Genre: Science Fiction

Review – Navigational Entanglements

Posted April 11, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Review – Navigational Entanglements

Navigational Entanglements

by Aliette de Bodard

Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 176
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Using the power of Shadows generated from their own bodies’ vitality, Navigators guide space ships safely across the Hollows: a realm of unreality populated by unfathomable, dangerous creatures called Tanglers. In return for their service, the navigator clans get wealth and power—but they get the blame, too. So when a Tangler escapes the Hollows and goes missing, the empire calls on the jockeying clans to take responsibility and deal with the problem.

Việt Nhi is not good with people. Or politics. Which is rather unfortunate because, as a junior apprentice in the Rooster clan, when her elders send her on a joint-clan mission to locate the first escaped Tangler in living memory, she can’t exactly say no.

Hạc Cúc of the Snake clan usually likes people. It says so on her resume: “information gathering”—right after “poisoning” and “stabbing.” So she’s pretty sure she’s got the measure of this group: they’re the screw-ups, the spares; there isn’t a single sharp tool in this shed.

But when their imperial envoy is found dead by clan poison, this crew of expendable apprentices will have to learn to work together—fast—before they end up cooling their heels in a jail cell while the invisible Tangler wreaks havoc on a civilian city and the reputation of all four clans.

I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Aliette de Bodard’s Navigational Entanglements has quite a bit going on for a novella, with a bunch of worldbuilding around the navigators, their clans, the Empire, the politics between them, and the dangers of creatures that lurk out there in space. Việt Nhi, a junior, is sent with a couple of others (none of whom get along very well) to find and kill a tangler, a strange creature whose touch can kill humans. Predictably, things don’t go to plan.

Việt Nhi likes secrets and she likes rules. She likes to understand what’s at the root of things, because that’s easier to understand than the shifting rules of conversation and interaction with peers. She’s quickly drawn to one of her companions, Hạc Cúc, because even though she’s dangerous and relationships don’t usually seem to go well anyway, Hạc Cúc seems to understand a bit of what makes her tick, and want to work with it. Meanwhile, Hạc Cúc is struggling with her own feelings of inadequacy, her worry that she isn’t half as kind or capable as her mentor, her expectation that she’ll hurt those around her.

It makes for a pretty sweet romance, as each goes out on a limb for the other, and the bond that forms between them is also part of what makes the story come together. Their relationships with the other characters are less central, but also part of what makes it all tick — I got pretty caught up in whether they’d all come through for each other (and it didn’t feel like a foregone conclusion).

It works well at novella length, providing a story that’s both a glimpse of a larger world and complete in itself as far as Việt Nhi, Hạc Cúc and their motley band go. There are surely other adventures ahead of them, and there’d be room for a sequel — but it’s also complete in itself.

I did have to chew on this a bit to decide how much I liked it, because it wasn’t something I instantly connected with, but I enjoyed it the more for thinking over it.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Permafrost

Posted February 23, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Permafrost

Permafrost

by Alastair Reynolds

Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 182
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Fix the past. Save the present. Stop the future.

2080: at a remote site on the edge of the Arctic Circle, a group of scientists, engineers and physicians gather to gamble humanity’s future on one last-ditch experiment. Their goal: to make a tiny alteration to the past, averting a global catastrophe while at the same time leaving recorded history intact. To make the experiment work, they just need one last recruit: an ageing schoolteacher whose late mother was the foremost expert on the mathematics of paradox.

2028: a young woman goes into surgery for routine brain surgery. In the days following her operation, she begins to hear another voice in her head... an unwanted presence which seems to have a will, and a purpose, all of its own – one that will disrupt her life entirely. The only choice left to her is a simple one.

Does she resist... or become a collaborator?

Alastair Reynolds’ Permafrost took a while to get going for me: the structure does make sense, in retrospect, but at the same time it felt like quite the barrier to understanding what exactly was happening. A conventional start would’ve been less memorable, of course, but this one definitely doesn’t hold your hand.

That’s pretty much a theme with this one: there’s a complicated plot which involves time travel of a kind, and that can make it difficult to follow. There were one or two points where I was thinking… you’re a time traveller, you know about paradoxes, why are you doing this? Also another where I wondered, hang on, isn’t everything going to be undone in just a moment by you telling him to — ?

I’m not 100% certain, still, whether that actually all made sense to me in the end. It felt like it did, but looking back at it I want to pick gaps into it (as often happens with anything time travel related). It’s an entertaining idea, all the same, a striking hard SF novella, and I enjoyed it while I was reading it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Heartstopper: Become Human

Posted February 20, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Heartstopper: Become Human

Heartstopper: Become Human

by Alice Oseman

Genres: Graphic Novels, Romance, Science Fiction
Pages: 126
Series: Heartstopper #0
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Alice Oseman reimagines the scenario of Detroit: Become Human with Nick and Charlie, where Charlie is a grumpy detective and Nick is his android police partner.

Heartstopper: Become Human is an alternative universe comic based on the characters of Heartstopper, by Alice Oseman herself. It’s based on the video game Detroit: Become Human, but you don’t need to know the game in order to understand the story — it’s pretty self-evident, though I’d bet there are some lovely touches if you know the game as well. It’s available for free on Alice Oseman’s Tapas page.

It’s Nick and Charlie, but not as we know them. They’re adults, they’re in a much more serious situation, and at first it takes a long time for Charlie to warm up to Nick (who is an android, and thus isn’t supposed to have feelings, warm or otherwise). As ever, their connection is something special, and I really enjoy Oseman’s art style: it’s distinctive but always clear, with unmistakable character in each panel.

I read this in a flash, and had a lot of fun. Some of the same Heartstopper feels, in a tiny AU package.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Iron Children

Posted February 11, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Iron Children

The Iron Children

by Rebecca Fraimow

Genres: Fantasy, Science Fiction
Pages: 159
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Asher has been training her entire life to become a Sor-Commander. One day she’ll give her soul to the gilded, mechanical body and fully ascend. She’ll be a master of the Celesti faith, and the commander to a whole battalion of Dedicates. These soldiers, human bodies encased in exoskeletons, with extra arms, and telepathic subordination to the Sor-Commanders, are the only thing that’s kept the much larger Levastani army of conquest at bay for decades.

But while on a training journey, Asher and her party are attacked, and her commander is incapacitated, leaving her alone to lead the unit across a bitterly cold, unstable mountain.

It should be fine. She has the terrain memorised, and Sergeant Barghest is exceptional at their job. But one of the Dedicates is not what they seem: a spy for the enemy, with their own reasons to hate their mechanical body and the people who put them in it.

To get off the mountain alive, Asher and her unit will need to decide how much they’re willing to sacrifice—and what for.

Rebecca Fraimow’s The Iron Children packs a lot into quite a small space. The basics are easy: there are two nations at war, and one of the tools used by one side against the other is the ability to turn people (Dedicates) into mechs, who are deployed under a fully mechanical commander who can take control of their bodies when needed (or wanted).

We get just a glimpse of how things are supposed to work, before things go south and Asher — a young training officer, still human for now — has to take charge of the situation. It’s all pretty claustrophobic as we follow the unit through an avalanche and into a cave system, and we know that one member of the group is a traitor. It’s not immediately obvious who, because their sections are written in first person. The switching between first and third is a little odd sometimes, but it makes sense for telling this particular story.

There’s a heck of a lot of potential to the world, but mostly the story stays focused on this particular group and the frictions between them, which helps it feel very immediate and urgent. Like I said, claustrophobic, as well.

The ending feels slightly unsatisfactory; it’s not clear to me exactly what Asher intends to do, or how she and Barghest are going to conceal the fallout of what happened — if they are. Won’t people work it out quickly? I don’t always need my stories wrapped up in a tidy bow, but I could’ve used a little more here at the end. Otherwise, though, I found this one pretty compelling.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Tusks of Extinction

Posted February 7, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Review – The Tusks of Extinction

The Tusks of Extinction

by Ray Nayler

Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 101
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

When you bring back a long-extinct species, there’s more to success than the DNA.

Moscow has resurrected the mammoth, but someone must teach them how to be mammoths, or they are doomed to die out, again.

The late Dr. Damira Khismatullina, the world’s foremost expert in elephant behavior, is called in to help. While she was murdered a year ago, her digitized consciousness is uploaded into the brain of a mammoth.

Can she help the magnificent creatures fend off poachers long enough for their species to take hold?

And will she ever discover the real reason they were brought back?

I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I’ve been curious about Ray Nayler’s work for a bit, since my wife enjoyed The Mountain in the Sea, so I was quite interested in giving The Tusks of Extinction a shot. The blurb left me a bit unsure, though, wondering if it’d feel maybe a bit goofy and weird, with a human in a mammoth body.

Well, the execution worked out well, tying in Damira’s memories and past with how she’s experiencing the world now as a mammoth, with different senses and different priorities. It took a few pages for me to orient myself to what exactly was going on, but that’s very much intentional, because Damira’s a little lost in the memories too.

I was going to talk about one of the threads being rather weak, but actually looking back on it, I was wrong to think so. There are basically three threads: a rich hunter (from the point of view of his husband), Damira, and the son of a poacher. They do all three meet and make sense of each other, giving each other meaning and casting the point of the story into relief — and Vladimir’s point of view in particular really added emotional shading to the story, beyond just the obvious outrage of Damira.

Definitely eager to try more by Nayler now.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Panic

Posted January 26, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Panic

The Panic

by Neil Kleid, Andrea Mutti

Genres: Graphic Novels, Science Fiction
Pages: 124
Rating: one-star
Synopsis:

Ten strangers, trapped beneath the Hudson River, are forced to depend on their fellow commuters in order to survive an apocalyptic event. Those left must fight their way through more than rubble to make it to safety. But the darkness is closing in, and with it their own individual fears and paranoia. It’ll be a long road to the end of the tunnel…that is, if they don’t kill each other before they get there.

Neil Kleid’s The Panic follows ten characters who are thrown together by chance after a train crash. They’ve all been going about their normal lives, heading into New York for their own reasons, like heading to a protest. One guy’s wearing a MAGA hat, others are heading to a Black Lives Matter protest, etc. This is basically the conflict of the story: every five minutes they all stop to argue, as they are fundamentally incompatible and apparently incapable of putting that aside in a greater cause.

I found it all really difficult to follow, given the multiple interrupting speech bubbles — it felt sometimes like every page had one interruption. On the one hand, it’s a great way of representing the total Babel of people all talking at once at cross-purposes, but it hurt the story’s ability to feel coherent.

Overall, it just didn’t hang together well for me, and didn’t bring anything new to the genre of “sudden apocalyptic events throws a bunch of people together and it goes badly”.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – Clean Room vol 3: Waiting for the Stars to Fall

Posted January 9, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Clean Room vol 3: Waiting for the Stars to Fall

Clean Room: Waiting For the Stars to Fall

by Gail Simone, Walter Giovani, Sanya Anwar, Quinton Winter

Genres: Graphic Novels, Horror, Science Fiction
Pages: 144
Series: Clean Room #3
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

In this new installment of Gail Simone's Clean Room, go back to the beginning to learn how Astrid was first affected after her hospitalization...through the eyes of one who cannot see what she sees: her would-be assassin and brother, Peter Mueller.

Then, a young woman devastated by the violent loss of her husband finds comfort in Astrid Mueller's teachings, only to face the woman herself in the most nightmarish reaches of the Clean Room!

The third volume of Gail Simone’s Clean Room cleans everything up — more or less, though one shouldn’t get too strict about the definition of “clean up” here. The world’s definitely a mess at the end, and the book doesn’t chart the recovery, or even really the recovery of the main characters, just the very beginnings of it. Assuming that Chloe ever does recover.

There’s plenty of gore and creepiness, as you’d expect from this series, now including a creepy, creepy baby.

I would say that I didn’t quite understand Astrid’s behaviour throughout the book; part of it seemed inconsistent and left me with definite questions about what was going through her mind, which weren’t really answered. And it felt like things were resolved very quickly, as if the story had to be jammed into this final volume — it made Astrid’s solution feel a little too easy.

Still, a fun series, especially if you’re more into horror than I am!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – An Unnatural Life

Posted January 4, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – An Unnatural Life

An Unnatural Life

by Erin K. Wagner

Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 192
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

The cybernetic organism known as 812-3 is in prison, convicted of murdering a human worker but he claims that he did not do it. With the evidence stacked against him, his lawyer, Aiya Ritsehrer, must determine grounds for an appeal and uncover the true facts of the case.

But with artificial life-forms having only recently been awarded legal rights on Earth, the military complex on Europa is resistant to the implementation of these same rights on the Jovian moon.

Aiya must battle against her own prejudices and that of her new paymasters, to secure a fair trial for her charge, while navigating her own interpersonal drama, before it's too late.

I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

It’d be easy to dismiss Erin K. Wagner’s An Unnatural Life as being a simple allegory for racism, and there are definitely elements there drawn a bit too straightforwardly from that (invented slurs such as “robot-lover” are a bit obvious, as is the mob that gathers outside Aiya’s home when she chooses to be 812-3’s legal representative). But I think it’s a little more than that, because we also have the issues of free will and responsibility, of whether 812-3 was in love with a human or whether he was compelled/manipulated to believe he was, of whether his actions were his own or compelled, and where the difference comes in.

The author talks on her website about being interested in “how the human responds to the nonhuman, artificial, supernatural, or otherwise”, and this book comes directly out of that. It’s hardly a mere retelling of To Kill a Mockingbird set in space, because Aiya’s far from being Atticus for quite a few reasons — and there is no wide-eyed innocent Scout being disillusioned here.

It ends unsettlingly, unresolved, in a way that’s sticking with me. It does feel like the journal inserts weren’t quite tied in with the rest — thematically they made sense, but it feels like a whole story going on there that didn’t quite join up. The mood is melancholy, in the midst of what could’ve been a triumph. I definitely found it an interesting read.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Trace of Copper

Posted December 31, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – A Trace of Copper

A Trace of Copper

by Anne Renwick

Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction
Pages: 115
Rating: two-stars
Synopsis:

New recruit to the Queen's agents, Dr. Piyali Mukherji is given a simple first assignment. Travel to the small Welsh village of Aberwyn and solve the mystery of a young woman's blue skin lesion. A challenging task, for the alarming infection is unlike anything she's seen before—and it's spreading.

Evan Tredegar, the town's pharmacist and the only man to ever capture her heart, knows more than he's telling. Despite his efforts to push her away, her touch reawakens old desires. As more villagers fall victim to the strange disease, he'll have no choice but to reveal his secrets, even if it means sacrificing his freedom.

Together they must move past broken promises, capture a rogue frog, and stop the infection before it spreads out of control.

I was really fascinated by the idea of Anne Renwick’s A Trace of Copper. Steampunk set in Wales, with a female Indian doctor main character and chasing down a mysterious disease — sounds like it has my name on it, right? And there were things to like about it, though the infectious disease concepts are introduced in ways that feel really clunky to me. Sometimes it manages to bring across genuine concepts in epidemiology, and then sometimes they miss something blindingly obvious like starting to plot the known cases on a map. (Granted, they don’t have many cases yet, but how else do they really plan to track the spread they’re fully expecting to occur?)

I also cringed hard at Piyali using the names of infectious diseases to swear. Just… super pretentious. If you want me to believe this is a biologist, you don’t need to have her doing something a child might do to show off what long words they’ve learned. At first when she exclaimed “schistosomiasis!” I thought she was making a diagnosis and the author was just laughably off-base with how schistosomiasis is contracted, what it does to the body, etc… but nope. She’s just using it as an exclamation instead of “oh my goodness!” or “oh no!”

Aaand then the two main characters were too busy boning to keep their minds on the politically and epidemiologically important disease they were meant to be tracking and attempting to cure. I’ll give a pass on their supposed mechanism of cure and the speed of it working (and indeed of them finding a cure), and of the fact that they totally ignored the likelihood of resistance arising if you’re gonna use a monotherapy… because I expect this was written by a layperson and it’s sweet that they made this much of an effort to begin with. I suspect it’d go down easier for someone who doesn’t study infectious diseases, though.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Clean Room vol 2: Exile

Posted December 21, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Clean Room vol 2: Exile

Clean Room: Exile

by Gail Simone, Jon Davis-Hunt, Quinton Winter

Genres: Graphic Novels, Horror, Science Fiction
Pages: 144
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Journalist Chloe Pierce had no idea that her fiance Philip's decision to pick up a book by enigmatic and compelling self-help guru Astrid Mueller would change her life forever--by ending his! Three months after reading Mueller's book, Philip had blown his brains out all over Chloe's new kitchen and something in that book made him do it.

Now, Chloe will stop at nothing as she attempts to infiltrate Mueller's clandestine organization to find the truth behind Philip's suicide and a "Clean Room" that she's heard whispers of--a place where your deepest fears are exposed and your worst moments revealed.

Volume two of Gail Simone’s Clean Room certainly goes some more places. The horror hasn’t worn off, because it keeps hinting at deeper mysteries, and the rabbit-hole of weird keeps getting deeper. It still feels to me like any real explanation would defuse a lot of the unease that makes the story work — you know the type of thing: “This Big Bad is actually an alien from the planet Blarg, and it actually wants to…”

Simone avoids that and instead gets us deeper involved in what’s going on with tantalising hints and wheels within wheels. It’s still difficult to entirely like the characters, and that still doesn’t matter a ton; somehow you’re along for the ride with Astrid and Killian and Chloe, all the same.

Definitely going to read the third volume, and I hope it stands up to the promise so far.

Rating: 4/5

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