Review: A Psalm for the Wild-Built

Title: A Psalm for the Wild-Built (2021)
Author: Becky Chambers
Pages: 160
Series: Monk & Robot #1 (Series Tracker)


While there’s nothing groundbreaking here, I breezed through this novella and it made for a very pleasant reading experience. 

Chambers storytelling style is straightforward and without frills, but the overall result is quite affecting. I’m eager for future adventures with Dex and Mosscap and learning more about the world of Panga.

★★★★

Review: Notes from the Burning Age

Title: Notes from the Burning Age (July 20, 2021)
Author: Claire North
Pages: 401


This is a book of loss and devastation, what remains, and what grows from the ashes of a broken world. North brings this plausible dystopian world to life with stark imagery and elegant prose. Although the premise has the components of a spy thriller, the story is definitely a slower burn. 

The overarching narrative never quite grabbed me, but the cat and mouse interplay between Ven and his on-again, off-again adversary/captor was really intriguing.

I had not read any of Claire North’s work prior to this novel, but I’ve come away impressed and excited to see what she writes next. 

As an aside, I hope Orbit sticks with Leo Nickolls and Siobhan Hooper for the cover art/design on future books. They did an outstanding job with this one.

★★★★

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

Interview: Lena Nguyen, author of We Have Always Been Here

The Speculative Shelf is very excited to welcome Lena Nguyen to the blog today to discuss her excellent debut novel, We Have Always Been Here (out July 6, 2021) from DAW Books.

You can find our review of the book here.

Publisher’s summary: Misanthropic psychologist Dr. Grace Park is placed on the Deucalion, a survey ship headed to an icy planet in an unexplored galaxy. Her purpose is to observe the thirteen human crew members aboard the ship—all specialists in their own fields—as they assess the colonization potential of the planet, Eos. But frictions develop as Park befriends the androids of the ship, preferring their company over the baffling complexity of humans, while the rest of the crew treats them with suspicion and even outright hostility.
 
Shortly after landing, the crew finds themselves trapped on the ship by a radiation storm, with no means of communication or escape until it passes—and that’s when things begin to fall apart. Park’s patients are falling prey to waking nightmares of helpless, tongueless insanity. The androids are behaving strangely. There are no windows aboard the ship. Paranoia is closing in, and soon Park is forced to confront the fact that nothing—neither her crew, nor their mission, nor the mysterious Eos itself—is as it seems.


1. We Have Always Been Here is a tense psychological sci-fi thriller. I found your writing to really convey tension in a palpable way. Is there anything specific you focus on in your prose/word choice to evoke this feeling?

Thank you so much for your kind words, and thank you for having me for this interview!

Writing suspense and tense scenes has always been a balancing act for me. Typically, I tend to focus on making sentences very fluid and stream-of-consciousness, sort of scattered in subject, in order to replicate how fast the character’s thoughts must be moving in those heart-stopping moments. I also employ a lot of structural interruptions—such as sentences that are cut off in the middle of their train of thought by sudden action—as well as a lot of rapidfire internal questions. Park, the protagonist of We Have Always Been Here, has a habit of thinking about a million things at once in order to make sense of her situation, even as someone is chasing her down a hallway or menacing her with a gun; so the narration is peppered with a lot of How could this be happening? What about the security guard? Did the killer get him already, or—

That kind of rapid movement and pacing really helps ramp up and maintain the tension of the scene, I think—though you have to be careful to avoid getting so hectic and frenzied that readers lose track of what’s going on!

2. Your story jumps back and forth between Dr. Grace Park’s present and past, as well as a mysterious viewpoint told through video log transcriptions — how did you decide on this structure? 

That’s a good question! Skirting spoilers as much as possible, I think playing around with space and time (and dreams and reality) is a large part of the book’s main conceit as well as a driving factor of its horror. The patients aboard the ship begin to have difficulty distinguishing between their waking states and nightmares. Park has difficulty making sense of the physical space of the ship; corridors seem to meld together, or turn into spaces that they shouldn’t, and you’re not really sure if this is due to her bad sense of direction or something else. Similarly, time begins to fold into itself in asymmetric ways: Park’s past and present (and future) become interconnected and hard to distinguish from each other, and you start to see in a very visceral way how her relationships with characters in the past are informing her relationships in the present: with her friends, android companions, adversaries, and even love interests. Eventually, past and present timelines get creased into the very same chapters or paragraphs as each other, instead of being clearly divided between “standalone” flashback chapters and present-day chapters—so the narrative structure of the book starts to reflect the overall progressive blending of space and time. I really wanted it to be this way from the start, partially to reflect what the characters themselves are experiencing on the ship, and partially because I knew that exploring Park’s past would be an important part of uncovering the mysteries that are plaguing the ship in the present.

As for the video transcripts, I’ve always been a big fan of the “found footage” genre of horror films. There’s an added layer to “found footage” in text and prose that really interests me—there’s something about the transcript format that leaves even more room for the imagination, subtext and space for the things unseen and unsaid. It allows you to fill in the gaps for yourself in a way that straightforward prose with an actual narrator doesn’t always allow. With a narrator, you have someone—even an omniscient, third-person observer—telling you what’s going on, laying out the scene for you, giving subtle shape to the narrative with their perspective and what they’re drawing your attention to. With “found footage” or the video transcripts, it’s more distanced, neutral: you are limited to what the “camera” records, what footage has survived, and you’re left to draw your own conclusions about what it’s all capturing (and not capturing). With the video transcripts in the book, you don’t initially know where or when all of this is taking place, who or what you’re embodying as the viewer, or the connection between when the videos were filmed versus when they were discovered versus when they were actually watched… It was another cool way to play around with space and time, alongside what was going on with Park!

3. Grace is one of two psychologists aboard the ill-fated Deucalion mission, which includes twelve other humans and a bevy of androids. What made you want to tap into Grace’s perspective?

Sonny from I, Robot (2004)

I feel like, in a lot of android media, we’re very preoccupied with the android characters’ journeys to becoming more human. We focus a lot on what happens to an android when it’s dropped into a human environment, how it adapts and learns and reacts to what’s going on around it. (Think Sonny in I, Robot.) And I was very interested in exploring the dynamic from the other way around: what happens to a person when their developmental stages are influenced very strongly by machine intelligences and android understandings of the world? How does that change them, alter the course of their personalities and even lives? Does it at all?

So the character of Park started with that question: what would a naturally introverted character be like if she was raised by androids? What would her thought process entail? I wanted to capture the comfort and security she might feel, surrounded by friends and family who are literally bound to never leave or conflict with her—but who still challenge her in certain ways, especially with their shortcomings. Vice-versa, I wanted to capture the alienation and skittishness she might feel about the unpredictability of human relationships and interactions, as opposed to the stability and safety of her android companions.

Her occupation as the ship’s psychologist stemmed from all of that. I feel that, in many ways, Park’s upbringing has made her into an observer of human activity, an outsider looking in, and her career in human psychology has been part of her effort to overcome that barrier. You see that persisting in her job on the Deucalion, as she’s tasked with observing what the other crewmembers are doing, always watching but never fully participating or understanding. That’s the perspective I wanted to tap into. She wants badly to understand, it’s a psychologist’s job to understand, but because she was brought up in such a different way, she faces certain obstacles that, say, a combat specialist or a pilot wouldn’t. Much of this book is about understanding, and what Park herself can or can’t comprehend, and her role as the ship’s orbiter and psychologist reflects that.

4. There’s a cinematic quality to this story and I think a film adaptation should surely be in order! Is there a film or TV show out there, sci-fi or otherwise, that you could say, “If you like X, you’ll like WHABH”?

Haha, thank you so much! When I was writing the book, a lot of the scenes played out in my head like cinematic sequences from a movie, so it would be an honor to see the story adapted for the screen!

The primary films that influenced the atmosphere and tension of We Have Always Been Here were Alien; I, Robot; Ex Machina; and Event Horizon, which are pretty much all science fiction murder mysteries or space horror films in some way. I think if people enjoy the book, especially the thriller aspects of it, they’ll definitely like those movies. (I mentioned I, Robot before, but the character of Sonny was a big influence in how I wrote Jimex, so that deserves another mention.)

I also thought a lot about how Stanley Kubrick filmed The Shining as a way to envision the disorientating and sometimes accordioning architecture of the Deucalion, so readers might enjoy the otherworldly, spatial impossibilities and claustrophobia there. I also think films like Arrival and Annihilation have ushered in a very cool age of sci-fi aesthetics that readers of We Have Always Been Here might enjoy.

Finally, I’m a big video game player, so some SFF games made their way into my writing of the book. For fans of We Have Always Been Here, I’d recommend checking out Detroit: Become Human, Dead Space, and Mass Effect.

5. What was the last great book you read? What are you reading now? What is next on your to-read list?

I’m a huge lover of fantasy, so everything I’ve read in the last year or so has been fantasy. I recently read two series that had a huge impact on me: the first would be the Daevabad trilogy by S.A. Chakraborty, starting with The City of Brass. The second would be the Chronicles of the Bitch Queen by K.S. Villoso, which starts with The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. Both series feature fascinating, complex, and flawed heroines (a little like Park, though I admit Nahri and Talyien are more badass); very lovely supporting casts; and spell-binding worldbuilding influenced by the magic of real-world cultures (Islamic and Filipino, respectively). I’m in love with both!

I am eagerly awaiting the next book in the Fire Sacraments series by Robert VS Redick, this latest offering being called Sidewinders. Robert is one of my favorite fantasy authors of all time, and Sidewinders releases on the same day that We Have Always Been Here does! So I’m very much looking forward to that!

6. Can you share what you’re working on next? Have you left the WHABH universe for good?

Right now, I’m in the earliest draft stages of my next novel, an apocalyptic fantasy I’m calling The Land of Salt and Bone. I haven’t decided yet whether it’s actually something like speculative fantasy, science fantasy, dieselpunk, or something else entirely… Basically, it’s Mad Max crossed with X-Men. There are assassins, gunfights, car chases across an apocalyptic and sometimes radioactive desert, the ghostly ruins of an advanced civilization, and mutant superpowers with very fun quirks and costs. The story mainly follows two assassins: one who accidentally picks up a pair of mutant twins in her bid to escape her past, and the other is a mercenary hired to kill the first. It’s very flashy and action-packed—different from the claustrophobia and darkness of We Have Always Been Here, but you might see a few subtle nods to characters from the Deucalion if you squint.

I always planned on We Have Always Been Here being a standalone story, but I know by now that you can never say never. As an undergrad, I wrote a novel set during the period of the Comeback—some hundred years before Park’s era in We Have Always Been Here—that I may revisit someday: that one’s about the plant armageddon and carbon pirates, both of which are mentioned in WHABH. So I might get back to that someday, or even visit other places in that universe, or even take a look at the Deucalion itself…

For now, though, I’m satisfied with how the pieces fell in Park’s story, and I think I hear the desert—both my home and The Land of Salt and Bone—calling my name.


Many thanks to Lena for her thoughtful, in-depth responses.

Order We Have Always Been Here on Bookshop.org

Review: We Have Always Been Here

Title: We Have Always Been Here (July 6, 2021)
Author: Lena Nguyen
Pages: 368


We Have Always Been Here is a gripping sci-fi thriller that twisted in unexpected directions and kept me hooked all the way to the end. There’s a real palpable tension and delirium infused into Nguyen’s writing that enhances what could have been a straightforward thriller into something much deeper, sharper, and stranger. I’m excited to see what Nguyen writes next, as this was an excellent debut.

★★★★½

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

Review: Fugitive Telemetry

Title: Fugitive Telemetry (April 27, 2021)
Author: Martha Wells
Pages: 176
Series: The Murderbot Diaries #6 (Series Tracker)


Fugitive Telemetry has all the trappings of a classic Murderbot story – trademark snark, funny situations, a compelling murder mystery, and a seemingly unfeeling security robot that feels feelings. Murderbot is back and just as good as ever.

★★★¾

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

Review: Light of the Jedi

Title: Light of the Jedi (2021)
Author: Charles Soule
Pages: 381
Series: The High Republic #1, Star Wars Canon (Series Tracker)


Charles Soule has the enviable (or perhaps unenviable) task of breaking in The High Republic, a new era of Star Wars storytelling. He does so in an admirable way with Light of the Jedi. A time of peace and prosperity in the galaxy far, far away quickly comes to a violent end and this book racks up an insanely high body count.

The story itself is a bit sprawling and unfocused, but there are some intriguing new characters, plenty of Jedi action, and a batch of ferocious antagonists never before seen in the Star Wars universe (think the War Boys of Mad Max). I’ll happily seek out more stories in this universe, but I’d say this was a solid but somewhat unspectacular welcome to the new era.

★★★¼

Top 10 Books of 2020

10. The Empire of Gold

by S.A. Chakraborty

…brings this expansive trilogy to a rousing conclusion…Chakraborty’s writing continues to impress and it flows beautifully once again in this book. …this trilogy is such an impressive achievement. FULL REVIEW


9. Riot Baby

by Tochi Onyebuchi

…visceral, staggering, and powerful…a satisfying read that packs quite a bit of fire into its limited page count. FULL REVIEW


8. Nophek Gloss

by Essa Hansen

Exciting, Inventive, and packed with imaginative ideas – Hansen’s debut space opera is the coolest novel I’ve read in some time. It’s hard science fiction at its finest. FULL REVIEW


7. The Obsidian Tower

by Melissa Caruso

…I had a really fun time with this book. Each page crackles with magic. Caruso’s writing flows well and moves the narrative forward at a swift pace with a steady stream of action and court intrigue throughout.  FULL REVIEW


6. Call of the Bone Ships

by RJ Barker

Barker absolutely stuck the landing with this second book of the Tide Child trilogy...Every moment spent voyaging through Barker’s Scattered Archipelago is incredibly satisfying. I highly recommend this series. FULL REVIEW


5. Piranesi

by Susanna Clarke

It was a real delight to be lost in the labyrinthian walls of Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi…this is a cracking good read that I’d recommend to anyone looking for a brief escape to a more hopeful world. FULL REVIEW


4. Greenwood

by Michael Christie

Add this title to the growing trend of excellent books about trees that have sprouted up in recent years….Christie’s prose is beautifully composed and his descriptions of nature are stunning. I’d recommend this to any lover of nature or fan of epic family sagas.  FULL REVIEW


3. The House in the Cerulean Sea

by TJ Klune

TJ Klune has written something truly wonderful here – a positively delightful book that warms the heart and soul. Each page brims with life and joy and it gives me hope for a better world. I’m not sure what else you can ask for from a book. FULL REVIEW


2. The Vanished Birds

by Simon Jimenez

This is an exceptional debut novel. Simon Jimenez is clearly a skilled storyteller and is an exciting new voice in science fiction. His prose is beautiful and in The Vanished Birds he seamlessly weaves multiple threads into a tightly-plotted tour de force…[It’s] a profound and deeply human story told on an epic scale across millennia. I loved it. FULL REVIEW


1. Black Sun

by Rebecca Roanhorse

This is pitch perfect epic fantasy. Everything works so well together — propulsive pacing, exceptional characters, excellent world-building, and a fascinating mix of cultures, politics, religion, and lore…one of the best books of 2020. FULL REVIEW


Review: Nophek Gloss

Title: Nophek Gloss (2020)
Author: Essa Hansen
Pages: 480
Series: The Graven #1 (Series Tracker)


Caiden is on a quest for vengeance after his family’s subjugation and slaughter. His anger and hatred are unrelenting. His desire to quench his thirst for vengeance fuels the main quest of this novel. Caiden’s journey to enact revenge is brutal but not without a beating heart. Whether blood-related or found-family, his love for his family drives everything.

Exciting, Inventive, and packed with imaginative ideas – Hansen’s debut space opera is the coolest novel I’ve read in some time. It’s hard science fiction at its finest.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

My thanks to Orbit for the review copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Greenwood

GreenwoodTitle: Greenwood (2020)
Author: Michael Christie
Pages: 528


Stretching from the near future to the distant past…and then back again, Greenwood tells a beautiful multi-generational story of love, loss, and the meaning of family in all shapes and forms. 

Add this title to the growing trend of excellent books about trees that have sprouted up in recent years. Author Michael Christie shines a light on humanity’s relationship with trees through the eyes of each main character. Some fight for the preservation and protection of trees at all costs, some craft beautiful art from their component parts, and some heavily exploit them in the name of capitalism. Ultimately, Greenwood speculates a future “Great Withering” of Earth’s trees as rapid climate changes leave our towering friends vulnerable and dying.
Greenwood Ring Structure
Christie cleverly uses the cross-section of a tree trunk to organize the nested storytelling structure. Each subsequent section feels tangentially related to the section before it, but as the connections between events and characters become more clear, the full picture emerges, especially in the back half of the book, where we revisit each era once again. I slowly worked my way through this novel and found myself fully immersed in each individual character and story. Christie’s prose is beautifully composed and his descriptions of nature are stunning. I’d recommend this to any lover of nature or fan of epic family sagas.

★★★★½ out of 5