This is, really, what the three previous novellas have been building up to, so it’s suitably epic. I’ll try not to say too much, given that spoilers for this book kind of spoiler the others as well, but suffice it to say that Murderbot returns to help out their humans (mostly meaning Dr Mensah, but also her team), gets shot at a lot, has emotions a lot, and tries not to get hugged or anything truly dangerous like that.
It’s obvious that something like this was coming from the build-up, at least in terms of the reunion, but it’s satisfying all the same to watch it happen. Murderbot is still Murderbot, but it has done a bit of growing and a bit of soul-searching. It might not know what it wants in the long term, but in the short term it has some pretty ironclad priorities. It might complain about its own competence constantly, but it gets the job done.
It’s surprising to me how satisfying I found this series as a set of novellas; normally I find novellas a bit frustrating, with a few exceptions, but I think Martha Wells planned things out well here and made the novella structure work. I’m glad that Network Effect is up next, though: I’d like to spend a bit more time with Murderbot.
Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight Before NASA, Amy Shira Teitel
The problem with the early history of missiles, which came to enable space exploration, is apparently that it’s mostly about Nazis. Wernher von Braun ends up being the main focus of the narrative because he was deeply involved in rocketry all along, and unfortunately the author takes a tone that sees him as a visionary, nobly defending his precious and important project…….. by becoming a Nazi, accepting slave labour to assist in building it, and — she doesn’t mention this, somehow, mysteriously — being accused along the way of actively helping to torture prisoners.
Many ordinary people got caught up in the Nazi party, but most of them wouldn’t try to defend themselves by claiming their project was too important to abandon. Hiding behind the importance of his project is what skeeves me out more than anything with von Braun — and what skeeves me out with Amy Shira Teitel is how little she bothers to grapple with that fact. You’re writing about a Nazi, and that requires careful handling, and for the love of God you should not be suggesting that the ends (protection of the missile programme) might justify the means (the brutal use and torture of prisoners), even inadvertently. You should be so careful about that that the accusation could never arise.
Amy Shira Teitel… was not. Her enthusiasm for rocketry is clear, but her judgement is sorely in question. In addition, because I could not possibly care less about fucking Nazis, I found a lot of the book difficult to read and frankly tedious. Oh! It’s another explanation of how clever von Braun is and how carefully he protected his team of scientists from dying in the war! What a shame he couldn’t do anything about the torture and deaths that facilitated his programme.
This might be my least favourite of the series, just because I find Miki annoying (as Murderbot does!) and the ending rather sad and… it kind of drifts off: it sets up for the next book, of course, and moves onto that pretty seamlessly, and that makes sense, but for me this feels a little like filler at times.
Which is not to say it’s not still fun: watching Murderbot crankily care about humans and pretend not to, and watching it react to Don Abene’s pet bot is a whole series of character moments. It still features Murderbot doing what Murderbot does best. But… I miss ART, and Ratthi, and the other characters that are more central (if not in terms of the plot, in terms of how much Murderbot cares).
So yeah, not a favourite, but don’t let that put you off — it’s still fun, and still important.
In some ways, this doesn’t really feel like one of Lorac’s books. It’s not quite a John Dickson Carr, but there’s something overly convoluted about it, and a bit less of the good-heartedness I think of when I think about Lorac. Her characterisation of Macdonald feels slightly different — he’s still a solid, good man, but he feels more stereotypical as a Scotsman, and it just… feels very typically of that era.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing, because I enjoy books of that era — that’s how I even discovered E.C.R. Lorac in the first place, of course. But it feels like she hasn’t quite found her voice, maybe, in this one… and I’m not too surprised that this is one which seems to no longer be available anywhere, even second hand, as Martin Edwards says in the introduction.
It remains an enjoyable little puzzle, though it withholds some key information to make the puzzle difficult to solve. I do not have a mind for anagrams, but even if I did, I don’t think you get all the information you need about a particular character in order to figure out whodunnit and why.
Spitting Blood: The History of Tuberculosis, Helen Bynum
I was enthusiastic for this book, because I’m enthusiastic about tuberculosis, but my actual research for my dissertation only extended to the current state of affairs in the UK (with a sprinkling of context from other countries that helped explain patterns of prevalence). Unfortunately, it’s very dry, and kinda lacking in real… judgements about the narrative. Like it’ll discuss a particular type of treatment, but only historically, without reference to whether it actually worked, what the off-target effects might be, why it might work on the occasions that it did actually work.
It does have some scientific detail, but it’s more along the lines of why people thought x and y. As the narrative gets toward the present day, there are some more details — and some I didn’t know, like the fact that the need for multi-drug regimens was known pretty early on. I thought the reason resistance arose was because monotherapy was used exclusively until quite recently, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.
(Part of the complication is that TB is just really very tricky, without any need for monotherapies giving it the chance to mutate. It has great efflux systems to pump most types of antibiotics out of the cell, it gets inside your macrophages and then makes the phagosome unable to fuse with the lysosome so it can sit pretty inside your cells, and it has a whole bunch of potential mutations that allow it to neutralise the main antibiotics in some way or another. This info isn’t in the book, this is from my dissertation, though.)
Anyway, it filled in some of the background knowledge I lacked, but it was dry and lacked urgency. I found Kathryn Lougheed’s Catching Breath far better back when I first read it, when it was the book that got me interested in TB to begin with!
Aaaand straight on to my possible favourite book of the series: Artificial Condition. Featuring ART, the Asshole Research Transport, who is way smarter than Murderbot, loves its crew, and manages Murderbot brilliantly to help it do things that it doesn’t want to do (but which are good for it — like posing as a Security Consultant, and appearing more human).
Honestly, the plot of this book doesn’t particularly rise above the others: it’s the fact that ART is a key character that makes it the best. The relationship between ART and Murderbot is great, and I love them sitting down together to watch media. It feels weird that ART actually only has a place in the second book, because like Dr Mensah, it takes up a big part of Murderbot’s development.
Ah, my favourite Murderbot (even counting Legion from Mass Effect). I’m revisiting partly before reading Fugitive Telemetry, partly for SciFiMonth, and partly because sometimes you just need a little bit of Murderbot in your lives. All it wants to do is settle down quietly to watch its media, and honestly, I agree (although I’d be reading and not watching).
It’s also pretty relatable how much it hates having feelings and everything to do with feelings. Like, darn humans, darn organic parts, I just want to watch my media and not have feelings. Yep, Murderbot, I feel you. I also feel your connections to your humans, and how you can’t quite stop yourself trying to do a good job for them, even when you think the Company is shit and your skills are shit and the clients are shit.
The other nice thing about Murderbot is that the books are so bitesize. 150 pages is a good size for an episodic sort of story, and also for the amount of thinking my brain’s up for at the moment. There’s enough here to chew on and to feel satisfying, and each book builds on the last, but still… it’s a bit Monster of the Week, and I enjoy that Wells uses the format well like that.
The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, Olivia Waite
I picked up The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows from where it had been patiently awaiting me on the shelf more or less on a whim… and got immediately sucked in. At first I couldn’t quite see how Agatha and Penelope were going to work — and in that sense the book was very much a slow burn and definitely put the work in! I believed in it without question by the end, for sure — and I also believed that they would be good for one another.
Agatha and Penelope are both rather independent, but each in their own way, bringing their own strengths to the partnership. Agatha is practical, focused on her goals of managing her business and her son as he comes of age-but she lacks idealism and joy. Those things aren’t lacking around Penelope, though she has yet to find her voice and her joy. From being quite unlike, you quickly come to understand why they complement each other and work well as friends — better than they might have imagined.
They are the main characters, of course, but there’s much to enjoy in the supporting cast: Penelope’s ‘husband’ and his real relationship with Penelope’s brother; the shocking and unrepentant poet, Joanna Molesey; Sidney, Agatha’s son, and Eliza, his lover… the supporting cast all have their charms and their stories, and help to bring the story to life.
Another aspect some readers will be keen on is the fact that Agatha and Penelope are mature women: Agatha has an adult son, after all! This isn’t a story of blemishless, stunning young women, but one of women who have lived, and enjoy that in one another. Pretty as the cover is, too, it’s misleading — Agatha and Penelope are average women, not higher class debutantes.
To my surprise, the book fell together for me very well, despite my initial scepticism about the characters and how they’d fit together. And their little revenge against closed-minded prigs in their community is rather enjoyable…
One Last Stop was a lot of fun. I thought that the blurb itself kind of spoiled part of that fun, though: there’s very little mystery about… let’s call it the central problem of the book. If you read the blurb, the first 90 pages of the book may be lacking something for you, since you know something the characters can’t know. On the one hand, you might not quite figure out the genre of the book, since it reads as plain ol’ contemporary romance, and on the other, well, plenty of romance has that kind of plot device. (Thinking of Susanna Kearsley here…)
There’s plenty to love other than that, of course: the lovable cast of characters (especially Niko) are basically the queer found family that many queer people in their 20s dream of, and the ups and downs can be both funny and painful, sometimes at the same time. In some ways, I suppose it tries very hard to be acceptably quirky and to make the found family feel very relatable… but that’s all part of making you feel part of it.
Sometimes I felt like the pace was a bit off, and that time would pass in these big jerks that get covered by a paragraph… but it took me longer to read it than I’d have liked, only to end in me mainlining the last 100 pages in an evening, so part of that is also my reading pace.
Again, it’s difficult to review without being either incomprehensible (to those who haven’t read any of this series) or spoilery (for those who have). There are some twists that are quite anxiety-making, some developments that have been a long time coming, and some moments where you think everything is surely about to go terribly wrong (and some moments where things do go terribly wrong). That’s not saying much about the book, though, since it’s true of many books and definitely of every book in this series — but the fact that all those elements are there keeps the pages turning swiftly, almost too swiftly, toward the end.
I love how far all the characters have come, and how much more the world has been developed, and the subtleties in relationships that have developed and changed since the first book. You wouldn’t expect to arrive here, starting at the beginning, but each step along the way has made sense.
I’ll probably read some of the other books in this world in the end, but not yet. For now I want to let it sit.