a while now, and I’m delighted that I finally took the time to make it a priority. It’s a lovely feat of storytelling. Rather than a continuous narrative broken into four books, this series is built on the concept of taking a singular galactic society and examining it through four separate stories. It’s unusual, it’s all rather peaceful and beautiful, and it absolutely works.
Title: Arch-Conspirator Author: Veronica Roth Publisher: Tor Books Publication date: February 21, 2023 Length: 128 pages Genre: Science fiction Source: Review copy via the publisher Rating:
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
From dystopian visionary and bestselling phenomenon Veronica Roth comes a razor-sharp reimagining of Antigone. In Arch-Conspirator, Roth reaches back to the root of legend and delivers a world of tomorrow both timeless and unexpected.
Outside the last city on Earth, the planet is a wasteland. Without the Archive, where the genes of the dead are stored, humanity will end.
Passing into the Archive should be cause for celebration, but Antigone’s parents were murdered, leaving her father’s throne vacant. As her militant uncle Kreon rises to claim it, all Antigone feels is rage. When he welcomes her and her siblings into his mansion, Antigone sees it for what it really is: a gilded cage, where she is a captive as well as a guest.
But her uncle will soon learn that no cage is unbreakable. And neither is he.
This slim novella is tautly written and beautiful presented. Word to the wise: It does help to have a passing familiarity with the classic story of Antigone before reading Arch-Conspirator… but I suppose it would work even without reference to the source.
In this dystopian reimagining of the tale, humanity has reached the brink of its own end. The planet is mostly uninhabitable. There’s one city left; outside it is the wilderness. All goods are scarce, buildings are decaying, and blowing dust covers everything. The only hope for humanity’s future is the Archive, where genetic material taken from people after death is stored. A quasi-religious value is attached to these Archives — the stored samples represent immortality for the dead, a way of saving and then resurrecting their souls.
It was hard to imagine a time when it hadn’t been this way — when plants grew untended in the wild, maintained by their own seeds spreading; when the plains beyond the city were overrun with animals that we had not bred ourselves; when genes persisted through the generations, presenting a person with their grandmother’s brow, their great-grandfather’s jaw. Everything required effort now. Everything required editing.
Antigone and her siblings are considered soulless abominations — their parents conceived them naturally, rather than going through genetic manipulation to achieve best results. They’re scorned and shunned, but as the living children of the murdered king and queen, they also represent power and legitimacy. With their uncle Kreon, now the ruler, looking to consolidate power and squash all attempts at rebellion, it’s only a matter of time until Antigone herself is caught at the center of the resulting devastation.
Arch-Conspirator is chilling to read. Being aware of the basics of the classic story, I knew that this would be a story with a tragic ending. Feeling the inevitable looming makes every page an exercise in suspense and sadness. Author Veronica Roth weaves this brief tale together with gorgeous writing and precise plotting. The end took my breath away!
Title: Record of a Spaceborn Few Series: Wayfarers, #3 Author: Becky Chambers Narrator: Rachel Dulude Publisher: Harper Voyager Publication date: July 24, 2018 Print length: 368 pages Audio length: 11 hours, 36 minutes Genre: Science fiction Source: Library Rating:
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Brimming with Chambers’ signature blend of heart-warming character relationships and dazzling adventure, Record of a Spaceborn few is the third standalone installment of the Wayfarers series, set in the sprawling universe of the Galactic Commons, and following a new motley crew on a journey to another corner corner of the cosmos—one often mentioned, but not yet explored.
Return to the sprawling universe of the Galactic Commons, as humans, artificial intelligence, aliens, and some beings yet undiscovered explore what it means to be a community in this exciting third adventure in the acclaimed and multi-award-nominated science fiction Wayfarers series, brimming with heartwarming characters and dazzling space adventure.
Hundreds of years ago, the last humans on Earth boarded the Exodus Fleet in search of a new home among the stars. After centuries spent wandering empty space, their descendants were eventually accepted by the well-established species that govern the Milky Way.
But that was long ago. Today, the Exodus Fleet is a living relic, the birthplace of many, yet a place few outsiders have ever visited. While the Exodans take great pride in their original community and traditions, their culture has been influenced by others beyond their bulkheads. As many Exodans leave for alien cities or terrestrial colonies, those who remain are left to ponder their own lives and futures: What is the purpose of a ship that has reached its destination? Why remain in space when there are habitable worlds available to live? What is the price of sustaining their carefully balanced way of life—and is it worth saving at all?
A young apprentice, a lifelong spacer with young children, a planet-raised traveler, an alien academic, a caretaker for the dead, and an Archivist whose mission is to ensure no one’s story is forgotten, wrestle with these profound universal questions. The answers may seem small on the galactic scale, but to these individuals, it could mean everything.
Argh… again with a misleading synopsis blurb! Why does whoever writes things keep coming back to a “motley crew”? That is SO not what this book is about! Anyway…
Record of a Spaceborn Few is the 3rd installment in the fabulous Wayfarers series, and it leaves me in absolute awe of author Becky Chambers and her vision of this sprawling fictional world. Here, she moves the story to a place we’ve heard about but not seen — the Exodan Fleet.
Many generations earlier, humans left Earth as it became uninhabitable, creating a fleet of homesteader ships that headed out into the galaxy with no idea of an endpoint or destination. Eventually, the human fleet encountered other sapient species, much more advanced in technology and in the social complexities of cross-species relations. After some time, the humans were accepted into the Galactic Commons (kind of like a UN for alien species), and many of the humans of the fleet sought out new homes on already established worlds or set out to colonize new human habitations on unsettled planets.
Not all, though. Many remained with the fleet, where their ancestors had lived already for centuries. Among the ships of the fleet, a shared community of sustainability, common interest, respect for the past, and well-ordered social expectations had been built over time. For the Exodans who stayed with the fleet, they were no longer on a journey — the fleet was home.
Within this setting, we follow the lives of several very different characters — some lifelong residents of the Asteria homesteader ship, some newcomers, some alien visitors. Through each, we learn more about Exodan life, their rituals, their beliefs, and the reality of their day-to-day.
The action starts with an unprecedented tragedy — one of the Exodan ships is destroyed in a freak accident. For the rest of the fleet, this is not only a human tragedy with countless deaths, but also a stark reminder of the potential danger and precariousness of their own homes. As the story moves forward, we see the ripple effect on the different characters, some of whom question their commitment to the fleet and wonder about other options, and some of whom reinvest in making sure that the fleet society has a future.
It’s all quite fascinating. In some ways, life in the fleet reminds me of a traditional kibbutz — communal life, with all jobs valued, each giving back to the community through labor, with shared communal living spaces balanced with family spaces, and a shared responsibility for daily tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and childcare. I was also intrigued by the deeply ingrained ethos of reusing and repurposing. When resources are scarce and the world is a closed system, everything serves a purpose, and nothing can be wasted.
The characters themselves are unique individuals, each with their own interesting lives and sets of joys and worries. These include an archivist, who tends the collective memories of the fleet; a newcomer seeking new meaning after growing up planetside and without connections; a caregiver whose job is to lovingly tend the dead through carefully established rituals; an alien sociologist spending time on the Asteria to study this example of human society, and a teen who isn’t sure where he’s meant to be or what his purpose is. They’re all wonderful, and I can’t say there was any one storyline I preferred over the others.
Record of a Spaceborn Few is loosely connected to the first book in the series, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, as one of the characters is the sibling of the ship captain from the 1st book. Otherwise, this is a stand-alone story within a shared universe. I love how each book in the series opens up a new aspect of life within this fictional universe, broadening our understanding of what life is like for these future humans — among the stars, on a planet, or on a homesteader ship.
While these books are science fiction, there are no raging space battles or chases or high-tech weaponry. The series is about a society, about what it’s like to live in a galaxy where one’s own species is both a novelty and a minority, dependent on the tolerance and generosity of others species. The characters we meet, the choices they make and the dilemmas they face, are far more important to the overall tone and themes of the books than the details of water recycling, propulsion system, or the mechanics of keeping a spaceship working for centuries.
It’s all fascinating, and a remarkable creation. I’ve been listening to the audiobooks — narrator Rachel Delude gives an incredible performance, voicing so many different characters, keeping them distinct and identifiable, and bringing emotion and humor whenever needed. It’s been a terrific listening experience.
I can’t recommend this series strongly enough! Each book is a delight, and each one adds new dimensions to our understanding of the world of the series.
I have one book left in the series — The Galaxy, and the Ground Within — and can’t wait to keep going (although I’ll be sad to finish). After hearing about this series for so long, I’m so glad that I finally made it a point to dig in! I’m just sorry that it took me so long.
Title: A Closed and Common Orbit Series: Wayfarers, #2 Author: Becky Chambers Narrator: Rachel Dulude Publisher: Harper Voyager Publication date: October 20, 2016 Print length: 365 pages Audio length: 11 hours, 29 minutes Genre: Science fiction Source: Library Rating:
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Embark on an exciting, adventurous, and dangerous journey through the galaxy with the motley crew of the spaceship Wayfarer in this fun and heart-warming space opera—the sequel to the acclaimed The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.
Lovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in a new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who’s determined to help her learn and grow.
Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that no matter how vast space is, two people can fill it together.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet introduced readers to the incredible world of Rosemary Harper, a young woman with a restless soul and secrets to keep. When she joined the crew of the Wayfarer, an intergalactic ship, she got more than she bargained for—and learned to live with, and love, her rag-tag collection of crewmates.
A Closed and Common Orbit is the stand-alone sequel to that beloved debut novel, and is perfect for fans of Firefly, Joss Whedon, Mass Effect, and Star Wars.
Beware the misleading synopsis… this book is definitely not a “journey through the galaxy with the motley crew of the spaceship Wayfarer”. In fact, A Closed and Common Orbit has almost nothing to do with the Wayfarer spaceship or its crew, except as a point of origin and connection for its characters. But that caveat aside, let’s talk about what this book actually is.
A Closed and Common Orbit picks up after the events of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Spoiler for those who haven’t read book #1 — the Wayfarer’s sentient AI, Lovelace, ends the first book by being transferred to an illegal body kit by the mechanic Pepper, and the two of them depart on their own adventure.
Book #2 picks up soon afterward, as Pepper, her companion Blue, and Lovelace travel back to Pepper’s home in Port Coriol, where Lovelace faces the daunting task of trying to act like a “normal” human. Inhabiting a high-quality artificial body that appears real, Lovelace adopts a new name, Sidra, and settles into life with Pepper and Blue. But Sidra misses the expanded senses and awareness of being a ship’s AI, and despite the unexpected ways she finds to explore and enjoy using her physical senses, she feels out of place and harshly limited by only being able to experience the world using the “kit” (as she refers to her physical manifestation).
In alternating chapters, we also get Pepper’s backstory. Now a tech wizard who can fix just about anything, Pepper got her start as a child slave in a factory policed by robotic “mothers”, a girl whose entire life consisted of sorting scrap on a planet mainly used as a junkyard. After escaping the factory at age 10, Pepper (then known as Jane) survived by finding shelter in an abandoned shuttlecraft, thanks to the guidance and nurturing of that ship’s AI, Owl. Over nine long years, Jane scavenged the nearby junkheaps and slowly repaired the shuttle until it was finally ready to take flight and escape.
For both Sidra and Jane, learning to be a person presents a huge challenge, as each has been denied human companionship and experiences in key ways. Though their sitations are very different, each must learn how to navigate their new realities and to rely on their own sense of self for survival, and each must ultimately figure out their own purpose in the new worlds in which they end up.
When I started this book, I was a little disappointed that the characters from book #1 wouldn’t be part of the story, but ultimately, I did get very caught up in Pepper/Jane and Sidra’s stories. I loved how some of their experiences paralleled one another, and found their explorations of their respective worlds really fascinating.
While the synopsis describes this book as a stand-alone, I wouldn’t recommend reading it without having first read book #1. The worldbuilding is too complex to fully appreciate without the grounding provided by the first book — there are planets and government entities and alien species to sort out and become familiar with, all of which are introduced in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. That said, this feels in some ways more like a bottle episode of a TV show — set in a familiar world, but with a narrow focus on just a few characters. Like good bottle episodes, this story illuminates more intricacies of the Wayfarers universe than previously seen, and at the same time provides a deep and meaningful interlude in the lives of the characters it focuses on.
I’m curious to see where the series goes next, and plan to continue just as soon as my library hold for the next audiobook comes in. (Side now: As I mentioned in my review of the first book, the narrator here is excellent!)
I’m so glad that I finally got around to starting this series — which has been on my TBR for way too many years. Well worth the wait, and highly recommended.
Title: The Spare Man Author: Mary Robinette Kowal Publisher: Tor Books Publication date: October 11, 2022 Length: 384 pages Genre: Science fiction Source: Purchased Rating:
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Tesla Crane, a brilliant inventor and an heiress, is on her honeymoon on an interplanetary space liner, cruising between the Moon and Mars. She’s traveling incognito and is reveling in her anonymity. Then someone is murdered and the festering chowderheads who run security have the audacity to arrest her spouse. Armed with banter, martinis and her small service dog, Tesla is determined to solve the crime so that the newlyweds can get back to canoodling—and keep the real killer from striking again.
It’s always a treat when a favorite author releases a new book, and even more so when it turns out to be exactly the book I needed!
While I treated myself to a signed copy of The Spare Man (and the assorted goodies that came with it) AND watched an excellent online author talk, both several months ago, it wasn’t until this quiet week between Christmas and New Year that I finally dedicated some time to cuddle up and enjoy the book.
I’m happy to say that (a) it was well worth the wait! and (b) the mix of humor, a cute dog, a tricksy murder plot, space travel, and cocktail was just what I needed.
A brief aside: The fate of fictional doggos can be really stressful for readers, so let me just start by saying that GIMLET IS THE BEST and that Gimlet is perfectly fine from start to finish. No dog trauma to worry about!!
Back to the book:
The plot centers around Tesla Crane and her new husband Shal Steward, two madly-in-love newlyweds who just want to canoodle in their luxury suite aboard the ISS Lindgren on their cruise to Mars. Tesla is a world-famous, insanely rich inventor/roboticist, and Shal is a retired detective who’s mad about his spouse.
The couple is accompanied by Gimlet, the world’s cutest Westie. Gimlet is not only supremely adorable, but also key to Tesla’s ability to cope and function: Tesla is dealing with severe pain and physical challenges stemming from a terrible accident that left her with spinal injuries and PTSD, and Gimlet is her magnificent service dog. (Yes, I’m raving a lot about Gimlet — you will too, once you meet her!)
Even on-duty, Gimlet was fully aware that she was, indeed, the most adorable and worthy creature ever assembled by nature or laboratory. Her tail was generating its own electrical current of delight.
Unfortunately, Tesla and Shal’s romantic adventure is interrupted almost immediately by a murder. Inconveniently for the continuation of their honeymoon bliss, being first on the scene at a stabbing also makes them prime subjects. Soon, the couple is caught up in nasty handling by the ship’s security team, forced isolation, ongoing suspicion, and (gasp) interference with their expensive luxury gin of choice.
When Shal is detained as a prime suspect, what’s Tesla to do but start an investigation of her own? With complications such as look-alike bartenders, high-profile magicians, competing robotics entrepreneurs, and more, the quest to uncover the truth and exonerate Shal takes nonstop twists and turns, complicated by the strange effects of space travel, centrifugal force, lagged communications, and more.
The plot is complicated, but the heavier moments focusing on Tesla’s past trauma and her ongoing pain and flashbacks are lightened by healthy doses of banter and doggo cuteness. Each chapter starts with a cocktail recipe — some classics, some invented just for this book — all of which make me want to take up mixology as a hobby.
The Spare Man handles gender, racial, and ability diversity very well, never in a preachy way, but with a matter-of-fact approach that keeps the focus on the story while also portraying a future in which inclusion is just a given.
There’s quite a bit of humor in the book, from Tesla’s long-distance, time-lagged calls with her crochet-loving, insult-spraying lawyer to her descriptions of various characters (my favorite being the huge security officer described as the “wall of Bob”).
Tesla and Shal have terrific chemistry — love and passion, intellectual sparring, deep connection, and unmatchable cleverness. I did wish we’d learned more about their background as a couple — how they met, fell in love, got married — but even without that background, it’s easy to love seeing them together and enjoy the hell out of their interactions.
The murder-mystery plot is convoluted but lots of fun, with plenty of red herrings and distractions, quirky characters and suspects, and some bonkers complications that arise from setting what is essentially a closed-circle mystery onboard an interplanetary cruise ship.
(Note: For more on some key types of mysteries, see this reference or this explanation of the difference between a locked-room mystery and a closed-circle mystery.)
I’ve heard the author (and others) refer to this book as “The Thin Man in space”. Never having read the Thin Man books or seen any of the movies, this comparison doesn’t do a whole lot for me — but after checking out a few quick video clips, I can see how people who appreciate The Thin Man might really find The Spare Man a hoot. But even without this element, the book absolutely worked for me.
All in all, I adored The Spare Man. Murder, quippy dialogue, space travel, and an amazing dog — who could ask for more?
Title: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet Series: Wayfarers, #1 Author: Becky Chambers Narrator: Rachel Dulude Publisher: Harper Voyager Publication date: July 29, 2014 Print length: 432 pages Audio length: 14 hours, 23 minutes Genre: Science fiction Source: Purchased Rating:
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Follow a motley crew on an exciting journey through space—and one adventurous young explorer who discovers the meaning of family in the far reaches of the universe—in this light-hearted debut space opera from a rising sci-fi star.
Rosemary Harper doesn’t expect much when she joins the crew of the aging Wayfarer. While the patched-up ship has seen better days, it offers her a bed, a chance to explore the far-off corners of the galaxy, and most importantly, some distance from her past. An introspective young woman who learned early to keep to herself, she’s never met anyone remotely like the ship’s diverse crew, including Sissix, the exotic reptilian pilot, chatty engineers Kizzy and Jenks who keep the ship running, and Ashby, their noble captain.
Life aboard the Wayfarer is chaotic and crazy—exactly what Rosemary wants. It’s also about to get extremely dangerous when the crew is offered the job of a lifetime. Tunneling wormholes through space to a distant planet is definitely lucrative and will keep them comfortable for years. But risking her life wasn’t part of the plan. In the far reaches of deep space, the tiny Wayfarer crew will confront a host of unexpected mishaps and thrilling adventures that force them to depend on each other. To survive, Rosemary’s got to learn how to rely on this assortment of oddballs—an experience that teaches her about love and trust, and that having a family isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the universe.
The Wayfarers series has been on my to-read pile for far too long, so I’m thrilled that (a) I finally read book #1, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and (b) I loved it!
Rosemary Harper is our entry point to the world of this book, although once introduced, she’s just one of many characters whom we follow. The cast here is the crew of the Wayfarer, a tunneling ship that hires out its services to bore tunnels — wormholes — to link far-flung points in space. It’s dangerous, complicated work, but absolutely necessary in an expansive universe in which humans are a minority species without a planet to call home.
Centuries earlier, humans left Earth due to planetary failure — some colonizing Mars, but others, known as Exodans, setting off on generation ships to permanently wander. Eventually, humans were allowed to join the Galactic Commons, the governing body that unites in alliance (sometimes uneasily) the various species who work together to keep the peace and provide structure to the greater world of sapient beings.
The plot of The Long Way takes place on and around the Wayfarer ship, as Rosemary (and we readers) become acquainted with the crew, their personalities, roles, conflicts, and desires, and prepare for the biggest job they’ve ever had. There are romances, secrets, and dangers, but the people are all wonderful (except for one jerky algaeist, but even he gets slightly more tolerable eventually).
The storytelling is very episodic. While there’s an overarching plotline concerning the big, dangerous job the Wayfarer takes on and its aftermath, this is more of a background element for much of the book. Instead, from chapter to chapter, we spend time with the different crew members in different scenarios, learning about each of their backgrounds and what brought them to the Wayfarer, as well as placing them in settings and seeing them go through different experiences.
Because of this episodic approach, there isn’t a lot of building tension throughout the book. Somehow, though, that’s okay. From time to time, there are a few big action sequences or big emotional encounters or high-stakes threats, but the main focus of the book is on the characters themselves and their relationships. The tone overall is, believe it or not for a space adventure, rather cozy… and I liked this approach! We really get to know the characters, so when there are moments of high drama, we understand the stakes and the why and how of different people’s reactions.
I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Rachel Dulude, and thought it was wonderful. I’ve had experiences of struggling with science fiction audiobooks in the past, where I’ve found it challenging to absorb the tech and details of a complicated sci-fi setting and its world-building. Here, though — perhaps because of the focus on the characters themselves — it simply flows. The narrator gives distinct voices to the characters, even the non-human ones, so there’s never any confusion about who is speaking or what they’re feeling. The narration is crisp and dynamic, and I enjoyed it so much that I’ll probably choose audiobooks when I’m ready to continue the series.
Overall, I really and truly enjoyed The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. It wasn’t what I expected, but I loved what it was! I’m eager to continue with the series — just waiting for book #2 to come in at the library.
Sometimes when I read a book that I’ve been meaning to get to for a long time, the end result is a let-down. Fortunately, The Long Way surprised me in lovely ways and was worth the anticipation. Highly recommended.