Book Review: The World Gives Way by Marissa Levien

Title: The World Gives Way
Author: Marissa Levien
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: June 15, 2021
Length: 380 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

In a near-future world on the brink of collapse, a young woman born into servitude must seize her own freedom in this glittering debut with a brilliant twist; perfect for fans of Station Eleven, Karen Thompson Walker, and Naomi Alderman.

In fifty years, Myrra will be free.

Until then, she’s a contract worker. Ever since she was five, her life and labor have belonged to the highest bidder on her contract–butchers, laundries, and now the powerful, secretive Carlyles.

But when one night finds the Carlyles dead, Myrra is suddenly free a lot sooner than she anticipated–and at a cost she never could have imagined. Burdened with the Carlyles’ orphaned daughter and the terrible secret they died to escape, she runs. With time running out, Myrra must come face to face with the truth about her world–and embrace what’s left before it’s too late.

A sweeping novel with a darkly glimmering heart, The World Gives Way is an unforgettable portrait of a world in freefall, and the fierce drive to live even at the end of it all.

Based on the synopsis, I expected a dystopian world of class wars and enforced servitude. And yes, that is what’s going on here, but also…

[SPOILER ALERT FOR BIG REVEAL AT END OF FIRST CHAPTER]

[BUT IS IT REALLY A SPOILER IF YOU FIND OUT IN THE FIRST CHAPTER???]

Here’s the spoiler…

The world is a spaceship.

Yup. This is a science fiction novel, and I had no idea before I picked it up!!

Now that that’s out of the way…

Myrra Dal is indentured to the Carlyle family, thanks to a contract signed by her great-grandmother. It’s a work contract that’s binding for not just the original contract signer, but for generations to follow. Myrra is the last in the chain. There are fifty years left on her contract, and then she’ll be free. Of course, this isn’t really a comfort to Myrra: A woman in her 20s, she doesn’t relish the idea of being old by the time she’s released from the contract, but she has no options. Contracts are completely binding and are enforced by the government’s security bureau, which tracks down those who try to escape. Rumor has it that there are executions, but no one really knows for sure.

And back to that spaceship thing: The world of the The World Gives Way is a huge space ship (which the book refers to as “the world the ship” and people just think of as the world). It’s been traveling for centuries, and is expected to reach their planetary destination within fifty years. It’s implied that the Earth was on its way to becoming uninhabitable when the ship was built and launched, and finding a home on board sounds like it was something available to the privileged and wealthy, plus all the workers needed to support a comfortable lifestyle during the lengthy journey.

When I say that the ship is huge, I really mean it. It’s described as being about the size of Switzerland! Which (I looked up for comparison) is equivalent to about Vermont and New Hampshire combined, or closer to home for me, about the size of the Bay Area. (I absolutely couldn’t grasp the size until I had something more familiar to compare it to.)

The world of the ship includes large cities, resort getaways, mountains, deserts, and seas. It really is a world unto itself. For those who can afford it, there are luxuries and extravagances. For everyone else, there’s work and a daily drudge.

As the novel opens, Myrra’s employer, Imogene Carlyle, summons Myrra to the roof of their penthouse. Imogene intends to jump, and wants Myrra to promise to care for her baby, Charlotte. She tells Myrra a huge secret, known only to the top tier of politicians (such as her husband) and government scientists — there’s a breach in the outer hull of the ship, and despite months of study and efforts, there’s no way to repair it. The ship is doomed, expected to breach completely within the next few months. Imogene and Marcus have decided to end their lives now, leaving Charlotte in Myrra’s care. And then she jumps.

Myrra can’t quite believe what’s happened or what she’s just heard, but after searching Marcus’s office, she’s convinced. Taking money from the Carlyle’s safe, she escapes with Charlotte, heading out on the run in search of temporary freedom, alone with the knowledge of the inescapable end of the world.

From here, we also meet Tobias, a rookie cop with a burdened family history who’s assigned the Myrra Dal runaway case as his big opportunity to prove himself. Since no one knows why the Carlyles committed suicide, or if it might even be murder, Myrra is not only an escaped contract worker but also a suspect in their deaths and the kidnapping of their daughter. Tobias and his older partner are hot on Myrra’s trail, following leads that take them to Palmer, an underwater domed city, and onward from there.

Meanwhile, the world begins to show signs of doom. There are more and more frequent “earthquakes”, causing damage, then city-ending destruction, and other strange phenomena as well. Buildings collapse and people are killed, and finally, the government has no choice but to share the horrible news.

But what good does knowing do when there’s no escape? The world the ship is alone is space, years away from any known destination or safe harbor. As the end nears, all Myrra can do is continue her journey, trying to find some sort of solution for Charlotte, and almost inadvertently looking for a semblance of peace for herself.

The World Gives Way has a sense of inevitability about it. As interspersed chapters tell us, the end is indeed coming. These small interludes, in between the chapters focusing on Myrra and Tobias, show us how different parts of the world experience the end and what happens to the people there. It’s awful, because we know all along that there’s only one way the story can end — the world does in fact give way.

That said, Myrra and Tobias’s parallel and then joined journeys are fascinating and moving to read. Their experiences combine elements of an adventure story — daring escapes, near misses, constant danger, clever ruses — with introspective moments about their lives, their pasts, and their hopes, now shown to be out of reach.

As with other books about the end of the world, it can be a very melancholy read, as we know that no matter how much we might wish otherwise, all the characters we meet are doomed. Still, their journey is powerful and and I was very caught up in seeing how their experiences would change them. Would they find peace? Would they make new discoveries? Would they find a way out for Charlotte? I won’t tell here, but I found the ending sad, satisfying, and oddly right, in its own way.

I will say that my brain could never quite grasp the enormity of the world the ship. How can there be a space ship the size of Switzerland? There are only brief descriptions of the overall shape and design of the container of the world — the ship’s hulls, its cylindrical shape, its rotational access — but my mind just never quite got how there could be an entire world, with geographical features like seas and mountains, inside a ship. (That said, I was fine with reading Discworld, in which the entire world travels through space on the back of a giant turtle… but hey, that’s fantasy!)

Despite not being able to come to terms with the size and features of the ship itself, I did enjoy the attempt to picture it all, and couldn’t help but admire the author’s inventiveness in creating such a strange, weird world. Besides the physical aspects of the world, I thought it was also very clever to create such a stratified society, with the ultra-privileged wealthy few dominating the lives of so many contract workers and free working class people. It’s literally an entire world created to support the privilege of those able to afford a new life on a new planet, and the social structure really is fascinating.

The World Gives Way is a little inconsistent in tone, with its ups and downs of action and emotion, but I did like it very much. It wasn’t what I expected, but it ends up really delivering an engrossing and thought-provoking reading experience.

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Book Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Title: Project Hail Mary
Author: Andy Weir
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: May 4, 2021
Length: 496 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission–and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish.

Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.

All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.

His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, he realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Alone on this tiny ship that’s been cobbled together by every government and space agency on the planet and hurled into the depths of space, it’s up to him to conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.

And thanks to an unexpected ally, he just might have a chance.

Part scientific mystery, part dazzling interstellar journey, Project Hail Mary is a tale of discovery, speculation, and survival to rival The Martian–while taking us to places it never dreamed of going.

Wow. This was a great read!

I had a few worries about starting Project Hail Mary. Even though I loved The Martian, I had to stop and think — was I really in the mood for a novel full of equations and science? Could I see myself sticking with it for 500 pages?

Well, thank goodness I decided to jump in. I loved this book!

Right from the start, the suspense is high. The narrator wakes up, and doesn’t know where — or who — he is. He’s greeted by a robotic voice asking him questions, before he falls back to sleep again. As he becomes more and more alert, he starts to recognize some basics: He’s in some sort of bed, he has tubes and medical monitoring devices all over, and he’s being tended by robotic arms. Once he makes it onto his own two feet and takes out the tubes, he’s able to explore his immediately surroundings — an oddly shaped room with a ladder, and two beds containing corpses.

He can’t make much more progress, because the robotic voice won’t open sealed doors for him until he can identify himself… and he still doesn’t know his own name. But as he looks around, bits and pieces start to come back to him.

Over time, he remembers who he is — Ryland Grace, a junior high school science teacher — and figures out that he’s on a space ship of some sort. But why? He’s just a teacher. Granted, he’s a teacher with a Ph.D. who left academia after a poorly-received paper… but still. Why would he be on a spaceship? And why is he here with two dead people? As he’s overset by grief, he realizes that he cared about these people, and that they were his crewmates, but he still doesn’t know why they’re in space, why he was in what appears to have been a lengthy coma, and what it is he’s supposed to be doing.

The computer finishes its boot process and brings up a screen I’ve never seen before. I can tell it means trouble, because the word “TROUBLE” is in large type across the top.

As the book progresses, Grace’s experiences on the ship, the Hail Mary, are interwoven with his returning memories. Through his memories, we learn that Earth faced an extinction-level event, and that the Hail Mary was sent into space to find a solution. Grace was roped into the project early on as a researcher thanks to his expertise in molecular biology, and through his involvement, we get to see the global scientific community’s desperate race to save the planet, all leading up to the Hail Mary‘s launch.

On the ship, Grace is seeking answers, but first he needs to figure out the questions, such as where he is, what he’s looking for, and what tools his has at his disposal. And the biggest questions too — what problem is he trying to solve, and why him? He’s not an astronaut. He’s a science teacher, gosh darn it! (His avoidance of swear words is a funny running bit throughout the book…)

As in The Martian, author Andy Weir uses very smart people to solve problems with SCIENCE. And also as in The Martian, there were plenty of times when the science whooooooooshed over my head. But that’s okay. Even if I’m not up to speed on measuring gravity and can’t explain relativity and infrared light, I followed enough to stay engaged and intrigued and, I admit it, more than a little impressed.

Finding a spaceship “somewhere outside the Tau Ceti system” is no small task. Imagine being given a rowboat and told to find a toothpick “somewhere in the ocean”. It’s like that, but nowhere as easy.

Ryland Grace is a fun main character, even in the direst of dire straits, so even as he’s panicking or confused or feeling angry or hopeless, he’s always entertaining and never dull. He’s quippy and sarcastic, and when he has an idea, it lets us as readers feel like we’re on the sidelines watching a master in action.

“Coffee.”

The arms dutifully hand me a cup of coffee. It’s kind of cool that the arms will hand me a cup when there’s gravity, but a pouch when there isn’t. I’ll remember this when writing up the Hail Mary‘s Yelp review.

I’m sure plenty of reviews are going to talk about a particular character and how utterly amazing he is… and yes, he is utterly amazing… and I would have been pissed to know much about him in advance or how he fits into the story, so I won’t say anything! But trust me, the story takes a turn I didn’t expect, then builds on it in really fantastic ways, and I loved every moment.

“I am happy. You no die. Let’s save planets!”

Start to finish, Project Hail Mary is an exciting, edge-of-your-seat read with lots of smart science and some unforgettable characters, as well as an ending that… well, I won’t say, but WOW.

I’m over the moon (ha! space joke!) after having read Project Hail Mary. This is going to be THE hot book for May — don’t miss it!

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Book Review: The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: The Relentless Moon
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: July 14, 2020
Length: 544 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Mary Robinette Kowal continues her award-winning Lady Astronaut series, which began with The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, with The Relentless Moon.

The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and sabotage plague the space program. The IAC’s goal of getting as many people as possible off Earth before it becomes uninhabitable is being threatened.

Elma York is on her way to Mars, but the Moon colony is still being established. Her friend and fellow Lady Astronaut Nicole Wargin is thrilled to be one of those pioneer settlers, using her considerable flight and political skills to keep the program on track. But she is less happy that her husband, the Governor of Kansas, is considering a run for President.

The Lady Astronaut series is an absolute favorite, so I’m thrilled that I finally read my copy of The Relentless Moon.

In the first two books in the series (The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky), we’re introduced into an alternate version of 1950s and 1960s America, in which a catastrophic meteor strike has wreaked havoc on the world. Scientific analysis shows that the planet is on its way to becoming uninhabitable due to the climate change that followed the meteor, and this brings about a global focus on developing a space program. The future of humanity rests on finding a new home for people among the stars.

In books one and two, scientist Elma York is the main character. Here in book #3, The Relentless Moon, a supporting character from the earlier books takes the lead role.

Nicole Wargin is a glamorous politician’s wife. She’s also one hell of a pilot, a former WASP who entered the space program as one of the initial women allowed into astronaut training. Nicole is beautiful, polished, and full of grace, always knowing the right thing to say to the right people. She’s also much more than she appears to be, with secrets from her professional past as well as her own personal struggles that she usually manages to mask.

As the book opens, Nicole is about to join the next launch to the Moon. Her husband Kenneth, governor of Kansas, is poised to announce his candidacy for President. On Earth, protests by the group Earth First are becoming more dangerous and violent day by day — demanding that the space program be abandoned so that government dollars can be focused on helping those who lost so much due to the meteor, and those who — whether for lack of privilege, access, or health — will never be candidates for traveling into space.

Despite the threats, Nicole journeys to the Moon, but things go badly, quickly. The landing mechanisms are damaged, forcing a life-threatening crash landing. It could be an accident… but it could also be sabotage. More problems arise, as small mechanical problems and power outages escalate into situations of increasing danger. Nicole is assigned to help determine if there truly is Earth First sabotage going on, and if so, to stop the perpetrators before the damage becomes catastrophic.

At 500+ pages, The Relentless Moon is a long book, but it flew by. I was completely engrossed in the discussions of life in space and on the Moon, as well as the whodunnit aspects of the hunt to find the saboteurs.

That alone might make for dry reading, but Nicole is a fabulous character with so many layers, and it’s getting to see beneath her surface that makes this a terrific book. She’s smart, sophisticated, and experienced, yet also vulnerable in unexpected ways. Her perspective on the space program, her colleagues and friends, and the pressures of being a public figure are all fascinating, and her personal struggles and tragedies in this book are incredibly moving.

The events of The Relentless Moon happen in the same timeline as those in The Fated Sky, so here, Nicole and her fellow astronauts on the lunar base hear about some of the events from the earlier book as they happen, and we get a different look at what happened and why, as well as information that Elma was not given in The Fated Sky. I love how these two books work together.

A final reveal at the end of The Relentless Moon made me so happy. That’s all I’ll say about it!

The fourth book, The Derivative Base, is due out in 2022, and I don’t want to wait that long! I can’t wait to see how the author wraps up this incredibly masterful and exciting series.

Shelf Control #243: The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

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!

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Title: The City in the Middle of the Night
Author: Charlie Jane Anders
Published: 2019
Length: 366 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Would you give up everything to change the world?

Humanity clings to life on January–a colonized planet divided between permanently frozen darkness on one side, and blazing endless sunshine on the other.

Two cities, built long ago in the meager temperate zone, serve as the last bastions of civilization–but life inside them is just as dangerous as the uninhabitable wastelands outside.

Sophie, a young student from the wrong side of Xiosphant city, is exiled into the dark after being part of a failed revolution. But she survives–with the help of a mysterious savior from beneath the ice.

Burdened with a dangerous, painful secret, Sophie and her ragtag group of exiles face the ultimate challenge–and they are running out of time.

Welcome to the City in the Middle of the Night 

How and when I got it:

I bought this book in February 2019, as soon as it was released.

Why I want to read it:

I’ve read the author’s previous novel, All the Birds in the Sky, and loved it. I’ve also been a fan of her writing from the io9 website — so of course, I had to have this book as soon as it came out!

It sounds like a very cool world, with one city always in sun and one always in darkness. I really do want to read this, and there’s no real reason why I haven’t already, except for the age-old problem of too many books and not enough time.

Have you read this book? Would you want to?

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 or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Audiobook Review: The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut, #2) by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut, #2)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrator: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: August 21, 2018
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 14 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Fated Sky continued the grand sweep of alternate history begun in The Calculating Stars. It is 1961, and the International Aerospace Coalition has established a colony on the moon. Elma York, the noted Lady Astronaut, is working on rotation, flying shuttles on the moon and returning regularly to Earth.

But humanity must get a foothold on Mars. The first exploratory mission is being planned, and none of the women astronauts is on the crew list. The International Aerospace Coalition has grave reservations about sending their “Lady Astronauts” on such a dangerous mission. The problem with that is the need for midjourney navigation calculations. The new electronic computation machines are not reliable and not easily programmed. It might be okay for a backup, but there will have to be a human computer on board. And all the computers are women.

I read The Fated Sky a year ago, but apparently didn’t write a review at the time. Don’t ask me why! But in any case, I’ve just completed a re-read via audiobook, and loved it all over again… so I think it’s about time to share my thoughts.

The Fated Sky is the follow-up to The Calculating Stars, which I love, love, love, love, love. A second book in a series is never quite as breathtaking as the first, in my humble opinion, because there’s already a familiarity with the world presented in the book. And so, while The Fated Sky didn’t blow me away the way The Calculating Stars did, it did keep me engaged in new and different ways, and was an altogether satisfying return to the world of the Lady Astronaut.

To get anyone new to this series caught up, here’s what you really need to know: It’s been about 10 years since a devastating meteor struck Earth, resulting in global catastrophe. The planet faces accelerating climate change, which will eventually become so extreme that human life on Earth will no longer be possible. In these dire circumstances, the international community comes together to pursue space exploration. After all, if people can’t live on Earth, they’ll have to live off Earth.

In book 1, we met Dr. Elma York, brilliant mathemetician and physicist, as well as a top-notch pilot who flew with the WASPs during WWII. Elma is married to Dr. Nathaniel York, an equally brilliant engineer. As the space program gets underway, Nathaniel becomes one of the lead engineers, while Elma pursues her dream of becoming an astronaut. It’s simply fascinating, and I urge you to read the book if you haven’t yet!

In The Fated Sky, we pick up in the early 1960s. Humans have established a colony on the moon, and the next target is Mars. The first Mars mission is about 18 months away — but not all on Earth are happy about the space program.

Earth Firsters are angry — they believe that space travel and colonization will end up being a privilege for the elite. How are the people left behind supposed to survive? With poorer areas still suffering the aftermath of the meteor’s destruction, with food, housing, and medical shortages, they feel that the country’s resources are being unfairly allocated to the space program. The protesters are becoming more outspoken, to the point of violence, in expressing their dissatisfaction.

Elma gained fame in book #1 as “the Lady Astronaut”, and when the IAC (International Aerospace Coalition) assigns her to the Mars mission, it’s clearly with an eye on public relations. But with this assignment, Elma replaces a dear friend who’d already been training for the mission, so she’s not only behind in her training but also facing resentment and hostility from the other crew members who see her as an interloper taking someone else’s place.

The Fated Sky takes place during the preparation for the Mars expedition, as well as the months of the actual journey to Mars. And while the science is absolutely fascinating, it’s Elma’s personal struggles and challenges that make it all so real and so deeply affecting.

Elma is a brilliant scientist. She’s also a devoted wife, a Southern Jew, a woman in a man’s world, and a white woman who’s not always as aware of her privilege as she should be. In the world of the Lady Astronaut books, the social unrest and upheavals of the real-world 1960s has largely been moved forward a decade along with the scientific advancements. We see women struggling for opportunity, even while being expected to maintain traditional standards of femininity (like always having their hair and makeup done before public appearances and deferring to their male counterparts even when they have superior knowledge or technical expertise. Not to mention that the female astronauts seem to be the only ones assigned laundry duty on their space mission. Argh.)

Racial inequality and civil rights feature much more prominently in The Fated Sky than they did in The Calculating Stars. There’s suspicion of the Black astronauts and whether they’re conspiring with Earth Firsters. Mission Control assigns them less prestigious assignments during the Mars expedition than their white colleagues, even when they’re clearly the better choice, which leads to disastrous results. And in myriad other, more subtle ways, the matter of race permeates the crew relations, so that even someone as well-intentioned as Elma ends up causing offense, until she’s finally told point-blank:

“One thing: Don’t explain my experience to me. It’s annoying as hell.”

On top of all this, one of the expedition crew members is a white South African, and remember, this is the early 1960’s — he’s so full of apartheid-era hate that it’s incredible that he was actually allowed to participate in the mission, and if not for international pressure related to South Africa’s financial backing of the IAC, he probably would not have been. By showing the Earth protests, the more subtle racial profiling and preferences on board the ship, and the blatant racism of this one particular astronaut. the author evokes a time of change and volatility — and sadly, exposes issues that still permeate society today.

Elma struggles too with her mental health. She’s suffered from anxiety for most of her life, which she’s worked hard to control. Her coping mechanisms are put to the test during the mission in response to the ongoing hostility she experiences from her fellow astronauts early on, especially as she realizes that she’s the only crew member who doesn’t really fit in and isn’t completely trusted.

I think maybe one of the reasons I had time loving this book the first time I read it had to do with how entangled my feelings were with Elma’s experiences. I felt so awful reading about Elma’s struggles and personal pain and how terrible she often felt. So it’s not that the book isn’t excellent — just maybe that I become overly invested in Elma as a person and didn’t like seeing her feel bad!

Anyhoo… the audiobook is such a treat! Author Mary Robinette Kowal is the narrator, and she’s a total pro. (She also narrates Seanan McGuire’s October Daye audiobooks, and does an amazing job with them.) She clearly knows these characters and what makes them tick, and I could feel Elma’s personality, as well as many of the other characters’, coming through so clearly. Fabulous.

I love the world of the Lady Astronaut, which the author first introduced in her short story, The Lady Astronaut of Mars (which actually takes place many years after the events of the books, but provides some additional context — you can read the story for free here.)

Listening to the audiobook was a perfect way for me to revisit the story of The Fated Sky. The 3rd book in the series, The Relentless Moon, will be released in July, and I absolutely can’t wait to read it!

The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and sabotage plague the space program. The IAC’s goal of getting as many people as possible off Earth before it becomes uninhabitable is being threatened.

Elma York is on her way to Mars, but the Moon colony is still being established. Her friend and fellow Lady Astronaut Nicole Wargin is thrilled to be one of those pioneer settlers, using her considerable flight and political skills to keep the program on track. But she is less happy that her husband, the Governor of Kansas, is considering a run for President.

Book Review: Hella by David Gerrold

Title: Hella
Author: David Gerrold
Publisher: DAW
Publication date: June 16, 2020
Print length: 448 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A master of science fiction introduces a world where everything is large and the problems of survival even larger in this exciting new novel.

Hella is a planet where everything is oversized—especially the ambitions of the colonists.

The trees are mile-high, the dinosaur herds are huge, and the weather is extreme—so extreme, the colonists have to migrate twice a year to escape the blistering heat of summer and the atmosphere-freezing cold of winter.

Kyle is a neuro-atypical young man, emotionally challenged, but with an implant that gives him real-time access to the colony’s computer network, making him a very misunderstood savant. When an overburdened starship arrives, he becomes the link between the established colonists and the refugees from a ravaged Earth.

The Hella colony is barely self-sufficient. Can it stand the strain of a thousand new arrivals, bringing with them the same kinds of problems they thought they were fleeing?

Despite the dangers to himself and his family, Kyle is in the middle of everything—in possession of the most dangerous secret of all. Will he be caught in a growing political conspiracy? Will his reawakened emotions overwhelm his rationality? Or will he be able to use his unique ability to prevent disaster?

Hella is a hella big place. It’s a large planet where, due to lower gravity as compared to Earth, living things grow to crazy huge size. And there are dinosaurs. And they’re HELLA gigantic. Herbivorous leviathans migrate across the plains, slowly stomping over everything in their path, and hungry carnosaurs attack them in groups, feasting for days on the huge carcasses that they manage to bring down.

Hella is not the most hospitable environment for humans, but these few thousand colonists are there to make it home. It’s already been a hundred years since the First Hundred made landfall, and since then, additional migrations of humans have helped the colony to grow and expand.

Caution is the highest priority. Everything is studied and planned for, because it’s crucial that the human population avoid cross-contamination with the Hella natural world. All food is grown within the enclosed colonies, and care is taken never to allow human-produced microbes or plants out into the planet’s own natural environment.

We get to know the world of Hella through main character Kyle, a neuro-atypical teen (roughly 13 years old in Earth years, or 5 years old in Hella years). Kyle is smart and detail-oriented, devoted to his family, but has challenges understanding nuance and reading other people’s emotions, doesn’t like to be touched, and is unable to leave a topic until he’s shared everything (and I do mean EVERYTHING) he knows about it. He’s gifted and his talents can benefit the colony, but there are some who view Kyle as a freak and treat him that way.

While the colony seems to function on the principle of communal service toward the greater good, there are those who thirst for power, just like in any human society. When the chief power-hungry representative gets an opportunity to seize control, he takes it.

Hella is an interesting book, although I have some issues with it. At the beginning, the focus is on getting to know the planet and the colony. Kyle goes out on an expedition for the first time, and through his experiences, we get to see the plants, trees, strange creatures, and huge dinosaurs that roam the land.

We’re also introduced to the daily routines, the concept of work that’s at the foundation of this human society, and the myriad factors that go into maintaining safety and self-sufficiency.

We learn more about how human society has changed and evolved over the years since our own time as well. For example, gender is fluid and easily changeable. Kyle’s mother was born biologically male, but changed to female so she could experience pregnancy (which is in itself a fairly unusually choice, as many people prefer to have their babies bottle-grown rather than womb-grown). Kyle himself was born biologically female, but decided to change when his older brother did, largely because he too wanted to be able to pee standing up. Changing doesn’t have to be permanent; later in the book, Kyle has cause to rethink his decision and considers changing again in order to please his boyfriend (which is a frustrating reason to change, but fortunately, his boyfriend sees it that way too.)

By the second half of the book, the emphasis is less on the natural world outside the human habitats and much more on the political maneuvering within the human colony. There’s a conspiracy afoot, and Kyle and his friends may be in the best position to try to stop it. There’s plenty of danger and excitement as they chase through tunnels, hack networks, and try to avoid or defeat the bad guys.

My feelings about Hella are mixed. First off — cool planet! I really liked learning about this world, its dangers and its beauty, and what it takes for humans to adapt and survive there.

But, there’s just so much time spent with Kyle on the details! Granted, this is a piece of who Kyle is, but his need to go down the rabbit hole chasing every detail doesn’t always make for great reading, and I felt that the plot tended to bog down in detours.

At almost 450 pages, this book is longer than it needs to be. I think if 50-75 pages had been trimmed, the pacing might have improved, keeping the plot more on track and letting momentum build. As is, I didn’t truly feel caught up or swept along by the story until the 2nd half, and that’s too bad, as there are elements of a great story here.

As I said, I did really enjoy the (literal) world-building the author accomplishes in introducing us to the human society in this large and frightening world, and explaining how they find ways to improve their resources bit by bit, even while always protecting themselves from the dangers just outside their fences.

I was a bit startled looking at the author’s Goodreads profile when I realized that some of the characters in Hella appear in his earlier works. This made me wonder how much I was missing and whether a familiarity with other books would enhance the reading experience.

This is me being persnickety, but the author’s writing style got on my nerve in places. He has a tendency to throw commas into sentences to connect clauses. Random example:

Outside, the northeast slope was a rumpled landscape, hundreds of layers of lava flows had hardened here.

Just a little pet peeve of mine. Use a period! Separate your sentences! Or, you know, give semicolons a try!

Hella has a conclusion that ties up the major action of the story, but there’s certainly room for more storytelling about the colony, its people, and its politics — plus, it would be fun to get to see what happens next for Kyle, his family, and his friends.

I do recommend Hella, but wished that it was just a little tighter and faster overall. Still, it’s a fun and engaging story set in a really fascinating world, and I’m glad I read it.

A novella two-fer: Heartwarming holiday tale and nuns in space

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.

The Monday Check-In ~ 8/12/2019

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life. 

Later this week, I’m going under the knife! Nothing too dramatic — I’m having orthopedic surgery on my left hand. It should be a quick in-and-out procedure, home the same day, and then in a cast or splint for several weeks. I’ve been assured that I’ll still be able to type afterward, so yay for that. Still, I imagine that I’ll be less active than usual online for about a week or two, so if I’m not around much, now you know why!

 

What did I read during the last week?

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han: Enjoyable YA, but not nearly as captivating as the Lara Jean books. I liked it enough to want to read the rest of the trilogy, for sure.

Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center: A lovely, powerful story. My review is here.

Pop Culture:

I spent the weekend binge-watching season 4 of Veronica Mars on Hulu. As I write this, I’m about to watch the season finale, and I’m terrified that something very bad is going to happen to one of the characters I love. Speaking of love… man, do I love this show. I’m highly tempted (meaning I’m not even going to fight the urge) to go back and start again from season 1. VMars for the win!

Fresh Catch:

A couple of used book orders arrived this week:

Plus, the eagerly awaited 4th and final book in the Custard Protocol series was released this week — and yes, I bought myself a brand-new hardcover edition, even though I’ll probably end up listening to the audiobook (since that’s how I enjoyed the other three books in the series).

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Our War by Craig DiLouie: Disturbing because it’s all so plausible. I hope to wrap up in the next few days and will share my thoughts. This is definitely one that needs to be discussed!

Now playing via audiobook:

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal: I love, love, love this book. This is a re-read, and I’m savoring every moment of the excellent audiobook version (narrated by the author, who is an amazing audiobook narrator, for her own books as well as many others — including the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire).

Ongoing reads:

Two ongoing book group read right now:

  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens — our current classic selection, reading and discussing two chapters per week.
  • Virgins by Diana Gabaldon: Our newest group read — a novella set during Jamie Fraser’s teen years.

So many books, so little time…

boy1

The Monday Check-In ~ 8/5/2019

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

What did I read during the last week?

Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar: Intricate science fiction involving alternate realities. My review is here.

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh: Fascinating story of space exploration and interplanetary travel. My review is here.

Anne of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery: I finished this audiobook over the weekend. I didn’t love it quite so much as the earlier books in the series. I wasn’t quite prepared to spend so much time focusing on Anne’s children rather than on Anne herself. I do intend to continue with the last two books in the series, but I have a few other things to listen to first.

Fresh Catch:

Oh boy. I really over-indulged this week! I bought myself copies of…

Two “coffee-table” books:

And a couple of others to read:

Aaaaand, I also received a couple of ARCs from Orbit (thank you!):

Now if only I had time to actually read all of these…

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han: After some heavier reads, it’s nice to take a break with fluffy YA.

Now playing via audiobook:

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal: I loved this book so much when I read it last summer! I need to read the sequel, so I decided to do an audiobook re-read first.

Ongoing reads:

Two ongoing book group read right now:

  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens — our current classic selection, reading and discussing two chapters per week.
  • Virgins by Diana Gabaldon: Our newest group read — a novella set during Jamie Fraser’s teen years.

So many books, so little time…

boy1

Shelf Control #175: SPACE!!

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.pngSwitching things up a bit this week, I thought I’d include THREE books on one theme: SPACE! I’ve always loved reading about space exploration and the development of the space program (and don’t even get me started on all the variety of fiction — historical, science fiction, contemporary fiction, even horror — set in the context of space). In terms of non-fiction space books, I’ve read a bunch, and I seem to keep accumulating them! Here are three from my shelves that I’ve picked up over the years, but still haven’t read.

Title: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
Author: Chris Hadfield
Published: 2013
Length: 295 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Colonel Chris Hadfield has spent decades training as an astronaut and has logged nearly 4000 hours in space. During this time he has broken into a Space Station with a Swiss army knife, disposed of a live snake while piloting a plane, and been temporarily blinded while clinging to the exterior of an orbiting spacecraft. The secret to Col. Hadfield’s success-and survival-is an unconventional philosophy he learned at NASA: prepare for the worst-and enjoy every moment of it.

In An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Col. Hadfield takes readers deep into his years of training and space exploration to show how to make the impossible possible. Through eye-opening, entertaining stories filled with the adrenaline of launch, the mesmerizing wonder of spacewalks, and the measured, calm responses mandated by crises, he explains how conventional wisdom can get in the way of achievement-and happiness. His own extraordinary education in space has taught him some counterintuitive lessons: don’t visualize success, do care what others think, and always sweat the small stuff.

You might never be able to build a robot, pilot a spacecraft, make a music video or perform basic surgery in zero gravity like Col. Hadfield. But his vivid and refreshing insights will teach you how to think like an astronaut, and will change, completely, the way you view life on Earth-especially your own.

 

Title: Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut
Author: Mike Mullane
Published: 2006
Length: 382 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

On February 1, 1978, the first group of space shuttle astronauts, twenty-nine men and six women, were introduced to the world. Among them would be history makers, including the first American woman and the first African American in space. This assembly of astronauts would carry NASA through the most tumultuous years of the space shuttle program. Four would die on Challenger.

USAF Colonel Mike Mullane was a member of this astronaut class, and Riding Rockets is his story — told with a candor never before seen in an astronaut’s memoir. Mullane strips the heroic veneer from the astronaut corps and paints them as they are — human. His tales of arrested development among military flyboys working with feminist pioneers and post-doc scientists are sometimes bawdy, often hilarious, and always entertaining.

Mullane vividly portrays every aspect of the astronaut experience — from telling a female technician which urine-collection condom size is a fit; to walking along a Florida beach in a last, tearful goodbye with a spouse; to a wild, intoxicating, terrifying ride into space; to hearing “Taps” played over a friend’s grave. Mullane is brutally honest in his criticism of a NASA leadership whose bungling would precipitate the Challenger disaster.

Riding Rockets is a story of life in all its fateful uncertainty, of the impact of a family tragedy on a nine-year-old boy, of the revelatory effect of a machine called Sputnik, and of the life-steering powers of lust, love, and marriage. It is a story of the human experience that will resonate long after the call of “Wheel stop.”

 

Title: Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon
Author: Craig Nelson
Published: 2009
Length: 404 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

A richly detailed and dramatic account of one of the greatest achievements of humankind

At 9:32 A.M. on July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 rocket launched in the presence of more than a million spectators who had gathered to witness a truly historic event. It carried Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins to the last frontier of human imagination: the moon.

Rocket Men is the thrilling story of the moon mission, and it restores the mystery and majesty to an event that may have become too familiar for most people to realize what a stunning achievement it represented in planning, technology, and execution.

Through interviews, twenty-three thousand pages of NASA oral histories, and declassified CIA documents on the space race, Craig Nelson re-creates a vivid and detailed account of the Apollo 11 mission. From the quotidian to the scientific to the magical, readers are taken right into the cockpit with Aldrin and Armstrong and behind the scenes at Mission Control.

Rocket Men is the story of a twentieth-century pilgrimage; a voyage into the unknown motivated by politics, faith, science, and wonder that changed the course of history.

Other great space reads:

Since I’m talking space, I thought I’d mention three terrific books I’ve read on the subject, one long ago and two others more recently:

  • The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe: A modern classic. If you want to know more, check out Barbara’s recent post at Book Club Mom!
  • Packing for Mars by Mary Roach: The science of space travel, presented in (sometimes) gross detail, with tons of hilarity.
  • Spaceman by Mike Massimino: A terrific memoir, both inspiring and moving.

Do you have any great non-fiction books about space to recommend? Inquiring minds want to know!

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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!
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Have fun!