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Mini Review: MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood

maddaddamIf you haven’t read Oryx and Crake or The Year of the Flood, you should do so before reading this book, or this little review, as it may contain spoilers.

A small group of humans and “Crakers”, genetically modified humanoid beings created by Crake, have survived the devastating plague that has wiped out much of humanity. This book picks up right where The Year of the Flood left off and deftly weaves together the stories from those two books into one cohesive, fascinating whole.

I didn’t read Oryx and Crake when it first came out; I actually only read it because I got The Year of the Flood as a review copy. But I’ve been entranced throughout by the way that Atwood has constructed this particular post-apocalyptic world. I admired the world-building in the first book and the characterization of the second; MaddAddam combines these two aspects. These few remaining people are creating a new reality and new myths to support that reality. The past is important, but which elements of the past get remembered? It’s a key question in this novel as we watch what the characters to do to pass on those myths to future generations.

I’d highly recommend all three of these books; I actually suspect they’d be best read together in one go, which I didn’t manage to do. But however you read them, make sure you don’t miss this excellent trilogy.

All external links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

Review: The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker

the age of miraclesWhen Julia is eleven years old, the rotation of the earth begins slowing down. Life changes in at first imperceptible ways as days and nights lengthen, but the potential consequences for the planet are huge. As a young girl just coming into her teenage years, though, Julia continues growing up. Plagued by loneliness, introverted Julia discovers things about those she loves, much of which she’d rather not know. She suffers through crushes, choosing what to wear, learning how to flirt, and deciding what she wants to do with her life, while all the while in the background the earth’s rotation starts to narrow the possibilities.

This is a short, intensely thoughtful book, a coming of age for Julia amidst speculation on what would actually happen if an apocalyptic event, no matter how minor at first, took place. When the books starts everything is normal. Julia has a best friend, a crush, piano lessons, soccer, school; over the course of the book, some of these erode away as the fabric of life changes drastically. People suffer from lack of daylight and some crops no longer grow. Animals, and then people, get sick. While there is time to plan, there is never enough time, and the future is consistently uncertain.

Growing up in this climate makes life even more difficult for Julia. She’s shy and has no idea how to act around potential friends or boyfriends. Everyone and everything is changing around her and she feels left behind and as though she’s standing still. It is so easy to feel for her and understand that transition period between girlhood and womanhood, when you’re not quite sure if all of the other girls know what they’re doing but you feel they must be ahead of you. The earth is slowing and, to an extent, so is Julia. This is what makes the book so introspective – we spend the entire time inside Julia’s head, only really understanding her perspective on things and finding what changes her.

I liked this book; I liked the way it made me think about how much we take the world for granted (a lesson everyone needs sometimes) and what would happen if things changed so catastrophically. I wouldn’t have minded if the book pushed this further, though, in the vein of a full science fiction novel. Some of the effects this might have on civilization are explored, but not in that much depth. I also liked Julia, although at times she was too internally focused even for me. Some of the interactions she has with other characters are just uncomfortable, which I suspect is the point. I’d also have liked the book to last longer; at the end we’re told she’s 23 but that skips out a decade of her life, so it feels as though the plot threads aren’t wrapped up properly.

Overall I felt I’d finished The Age of Miracles looking for more; this was a wonderful concept and I enjoyed it, but I really just wanted to spend more time learning about what might happen and where Julia’s life went after that year.

All external links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

Series Love: The Confederation novels, Tanya Huff

a confederation of valorIf someone had told me five years ago that I would read a series that was ultimately military science fiction and absolutely love it, I would have laughed at them. Well, maybe not out loud, but I wouldn’t have believed a word.

Enter these books, and my younger self is completely proven wrong.

Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr is the star of these books. She’s a tough Marine who takes her responsibility for her people very seriously, which is one of her most endearing traits. They’re her Marines, and her primary objective (aside from following orders) is always to bring them home.

the heart of valorBut these aren’t books that are simply full of missions. Though each one is shaped around a particular mission, even in a sense the last one, they’re also very character-focused, especially on Torin. Her essential nature never changes, but she begins to understand a number of aspects of the world around her as the books go on, and she adapts to every circumstance. While she’s clearly in charge, the books also switch viewpoints to focus on the Marines. I’m not in the military, and would prefer to keep it that way, but I couldn’t have imagined a better depiction of what must happen when a trained group of people form for the exclusive purpose of fighting other people. I will admit freely that I often forgot the names of some of these Marines, because they change from book to book (with a few exceptions) but the sense of camaraderie and spirit remains the same.

This is science fiction, and as such, a lot of the books are spent in space or exploring distant worlds. As I am both unfamiliar with the military and with actual space travel, the first book took an investment of time for me to actually sink into the world. The aliens come with particularly defining characteristics that do make their species easy to remember, though, and reminders for these are sprinkled throughout the books without ever becoming overwhelming. I read them in quick succession, and I never felt that I’d read that the Krai ate anything too many times. Usually, Huff works these details into the plot well.

the truth of valorSpeaking of plots, they’re very well done. Though each is a mission of sorts, the circumstances around them are entirely different. Each book builds on the overarching plot and takes the opportunity to make a story that spans not only one book but the whole series. While each concludes and doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, I always wanted more, and bought the last two books at once because I knew I wouldn’t want to stop reading.

And, you wouldn’t predict this going in, certainly not until the third book, but there is even some romance in these books, although it’s the subtle, heart-felt kind of romance that I think I love the best of all.

Once you’ve reached Heart of Valor, in my view, the series becomes golden, and I loved every minute of the last three books. The set-up in books 1 and 2 (combined now as the omnibus A Confederation of Valor) is 100% worth it. This is beautifully character-focused science fiction, excellent for both those who like their spaceships and those who need strong, relate-able characters in their books. Very highly recommended.

I bought all of these books.

Review: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Lois McMaster Bujold

captain vorpatril's allianceIvan Vorpatril, never regarded as one of the brightest in the Miles Vorkosigan series, gets his own book in the Vorkosigan saga with Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance. Consigned to a relatively minor military governance role, Ivan’s life is relatively peaceful and his job is one that he does well. That is, until his cousin Byerly Vorrutyer appears on the same planet and informs him of a plot against a woman in the same exact city. A gentleman at heart, Ivan goes to investigate and befriend said young woman, and before long finds himself more or less accidentally married.

I’ve written a lot about how much I love the Vorkosigan Saga and thus it’s no surprise that I actually preordered this book as soon as I discovered its existence. Ivan is mentioned a lot in the saga as Miles’s less intelligent cousin who ends up involved in a great number of the latter’s schemes, and it was a great idea to give him his own story so we could finally see inside his head. Because I actually waited a few months to read this book, I’ve seen a number of reviews and read quite a few opinions already, and I do have to agree that while this particular installment isn’t as amazing as some of the other books in the series, it’s a lot of fun and worth reading.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is a book that is very well-plotted, with events taking place at all turns, and a certain elegance to the way that all of the various schemes by all of the characters play out at the end of the book. It felt a good deal lighter than some of the previous books in the series, though, perhaps because the life-or-death circumstances generally aren’t quite as severe as the situations that have faced Miles. Really, they’re over by the time that Ivan and his surprise bride, Tej, get married, and a lot of the rest of the book has to do with how that particular couple get on both with one another and with some of Tej’s family.

A lot of the ensemble cast from the rest of the series appear, too; some of them only appear for a few pages, but they do add a certain something to help the book fit in with the universe. For this reason, though, I think a new reader of the Vorkosigan saga would end up confused, as there are a number of little in-jokes and references to the world that would simply pass them by. This is definitely one for those who have already read most of the series. Chronologically, it takes place in the years before Cryoburn, and it wouldn’t surprise me if preferred reading order later places this in front.

Overall, though, I had a lot of fun with Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance and it’s certainly worth reading for those who have enjoyed the rest of the saga.

All external book links are affiliate links. I purchased this book.

Review: All Clear, Connie Willis

all clearThis review will contain spoilers for Blackout. You should always read that first before you read this book or this review!

Mike, Polly, and Eileen have finally found one another in the midst of the London Blitz in 1941, but they’ve discovered, to their dismay, that none of them can get back to their own time. Oxford in 2060 is several lifetimes away and they may need to resign themselves to living in the Blitz forever. They keep trying, however, sending messages to the future and coding things to let their time travelling cohorts find them more easily, and slowly the pieces of how they got lost in the past start to fall together.

These two books - Blackout and All Clear - have received a lot of criticism for being too long and under-edited. I’ve seen plenty of cynical remarks to the effect that two books sell more copies than one. I am going to say that I never really felt that way. They were long books, yes, but perhaps I read through them so quickly that neither dragged for me. After I finished Blackout, I immediately picked up All Clear so I could get right back into the disrupted lives of these three time-travelling characters.

I was glad that, not too long into this book, the plot threads start to go together and everything begins to make more sense. While the first book was about each character’s realization that they are trapped in an incredibly dangerous historical period, the second book is about how they will get themselves out of that and what actually happened to a few of the other characters mentioned in the previous book. They are still very much required to deal with the situation, but everything actually wraps up. There were a couple of characters introduced in the first book without any real background story and their roles were clarified and we did figure out who they all were.

Everything I loved about the first book is still true; the atmosphere remains fantastic throughout and I appreciated that we continued to get a feel of the different parts of the war, too. The main focus is really on London and precisely what happened, and there are some very tense and dramatic scenes as the characters fight to keep themselves and others alive. Willis really can make you feel as though you’re in the midst of each and every struggle with the characters.

There isn’t much else I have to say about this book that I didn’t say about the first, but rest assured that if you are looking for a dramatic read set during World War II and don’t mind or would love a little time travel in your books, this is a duology well worth reading. Highly recommended.

All external book links are affiliate links. I purchased this book.

Review: Blackout, Connie Willis

blackout connie willisIn 2060, humans have discovered time travel, and it’s now a fantastic method for historians to get a real view of what happened in the past. For three young historians, England during World War II is the destination of choice. Eileen, or Merope in 2060, is assigned to be a maid in a country house, looking after evacuees. Mike Davis finds himself posted to just before Dunkirk to watch the boats depart. Polly Sebastian, meanwhile, heads straight into the heart of the London Blitz. Each goes armed with knowledge to survive his or her particular assignment and full knowledge of where their “drop” points are and when they’re meant to check in. But, around the same time for each of them, things start to go wrong, and these historians find that rather than simply observing history, they have to live it.

I put Blackout on my pile for Long-Awaited Reads Month and am I glad – this is a book I shouldn’t have put off for a year. There were many aspects about it that I really, really liked, and by the time I reached the end, I was thrilled that I had All Clear on the shelf waiting for me to pick this story back up again. The book doesn’t really end, it just cuts off, and there are many loose plotlines left dangling for the second book to pick up again. I’ve since had a poke around the internet and I’m fortunate to have picked it up after All Clear was published; one big complaint for early readers is that they were left hanging for an entire year. I’m happy that won’t happen to me.

While my edition of this book is over 600 pages long, I found that it fled by as I got wrapped up in the individual problems of Eileen, Mike, and Polly. My previous experience with Willis’s time travel books is Doomsday Book which I also loved, so I was prepared to get deep inside each character’s mind as everything starts to go wrong. I actually found the whole process that each of them went through really fascinating – they’re all so confident in their ability to escape at will that they don’t really think much about where they’re going. Polly, for instance, gets an implant with each and every bombing incident during the part of the Blitz that she is meant to experience, so she’s not meant to be in any real danger. Instead, she’s assigned to just watch how those who are actually in danger experience it, and that’s all she expects. Of course, when the drop doesn’t open and she realizes that she’s actually stuck in the middle of the London Blitz, and sometimes has no real way of actually knowing where and when is safe, her perspective completely changes.

At that point, when the three of them start to wonder about what’s happened to their retrieval teams and their drop points, they each start to actually live in the midst of World War II. There is some element of repetitiveness, as a lot of what they experience is quite similar; there are meant to be retrieval teams that investigate if they haven’t returned at a certain point, and they each spend a lot of time pondering their arrival. In addition, they start to worry that they’ve affected history, despite the apparent truth that historians can’t alter history, particularly Mike, who finds himself seemingly changes events at a critical period in World War II. Not only do they panic about what happens next to themselves, they start to feel as though they genuinely *don’t* know what’s going on in the war.

I particularly loved how Willis depicted ordinary heroism in the face of extraordinary danger. At times, particularly during the bombing raids, her descriptions reminded me how devastating a war this was for London and that it didn’t happen all that long ago. Even for people who weren’t that close to the bombs, living with the reality and unpredictability that each night might be their last took an incredible amount of courage. The atmosphere that she evokes is incredibly well done. One of my very favorite parts of the book had a Shakespearean actor getting up in the middle of an air raid shelter and going through monologues to distract the others in the shelter. That scene is going to stay with me for some time.

Blackout is a book that I had an amazing time with, but don’t read it unless you have All Clear ready to go immediately after – otherwise, you’ll be frustrated that it ends in the middle with no resolution whatsoever. So far it looks like I’ll be recommending these!

All external book links are affiliate links. I purchased this book and its sequel.

Review: Cryoburn, Lois McMaster Bujold

CryoburnMiles Vorkosigan, one of the Barrayaran Emperor’s right-hand men, has been sent to investigate rumors of bribery and corruption on a world which focuses heavily on the cryogenics industry before those industries get involved on Barrayar. On Kibou-daini, almost everyone gets frozen either before or very immediately after their deaths, which has led to a huge bureaucracy built up around the industries that supply this freezing technology. Miles, a man whose life was saved by cryo technology, isn’t going to fault them for wanting to avoid death, but what he does find is a cold, corrupt industry that fails to look after those who have entrusted their lives to the future.

Like many others have said before me, Cryoburn isn’t really a novel that stands up the same as the other Vorkosigan novels do. While Miles is still the main character, he is no longer growing and changing; he’s the same disarmingly clever and ingenuous man as always, but he’s now completely matured and committed to the world as he knows it. Not many of the series’s other recurring characters appear in this book; Ekaterin features in just one scene and we don’t even get to visit Miles’s children. The only one with Miles is Armsman Roic, although a few familiar faces appear in the latter half of the book. The stakes aren’t quite as high here either; sure, things are  messed up on Kibou-daini and for many of the people Miles meets, but he himself is out of danger and off investigating fairly quickly.

For what it was, though, I quite enjoyed it. I liked meeting the side characters and seeing Miles through a different set of eyes yet again, especially those of the children. Jin with his menagerie was a charming character, although I didn’t really understand why he was so adamant about running away from his aunt, especially if she let him keep his animals outside. Even the other Barrayarans on the planet with Miles were entertaining, and I liked what Bujold did with those stories too. It was a book that I enjoyed reading, but it wasn’t a book that would have made me fall in love with the series as I have over the past year and a half.

That said, then the ending happened, and I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. I know the next book in the series features Ivan, not Miles, but seriously, after that? I had to take a break from reading to recover for a while. It totally wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t had the accumulated feelings from the entire series, I think; each of the little snippets was heart-breaking in its own way. Another reminder that this is a series which belongs all together, and it’s not worth reading from it without starting at the beginning.

As with all the Vorkosigan books, this series is highly recommended. Start with Cordelia’s Honor or Young Miles!

Review: Fledgling, Octavia Butler

A young, dark-skinned girl awakens in the woods, unsure of who or what she is, burned across the huge majority of her skin, with massive head injuries. Shori slowly begins to understand the world around her and recall knowledge, but her past is lost to her. Though she has the appearance of a ten or eleven-year-old girl, Shori is actually fifty-three years old, a vampire, and needs blood to survive. Genetically modified to survive in the sunlight and stay awake during the day, Shori is anathema to some of her kind, and her very nature makes her a target and a threat to all she holds dear.

When Aarti proposed this week’s A More Diverse Universe blog tour, I knew immediately that I wanted to read something by Octavia Butler. I have for some time now, and this gave me the perfect excuse to finally get one of her books – the bookstore near me never seem to have them in stock – and actually find out what her writing style was like. I was rewarded with a vampire book that genuinely made me think about racism, with a few telling moments, but which also provided a story that I found compelling and interesting.

The main thread of the story focuses on the fact that someone is trying to kill Shori and the quest to find out who it is and bring them to justice. She doesn’t necessarily realize this at first, as she’s forgotten everything that happened to her. But slowly it becomes obvious that she is the target. Whether it’s because she has dark skin amidst pale, blond vampires, because she’s human, or because she’s genetically engineered, Shori must face up front people’s bigotry and dislike of her based on factors that she can’t control and that have nothing to do with who she is.

The fact that Shori has lost her memory gives the story a perfect way to impart this information to us, and there was indeed a considerable amount of detail on the Ina societies and how they sustain themselves. Despite the fact that Shori’s life is under threat, this isn’t really a book with a lot of action; some of the final scenes take place in a courtroom of sorts, rather than with violence. I found all of the detail really interesting and the way the society was fleshed out held my interest throughout. It was a short book, so I didn’t feel it was moving slowly at all in this respect.

The one aspect that made me vaguely uncomfortable was Shori’s age appearance. Picturing her as a ten year old sleeping with a twenty-five year old man really wasn’t a pleasant mental image. It’s easy to understand that their lure is incredibly strong, but it still put me off when scenes of that nature occurred.

The real attraction of the book, anyway, is how Butler questions the racism of the people around Shori. It could be any number of reasons why, and she experiences several of them to a certain degree. For example, on questioning a human who has just tried to kill her, Shori is presented with the strange dichotomy of a racist who can love a black person that he is related to, but is still racist against all black people. After he calls her filthy names, he continues saying:

I didn’t mean to call you … what I called you. My sister, she married a Dominican guy. Her kids are darker than you, and they’re my blood, too. I would kick the crap out of anyone who called them what I called you.

And indeed Shori faces this problem several times – a person can know and love someone who appears different from him or herself, but remain racist against others just like them.

All in all, Fledgling is a very thoughtful book, vastly different from most out there featuring vampires, and definitely recommended.

For more blogs on the tour and to view the great range of reviews already, visit the tour schedule. Huge thanks to Aarti for organizing this fantastic week!

Review: Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson

red marsIn 2020, John Boone sets foot on Mars for the first time. Seven year later, 100 colonists arrive, a mix of Earth’s most intelligent people best suited to create a new world in order to deal with the ever-more-crowded Earth. The new colony has been completely prepared for them, with large deposits of materials dropped on the planet over the course of several years, and it’s up to the colonists to set everything up and determine the future course of Mars. As ever, divisions appear almost immediately, between those who aim to preserve the beauty of the planet, those who would like to turn it into another Earth, and those who serve a corporate agenda, among many others. Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel is an epic journey into precisely what it might be like to create an entirely new civilization in the face of pressures from many varied directions.

I took a leap into a new territory with this book and I’m very glad I did. Red Mars is an example of so-called “hard” science fiction, the sort that actually makes plausible sense and has been thought through from a scientific perspective. I chose to buy it because I really wanted to read 2312, but thought I should probably go for a cheaper paperback before I decided I knew I wanted to read the newer release. Red Mars is one of Robinson’s best known books and has garnered a huge amount of high ratings – and that choir is one I’m about to add my voice to.

That’s because I really loved this book. It took me a very long time to read, about a week and a half, which is intense for me, but I was really savouring it and getting involved deeply into the world that Robinson creates around the new Mars. I loved some of his descriptions so much that I even marked out pages, something that I virtually never do. Here is one of my favourites:

She recalled vaulted ruins she had seen years ago on Crete, at a site called Aptera; underground Roman cisterns, barrel-vaulted and make of bricks, buried in a hillside. They had been almost the same size as these chambers. Their exact purpose was unknown; storage for olive oil, some said, though it would have been a n awful lot of oil. Those vaults were intact two thousand years after their construction, and in earthquake country. As Nadia put her boots back on she grinned to think of it. Two thousand years from now, their descendants might walk into this chamber, no doubt a museum by then, if it still existed – the first human dwelling built on Mars! And she had done it. Suddenly she felt the eyes of the future on her, and shivered. They were like Cro-Magnons in a cave, living a life that was certain to be pored over by the archaeologists of subsequent generations; people like her who would wonder, and wonder, and never quite understand. (145)

That passage sums up a lot, to me, about why this book is such a wonderful read. It really is a civilization, but it isn’t exactly created from scratch; instead it’s created from our culture, that which is already all around us, and it’s an incredibly intriguing vision of a future that might yet be. This is science fiction’s purpose, to make us consider what might happen in the future, and I was hypnotized by Robinson’s version of that future.

That’s not to say that the characters aren’t brilliant in their own ways, too. We only spend time with a few of the first 100, but by getting to know them, we experience a whole range of pure human emotion. The span of the book is fairly lengthy, and by the end, most of the first hundred have grown older, old enough to see the civilization they essentially birthed take on a life of its own. But while they are celebrities for that, they are also just people, with all of the little struggles and drama that all of this entails. Despite their intelligence, they suffer grief and loss and experience love and joy in equal measure; they might all be clever but they completely disagree in many ways, and the fabric of civilization stretches and tears to accommodate their dynamic personalities.

It’s all just plain fascinating. There is a small amount of science in this book; they do build various things to help keep them alive, after all, but I never felt particularly overwhelmed or frustrated by any of it. Instead, it just seemed plausible, that the author had considered all sorts of odds and ends that others don’t, and the pure logic behind it made the entire book that much more credible.

In short, a fantastic read, and highly recommended if you’ve ever wanted to try science fiction, or are looking for an addition to your speculative fiction library.

And just to round this post off, two more quotes:

He was losing the crowd. How to say it? How to say that they alone in all that rocky world were alive, their faces glowing like paper lanterns in the light? How to say that even if living creatures were no more than carriers for ruthless genes, this was still, somehow, better than the blank mineral nothingness of everything else? (17)

“The beauty of Mars exists in the human mind … Without the human presence it is just a collection of atoms, no different from any other random speck of matter in the universe. It’s we who understand it, and we who give it meaning. All our centuries of looking up at the night sky and watching it wander through the stars. All those nights of watching it through the telescopes, looking at a tiny disk trying to see canals in the albedo changes. All those dumb sci-fi novels with their monsters and maidens and dying civilizations. And all the scientists who studied the data, or got us here. That’s what makes Mars beautiful. Not the basalt and the oxides.” (212)

Review: Embassytown, China Mieville

embassytownEvery book I’ve ever read by China Mieville has started with me feeling off-balance and uncomfortable. He has an utterly unique, in my experience, talent for feats of imagination in science fiction that are so completely unlike anything familiar but that manage to make a point about the world that we live in at the very same time. To some extent, his books require the reader to just let go, assume that we aren’t going to understand every detail of the worlds that pour out of his amazing brain, and to simply absorb the story he’s trying to tell.

Such is the case with Embassytown. We begin with our narrator, Avice, half telling the story as a small child and half as a grown woman facing the consequences of a diplomatic assignment in Embassytown. I felt like it took a while for me to actually grasp the world, but once I did, I fell right into it. Now that I’m a little more accustomed to reading science fiction, I noticed that either this took less than time in some of the previous books of his I’ve read, or that this one is more accessible, but there was still that period of confusion that slowed the start.

In the world he’s created, or rather in the world that contains a city called Embassytown, ordinary humans rely on the native alien race, the Ariekei, to construct their world using their biotech skills. Buildings, power, even replacement body parts are built using Ariekei technology. But communicating with the Ariekei is a challenge, as they can only speak absolute truth, and they have two voices which speak at the same time. To say something, they must witness it happening, and those who are chosen to act out these bits of language are special. Those who actually speak with the Ariekei are called Ambassadors, and are two people chosen and made to be exactly the same, so that their voices will resonate in a way that the Ariekei can understand.

The primary thing I loved about this book was the way that Mieville plays with language. I’ll keep quiet on the reasons why this becomes important, but he highlights the different aspects of language and the subtle ways we shift into metaphors to express what we’re trying to say, and how we can morph those all the way into lies. I found that aspect particularly fascinating.

Like other Mieville books, I didn’t really fall in love with any of the characters, not even Avice, but I found myself wrapped up in their story once I knew what was going on, and the book to be satisfying read afterwards which kept me thinking about it once I’d finished.

I wouldn’t recommend Embassytown to someone who wasn’t comfortable being tossed in and working out what was happening as the book went on, but for those who do enjoy speculative fiction, Mieville is a must-read.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.