Book Review: The Ninth Metal by Benjamin Percy

Title: The Ninth Metal (The Comet Cycle, #1)
Author: Benjamin Percy
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: June 1, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

IT BEGAN WITH A COMET…

At first, people gazed in wonder at the radiant tear in the sky. A year later, the celestial marvel became a planetary crisis when Earth spun through the comet’s debris field and the sky rained fire.

The town of Northfall, Minnesota will never be the same. Meteors cratered hardwood forests and annihilated homes, and among the wreckage a new metal was discovered. This “omnimetal” has properties that make it world-changing as an energy source…and a weapon.

John Frontier—the troubled scion of an iron-ore dynasty in Northfall—returns for his sister’s wedding to find his family embroiled in a cutthroat war to control mineral rights and mining operations. His father rightly suspects foreign leaders and competing corporations of sabotage, but the greatest threat to his legacy might be the U.S. government. Physicist Victoria Lennon was recruited by the Department of Defense to research omnimetal, but she finds herself trapped in a laboratory of nightmares. And across town, a rookie cop is investigating a murder that puts her own life in the cross-hairs. She will have to compromise her moral code to bring justice to this now lawless community.

In this gut-punch of a novel, the first in his Comet Cycle, Ben Percy lays bare how a modern-day gold rush has turned the middle of nowhere into the center of everything, and how one family—the Frontiers—hopes to control it all.

In The Ninth Metal, the first book in the new trilogy The Comet Cycle by Benjamin Percy, what starts as a beautiful phenomenon turns into a planet-changing event. As the Cain Comet passes by Earth, people everywhere gaze at this once-in-a-lifetime sight. But a year later, the Earth’s orbit takes it through the debris field trailing the comet, and suddenly, life on Earth is permanently changed.

The book only hints at the global implications and the variety of natural disasters that occur in the wake of this event. Instead, The Ninth Metal restricts its focus to the town of Northfall, Minnesota — a dying mining town whose riches have been dwindling, until the debris strike bombards the area with meteors containing a previously unknown element. Known as omnimetal, this ninth metal has properties that science can barely begin to understand.

But one thing is clear. Omnimetal has huge energy-storage and generating abilities, and suddenly, Northfall is once again a boomtown. As the book opens, it’s been five years since the arrival of omnimetal. The population of Northfall has exploded, and a power grab is underway between two massively wealthy energy companies, each of which wants to control the resources completely.

Frontier is the locally based company, run by the powerful Frontier family, but they’re threatened by the encroachment of Black Dog Energy, a Texas oil firm that’s willing to use any means necessary to control the world’s supply of omnimetal.

Meanwhile, a group of cult-like worshippers smoke and snort ground-up omnimetal, living in a sort of trance with eyes glowing blue, celebrating the omnimetal’s powers and becoming wraithlike addicts with a religious devotion. And in a facility so secret that it’s not on any map, a Department of Defense research facility carries out inhumane experiments in the name of science and national security, trapping two unwilling participants in a never-ending, escalating series of tests and trials.

The Ninth Metal is small in scope, in that it’s centered completely on the area in and around Northfall. Yet we also get hints that the entire world has been changed in incomprehensible ways, as characters hear or repeat stories about weird things happening around the globe.

At times, the corporate warfare between Frontier and Black Dog reads like something out of Dallas, with competing conglomerates trying to gobble up the resources (and the power and the money) all for themselves, relying on threats, extortion, violence, and outright murder to get what they want.

But also, The Ninth Metal is top-notch speculative fiction, taking small town USA and injecting it with powerful forces beyond human comprehension, turning daily life on its head and bringing unknowable powers into what was once a quiet, dull, ordinary little place.

The characters are varied and interesting, from the members of the Frontier family to the local rookie cop to the young boy who just wants his freedom. The plot is compact and fast-paced, and between heists and kidnappings and bombings and the weird uses of omnimetal, there’s never a dull moment.

And hey — the evil science labs and secret experiments totally gave me a Stranger Things vibe!

I love that the trilogy of The Comet Cycle will be published on such a tight schedule, with the next two books already scheduled for publication in 2022.

From what I understand, the 2nd book (and presumably the 3rd as well?) tells a different story about the comet’s affect on Earth, focusing on different characters, a different setting, and a new set of potentially deadly circumstances. I am so there for it! I absolutely want to continue these books, and will be waiting eagerly for #2, The Unfamiliar Garden.

Synopsis for The Unfamiliar Garden:

From award-winning author Benjamin Percy comes the second novel in his grippingly original sci-fi series, The Comet Cycle, in which a passing comet has caused irreversible change to the growth of fungi, spawning a dangerous, invasive species in the Pacific Northwest that threatens to control the lives of humans and animals alike.

It began with a comet. They called it Cain, a wandering star that passed by Earth, illuminating the night with a swampy green light and twinning the sky by day with two suns. A year later, Earth spun through the debris field the comet left behind. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of meteors plummeted into the atmosphere, destroying swaths of electrical grids, leaving shores of beaches filled with deceased sea life, and setting acres of land ablaze. It was then, they say, that the sky fell. It was then that Jack lost Mia.

Five years after the disappearance of his daughter, Jack has fallen. Once an accomplished professor of botany, he’s now a shell of a man who has all but withdrawn from life. Nora, his ex-wife, has thrown herself into her investigative work. Separately, they have each bandaged over the hole Mia left behind.

Just as Jack is uncovering a new form of deadly parasitic fungus in his lab, Nora is assigned to investigate the cases of ritualistic murders dotting Seattle. The rituals consist of etchings—crosshatches are carved into bodies and eyes are scooped out of their sockets. The attackers appear to be possessed.

It only takes a moment—for a sickness to infect, for a person to be killed, for a child to be lost. When Nora enlists Jack to identify the cause of this string of vicious deaths, Jack is quick to help. Together, they fight to keep their moments—the unexpected laughter, the extraordinary discoveries, the chance that Mia could come back home—but they find that what they’re up against defies all logic, and what they have to do to save the world will change every life forever.

Sounds amazing, right?

Benjamin Percy is the author of one of the most unique (and very icky) horror/alternate history books I’ve read, The Dead Lands. If you haven’t read it yet, give it a try! This is an author who knows how to tell a story, create fascinating characters, and scare the heck out of his readers.

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Book Review: The Apocalypse Seven by Gene Doucette

Title: The Apocalypse Seven
Author: Gene Doucette
Publisher: John Joseph Adams
Publication date: May 25, 2021
Length: 363 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley (plus a Goodreads giveaway!)
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whatever.

The whateverpocalypse. That’s what Touré, a twenty-something Cambridge coder, calls it after waking up one morning to find himself seemingly the only person left in the city. Once he finds Robbie and Carol, two equally disoriented Harvard freshmen, he realizes he isn’t alone, but the name sticks: Whateverpocalypse. But it doesn’t explain where everyone went. It doesn’t explain how the city became overgrown with vegetation in the space of a night. Or how wild animals with no fear of humans came to roam the streets.

Add freakish weather to the mix, swings of temperature that spawn tornadoes one minute and snowstorms the next, and it seems things can’t get much weirder. Yet even as a handful of new survivors appear—Paul, a preacher as quick with a gun as a Bible verse; Win, a young professional with a horse; Bethany, a thirteen-year-old juvenile delinquent; and Ananda, an MIT astrophysics adjunct—life in Cambridge, Massachusetts gets stranger and stranger.

The self-styled Apocalypse Seven are tired of questions with no answers. Tired of being hunted by things seen and unseen. Now, armed with curiosity, desperation, a shotgun, and a bow, they become the hunters. And that’s when things truly get weird.

I found myself mumbling or exclaiming “WTF???” practically once a chapter, start to finish, in this incredibly entertaining and mind-blowing novel of the apocalypse.

Or, as Touré puts it, the whateverpocalypse.

Seven seemingly random strangers wake up to find that they’re alone in a world suddenly overrun by plant life and wild animals — in what was formerly an urban college town. At Harvard and at MIT, several individuals wake up in confusion. Robbie wakes up in his dorm room bed, frantic that he overslept on the first day of freshman classes, only to discover that his technology doesn’t work, he has no idea what time it is, the clothes in the dresser drawers aren’t his, and there’s absolutely no one else around.

Before long he meets fellow student Carol, a blind young woman unsuccessfully trying to locate her dog, and the two then meet free-spirited Toure. Meanwhile, MIT astrophysicist Ananda wakes up at her office desk, confused by why she’s wearing her “Monday clothes” on a Tuesday, teen-ager Bethany wakes up in her suburban family home to see the shrine her family has erected in her memory, pastor Paul leaves his isolated New Hampshire mountaintop chapel when he realizes he’s all alone, and tough-girl Win mounts a horse to head toward a city and try to find other people.

They quickly realize that they’re the only people in the greater Boston area, and most likely in the world, but they have no idea why. How could all these trees and plants have grown so rapidly? Why are there deer and boar and wolves roaming and/or rampaging through the city streets?

Survival is the first issue to address, and initially, Robbie, Toure, and Carol are in rough shape, with no practical skills between them. As they connect with the others and explore local resources, they form plans, raid local malls to stock up on tools and clothing, figure out which parts of campus are safe (and where they’re most likely to run into packs of slavering wolves), and generally start to squeak their way toward something like building a way of staying alive.

The question remains, though: Why did they survive, and no one else did? What made them different? What actually happened to the human population of earth?

Don’t look at me — I’m not giving a thing away! Hints and odd facts and anomalies come to light along the way, but it’s only in the last 20% or so that the characters start to arrive at some real answers. I gotta be honest — even having finished the book, I’m not sure I completely get it, but I think it’s more a question of my brain not being able to fully follow the WTF-ness of it all than it not making sense. There is definitely an answer — but it’s kind of bent my brain into a pretzel, and it’ll take me some time to untangle it all.

There’s so much to love about The Apocalypse Seven. I’m often put off by books that focus on a group coming together, because many times the characters are introduced too quickly or in too large a chunk for them to really differentiate themselves as individuals. Not so in this book — each of the seven are special and memorable, with distinct personalities and backstories and abilities, and I really appreciated how well described they all are.

I also really enjoyed the setting. Who would have thought that a college town like Cambridge would offer so many resources for hiding, finding survival gear, and making a safe(ish) long-term shelter? The use of the campuses and their resources is really ingenious, and I was charmed by the characters’ inventiveness.

It’s also worth noting that this book — despite being about the near-total extinction of the human race — can be really, really funny. The characters are clever and the banter is crisp, and certain elements are just ridiculous enough to make me laugh out loud (or feel quietly charmed).

I really, really want other people to read this book! First of all, it’s so enjoyable and mind-warpy, frightening in its own way — but really, how seriously dire can the end of the world feel when characters use words like “whateverpocalypse”? Beyond the terrific reading experience, I want people I know to read The Apocalypse Seven so someone can explain the ending to me and tell me if we understand it the same way!!

Really and truly, though, The Apocalypse Seven is a terrific read, and I had a great time zipping my way through it.

Big shout-out and thank you to the publisher and Goodreads — I won a copy in a Goodreads giveaway!

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

Title: The Fall of Koli (Ramparts trilogy, #3)
Author: M. R. Carey
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: March 23, 2021
Length: 560 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Fall of Koli is the third and final novel in the breathtakingly original Rampart trilogy – set in a strange and deadly world of our own making.

The world that is lost will come back to haunt us . . .

Koli has come a long way since being exiled from his small village of Mythen Rood. In his search for the fabled tech of the old times, he knew he’d be battling strange, terrible beasts and trees that move as fast as whips. But he has already encountered so much more than he bargained for.

Now that Koli and his companions have found the source of the signal they’ve been following – the mysterious “Sword of Albion” – there is hope that their perilous journey will finally be worth something.

Until they unearth terrifying truths about an ancient war . . . and realise that it may have never ended.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt as immersed in a strange new world as I did reading the Koli trilogy, which wraps up with the newly released The Fall of Koli.

The trilogy follows the journey of Koli, a young man just past boyhood who is exiled from his small village after being accused of stealing tech — which the villagers believe only “wakes” for people who truly deserve it. Cast out from the life he’s always known, Koli eventually forms a small tribe with Ursala, a loner medical woman who wanders from settlement to settlement to offer her healing skills, and Cup, a girl who was originally Koli’s hostage but eventually becomes his devoted friend. Guiding them all is Monono, the self-aware AI who protects the trio and her own freedom.

In The Fall of Koli, our heroes encounter a ship from the before times and discover secrets related to the Unfinished War of over 300 years earlier that basically destroyed civilization and may yet lead to the end of humankind. Meanwhile, back in Koli’s home village, his former love interest Spinner has grown into a woman of political stature and leadership who must find a way for the people of Mythen Rood to battle a much larger invading force.

I can’t say enough about how masterfully built Koli’s world is. The author creates a landscape in which everything wants to kill people — trees can and do kill, as do a vast number of creeping, crawling, and flying creatures. The very world seems to reject people, and as Ursala points out, with human settlements so small and scattered, the human gene pool is on the verge of becoming unsustainable. Dead tech still remains, but the surviving humans mostly look upon it as magical creations that are beyond human comprehension, and therefore, the few people who can use tech must be specially chosen or gifted.

Koli’s language is strange and oddly beautiful, and I couldn’t help but wonder at how much effort it must have taken for the author to not only create these speech patterns, but to sustain them convincingly throughout.

I won’t say much about the plot or the ending — but wow, the plot is terrific and wow, the ending is perfect. I was completely on edge during certain scenes, and practically couldn’t breathe, was occasionally super mad at the author for having certain things happen, but by the end breathed deeply again and felt like things turned out exactly as they should have.

The Koli trilogy is a gorgeous, weird, unsettling ride, start to finish. It’s one of the best science fiction / speculative fiction works I’ve read in years. SO highly recommended. Read these books!

Book Review: Outlawed by Anna North

Title: Outlawed
Author: Anna North
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Publication date: January 5, 2021
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Western/speculative fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Crucible meets True Grit in this riveting adventure story of a fugitive girl, a mysterious gang of robbers, and their dangerous mission to transform the Wild West.

In the year of our Lord 1894, I became an outlaw.

The day of her wedding, 17 year old Ada’s life looks good; she loves her husband, and she loves working as an apprentice to her mother, a respected midwife. But after a year of marriage and no pregnancy, in a town where barren women are routinely hanged as witches, her survival depends on leaving behind everything she knows.

She joins up with the notorious Hole in the Wall Gang, a band of outlaws led by a preacher-turned-robber known to all as the Kid. Charismatic, grandiose, and mercurial, the Kid is determined to create a safe haven for outcast women. But to make this dream a reality, the Gang hatches a treacherous plan that may get them all killed. And Ada must decide whether she’s willing to risk her life for the possibility of a new kind of future for them all.

Featuring an irresistibly no-nonsense, courageous, and determined heroine, Outlawed dusts off the myth of the old West and reignites the glimmering promise of the frontier with an entirely new set of feminist stakes. Anna North has crafted a pulse-racing, page-turning saga about the search for hope in the wake of death, and for truth in a climate of small-mindedness and fear. 

Hey, look! I guess feminist westerns are a thing now? After reading Upright Women Wanted earlier this year, I was excited to get my hands on yet another revisionist/feminist western adventure.

In Outlawed, we meet 17-year-old Ada at what should be the start of a happy future. Newly married, she loves her husband and is enjoying a robust married life with him. Except she’s not getting pregnant. As the months go by, the pressure mounts, until finally, after a year of marriage, she’s kicked out by her in-laws.

Being barren is considered the utmost failure for a woman, and failing to conceive is always considered the woman’s fault. Maybe it’s her family background? Maybe it’s punishment for sin? Or worst of all, she could be a witch, and most likely to blame for all the miscarriages and other tragedies in her town.

In the world of Outlawed, a terrible Flu years back wiped out 90% of the world’s population. In the pandemic’s aftermath, a new religion has blossomed, teaching the gospel of the Baby Jesus, who promises healthy futures to people — so long as they go forth and be fruitful, to repopulate the Earth. Barrenness, therefore, is not just a personal misfortune, but a sin against Baby Jesus. Barren women are outcasts, and once facing accusations of wrong-doing, are more likely than not to be hanged or imprisoned.

Ada, the daughter of the town’s only midwife, has been trained all her life by her mother to follow in her footsteps, and she understands that there must be scientific reasons for why some women get pregnant and some don’t. This conviction doesn’t save her when she’s accused of witchcraft, and she’s forced to flee for her life, eventually ending up with the Kid and the Hole in the Wall Gang, a group of outcast women who band together for survival. As Ada is given a place with the gang, she begins her days as an outlaw.

From this point, we follow Ada and the gang as they plot a daring heist that should enable them to provide a haven for other outcast women, but their plans are risky, the group faces divisions about their mission, and the Kid, their leader, suffers through bouts of depression that leave them unable to lead at a critical moment.

I mostly enjoyed Outlawed, but a few elements hold me back from giving this book a rave review. The pacing sags in the middle, once Ada arrives at the Hole in the Wall’s hideout, as she struggles for acceptance and to learn their ways. At this point, the plot slows down and becomes mainly focused on arguments and resentments within the group. Also, Ada’s transformation into a western outlaw seems a little too abrupt, and given her vocation as a healer, she appears to accept the more violent aspects of their lives without too many qualms.

My other complaint, which may just be a “me” thing rather than an issue with the book, is that the gang’s members are introduced all at once. We see them all as Ada first approaches, with physical descriptions of the people she sees around a campfire. Later, we learn their names as Ada does too. And for the life of me, I could not match the names and the people — while a few were distinct, for the most part, I could not really distinguish the characters as individuals or figure out who was who. It was annoying, and I gave up trying after a while.

Still, there’s a lot to love about Outlawed. The Western setting is familiar, but it’s turned upside down in this new version of the Old West, with fertility being the highest measure of a woman’s worth and a belief in witchcraft that seems like it should already be a thing of the distant past. I liked the sense of inclusion among the outcasts — any woman in trouble is welcome, and as we see later, there are plenty of reasons for people to end up ostracized, cast away, and forced to seek sanctuary among the outlaws.

I also loved Ada’s devotion to healing and to learning. The desire to learn what causes barrenness is what drives her, not only for her own sake but for the purpose of helping other women who suffer.

Once I’d picked up Outlawed and read the author bio, I realized that I have an earlier book by this author (America Pacifica) on my shelves. While I wouldn’t say that Outlawed was a complete hit for me, it intrigued me enough that I’ll definitely want to read more by this author.

And PS – is that cover amazing or what?

Audiobook Review: Murder by Other Means by John Scalzi

Title: Murder by Other Means
Author: John Scalzi
Narrator:  Zachary Quinto
Publisher: Audible Originals
Publication date: September 10, 2020
Print length: n/a
Audio length: 3 hours, 3 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From Hugo and Audie Award-winning author John Scalzi comes an exciting sequel to The New York Times best-selling, number one Audible hit The Dispatcher, performed by the incomparable Zachary Quinto.

Welcome to the new world, in which murder is all but a thing of the past. Because when someone kills you, 999 times out of 1,000, you instantly come back to life. In this world, there are dispatchers—licensed killers who step in when you’re at risk of a natural or unintentional death. They kill you—so you can live.

Tony Valdez is used to working his job as a dispatcher within the rules of the law and the state. But times are tough, and more and more Tony finds himself riding the line between what’s legal and what will pay his bills. After one of these shady gigs and after being a witness to a crime gone horribly wrong, Tony discovers that people around him are dying, for reasons that make no sense…and which just may implicate him.

Tony is running out of time: to solve the mystery of these deaths, to keep others from dying, and to keep himself from being a victim of what looks like murder, by other means.

If you’re looking for a quick audio listen that’s a noir/sci-fi treat, you have to check out this new audiobook by John Scalzi!

Murder By Other Means is the newly released sequel to The Dispatcher. Both are terrific. These Audible Originals are written by John Scalzi, narrated by Zachary Quinto, and just so much fun.

In the world of these books, death has been (mostly) defeated. For some unfathomable reason, as of about 10 years earlier, anyone who is murdered instantly zips back to life back in their own home, naked, and completely unharmed. This is not true, though, for natural or accidental deaths (basically, anything non-murdery). Die without murder, and dead is dead.

Hence, the rise of a profession known as Dispatchers. Say you’re going into surgery for a risky procedure — well then, keep a dispatcher on hand, so if things go wrong, one quick bullet in the brain will send you home again. There’s the 1 in 1000 chance that the dispatching won’t work, but most people are willing to take that chance.

In these audiobooks, our main character is Tony Valdez. Time are tough, and there aren’t as many legit dispatcher jobs these days, so when Tony is offered something that’s not entirely by the book, but that pays piles of cash, he does the job. And then things get screwy. After witnessing a robbery at his local bank branch, complete with dead and not-so-dead bodies, Tony is implicated, and when one of the investigating detectives ends up dead too, things go from bad to worse.

Tony has to figure out how to clear his name, get the cops off his back, and solve a puzzle regarding a slew of deaths in the city that can’t be murder… but they sure seem like they are.

At just barely 3 hours, this audiobook is perfect for a quick entertainment. The action is fast-paced, and the narration is terrific. The vibe is noir, but with enough weird elements to let you know you’re living in a Scalzi world. I had to keep reminding myself that this wasn’t a Dresden book (minus the magic) — it’s that kind of smart, quick urban storytelling.

Murder By Other Means includes enough stage-setting that you can listen to it without being completely lost, but it makes a lot more sense to listen to The Dispatcher first, to gain a full picture of what life in a death-less world feels like.

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

Title: The Trials of Koli (Ramparts trilogy, #2)
Author: M. R. Carey
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: September 17, 2020
Length: 445 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The journey through M. R. Carey’s “immersive, impeccably rendered world” (Kirkus) — a world in which nature has turned against us — continues in The Trials of Koli, book two of the Rampart Trilogy.

The earth wants to swallow us whole… Koli has been cast out from Mythen Rood. Behind him are his family and the safety of the known. Ahead, the embrace of the deadly forests awaits.

But Koli heard a story, once. A story about lost London, where the tech of old times was so plentiful it was just lying on the streets. And if he can safely lead Ursula, Cup and Monono to this sparkling city, maybe he can save the rest of humanity, too.

In a world where a journey of two miles is an odyssey, he’s going to walk two hundred. But the city is not what it once was…and around him, Ingland is facing something it hasn’t seen in three centuries: war.

Middle books in trilogies rarely are as great as first books or as satisfying as third books, but I’m happy to report that The Trials of Koli is a terrific 2nd book, and more than lives up to the promise of the start of the trilogy.

The first book, The Book of Koli, introduces us to a far-future world, long past the days of the Unfinished War. Main characer Koli lives in the village of Mythen Rood, population about 200, where survival is a daily struggle — especially since everything outside the walls, including the trees, wants to kill people.

In The Trials of Koli, we pick up where we left off , with Koli in exile from Mythen Rood, making his way with the healer Ursala, their prisoner Cup, Ursala’s tech — a surviving piece of long-ago technology that includes advanced medical equipment — and Monono, the artificial intelligence persona who lives inside Koli’s own piece of tech, a sort of IPod with a mind of its own.

The Trials of Koli also introduces a 2nd point of view, the young woman named Spinner whom Koli loved back in the village, but who married another boy in hopes of joining his influential family. In alternating sections, we follows Koli’s journey with Ursala and Cup through a harsh, unforgiving world, as well as Spinner’s experiences in Mythen Rood, where she gains access to forbidden knowledge and tech herself.

The Trials of Koli takes us across the dangerous terrain of Ingland, past killer trees and up against warrior bands from other villages, at the same time digging deeper into the inner workings of Koli’s home village, its people and their politics.

This book is exciting and strange. The author keeps Koli’s distinctive voice alive, full of odd word choices and attitudes, very much evocative of a different world than our own. Spinner’s voice is unique as well, a little more refined and with access to more education and knowledge than Koli has. Both characters are compelling, and I never really wanted to leave whichever character I was reading about to return to the other.

I can’t wait for the 3rd and final book, The Fall of Koli, due out in 2021. Meanwhile, now’s your chance to read books 1 & 2! Don’t miss out on this terrific saga of survival and community in a post-apocalyptic world.

Book Review: Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Title: Upright Women Wanted
Author: Sarah Gailey
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: February 4, 2020
Length: 176 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In Upright Women Wanted, award-winning author Sarah Gailey reinvents the pulp Western with an explicitly antifascist, near-future story of queer identity.

“That girl’s got more wrong notions than a barn owl’s got mean looks.”

Esther is a stowaway. She’s hidden herself away in the Librarian’s book wagon in an attempt to escape the marriage her father has arranged for her–a marriage to the man who was previously engaged to her best friend. Her best friend who she was in love with. Her best friend who was just executed for possession of resistance propaganda.

The future American Southwest is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing.

Are you a coward or are you a librarian?

Just from the tag line on the cover, not to mention the awesome cover art, I knew this would be a great read.

In a future society that seems like a totalitarian version of the Old West, Librarians work for the State, riding from outpost to outpost delivering Approved Materials.

Esther stows away in a Librarian’s wagon after watching her best friend hang. Beatriz was more than Esther’s friend, though — the two were lovers, although they recognized that what they were doing was wrong and needed fixing.

Esther comes to the Librarians seeking refuge and a chance to fix her life. She pleads with Bet, the Head Librarian:

“Please,” she whispered one mroe time, fear tart under her tongue because she knew this was it, this was her last worst hope and this woman who could turn her in to the reaper was looking at her with precisely zero mercy. “I know I’m not supposed to be like this. I want to be like you.”

The response is not what she expects:

“Well, Esther,” Bet said, that irrepressible laugh trying hard to shake her voice, her thumb tracing the back of Leda’s. “Well. I’ve got good new for you, and I’ve got bad news.”

The good news is that Esther will be allowed to stay and ride with the Librarians. The bad news is that she’s not going to get the “upright” life she anticipates. The librarians are queer freedom-fighters, using their sanctioned role for decidedly unsanctioned purposes, smuggling unapproved materials and people past sheriffs and posses looking for insurgents, helping rebels get to safety so they can fight back another day.

Upright Women Wanted is a terrific romp through the new Old West, with gun battles and pursuits on horseback and corpses left for the vultures… plus the moving journey of Esther, learning how to be herself and not feel shame for who and what she is.

It’s an exciting story, with memorable characters and entertaining action sequences. My only quibble is that the novella length left me wanting more. How did the world end up this way? How exactly does this State work? How are the librarians organized, and who is their mysterious leader?

I do hope there’s a follow-up, because I definitely want answers! But in all other respects, Upright Women Wanted is a sparkling read that definitely satisfies.

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Sarah Gailey, and can’t wait for whatever they write next!

Interested in this author? Check out my reviews of:
American Hippo
Magic For Liars

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

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

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: One of Us by Craig DiLouie

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.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: One of Us
Author: Craig DiLouie
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: July 17, 2018
Length: 300 pages
Genre: Science fiction/horror
Source: Purchased

The Monday Check-In ~ 9/9/2019

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. 

Three more weeks in a cast! I’m ready to be done… but patience is a virtue.

Meanwhile, I entertained myself with a jigsaw puzzle — my first one in years! And naturally, it’s book-related:

But now all I have left are the white parts around the edge, and I really don’t want to deal. Can my completist nature allow me to just walk away? And hey, if you’re interested in this puzzle (which is really quite fun), you can find it here.

What did I read during the last week?

The Unkindest Tide by Seanan McGuire. The newest Toby book! I loved it, of course. My review is here.

Reticence by Gail Carriger: The 4th and final book in the Custard Protocol series! I finished the audiobook — review to follow.

Pop Culture

My Veronica Mars rewatch/binge continues! After finishing season 1, I moved right along to season 2. I’m now 6 episodes into the 2nd season, and loving it all over again.

Fresh Catch:

What do you know? No new books this week! Which is good, since the new Margaret Atwood and Stephen King books will be released this week, and those should keep me plenty busy.

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

The Ten Thousand Door of January by Alix E. Harrow: Just starting. What a gorgeous cover!

Now playing via audiobook:

Doing a quick audiobook re-read of Carry On, so I’ll be nice and ready for Wayward Son when it comes out later this month.

Ongoing reads:

Two ongoing book group read right now:

  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens — To tell the truth, I’m always falling behind on the group read, mainly because this book just isn’t grabbing me. It was endearing at first, but now I just basically want it to end. And I still have about a third to go.
  • Virgins by Diana Gabaldon — I’ve read this novella a couple of times before, but it’s great fun to reread it with the group. We’ll be done by the end of the month.

So many books, so little time…

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