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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
It’s time for another two-fer post — a quick wrap-up of two recent reads. In this case, I borrowed two novellas from the library this week, and while they’re quite different, I definitely enjoyed them both.
The Deal of a Lifetime by Fredrik Backman: Definitely not as Christmas-y as you might think from looking at the cover. This is a sweet (veering close to the edge of overly sentimental) tale of a man having to assess what makes a life valuable, and what it means to trade a life for a life. The prose is clear and simply stated, and there are illustrations throughout that emphasize the loveliness of the small moments that make a life. This is a quick read, and the little hardcover I borrowed from the library would make a really nice gift for fans of the author.
Length: 65 pages Published: 2017 Rating:
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather: This science fiction novella is set on board a living ship, the space-voyaging convent Our Lady of Impossible Constellations. The nuns on the ship travel to the outer reaches of the four systems, ministering to the sick and performing rites and rituals, largely independent of government and church politics. I was fascinated by the concept of the ship as a living creature — this novella would be worth reading just for the descriptions of the ship’s biology! The lives of the sisters hold more secrets than is immediately apparent, and their interactions with one isolated colony planet thrust them into the middle of an interstellar power play that is likely to result in devastation.
I really enjoyed the plot of Sisters of the Vast Black. I think I would have liked it even more as a full-length novel. Events seem somewhat rushed in this shorter form, and likewise, I would have preferred a little more time to get to know the characters as individuals. Still, despite these minor quibbles, I heartily recommend this sci-fi adventure. Nuns in space!! Really, what more do you need to know?
Length: 176 Published: 2019 Rating:
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Two quick 4-star reads for the end-of-the-year rush! Check ’em out.
Known as “the plague generation” a group of teenagers begin to discover their hidden powers in this shocking post-apocalyptic coming of age story set in 1984.
“This is not a kind book, or a gentle book, or a book that pulls its punches. But it’s a powerful book, and it will change you.” – Seanan McGuire
They’ve called him a monster from the day he was born.
Abandoned by his family, Enoch Bryant now lives in a rundown orphanage with other teenagers just like him. He loves his friends, even if the teachers are terrified of them. They’re members of the rising plague generation. Each bearing their own extreme genetic mutation.
The people in the nearby town hate Enoch, but he doesn’t know why. He’s never harmed anyone. Works hard and doesn’t make trouble. He believes one day he’ll be a respected man.
But hatred dies hard. The tension between Enoch’s world and those of the “normal” townspeople is ready to burst. And when a body is found, it may be the spark that ignites a horrifying revolution
One of Us is not for the faint of heart. That said, it’s an incredibly powerful book that leaves an indelible mark, despite being really hard to take at times.
In One of Us, something has happened to human genetics. A sexually-transmitted bacterium that causes genetic mutations has spread like wildfire. By 1970, one in three births is teratogenic — the babies are born with inhuman features, some resembling animals, others mostly human but distorted, such as the boy whose face is upside down.
Prenatal testing has become mandatory, with mandatory abortion of abnormal babies. High school students’ most serious class is health education, where they learn the risks of the bacterium and where abstinence is promoted as the only way to be sure not to pass it along. And the teratogenic babies are never, ever kept by their parents — instead, they’re deposited in homes, where the children are raised in abysmal conditions, watched over, controlled, and kept separate from the “normal” population.
As the book opens, it’s 1984, and the first generation of plague children is in their teens. The question looms — what will happen when then become adults? Do they have rights? What sort of future might await them? Complicating matters further is the discovery that some of the plague children seem to have special powers — like Goof, the boy with the upside-down face, whose funny ability to finish other people’s sentences is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his telepathic abilities.
The plague children are well aware of how the rest of the world views them — and for some, it’s time to demand more. Do they rise up and overthrow their masters? Is non-violent protest the way forward, or is the only way to tear down an unjust world to burn it down completely and rebuild it themselves?
The characters in One of Us are remarkable and unforgettable. Enoch is known to his friends as Dog (Enoch being his “slave name”, according to the group’s intellectual leader, Brain). Dog has the facial characteristics of a dog, but he has the soul of a boy who just wants friendship and freedom and a happy life. Brain is described as looking like a mix between a gorilla and a lion, and his intelligence is off the charts. Then there’s Edward, known as Wallee, who is described as looking like a bowling pin with a face, moving on a mass of roots/tentacles. The plague children’s appearances may be frightening, but inside, they’re still children, and they live life on a daily basis knowing that they’re hated, feared, and shunned.
It’s a powder keg, and yes, it does explode. The build-up makes it clear that violence is inevitable, even as we see all the places along the way where different actions or decisions might have led to different outcomes.
There’s so much to One of Us. It’s an exploration of societal injustice and divisions, and what happens when unreasoning hatred takes the lead. It illustrates the terrible outcomes of an “us vs them” mentality, where a middle ground is never an option. And it’s also just a flat-out terrifying, deeply engrossing story of genetics run amok and what such a world might look like.
As I mentioned earlier, this is not a book for the squeamish — there are some scenes with very high ick factors, so trust me and stay away if you can’t stomach such things.
That aside, I wholeheartedly recommend One of Us. It’s disturbing and awful, and also an incredibly powerful read.
Interested in this author? Check out my review of his recent novel, Our War, one of my top reads of 2019.
Title: One of Us
Author: Craig DiLouie
Publication date: July 17, 2018
Length: 300 pages
Genre: Science fiction/horror
Celebrated as the author of five acclaimed historical fantasy novels in the Glamourist series, Mary Robinette Kowal is also well known as an award-winning author of short science fiction and fantasy. Her stories encompass a wide range of themes, a covey of indelible characters, and settings that span from Earth’s past to its near and far futures as well as even farther futures beyond. Alternative history, fairy tales, adventure, fables, science fiction (both hard and soft), fantasy (both epic and cozy)—nothing is beyond the reach of her unique talent. WORD PUPPETS—the first comprehensive collection of Kowal’s extraordinary fiction-includes her two Hugo-winning stories, a Hugo nominee, an original story set in the world of “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” and fourteen other show-stopping tales.
Talk about a fascinating author! Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of the Hugo-winning novel The Calculating Stars (one of my all-time faves) as well as other works. She’s also a highly gifted audiobook narrator (narrating, among other books, the October Daye series and other works by Seanan McGuire). And on top of all that, she’s a professional puppeteer! Yes, a puppeteer. So yeah, given her eclectic talents and interests, I’m not at all surprised that this collection of short stories is varied, unusual, and very, very entertaining.
Eighteen of the nineteen stories in Word Puppets were originally published elsewhere and featured in various anthologies and other publications, with one story (set in the Lady Astronaut world) original to this collection. The publication dates for the stories range between 2005 and 2015.
Overall, I really enjoyed this collection (which is shocking for me, since I usually have an aversion to short stories). Of the stories included in Word Puppets, I strongly preferred the ones leaning more toward science fiction and speculative fiction rather than the stories I’d classify as fantasy.
My particular favorites:
Chrysalis: About an alien race for whom adulthood means the end of serious study, as they metamorphose from larvae to beautiful winged creatures, but leave their scholarship and ambitions in the past.
Rampion: A short but powerful take on the Rapunzel story.
Clockwork Chickadee: About some devious and tricky mechanical animals.
Body Language: A really clever kidnapping/heist story, in which an expert puppeteer works with a gifted AI to save the day. (So awesome!)
Waiting for Rain: A vineyard owner in India deals with family obligations and honor while trying to cope with the financial struggles of having to subscribe to controllable weather.
First Flight: A 105-year-old woman is assigned a time travel task, and uses it to change history.
Evil Robot Monkey: Very short, very good, very surprising.
For Solo Cello, op 12: Wow, this one was great! About a concert cellist, an awful injury, and the even more awful way he might be able to heal.
The White Phoenix Feather: Talk about adventures in dining! This is an action story about a woman who provides dangerous dining experiences to those who can pay. Full of flying dinner knives and hurled soup and flaming baguettes.
Finally, the last three stories are all set within the world of The Calculating Stars:
We Interrupt This Broadcast: This story offers a possible explanation for the events in The Calculating Stars, and it’s frankly creepy. I’m choosing to interpret this story as an early version of events that the author eventually decided didn’t work in the context of the larger series, because otherwise I find it too upsetting.
Rockets Red: A fun interlude on Mars!
The Lady Astronaut of Mars: The story that started it all! I read this story when it was first published on the Tor website in 2013, and absolutely loved it — which is why I was thrilled to death when the author ended up expanding this world into the Lady Astronaut series. This story works as a stand-alone, set decades after the events of The Calculating Stars, and provides a different take on Elma and Nathaniel and the space program. (Fun note: This story was originally written as part of the audiobook collection Rip-off!, in which an assortment of sci-fi authors wrote new stories using the first lines of classic books as a starting point. The Lady Astronaut of Mars begins with the opening line of The Wizard of Oz: Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife.)
All of the stories in Word Puppets are great, in my humble opinion! If you enjoy Mary Robinette Kowal’s writing, or even if you’ve never read her before, give this collection a try. The stories all stand on their own, so if you’re like me and are generally reluctant to commit to reading a book of short stories start to finish, Word Puppets is a nice choice to keep on your nightstand and dip in and out of whenever you feel like reading a story in 15 minutes or less!
Title: Word Puppets
Authors: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Prime Books
Publication date: November 19, 2015
Length: 319 pages
Genre: Short stories/Science fiction/Fantasy
“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.
Paxton never thought he’d be working for Cloud, the giant tech company that’s eaten much of the American economy. Much less that he’d be moving into one of the company’s sprawling live-work facilities.
But compared to what’s left outside, Cloud’s bland chainstore life of gleaming entertainment halls, open-plan offices, and vast warehouses…well, it doesn’t seem so bad. It’s more than anyone else is offering.
Zinnia never thought she’d be infiltrating Cloud. But now she’s undercover, inside the walls, risking it all to ferret out the company’s darkest secrets. And Paxton, with his ordinary little hopes and fears? He just might make the perfect pawn. If she can bear to sacrifice him.
As the truth about Cloud unfolds, Zinnia must gamble everything on a desperate scheme—one that risks both their lives, even as it forces Paxton to question everything about the world he’s so carefully assembled here.
Together, they’ll learn just how far the company will go…to make the world a better place.
Set in the confines of a corporate panopticon that’s at once brilliantly imagined and terrifyingly real, The Warehouse is a near-future thriller about what happens when Big Brother meets Big Business–and who will pay the ultimate price.
Hmm. The synopsis gives the impression that this is a much darker read than it really is. I experienced The Warehouse as a more of a satire than a thriller, for the most part. In The Warehouse, Cloud is everything, and has basically taken over much of what we might consider normal life, including privatizing government agencies such as the FAA and creating their own energy sources. No matter what you want, Cloud can provide, and Cloud seems to be the only source of steady employment left in the US — providing not only a paycheck, but also housing, access to material goods, and even to rare commodities such as hamburgers.
Of course, there’s a price, like a total lack of privacy, having every move tracked, having performance rated in real-time, and having no say over work assignments — not to mention an economic set-up that’s like a throw-back to the days when workers owed their souls to the company store.
We get to know Cloud through the experiences of Paxton and Zinnia, two new employees learning the ropes, each with their own agenda, as well as through the blog entries of Gibson Wells, Cloud’s multi-billionaire founder and CEO, now ailing and attempting to create a record of his legacy before his death.
The plot moves along quickly, but I didn’t altogether connect with the book as a whole. I wasn’t particularly interested in Paxton or Zinnia as individuals, and while the inner workings of Cloud were interesting and disturbing, the book’s uneven tone (is it dark? is it dark humor? is it a thriller?) left me mostly unengaged. I should probably mention that a particular reveal made me want to hurl… but hey, maybe you have a stronger stomach than I do!
Overall, The Warehouse is an entertaining read, but without the solid impact I’d been expecting.
Title: The Warehouse
Author: Rob Hart
Publication date: August 20, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
I also read the graphic novel version of The Handmaid’s Tale, which was stunning and beautiful. There’s no substitute for reading Margaret Atwood’s original novel, but this is a worthy, well-done companion. The artwork is a visual treat — as with the TV series, the use of color is powerful and evocative. Highly recommended.
Anyone else watching Four Weddings and a Funeral on Hulu? I binged seven episodes over the weekend — such fun!
I’ve always loved this Gaiman fairy tale — I’m so excited for the illustrated edition!
What will I be reading during the coming week?
Currently in my hands:
The Warehouse by Rob Hart: A fun look at the possible future of an Amazon-ified America. Interesting so far!
Now playing via audiobook:
How much do I love October Daye? There just aren’t enough words. Doing an audio re-read in preparation for the next new book!