Review: Artificial Condition

Artificial-Conditions-Martha-Wells.jpgTitle: Artificial Condition (2018)
Author: 
Martha Wells
Pages: 
158
Series:
The Murderbot Diaries #2 (Series Tracker)


This second installment in the Murderbot Diaries series picks up right where All Systems Red leaves off. Murderbot has set out on its own as it searches for clues from its past and as it seeks to understand its own identity. It meets another rogue-ish “construct”, nicknamed ART, who is a real standout addition. Wells imbues these non-human characters with so much humanity that they’re incredibly engaging and fun to root for. This story was a worthy successor to the first novella, even if it didn’t feel as complete or fully fleshed out as that tale. On to #3!

★★★★ out of 5

Review: All Systems Red

All Systems RedTitle: All Systems Red (2017)
Author: 
Martha Wells
Pages: 
154
Series:
The Murderbot Diaries #1 (Series Tracker)


I had tried reading this novella when it came out a few years ago, but gave up after a few pages. Oddly, I was immediately hooked upon a second attempt. Murderbot, the blunt but endearing protagonist, is such an engaging storyteller and it narrates a very compelling mystery on an unfamiliar planet. And, in a rare feat for a novella, author Martha Wells world-builds, creates characters with depth, and tells a fully-fleshed out story in ~150 pages. I’m looking forward to further exploring Murderbot’s world and psyche in the subsequent novellas and the upcoming full-length novel coming later this year.

★★★★¼ out of 5

Review: Thrawn: Treason

Thrawn - TreasonTitle: Thrawn: Treason (2019)
Author: Timothy Zahn
Pages: 335
Series: Thrawn #3, Star Wars Canon (Series Tracker)


Much like the previous Thrawn novel, this one never really hooked me in any meaningful way. The first book in the trilogy chronicled Thrawn’s rise up the ranks in the Empire and that narrative momentum was stalled in the second and third books. Though, I was happy to have Thrawn and Eli Vanto back together matching wits and seeing the Chiss Ascendency in action gives me hope for the prequel trilogy that is coming in 2020. Either way, I’m glad to have read this series, even if I was let down by the final two books. Thrawn is a great character and I’d be interested in seeing more of him, either in Star Wars Rebels or in Zahn’s non-canonical Star Wars books.

★★¾ out of 5

Top 10 Books of 2019

Honorable Mentions

AtlasAlone

Atlas Alone

Planetfall #4
Author: Emma Newman

Newman writes killer endings and this book was no exception to that trend. I wasn’t as intrigued by the buildup to the finale, but Newman certainly left me wanting more by the ending. I really hope there will be more Planetfall novels in the future as this continues to be a wonderful series with countless story threads left to explore. See full review here.


Sin Eater

Sin Eater

Iconoclasts #2
Author: Mike Shel

…the worldbuilding remains strong, the writing flows nicely, and the ending is satisfying enough to leave me excited for what’s to come in the third and final book in the trilogy. See full review here.


dead-astronauts_cover

Dead Astronauts

Borne #2
Author: Jeff VanderMeer

This book is trippy, oftentimes incoherent, but all sorts of enthralling. The writing itself is quite mesmerizing with VanderMeer spinning some real poetry on each page. Dead Astronauts is certainly not for everyone, and I don’t even think it’s for me, but I did like it? Maybe? Perhaps it’s just fun to see what oddities VanderMeer can think up and bring to life.  See full review here.

 


Top 10 of 2019

Harrow_Ten-Thousand-Doors-of-January_HC-1

10. The Ten Thousand Doors of January

Author: Alix E. Harrow

The writing is beautiful and lush. The story is sad and sweet in equal measure. The world is captivating and I truly felt transported back in time. January is a well-drawn character, full of life and verve and nuance. She was a wonderful window into this fantastical world. See full review here.


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9. The Outlaw and the Upstart King

The Map of Unknown Things #2
Author: Rod Duncan

Author Rod Duncan continues to convey atmosphere in an engaging way. You can smell the brine, feel the mud, and hear the gulls in the sky, which is a testament to Duncan’s skills as a storyteller. Even if I wasn’t always enraptured by the story, I could enjoy the vivid imagery and worldbuilding that Duncan employs. See full review here.


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8. Master and Apprentice

Star Wars Canon
Author: Claudia Gray

Author Claudia Gray does some excellent character work in this novel – she adds depth to existing characters while introducing several new characters to the story. Each individual is given agency, clear motivations, and satisfying arcs across the board…an engaging and enjoyable interplanetary adventure story. See full review here.


ABrightnessLongAgo

7. A Brightness Long Ago

Author: Guy Gavriel Kay

This book explores the ripples of time, how small actions have an impact on the world at large and how our memory of the past shapes our understanding of our future…Much like Kay’s previous work, A Brightness Long Ago is beautifully composed, emotionally engaging, and features compelling characters with depth. See full review here.


TheTest

6. The Test

Author: Sylvain Neuvel

Sylvain Neuvel follows up his excellent Themis Files series with this twisted, fast-paced, and thought-provoking dystopian novella. Much like Themis Files, Neuvel employs an unconventional storytelling structure to engage the reader and make the best use of his sharp, sense-of-urgency writing style…It’s a tight page-turner that really works. See full review here.


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5. A Choir of Lies

A Conspiracy of Truths #2
Author: Alexandra Rowland

It’s a bold choice to change gears so drastically from one book to the next, but it pays off well…this book is charming, heartening, and well worth your time. It feels like Rowland is just getting started here. See full review here.


Recursion

4. Recursion

Author: Blake Crouch

A dynamic “what if” novel that builds and builds as the unintended consequences of messing with memories threaten to unmake the world. I read this in one sitting and really enjoyed my time with it. It’s quickly paced and features well-drawn, sympathetic characters. See full review here.


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3. The Kingdom of Copper

The Daevabad Trilogy #2
Author: S.A. Chakraborty

Even as each page crackles with magic, at its core, this is a captivating family drama that continues to ratchet up the tension as the book progresses…Overall, I thought this was a really solid middle book. It charted new territory and told a contained story that was engaging, satisfying, and left me looking forward to what comes next. See full review here.


TheHodKing

2. The Hod King

The Books of Babel #3
Author: Josiah Bancroft

Bancroft could write a kitchen appliance manual and I’d happily read it. The fact that he’s built such a wondrous world and a story that makes such perfect use of his unique voice and style makes it all the better. The witticisms, turns of phrase, vivid images, fully drawn characters, and the magnificent setting all coalesce into something truly remarkable…This series is a modern fantasy classic. See full review here.


Barker-The-Bone-Ships

1. The Bone Ships

The Tide Child #1
Author: RJ Barker

Barker’s prose is rich but rough and perfectly suited for a seafaring tale. You can taste the ocean spray and feel the sway of the ships as they traverse the angry seas. The world is filled with unique flora and fauna, but the setting still feels familiar and accessible…this is a superb start to an exciting new series. The worldbuilding, the prose, the character development, and the story beats are all top-notch.  See full review here.

 

Review: Dead Astronauts

dead-astronauts_cover.jpgTitle: Dead Astronauts (2019)
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Pages: 323
Series: Borne #2


I will spare everyone an attempted plot summary as Dead Astronauts cannot be tidily synopsized. Just know that it features a messianic blue fox, a giant immortal fish, and human-ish characters seeking to end the reign of an evil organization across multiple dimensions…I think.

I had been frustrated by Borne’s lack of penetrability, so I recalibrated my expectations before reading this one. That was the right move. This book is trippy, oftentimes incoherent, but all sorts of enthralling. There is an apt quote in the earlygoing which references “things that could pull a mind apart if examined up close.” That was a good encapsulation of this book for me – you’ll lose your mind if you get bogged down trying to parse every tiny detail. Let the words and passages wash over you. The writing itself is quite mesmerizing with VanderMeer spinning some real poetry on each page.

Dead Astronauts is certainly not for everyone, and I don’t even think it’s for me, but I did like it? Maybe? Perhaps it’s just fun to see what oddities VanderMeer can think up and bring to life. Not to mention, this may be the best book cover I’ve laid eyes on. I wasn’t sure that I was going to read this, but the dust jacket really sold me.

★★★¼ out of 5

Review: Thrawn: Alliances

Thrawn - AlliancesTitle: Thrawn: Alliances (2018)
Author: Timothy Zahn
Pages: 473
Series: Thrawn #2, Star Wars Canon (Series Tracker)


This was a big step down from the first book in the series. Although it was fun to see Thrawn and Darth Vader team up, their story arc was less than riveting. For me, knowing the fates of established characters (Vader, not Thrawn) drains the story of any real stakes. Similarly, the Thrawn/Anakin/Padme story that parallels the present day narrative did not land for me and I felt myself rushing through it just so I could get back to Thrawn/Vader, which I also quickly lost interest in. So then I was rushing through both timelines just so I could finish the book and move on to the sequel, which has better reviews and features the welcome return of Eli Vanto, who I sorely missed here.

★★½ out of 5

Interview: Rod Duncan, Author of The Map of Unknown Things series

Duncan-CoverThe Speculative Shelf is excited to welcome Rod Duncan to the blog today for a discussion about his upcoming book, The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man (out January 14, 2020) from Angry Robot Books. It’s the third and final book in The Map of Unknown Things series. This trilogy closes the chapter on the Elizabeth Barnabus saga, which began in Duncan’s award-winning Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire trilogy. I’ve reviewed all six of the books here on the blog and I think you’ll really enjoy this final chapter if you’ve been following this wonderful alternate history series. Many thanks to Rod for taking the time to answer my questions so thoughtfully.


Hello Rod, thank you for joining us here today! Let’s jump right in:

From a process standpoint, how much preplanning do you do when writing a series like this? When you started penning the first book, did you know how this final book would conclude?

I began writing the first book – the Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter – without much idea of what would follow. Indeed, at the very start, I thought it would be a short story.

9200000084559751But, from your question, I’m guessing you’ve spotted various connections between book one and book six, The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man. The most obvious perhaps is the motif of Elizabeth’s pistol with the emblem of the leaping Hare inlaid in turquoise on the stock. As well as being a weapon, it is an object resonant with meaning for her, being the last gift from her father. It symbolizes that ideal of family life, which was taken from her and against which she measures her present reality.

I knew that her recollection of the past and what it meant would eventually be challenged. If you re-read the Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, you’ll find more clues layered in. Chapter 9 begins with a quotation that mentions the switching of guns in a conjuring trick, hinting that there may be an exact replica of Elizabeth’s pistol. Twins are mentioned twice in the following pages. All this was quite deliberate.

But don’t take that to mean the series was planned out. I knew about certain plot strands and story beats. But I didn’t know the story itself. By this, I mean, I did not understand the emotions – which are the foundation of the whole thing. Elizabeth would be confronted by her past in this final book of the trilogy. But how would she feel about it – this I did not know.

Continue reading

Review: The Strange Bird

The Strange Bird.jpgTitle: The Strange Bird (2017)
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Pages: 109
Series: Borne #1.5 (Series Tracker)


I had a difficult time connecting with Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne, so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this novella set in the same world. The Strange Bird herself is an odd amalgamation – part bird, part human, part machine, part other. She’s sentient and self-aware, but ultimately disoriented. Her understanding of the world is fragmented, much like the composition of her body. 

The way VanderMeer describes bird flight in the story is evocative and beautiful. His love and appreciation for birds and their characteristics is obvious (check out his Twitter feed for further confirmation).

Overall, The Strange Bird is a moving and haunting story that reignited my interest in this world in anticipation of Borne‘s pseudo-sequel, Dead Astronauts, next on my to-read list.

★★★★½ out of 5

Review: Thrawn

Thrawn.jpgTitle: Thrawn (2017)
Author: Timothy Zahn
Pages: 449
Series: Thrawn #1, Star Wars Canon (Series Tracker)


I’m always impressed by authors who can write genius characters well. I hadn’t read anything by Timothy Zahn before this, but it’s clear he has Thrawn’s personality down pat. I’m enjoying how blurry the lines of Good vs. Evil are when it comes to Thrawn and his actions. His military decisions usually benefit humanity and minimize casualties, although it’s unclear whether that’s intentional or just the most prudent action for the time and place. I suspect these decisions will increase in complexity as he continues to rise the ranks in the Imperial Navy.

At times, it felt like there was a certain inevitability and repetitiveness to his advancement up the command chain, but that provided a nice juxtaposition to the stagnation of Ensign Eli Vanto’s career. I was less enthralled by the secondary storyline, but things came together nicely in the end and I’m excited to continue on with this series.

★★★★ out of 5