Category Archives: Science Fiction

Remote Control

Africanfuturism science fiction about a radioactive girl

Note: Since publishing this review I have been advised that the author prefers the term “Africanfuturism” to describe her work, and more information about the nuance and differences between “Afrofuturism” and “Africanfuturism” is available via her blog.

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I have read a previous book by this author, and I was really excited to read more of her work. The cover design is exceptional. It is so evocative and really captures the heart of this book.

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Image is of a girl glowing green with hoop earrings, a bald head and a shea tree superimposed over her face

“Remote Control” by Nnedi Okorafor is a science fiction novella about a teenage girl known as Sankofa. Wandering from town to town in a Ghana in the not-too-distant future, the people she visits scramble to meet her every whim from excellent food to new clothes to her favourite: room temperature Fanta. In exchange, Sankofa doesn’t kill them with her mysterious green glow. As the book progresses, more about Sankofa and how she came to possess her unusual abilities is revealed.

This is a fantastic book with an excellent sense of place. I absolutely love how Okorafor writes science fiction, blending African culture with technology to explore interesting ideas about humanity. Sankofa is a great character whose innocence is gradually replaced with ruthlessness in her quest for survival. I loved her fox sidekick Movenpick. Okorafor leaves plenty of room for interpretation and explores themes of technology, religion, corruption, superstition and violence. The writing itself is just exquisite. Like in her book “Binti”, Okorafor’s descriptions are so tactile: she transports you beneath Sankofa’s shea tree and into her shoes as she journeys across the Ghanaian landscape.

This is a quick and impactful book that will leave you breathless, and I cannot wait to read more of Okorafor’s work. There is nobody writing science fiction like this.

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Machine

Science fiction space opera

Content warning: disability (chronic pain)

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publicist. It is part of the broader “White Space” series and takes place in the same universe shortly after the events of “Ancestral Night“. However, it is a different story with different characters and I don’t think there would be significant spoilers if you started with this book.

Machine (White Space, #2) by Elizabeth Bear
Image is of a person floating in space beside a ring-like space station

“Machine” by Elizabeth Bear is a science fiction novel and the second novel in her “White Space” series. The story begins shortly after the previous novel, but this time follows new character Dr Jens, a trauma doctor who travels through space medical on rescue missions on an ambulance ship operated by an Artificial Intelligence known as Sally. When she and crew mate Tsosie board a ship from another era called Big Rock Candy Mountain and docked with a ship belonging to an alien species from a different atmosphere, they initially grapple with how to possibly transport the survivors safetly to the multi-species space station hospital known as Core General. However, when Dr Jens is tasked with finding out what happened to the mysterious survivors, she uncovers far more than she bargained for.

This is a compelling book that explores fresh aspects of Bear’s intergalactic society called the Synarche and the way humanity has come to exist within its social and technological parameters. Bear reintroduces the idea of using technology to suppress and control emotions and builds on the theme of human augmentation through Dr Jens’ exoskeleton which allows her to move while minimising the impact on her chronic pain syndrome. I really liked how Bear contrasted modern humans’ perspectives about ‘tuning’ emotions and how out of control ancient humans must have been against Dr Jens’ actual meeting with someone from that era. I also enjoyed how Bear explored a different space profession, and the kind of training and personality traits you need to have to be basically a cosmic paramedic. I don’t think that I have ever before read a fiction book before that tackles the issue of chronic pain.I found it to be a nuanced and interesting characterisation that focused more on the experience of living with chronic pain rather than the cause. Again, I enjoyed the aliens and I enjoyed learning more about Cheeirilaq’s species and how different species with different survival requirements can co-exist on the same station.

However, like the previous book, I found this one about a fifth too long. It is a nearly 500 page book and by about 400 pages I felt like the story should have wrapped up. I also found the relationships in this book a bit frustrating. A brief five minute conversation with one character, for example, was enough to forge an almost unbreakable emotional bond and I think Bear relies a bit too heavily on telling the reader about relationships rather than showing. Like the previous book, a lot of the book is the protagonist’s own thoughts and although I appreciate the series is concerned with aspects of the human psyche, I think that that the strongest scenes were dialogue between characters rather than Dr Jens ruminating on the same things over and over.

Ultimately, I did enjoy this book more than the previous one and found Dr Jens a more relatable and interesting character. A creative take on the genre, this book is worth a read if you enjoy spaces operas and human augmentation.

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Everworld: Search for Senna

Young adult fantasy series about another world of gods and Vikings

Content warning: racism, homophobia, child sexual abuse

When I was a kid, I was a massiveAnimorphs” fan. I spent all my pocket money on a Scholastic subscription which, every month, delivered two books, a newsletter and a poster. I faithfully waited each month for the next delivery and collected nearly 30 books in the series. Although I was hooked on the books, I noticed the quality of the subscription had dropped over time and I had started receiving photocopies of newsletters I had received in earlier parcels and some arrived with no poster at all. Disappointed, I asked my mum to cancel the subscription. However, I was still desperate to read the books. In my home town, my primary school was right next to the town library and my siblings and I would often wait there for a short while after school while for one of our parents to collect us. We were all pretty quiet kids, and the librarian Yvonne was more than happy for us to browse and borrow books. She and I struck up a pretty good rapport, and she was soon ordering in each new “Animorphs” book in specially for me as soon as they were published. Many years later, I am still tying to finish my own collection though I have since found out that a large proportion of the books were ghostwritten. I knew that around the same time, the author had published another series but for some reason or another I never read it. When I came across a copy at the Lifeline Book Fair, I thought I would give it a try. It’s taken me a while to muster up enthusiasm though because this is honestly one of the ugliest cover designs I have ever seen. Not even the gold foil can redeem it.

Image is of “Everworld: Search of Senna” by K. A. Applegate, a hideous book with a digitised green wolf with amber eyes over an inexplicable purple whirlpool, overlaid with gold foil including a gold symbol like a mask over the wolf’s eyes. I’ve set it at an angle next to a silver goblet and a bronze bowl, and honestly it was the best I could do.

“Search for Senna” by K. A. Applegate is the first book in the “Everworld” series, a young adult speculative fiction series. The story is narrated by David, a pretty typical American teenager with a kind of unusual girlfriend called Senna. One evening he humours her and promises that when the time comes, he would save her. However when he and some classmates find themselves drawn to the lake, something terrible happens and the world turns inside out. He and the three others find themselves in a terrible place with no sign of Senna and no way to get home.

This is a much more mature book than the “Animorphs” series and I was really surprised at how progressive it was considering it was published over 20 years ago. Early in the book, African-American character Jalil talks about police bias against black men. Applegate also touches on homophobia and alludes to the abuse of a boy at a summer camp. I understand that she uses a similar style to her previous series: an ensemble cast with each book told from a different character’s perspective. This story focuses mostly on David’s experiences and emotional struggles, particularly in the wake of his parents’ divorce. Despite having fantasy elements, the book also blends science fiction themes and reminds me quite a lot of “Stargate” with its alternative explanation for ancient gods and the people who worshipped them.

Although I liked the characterisation, I did find the premise and plot a little uninspiring. Norse mythology is and continues to be a very popular theme in fantasy and I have been finding it a bit hard to muster up enthusiasm for Loki et al. While David felt quite fleshed out as the point of view character, I didn’t feel particularly connected to any of the other characters which wasn’t helped by David being the new kid and not knowing them well himself. Although Christopher and April had clear connections to Senna, it wasn’t really explained what Jalil had to do with anything. Despite some of his astute if caustic observations about inequality and the general situation, he in particular did not feel very well-rounded.

A hard-hitting, action-packed series for a slightly older audience, I’m not sure I’m hooked enough to read the second and I’m not sure my bookshelf aesthetics would cope.

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The Constant Rabbit

Speculative fiction about an England where rabbits are anthropomorphic

Content warning: discrimination, disability

I’ve mentioned this author a couple of times on here previously: once when I saw him speak at an event and got my book signed, and when I reviewed one of his books. I really enjoyed hearing him speak about writing funny books, and he is one of the few authors who makes me laugh aloud. While we are all waiting eagerly for a sequel to his novel “Shades of Grey”, I was thrilled to see that he had a new release this year and even more thrilled that it appeared to be about rabbits. I don’t think anyone would be surprised to know that I love rabbits and without even reading the blurb this book had considerable appeal to me.

Image is of the cover of the book “The Constant Rabbit” by Jasper Fforde pictured with my brown and white rabbit Ori. Her ears are in a similar position to the ears on the book’s cover.

“The Constant Rabbit” by Jasper Fforde is a speculative fiction novel about an alternative England with anthropomorphic rabbits. For over 50 years, rabbits have been able to walk upright, speak, have jobs, start families and have become the target of considerable discrimination. Public servant Peter Knox works in a seemingly innocuous job and lives an unassuming life with his daughter in a small village. However, when two rabbits and their children move in next door, Peter must confront his past and his own role in the anti-rabbit policy to force England’s rabbits to move to a MegaWarren in Wales.

Image is of the book “The Constant Rabbit” by Jasper Fforde standing upright next to my brown and white rabbit Ori who is losing patients with being photographed

I was absolutely the perfect audience for this book and I enjoyed it from start to finish. This was a really amusing book that had me laughing aloud at multiple points. However, it is also a really clever book and the rabbits are a fantastic allegory for racial politics in the UK today. Fforde presses the reader to consider the whole spectrum of bigotry from failing to speak out against discriminatory jokes all the way to outright violence and vilification. It was also really interesting to see how Fforde interwove typical British politeness with conservative, exclusionary views. Peter was an excellent, complex character who struggles to reconcile his own progressive views with the system he implicitly supports through his work. The interactions between himself, Constance Rabbit and her husband were among the funniest parts of the book. I also really liked the way Fforde wrote about disability focusing on individuals and accessibility rather than the particulars of the disability itself. Fforde also leaves plenty to the imagination when it came to how rabbits became anthropomorphic, though I loved the interlude of an alternative history for the Big Merino in Goulburn.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable and extremely relevant book and I cannot wait to see what Fforde comes up with next.

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To Hold Up the Sky

Collection of science fiction short stories

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher, and I was really excited to read it. I have read the first book in this author’s trilogy previously, and have been meaning to read more of his work, so this is the perfect interlude.

“To Hold Up the Sky” by Cixin Liu and translated by multiple translators is a collection of science fiction stories set primarily in China. There are 11 stories in the collection set in the past, present, future, on earth and in the furthermost reaches of outer space.

Liu is a very creative writer who is contributing significantly to the genre of hard science fiction. Using quite a classic science fiction style, he explores fascinating ideas about maths, science and humanity through a Chinese lens. Science fiction is a genre dominated by Western-, and particularly American-, centric ideas and reading stories about alien encounters, time travel and the future of humanity from a non-Western perspective is unbelievably refreshing. Although all the stories contained in this collection are vastly different in subject-matter, I felt that they were all connected by the theme of trying to reconcile the macro with the micro. Liu also explores a number of real-world issues in his books such as industrialism, government surveillance and control, poverty, war and environmental issues. He writes confidently and creatively about physics and mathematical concepts, assisted significantly by his background in computer engineering.

I really enjoyed the first story The Village Teacher which was about the different a small piece of information and fortuitous timing can make to the survival of an entire race. I also enjoyed The Time Migration, a new take on the idea of remaining in stasis to re-emerge in a new era, and The Thinker which was as much about platonic love as it was about finding a pattern in the stars. However, I think Contraction was the one that really stuck with me in a brilliant yet disturbing way.

Although I enjoyed a lot of the stories, there were some that felt a little slower than others. Even though it had some interesting concepts around humans being raised as farm animals for an alien race, Cloud of Poems didn’t really capture me overall. Full-Spectrum Barrage Jamming was very heavy on military tactics, something that I find a bit hard in sci-fi, and even though it had some fascinating ideas about the impact of predicting the future on society, Mirror took a really long time to get there.

A thought-provoking collection that is a must for sci-fi fans.

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The Sea

Speculative fiction novella about humanity’s connection with the ocean

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author.

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“The Sea” by Sophie Jupillat Posey is a speculative fiction novella about a man called Amos who wakes in the morning drenched in saltwater after disturbing dreams about the sea. Somewhat of a misanthrope, Amos spends most of his time alone. However, when he reconnects with his estranged sister and attends his nephew’s birthday party, he realises that he is not the only one in the family with this unusual connection to the ocean.

This is a story with an original premise that invites the reader to imagine a physical embodiment of the sea to explore the harm humanity is inflicting on the marine environment. Amos undergoes a considerable amount character development in this short novella evolving from someone apathetic about the world to someone passionate about a single cause. Jupillat Posey writes vividly and takes her concept to the extreme and envisions a world completely renewed.

Although Amos changes significantly towards the end of the book, he is a difficult character to empathise with. His disdain for those around him is challenging to read at times, and I did find myself wondering why he was chosen over others, including his nephew, to experience this journey.

A thought-provoking book about pressing environmental issues and isolation.

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The Ask and the Answer

Young adult science fiction novel about fascism, colonialism and sexism

Content warning: fascism, colonialism, slavery and sexism

This author is one of my favourite young adult authors, and I was thrilled to meet him some time ago at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. After the event, he signed a copy of my book and was quite excited to see my name. He told me that he had a talking horse with this name in his series “Chaos Walking”, which at the time I hadn’t read yet but was thrilled to hear. Angharad isn’t exactly a common name in books. Since then I read the first book, but had yet to meet Angharrad the talking horse who it turns out is introduced in the second. If you haven’t read the first book yet, I recommend you read my review of “The Knife of Never Letting Go” instead. Like the previous book, this 10 year anniversary edition has striking black tinted edges and very subtle embossing of slightly shiny black text on the matte cover. It has been sitting on my shelf for far too long.

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“The Ask and the Answer” by Patrick Ness is the second book in the young adult science fiction series “Chaos Walking”. After discovering the truth about what happened to the women of Prentisstown, and meeting Viola, the girl who came from offworld, Todd and Viola arrive in Haven to find that it has been surrendered Mayor Prentiss, who now refers to himself as President of New Prentisstown. Todd and Viola are quickly separated, and Viola is placed in a healing clinic with women healers while Todd is locked up with the former Mayor of Haven. While recovering from her gunshot wound, Viola discovers that there is an underground resistance movement. Meanwhile, Todd is put to work supervising enslaved individuals of the planet’s native species, the Spackle. Unable to contact one another, Viola and Todd start to question their trust in one another.

This is an incredibly hard-hitting novel that picks up immediately where the previous one left off. Ness had already begun to explore the inequality between men and women caused by men developing Noise – the unchecked ability to project their thoughts to everyone around them – as a consequence of colonising the planet in the previous book. However, in this book he explores this issue far deeper and makes vivid connections between the way the Spackle are enslaved and controlled, and the way the women of New Prentisstown are enslaved and controlled. Towards the end of the book, Todd asks men who have been complicit in detaining, assaulting and marking women who they believe is going to be next.

Ness does an excellent job of character development in this book, really exploring what it means to be a man in Todd’s world. Juxtaposing Todd against Davey, Mayor Prentiss’ son, he examines how the two boys react to being made to brand Spackle and direct them to engage in slave labour. He also explores how Mayor Prentiss introduces Todd to control and violence so gradually in a way that is reminiscent of the progression of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, and little by little Todd becomes complicit himself in the very things he condemned. I also found Mayor Prentiss’ use of information as a means of control equally chilling, and Ness draws all these themes together, driving the story towards an explosive conclusion.

One thing that always stands out to me about Ness’ writing is its sophistication, and his ability to reckon with complex themes in a way that doesn’t speak down to young adults but converses with them. A frequent complaint I have of second books in trilogies is that they are often a bit of a sagging bridge between the first book and the last. However, similar to “The Secret Commonwealth“, I actually thought this book was stronger than the first.

A compelling and insightful book that weaves in themes of politics and history while still being a fast-paced and exciting story. I would highly recommend this, and all of Ness’ books, to young adults.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Pretty Books, Science Fiction, Tinted Edges, Young Adult

The Old Lie

Military space opera science fiction

Content warning: war

I was very excited when this book came out recently, because I enjoyed the author’s debut novel so much. These past couple of months have hit the publishing industry hard, with book tours and events being cancelled en masse across the country. So, in a small effort to support local bookstores, I went and bought this and a few others from Harry Hartog Woden who were running a book takeaway service. The cover design is so striking. I was hoping to get this review up in time for ANZAC Day, but alas, it was not to be.

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“The Old Lie” by Claire G. Coleman is a science fiction novel with several point of view characters. Corporal Shane Daniels volunteered for the war and fights the enemy planetside through mud while dreaming of the family left behind. Jimmy is on the run with no documentation or support, trying to find his way back home one station at a time. William is trapped in a cell in a medical facility, with no way of knowing if he can ever leave. The only thing more impressive than Romany “Romeo” Zetz’s flying skills is Romeo’s reputation with women. Weakened by a terrible sickness, Walker is trying to make his way home to his grandfather’s country.

Coleman has constructed a clever novel using multiple perspectives to examine the human impact of war. Although the intergalactic setting may seem far fetched, this is a well-researched novel and the things that happen in this book are all based on things that have happened historically. Even the title, drawn from Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum est, is well-considered. Coleman paints layer upon layer of complexity and the individual stories, particularly Jimmy’s, are engrossing. While the experiences of the main characters seem worlds apart at the beginning, with Shane and Romeo more than willing to risk their lives for the war, as the book progresses, the true nature of the Federation and their positions in it becomes clear. This book is at heart a political commentary on the way Aboriginal people were treated following military service in the World Wars, and it is excellently executed.

However, this is not an easy book to read. War novels aren’t exactly my cup of tea, so the first half of the book, which is all no guts, no glory, was a bit hard going for me, someone who would prefer no war altogether in fiction and real life. This book, like the reality of war, is incredibly violent and that violence, physical or otherwise, is extremely confronting in Coleman’s hyper-realistic style. Coleman uses a lot of tools to hit her point home, but after a while I was a little overwhelmed by the “hammering of small-arms fire”, “stomach contents” and “the screams [that] would not stop”.

A well-written and well-researched novel that science fiction buffs and war history aficionados will enjoy equally.

 

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In the Vanishers’ Palace

Vietnamese-inspired queer fantasy novella

It was my turn to host the feminist fantasy book club I’m in, but alas: social distancing. I had chosen this book after coming across a list of Asian-inspired fantasy and this one looked particularly interesting. However, until basically this past weekend, having guests over was basically illegal and that meant that book club was suspended indefinitely. Except, I really wanted to have book club and was missing all my friends, so I decided to host a virtual book club. Three members put their hand up for a DIY dinner pack, and I had a great time foraging for ingredients and containers to put together the bare bones of a two-ish course meal that just needed wet ingredients and cooking. The menu: rice paper rolls, pho and spiked Vientamese coffee. The evening was pretty successful! While there were some technical difficulties early on, and limits to how many could be in the video chat at once, and some mysterious reverberation, it was a great night and I loved seeing what everyone cooked.

In the Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de Bodard

“In the Vanisher’s Palace” by Aliette de Bodard is a fantasy novella retelling of the classic fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast“. The story is about Yên, a young woman who lives in a traditional village governed by strict rules and hierarchies. Unless part of the social elite, a villager is only tolerated as long as they remain useful. Yên, an aspiring academic but yet to pass the requisite exams, instead teaches children and helps her mother, the village healer. When Yên’s friend, the daughter of a village elder, is infected by a plague, Yên’s mother summons an ancient dragon called Vu Côn to save her life. However, in this broken world, nothing comes for free, and the village agrees to give Yên to the dragon to pay the debt. Yên is whisked away to a strange palace where Vu Côn sets her the task of teaching her two spirited children. Once there, Yên marvels at the mysterious and deadly palace and slowly grows closer to Vu Côn. However, with the threat of the plague looming closer and secrets threatening to erupt, the least of Yên’s worries is a broken heart.

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My DIY dinner pack

This is a unique story that takes the general elements of “Beauty and the Beast” and reimagines them in a completely different setting. de Bodard is quite a lyrical writer with a keen interest in language and words, and fuses fantasy and science fiction elements to create the palace that is Vu Côn’s home. One room seems to contain a magical library whereas another contains extremely modern technology, and I enjoyed de Bodard’s interplay between modern and ancient.

Rhiannon's cooking

My friend Rhiannon’s cooking

This is certainly an incredibly inclusive book and aside from queer romance, there are non-binary characters, diverse examples of female leadership and the book itself clearly draws on de Bodard’s own Vietnamese heritage.

However, I wouldn’t say that this would be my first recommendation for a book during the coronavirus crisis. This is quite a dark book, and Yên’s is a world ravaged by illnesses left by the mysterious Vanishers with those who fall ill facing banishment or worse. Given the current times, it was a little hard to want to pick this up to relax after a day spent reading the news.

My cooking

My attempt

In a similar way to “The Black Tides of Heaven“, I felt that de Bodard raced through this story a little and that the concept of the Vanishers could have been fleshed out a little, or at least hinted at a bit more strongly, than simply the ruins left behind. I also felt that the romantic aspect of the book was a little hurried, and some of the subtlety could have been teased out a little further.

Vietnamese Coffee

My spiked Vietnamese coffee

Nevertheless, this is a quick and spirited read that is an original retelling of a classic fairy tale.

Spike's cooking

And, last but not least, Spike using up some of the noodles for lunch the following day

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Ancestral Night

Queer science fiction space opera

This was the next set book for my first fantasy book club gathering of the year. Although the author is known for her fantasy writing, this book is in fact science fiction. Now, unlike some other members of the bookclub, I quite like science fiction, so I was more than willing to give this book a chance.

Ancestral Night (White Space, #1) by Elizabeth Bear

“Ancestral Night” by Elizabeth Bear is a science fiction novel about Haimey, an engineer on a small spaceship with a pilot called Connla, an AI called Singer and two cats. The purpose of the mission is to salvage parts and technology from wrecked and abandoned ships, work that is sanctioned by the Synarche government. However, when the crew discover an abandoned ship full of ancient technology and the scene of an unthinkable crime, their trajectory takes an abrupt turn. When Haimey discovers that some of the technology has melded to her, loses the ability to moderate her own emotions and finds herself trapped on an ancient ship with a sexy but ruthless pirate, she must confront the truth of her own past in order to save the galaxy’s future.

This is an epic science fiction novel in the classic space opera style. Bear introduces plenty of interesting technologies and builds on the genre’s canon of human augmentation, superior aliens, innovative means of space travel and a pan-galactic government. There were a handful of interesting aliens, and I particularly liked Cheeirilaq who was a space station police officer that resembled a giant praying mantis. I thought Bear explored some interesting moral questions about regulating emotions chemically and how much of a person is retained when their memories are modified.

However, there were a lot of things that frustrated me about this book. It is a long book. Now, I know I complain about long books fairly frequently, but this book was hundreds of pages shorter than some of the ones I’ve reviewed previously and it still felt long. Part of the problem is that Bear is quite a repetitive writer. Haimey seemed like she was constantly shivering, constantly using the word “atavistic”, constantly referring to the pirate as a “bad girl” and constantly lamenting how she has terrible taste in women. I’m not going to give too much away here, but Haimey really hadn’t been with that many women to justify how many times she said that about herself.

The part of the book where she and the pirate are stuck on the ancient ship hurtling towards god knows where felt like it went forever. I totally get that Bear had spent a lot of time trying to figure out how someone could survive on an alien ship for weeks and weeks without obvious sources of food and water, but the book really dragged and the tiny bit of interaction between Haimey and the pirate did not outweigh the amount of time where nothing was happening. I felt like a lot of this book took place in Haimey’s mind, and that there was far too much thinking (about the same things over and over again), and far too little action. Then the huge action scene at the end felt as ridiculous as this.

For people who have never read much in the way of science fiction, I think this would be as good a place as any to start. However, those who are a little more seasoned and who are looking for something fresh may find this a bit frustrating.

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