Review: Ancestral Night

Ancestral-Night-678x1024Title: Ancestral Night (March 5, 2019)
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Pages: 512
Series: 
White Space #1 (Series Tracker)


My first foray into Elizabeth Bear’s work was her excellent 2017 fantasy novel The Stone in the Skull, which I enjoyed immensely. I knew that Bear is known for writing in a multitude of genres, but I wasn’t prepared for the genre whiplash I experienced when I picked up the space opera Ancestral Night. The book follows Haimey Dz, a space salvager who uncovers a piece of ancient alien technology that, in the wrong hands, could be catastrophic for the galaxy at large. …lo and behold, space pirates are hot on Haimey’s trail.

This is really sharp, smart science fiction that goes deep on the details and philosophy of its world and Haimey herself. Bear’s vision for the future of space is so intricate and sophisticated that a lot of it flew way over my head. Tonally, it’s quite cold and calculated, which made it difficult for me to form lasting emotional connections to the characters. I enjoyed learning about Haimey’s backstory and witnessing her connection to her shipmates, but those moments of humanity seemed fleeting. I think the plot description makes this sound like an exciting space adventure, but I found it to be quite slow, contemplative, and unevenly-paced overall.  The prose is dense and difficult to penetrate at times, with many of the scientific elements pushing well beyond my realm of understanding.

I could certainly see this winning some awards because it really feels like next-level science fiction and more advanced than most of what I’ve read in the genre. Personally, I wasn’t able to connect with the story, but I come away from the reading experience even more impressed with Bear’s skill as a writer and would not be surprised if others enjoyed this more than I did.

★★★ out of 5

My thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Rosewater

ROSEWATER-2Title: Rosewater (2018; originally published 2016)
Author: Tade Thompson
Pages: 432
Series: The Wormwood Trilogy #1 (Series Tracker)


This is a really inventive novel that concerns an alien biodome that sets up shop in near-future Nigeria. Our protagonist Kaaro is a “sensitive” who (basically) gains the power of mind-reading through his reaction to alien spores in the air. Kaaro is a complex and flawed character who did not always use his powers for good, which is refreshing in a lead character that you can still root for and identify with.

The story itself is told in a series of cross-cutting chapters that jump between Kaaro’s past and present. As these stories intercut, gaps are filled in and two converging narratives begin to emerge. As someone with a bad “book memory,” I had to repeatedly reorient myself to the separate threads while attempting to remember which characters were from which timeline and what information is available to characters at what time. It required some mental gymnastics, but I think it created a richer reading experience, nonetheless.

I enjoyed this novel on a conceptual level, but didn’t find the story to be compelling until it all comes together at the end. I’m interested to see where author Tade Thompson takes future installments in this trilogy because he’s set up a good foundation with this excellent first book.

★★★★ out of 5

Review: Unholy Land

Unholy-Land-Lavie-Tidhar.jpgTitle: Unholy Land (October 16, 2018)
Author: Lavie Tidhar
Pages: 288

Unholy Land is a stunning achievement. It is packed to the brim with engaging ideas and features a captivating story that I could not stop puzzling over. It will certainly find itself in my Top 10 of 2018 when the year comes to a close.

In the early 20th century, a group of expeditioners traveled to the border of Uganda to inspect a piece of land that was under consideration as a potential site for a Jewish homeland. This site had no holy significance, which made it a difficult sell to “Holy Landers” who considered settling in then-Ottoman Palestine to be a more appropriate choice. Unholy Land explores an alternate history where Jewish settlement in Africa had occurred, as well as the otherworldly borders that came to surround such a place.

I can’t say more about the plot without taking away from what I found to be a marvelous reading experience. There is such an ethereal and intoxicating quality to the story and Tidhar’s writing that I found myself floating through the chapters, not always sure what was happening, or whose perspective we were seeing, but knowing that I wanted to keep reading. The intersecting story threads twisted my brain into a pretzel and I loved it.

Having never read any other work by author Lavie Tidhar, I was blown away by his command of language — every sight, smell, and feeling of a scene is accounted for and communicated in vivid detail. On prose alone, I would have enjoyed this book, but pairing such good writing with such a conceptually intriguing story made for truly enjoyable reading. I look forward to exploring Tidhar’s other works and I hope he continues to write beautiful and thought-provoking speculative fiction.

★★★★½  out of 5

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Dune

Dune-0Title: Dune (1965)
Author: Frank Herbert
Pages: 884
Series: Dune #1


It feels good to finally check this science fiction classic off of my to-read list. I was expecting a slow, dry slog, but I found Dune to be surprisingly engaging and accessible. The worldbuilding and character building are top notch and I can see why the desert planet of Arrakis is such a legendary setting. I can’t say that I enjoyed every aspect of the story, but I certainly appreciate Dune’s place in the Pantheon of the genre and am glad to have read it. Looking ahead, I’m excited to see how Denis Villeneuve adapts this for the big screen.

★★★½ out of 5

Review: Before Mars

BeforeMarsTitle: Before Mars (2018)
Author: Emma Newman
Pages: 320
Series: Planetfall #3 (Series Tracker)

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.


Upon landing on Mars, geologist/artist Anna Kubrin is immediately suspicious of her surroundings after spotting a series of ominous clues scattered in and around her Martian research facility. She’s unable to ascertain whether she is actually in danger or if it is all a paranoid delusion. Either way, she’s at risk, but nothing will keep her from uncovering the truth.

This was a wonderfully captivating read that I really enjoyed. Author Emma Newman has a masterful way of imbuing her protagonists with vulnerability and emotional depth. It is clear, based on her dedication and acknowledgements, that Newman’s own personal experiences greatly shaped and informed how she painted Anna in this novel, which adds a refreshing layer of authenticity to the narrative. The first half of the novel focuses heavily on Anna and the life she left behind on Earth. At times, the story is bogged down by her internal monologue and crippling self-doubt, but this serves to establish the character and makes way for a strong second half filled with the story beats and action that I knew was waiting to be unveiled.

Although less haunting than Planetfall (2015) and featuring a less complex crime story than After Atlas (2016), Before Mars is a compelling mystery box novel and a worthy addition to the Planetfall universe. With three books released and another on the way, Newman is crafting a superb series of interconnected works, with each subsequent book sprouting a new narrative thread while building upon the stories of the previous books. These books have been excellent and each new one I devour further solidifies their must-read status for me. I hope the story continues well beyond the next installment that is due next year.

★★★★ out of 5

Review: Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

Gods MonstersTitle: Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach (2018)
Author: Kelly Robson
Pages: 176

This is a compelling little story that drops you into a future where ecological disasters have ravaged the Earth and time travel is now a possibility. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on in the first several chapters, but things are made more clear as time passes. The interplay between the chapter epigraphs and the main narrative was a really great feature that I enjoyed puzzling out.

As a setting, ancient Mesopotamia provides a fertile ground (wink wink) for time travel exploration, but the time spent there feels fleeting and underdeveloped. Similarly, the constraints of the novella format made it difficult to get a full grasp on the characters and their relationships. These are minor qualms, though, as I felt like this was a solid novella that certainly warrants a sequel.

★★★¼ out of 5

Review: Quietus

35464401Title: Quietus (2018)
Author: Tristan Palmgren
Pages: 512

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.


With the assistance of a Carthusian monk, anthropologists from distant planes of the multiverse study the spread of the Black Death on Earth to better understand the plague that is ravaging their home civilization.

Ah yes, the ol’ Carthusian monk meets transdimensional anthropologist story that we’ve all read a thousand times before. But seriously, this is a bold swing from a fresh new voice in speculative fiction. Author Tristan Palmgren deserves major points for creativity, even though this historical fiction/science fiction mashup wasn’t totally my cup of tea.

I very much enjoyed the characterization of the monk Niccoluccio Caracciola, who, aside from having a great name, was my favorite character to follow. He functions as a reader proxy, who experiences the infiltration of the anthropologists and gets swept up into a massive conspiracy while tackling his own internal conflict that evolves over the course of the novel. Niccoluccio’s perspective grounds the narrative in some semblance of reality before the story careens away into a somewhat convoluted direction.

Quietus functions most effectively when it’s focused on its historical fiction beats and stumbles as it delves deeper into inaccessible science fiction elements. This, combined with slow pacing, and a story that feels 150 pages too long, leads to a lower rating than I wanted to give. Author Palmgren has a knack for original storytelling, but the blending of two disparate genres didn’t quite work for me.

★★★ out of 5

Review: Semiosis

Semiosis.jpgTitle: Semiosis (2018)
Author: Sue Burke
Pages: 338

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

Upon arriving on Pax, a faraway Earth-like planet, human colonists seek to build a peaceful society despite territorial native plants and harsh conditions. The story is told over 100+ years and across several generations of settlers.

I immediately drew parallels between Semiosis and aspects of other recent works of science fiction — the multi-generational narrative of Children of Time, the planet colonizing and community building of Planetfall, and the alien communication angle of Arrival to name a few. As the story moves forward, though, this book forges its own path and becomes wholly original.

Author Sue Burke brings flora to life (both literally and figuratively) in such a skillful way that I was shocked to find that she is not a botanist-turned-novelist. Infusing plants with sentiency and agency adds an eerie quality to this book that was difficult to shake.

Structurally, the beginning sections were much more interesting to me as the time jumps moved us quickly from generation to generation, but things felt stagnant in the final few sections as the focus shifts to one pivotal event instead of years and years of progress. I see the value in altering the plot progression and story beats to keep things fresh, but things slowed down and got stuck focusing on some minutiae that was less appealing to me.

Nevertheless, Semiosis is solid debut novel that nicely executes a high-concept format. It’s disquieting, clever, and a change of pace from what I’m used to reading. I would be intrigued to see what sort of future Sue Burke could cultivate for future generations of the Pax commonwealth should a sequel bear fruit.

★★★¾ out of 5

Review: Iron Gold

Iron Gold.jpgTitle: Iron Gold (2018)
Author: Pierce Brown
Pages: 624
Series: Red Rising #4 (Series Tracker)

I have fond memories of the first Red Rising novel, but was less enamored with the subsequent two volumes. Because of this, I was hesitant to embrace Iron Gold, the first book in a new, tacked-on trilogy. Once I began, however, I found this to be a wholly worthwhile addition to Darrow’s story that breathes fresh life into the overall saga. This is popcorn sci-fi of the highest order.

Now utilizing multiple POVs to expand the scope of the story, author Pierce Brown tells four unique narratives, each engrossing in their own way. Brown does a good job balancing the POVs, but sometimes the story feels too expansive, with more characters and backstories than I could keep straight, even with a handy, inset character list. There’s certainly a heavier focus on house politics and family dynamics than I remember in previous Red Rising novels and I enjoyed that more than the bombastic, interplanetary space battles that featured so heavily in the previous two books.

Overall, Iron Gold is sprawling, electrifying, bloody, and represents a welcome return to form for the series. There is plenty of set-up for future novels, while featuring enough satisfying closure to contained storylines to be effective. I’m excited for what comes next!

★★★★¼ out of 5