Audiobook Review: Travel by Bullet (The Dispatcher, #3) by John Scalzi

Title: Travel by Bullet
Series: The Dispatcher, #3
Author: John Scalzi
Narrator:  Zachary Quinto
Publisher: Audible Originals
Publication date: September 1, 2022
Print length: n/a
Audio length: 3 hours, 43 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Audible and New York Times best-selling “Dispatcher” series returns with a brand-new mystery, performed by Zachary Quinto.

The world has changed. Now, when someone is murdered, they almost always come back to life—and there are professionals, called “dispatchers,” who kill in order to save lives, to give those near the end a second chance. Tony Valdez is a dispatcher, and he has never been busier.

But for as much as the world has changed, some things have stayed the same. Greed, corruption and avarice are still in full swing. When Tony is called to a Chicago emergency room by an old friend and fellow dispatcher, he is suddenly and unwillingly thrown into a whirlpool of schemes and plots involving billions of dollars, with vast caches of wealth ranging from real estate to cryptocurrency up for grabs.

All Tony wants to do is keep his friend safe. But it’s hard to do when friends keep secrets, enemies offer seductive deals, and nothing is ever what it seems. The world has changed… but the stakes are still life and death.

I hadn’t been aware that a third Dispatcher audiobook was on the way, so I was surprised in the best way to see it available on Audible this month!

In the sci-fi/speculative world of the Dispatcher series, death has become much more optional. Death by natural causes is still death, but if someone is murdered, in 999 cases out of 1,000, the murdered person pops back into life with a “reset”, waking up someplace they feel safe — usually their own home — back in the condition they were in several hours earlier.

In this brave new world, professional Dispatchers are trained and licensed to turn natural deaths into murders, all for the sake of saving lives. A person on the verge of death from cardiac arrest, for example, gets a professionally administered bullet to their brain, and (unless they’re that 1 in 1,000 exception), they end up totally fine. I mean, they should probably go see a doctor ASAP for that heart condition, but they’re alive and have a chance to remain that way.

In Travel by Bullet, things have changed yet again in all sorts of interesting ways. The role of Dispatchers has been around for about 10 years at this point, and our main character, Tony Valdez, is tired. The world has been going through the pandemic for the past couple of years, and new laws have been instituted that give families the right to demand a dispatch for their dying relatives, meaning that Dispatchers are now employed full time in hospitals and are kept incredibly busy.

The problem is, for someone on a ventilator approaching death, a reset by dispatch isn’t really going to fix things. The patient will wake up in their own bed in a condition from a few hours earlier, but as in all dispatches, they travel without anything but their bodies — no clothes, and most importantly in these cases, no equipment. Often, desperate families who demand a dispatch are dooming their relatives to pain and confusion and inevitable death, but without the benefit of hospital staff to ease the journey. Tony spends much of his time trying to talk families out of using his services, but at the end of the day, he is required by law to perform if that’s what the family wants.

His daily grind is interrupted when a friend and fellow dispatcher is brought into the ER, on the verge of death and asking specifically for Tony. Tony knows that this person has been involved in the shadier side of dispatching, and the circumstances of the accident that brought him to the hospital are very sketchy.

Tony reluctantly gets drawn into his friend’s mess, and ends up at the center of a conspiracy that draws in the Chicago PD, the FBI, mobsters, VC billionaires, and assorted hoodlums. Tony becomes increasingly threatened as he struggles to keep his friend safe while not alienating other allies or putting his life and livelihood into grave danger.

It’s all very quick-paced and complicated, with crypto-wallets changing hands, billionaires behaving horrendously, and Dispatchers being used in some truly awful business settings (as well as providing the “travel by bullet” concept that gives this story its name).

In my review of the 2nd book, Murder by Other Means, I wrote:

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.

The same is absolutely true here! (Sorry, I don’t usually quote myself…)

Travel by Bullet is slightly longer, but still under 4 hours. Actor Zachary Quinto is marvelous when it comes to voicing Tony and handling the storytelling. His narration absolutely nails the noir vibe of the entire story, and it all just works.

I would recommend starting with the first book in this series, The Dispatcher, in order to get a good feel for the world of dispatching and its rules and quirks — but since they’re all relatively short, you’ll speed through them in no time!

Note: Travel by Bullet is an Audible exclusive as of now. The first two books in the series were also originally Audible-only, but were later released in print format too, so I’d assume that eventually, this one will be as well. For now, though, if you want to experience Travel by Bullet, Audible is the only option.

Book Review: Drunk on All Your Strange New Words by Eddie Robson

Title: Drunk on All Your Strange New Words
Author: Eddie Robson
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: June 28, 2022
Print length: 228 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Lydia works as translator for the Logi cultural attaché to Earth. They work well together, even if the act of translating his thoughts into English makes her somewhat wobbly on her feet. She’s not the agency’s best translator, but what else is she going to do? She has no qualifications, and no discernible talent in any other field.

So when tragedy strikes, and Lydia finds herself at the center of an intergalactic incident, her future employment prospects look dire–that is, if she can keep herself out of jail!

But Lydia soon discovers that help can appear from the most unexpected source…

Eddie Robson’s previous novel, Hearts of Oak, was a 5-star read for me, so it’s not too surprising that this new book also gets ALL the stars!

In Drunk on All Your Strange New Words, the action takes place in a version of New York at some point in the future, where rising sea levels have devastated most coastal areas, New York exists as a tourist mecca behind sea barriers, and an alien race known as the Logi have established embassies and commerce with the population of Earth.

Main character Lydia works as a translator. The Logi speak mind to mind, and only those with an aptitude for telepathic communication can work in the field. Lydia is highly trained and very good at what she does, and she enjoys her time with “Fitz”, the human name the Logi cultural ambassador goes by. The only downside is that the work of mind-to-mind communication has a chemical side effect equivalent to intoxication, so the longer work hours or more complicated exchanges Lydia carries out, the drunker she becomes.

Can we just pause here to admire what an amazing set-up for the story this is? I’ve never come across anything like it, and I was immediately fascinated by the entire premise.

That’s just the beginning, though. The morning after a particularly challenging night of translation work, Lydia finds Fitz murdered in his study inside the Logi cultural residence. The doors were all locked for the night, only Lydia and Fitz were inside, and Lydia was so drunk from translating that she doesn’t remember anything at all past the middle of the evening. She’s clearly the prime suspect, and to make matters worse, she can’t even say with certainty that she didn’t do it.

The investigation into the murder is incredibly engrossing, with Lydia, the police, and other Logi diplomats carrying out their own inquiries. Lydia checks out clues and seemingly random connections, all of which seem to point to a larger conspiracy… or does it? It’s complicated, to say the least.

Drunk includes deft, intricate plotting, great character profiles, clever dialogue, and a fabulous new version of our world to think about. Grim and dark in many ways, it also includes a renewed interest in hard-copy books, so that’s something to look forward to if this future comes to pass! The author includes technology and slang that are different from our own, but not so impenetrable that it’s hard to follow. The writing is very accessible, and there’s an underlying sense of lightness and humor, even in dark moments, that make this a very enjoyable read.

Bottom line? I loved this book, and couldn’t put it down. Don’t miss it!

Book Review: Feral Creatures by Kira Jane Buxton

Title: Feral Creatures
Author: Kira Jane Buxton
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: August 24, 2021
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction/ horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In this stunning follow-up to Hollow Kingdom, the animal kingdom’s “favorite apocalyptic hero”is back with a renewed sense of hope for humanity, ready to take on a world ravaged by a viral pandemic (Helen Macdonald).

Once upon an apocalypse, there lived an obscenely handsome American crow named S.T. . . .

When the world last checked-in with its favorite Cheeto addict, the planet had been overrun by flesh-hungry beasts, and nature had started re-claiming her territory from humankind. S.T., the intrepid crow, alongside his bloodhound-bestie Dennis, had set about saving pets that had become trapped in their homes after humanity went the way of the dodo. 

That is, dear reader, until S.T. stumbled upon something so rare—and so precious—that he vowed to do everything in his power to safeguard what could, quite literally, be humanity’s last hope for survival. But in a wild world plagued by prejudiced animals, feather-raising environments, new threats so terrifying they make zombies look like baby bunnies, and a horrendous dearth of cheesy snacks, what’s a crow to do?

Why, wing it on another big-hearted, death-defying adventure, that’s what! Joined by a fabulous new cast of animal characters, S.T. faces many new challenges plus his biggest one yet: parenthood. .

A quick take on this book:

I feel like I should write a proper review, but I’m not sure I have a lot to say. I absolutely loved Hollow Kingdom, which introduced us to ST and his post-apocalyptic world of rotting humans, domestic animals waiting to be freed, and tigers wandering the streets of Seattle.

In this follow up, ST is once again our narrator, with chapters narrated by whales, spiders, and cats thrown into the mix. The story picks up with ST now in Alaska, having found the last remaining MoFo (human) — a small baby girl with no one to raise her but ST and his friends. ST is determined to protect Dee no matter what, hiding her away from the world and keeping her safe — but by isolating her, is he depriving her of the ability to discover her own true nature?

Through the raucous escapades of ST and allies, the action moves from Alaskan wilderness to the Bering Sea and back to Seattle, with deeply funny and illuminating encounters with orcas and owls and polar bears along the way. But all is not well in the wild kingdom. Trees are dying, and the MoFos seem to have evolved from shambling zombies into Changed Ones — animal/human hybrids who are freakin’ scary and weird AF.

ST’s narration is fabulous as always, a mix of vulgarity, impressive vocabulary, insightful introspection, and crazy digressions. The writing in Feral Creatures veers between emotional impact and laugh-inducing craziness from moment to moment.

In a once-beautiful winery that was now a den of doom, with fur fizzed up and an arched spine, stood a domestic shorthair cat. A fire starter. The Bruce Lee of felines. A tabby that had sired an entire generation of Seattleite cats — generation FU — and was probably singlehandedly responsible for the eradication of at least one entire songbird species. There was Genghis, with greasy punk rock fur and an arthritic gait purchased at heavy discount from the Ministry of Silly Walks. There wasn’t a bison brave enough to tell him that the earth’s twirling had caught up with him.

I enjoyed a lot about this book… and yet at times, I just couldn’t wait to be done. Maybe because this is a sequel, there’s less room for surprise and delight based on the premise, and the story’s action starts to feel drawn-out and repetitive at times. Even while loving the writing, I did have to continually pull myself back from the brink of boredom when chapters went on too long, and even found myself considering DNFing at times.

I’m glad I stuck with it, though. Even when I grew tired of parts of the story, something amazing (like the arrival of a heard of musk oxen) would pull me back in.

I was experiencing acute déjà poo — the feeling that I’d heard this crap before.

Definitely read Hollow Kingdom first — but if you loved that book, then you’ll want to read Feral Creatures too. My impatience with the book may have more to do with my own reading mood than with the book itself, so take a look and see what you think!

**********

Through affiliate programs, I may earn commissions from purchases made when you click through these links, at no cost to you.

Buy now at Amazon – Book Depository – Bookshop.org

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.

**********

Through affiliate programs, I may earn commissions from purchases made when you click through these links, at no cost to you.

Buy now at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

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!

**********

Through affiliate programs, I may earn commissions from purchases made when you click through these links, at no cost to you.

Buy now at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

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