Category Archives: Science Fiction

The Cabinet

Surreal novel about human evolution and Korean society

Content warning: fatphobia

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

Image is of the eBook cover of “The Cabinet” by Un-su Kim and translated by Sean Lin Halbert. The cover has an image of a chameleon holding onto a black branch, stylised with different textures including images of cabinets. The cover has a pale pink background, and the text is enclosed in boxes with a black cat peeking over the top.

“The Cabinet” by Un-su Kim and translated by Sean Lin Halbert is a surreal novel about a young man called Mr Kong who works in a dull office job in Korea. One day, out of boredom, he discovers a locked cabinet and when he finally manages to unlock it becomes obsessed with reading the files of people with strange bodies and abilities known as “symptomers”. As Mr Kong becomes more and more involved in their difficult and sometimes annoying lives, he must decide what his ethical obligations are for this possible new species of human.

As I have mentioned on here previously, I am always very interested in biopunk and books that examine the possibilities of genetics and human evolution. Mr Kong spends a considerable amount of time musing on how the symptomers represent the next dominant species and one that will overtake humanity as we know it. I enjoyed the individual vignettes of the individuals who contact him, and Mr Kong’s rather exasperated role as a sort of social worker for these people trying to help solve their impossible situations. I felt that the writing (including Halbert’s translation) was very smooth and captured a sense of corporate absurdism which was both amusing and eminently relatable. I enjoyed Mr Kong’s character development, especially in relation to his ostracised colleague and examining fatphobia and neurodiversity in Korean society and workplaces.

I think where things fell down a bit for me was a lack of internal logic within Kim’s worldbuilding. While individually the case studies of symptomers were interesting, such as the man with a gingko tree growing out of his finger and a people who would disappear and reappear much later into the future, Kim’s explanations for how genetics could cause these things to happen were all but absent. He hints at experimental interference, but I guess for someone who is a bit of a science fiction aficionado, I think I was looking for at least a little bit of effort towards an explanation. Even something as convenient as a “chrono-impairment” genetic disorder or having a new X-gene. I appreciate that this book is less science fiction and more surrealism and social commentary, but I think a bit more consistency to try to link how someone with a lizard in their mouth could possibly be connected with someone who sleeps for years at a time would have helped. I think that ultimately it read more like a collection of short stories tied loosely together by Mr Kong’s observations about corporate culture and inclusivity, and thus lacked cohesion.

A creative and thought-provoking novel that was enjoyable to read even if it at times felt disjointed.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, eBooks, Science Fiction

You Died: An Anthology of the Afterlife

Anthology of comics about death and what comes afterwards

Content warning: death

I have read and supported a few books by Iron Circus (previously called IronSpike), including some that are quite racy! However, I heard about this book because one of my favourite webcomic artists had a comic in it. If you have never come across SE Case’s “Rigsby WI” slice of life, early 2000s, small town comic, then I strongly encourage you to check it out immediately. Anyway, when I checked out the Kickstarter I saw it was by a publisher I had backed before so I decided to back this one as well. When it arrived, I put it on my shelf for a bit and was delighted when I realised after going to bed one night that it glows in the dark.

Image is of “You Died: An Anthology of the Afterlife” edited by Andrea Purcell and Kel McDonald. The image is a photograph of the paperback book with the lights turned out, and all you can see is the glow-in-the-dark (phosphorescent) detailing of moths and fungi.

“You Died: An Anthology of the Afterlife” edited by Andrew Purcell and Kel McDonald is a collection of short comics about the possibilities of what happens during and after death. The book has a foreword by Caitlin Doughty, an advocate of death acceptance and the creator of the “Ask a Mortician” YouTube channel. There are 24 comics that each deal with death and dying in ways that are meant to be poignant, reassuring and even beautiful.

Image is of the book with the lights turned on. The cover has the title in stylised central alignment, surrounded by the black outline of a coffin. The cover is decorated with the moths and fungi that glow in the dark as well as a skeleton hugging its knees in the background and red flowers in the foreground.

This is a diverse collection of interpretations on the theme, which is reflective of the contributors. The comics broach the topic of death from a range of cultural perspectives. Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld by Ahueonao is a tongue-in-cheek Mesopotomian story about goddess Inanna, siblings and and the cyclic nature of life and death which I really enjoyed. Danielle Chuatico’s story All Souls Day is a heart-warming depiction of a Filipino tradition of packing a picnic and visiting the cemetery to share memories about cherished family members. I Promise by A. Shinozaki and Cheryl Young gently considers the difficulty in upholding someone’s wishes and traditions around death when rituals such as kotsuage are not permitted in Western countries. Bone Ink by Rhiannon Rasmussen-Smith and Grace P Fong is a beautifully illustrated comic mixing illusions with Chinese traditional painting and exploring the meaning of legacy.

There were also plenty of diverse relationships and I especially liked the signature honesty and rawness of remember by SE Case and coming to terms not with what you’re facing but with what you’re leaving behind. Arkou by Isabelle Melancon & Megan Lavey-Heaton with a queer twist on the stories of Ankou in Breton, Welsh and Cornish folklore. I’m a big fan of animal stories of course so I also liked the biological education of What Eats Us by Letty Wilson and the heart-rending concept of Herd by Shae Beagle. The Last Wreath by Juliette GMM Lopez was kind of delightfully surreal and Peat, Bone, Oak by Laura Ketcham was a really enlightening comic about bog people.

While there were certainly some standouts in this collection, I felt that there was a range of quality and impact in the comics and some stories worked better than others. There were a few science fiction/fantasy interpretations that I felt took the theme too abstractly, and quite a few comics that unfortunately just weren’t that memorable. I know the anthology was about the afterlife, but I think I had expected something a little more along the lines of Caitlin Doughty’s YouTube channel: a bit more matter of fact and tied a little more to the natural world.

A creative and contemplative collection, with a number of really strong comics that unfortunately outshone the others.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Science Fiction

Animorphs The Graphic Novel: The Invasion

Graphic novel adaptation of middle grade sci-fi series Animorphs

As I have mentioned on this blog previously, I was a HUGE fan of this series when I was a kid. I’m still trying to complete my collection after cancelling my monthly Scholastic subscription, but when I saw that a graphic novel adaptation had recently been released I had to go out and buy it. I’ve been on a bit of a sci-fi graphic novel kick and I’m not even sorry.

Image is of “Animorphs The Graphic Novel: The Invasion” based on the novel by K. A. Applegate and Michael Grant, and adapted by Chris Grine. The paperback graphic novel is sitting in front of the “Animorphs” series arranged chronologically on a bookshelf. The cover has five kids standing on a slope watching pink lights in the sky in the bottom with the top quarter depicting a boy morphing into a lizard.

“Animorphs The Graphic Novel: The Invasion” adapted by Chris Grine is based on the science fiction middle grade novel of the same name: the first book in the “Animorphs” series by K. A. Applegate and Michael Grant. In this book, five kids who loosely know each other are forever bound together when they take a shortcut through a construction site coming home from the mall. While crossing through, they witness the landing of an spaceship and meet Elfangor, a dying alien from the Andalite species. Elfangor warns Jake, Cassie, Marco, Rachel and Tobias about an invasion that is already taking place on planet earth by a parasitic alien species called Yeerks and grants them the only weapon available: the ability to morph. Calling themselves the Animorphs, they must acquire the DNA of different animals and try to infiltrate a secret organisation recruiting humans as hosts and try to stop the Yeerks from enslaving the entire human race.

This is a great adaptation of the original book and Grine has done a great job staying true to the original story and dialogue while still bringing his own spin. Grine has kept the story set in the same time, the late 1990s, with that real mallrat flavour of walkmans, jumpers tied around waists and phones with cords. My initial response to the art style was that it felt a bit childish with thick, bold linework but then I remembered I’m not actually the target audience. With that in mind, I think it’s actually perfect for kids with a great balance between clarity and detail. I really liked the use of different shaped speech bubbles to distinguish between speech and thought-speak, and I also really liked that Grine allocated each character a different colour to help readers keep track of who was speaking in thought-speak. I also felt like some of the things that I had struggled to imagine like the Sharing and the Yeerk pool were illustrated really well, and I liked the take on the alien species, especially the Andalites.

I think probably the one part that I was a little disappointed with was the depiction of morphing. I completely see what Grine is doing, making it look a bit gross and unsettling which is certainly how it is described in the books. I also understand that with a graphic novel, you are just getting a snapshot, and each panel is highlighting a single moment in the uncomfortable, awkward morphing process. However, I think when I imagined morphing, it was a little less goofy and a little more awesome. A little more flipbook animation and a little less flailing.

This graphic novel had plenty of nostalgia but an original enough take that the story felt fresh and appealing to younger audiences. I can’t wait until more of the series is released.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, Graphic Novels, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Sweet Tooth

Graphic novel series about genetic mutation

Content warning: pandemic, gore

Keeping in theme with my recent run of books that have been adapted into TV series or films, I saw recently that this graphic novel series that I had read some (but not all) of had been adapted into a Netflix series and the trailer looked pretty awesome. I checked my shelf and I had 5 of the 6 volumes. I remembered when I had last tried to complete my series the volumes in these editions were out of print, and although I’d managed to find some secondhand, I still had one missing. After it finally arrived from eBay, I was ready to tackle this series from the beginning.

Image is of “Sweet Tooth” by Jeff Lemire. The paperback graphic novel is stacked on top of 5 other books and is resting on a wooden table. Two antlers are emerging from behind the books. The cover is of a stylised boy in a flannelette shirt with the ears and antlers of a deer eating a chocolate bar.

“Sweet Tooth” by Jeff Lemire is a speculative fiction graphic novel series about a young boy called Gus who lives in the woods with his father. Gus learns from an early age that he is different: a deer hybrid. His father teaches him never to leave the woods and to hide away from humans who will do him harm. However, when his father dies of a mysterious illness, Gus is left to fend from himself. When a man called Jeppard saves him from two hunters, Gus agrees to leave the woods with him to make his way to a safe haven known as the Preserve. However, outside turns out to be far, far more dangerous than even Gus’ father could have imagined and Gus must decide who he can trust to survive.

This is an iconic story with a memorable artistic style. I really love stories with biopunk and genetic mutation themes and Lemire’s is a great idea. Although Gus is ostensibly the main character, the story is really about Jeppard, his past and the choices he makes moving forward. Gus spends a large proportion of the story static and in the same place, while we watch Jeppard grapple with his morals and decide whether he has anything left to live for. I think one of my favourite parts of the book was meeting the other hybrids and enjoying the diversity of animals and abilities they represented.

I think a really important thing to note about this book is how violent and gory it is, which at times does make it a bit difficult to read. Lemire doesn’t shy away from depicting physical violence and the effects of illness in acute graphic detail, and you should really bear this in mind prior to reading. The book could have gone one of two ways: science fiction or fantasy, and without giving too much away I was a bit disappointed that it ultimately wasn’t more of a science fiction story. I felt that would have been the stronger path and Lemire drew upon some particular cultures for inspiration, which has drawn some criticism (spoilers).

Even though this is ultimately a book review blog, I did want to note that since watching the Netflix adaptation, I think it is better than the graphic novels. Lemire has very few women in his story, the majority of whom are exploited sex workers or die from illness or childbirth, and there is not a lot of backstory for some of the characters such as the hybrid pig girl Wendy and the conflicted Dr Singh. I also felt that Gus himself received a lot more airtime and elements to his character hinted at in the story were really fleshed out in the show. By introducing some new characters and providing additional backstory, I felt that the TV series was a much more well-rounded story that showed more than one facet to life following a pandemic and, slightly disturbingly, incorporated elements of masks, isolation and santising that have become so commonplace for us now.

A thought-provoking series that, in my opinion, has been improved by the TV adaptation.

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Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters

Post-gender biopunk science fiction novel

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

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Image is of a digital book cover of “Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters” by Aimee Ogden. The cover is of a silhouette of a person standing underwater on the launch-pad of a vehicle.

“Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters” by Aimee Ogden is a science fiction novella about a woman called Atuale whose village has been overwhelmed by a disease. Having undergone gene-editing to live with her husband and his technology-resistant people on land, Atuale must return to the sea to seek a favour from the one they call the World Witch. However, the World Witch is one of many Sea-Clan people Atuale left behind and even though they have a new form, their history remains unchanged. It soon becomes clear that the only way to find a cure is to leave the planet. Faced with an intimate journey through space with the World Witch to seek assistance from other, more technologically advanced human races, Atuale must decide which betrayals she can live with.

I absolutely love this genre, and Ogden’s style and themes reminds me a lot of one of my favourite authors, Vonda N. McIntyre. Ogden hints at a huge post-human diaspora of which we see only the smallest glimpse through Atuale’s limited gaze. Atuale is a fascinating character who discards the limits of one civilisation for those of another. What she lacks in education and understanding of the broader galaxy, she makes up for in courage and determination. The World Witch is also a great character, and I enjoyed the exploration of alternative biology and the genetic ability to change one’s gender.

This is a quick book, and one that I think could have used a slightly slower pace. I felt that the tension between Atuale and the World Witch, particularly their past history, was a little rushed and I would have liked to be strung along a little more. While I liked that we see the world (and the universe) through Atuale’s naïve perspective, I also felt like the worldbuilding could have been a little more comprehensive. This is not to say that I wanted every single detail about altered human lives in the far reaches of the galaxy, but I wanted the sense that that detail did exist – even if we couldn’t see it.

A very easy and enjoyable read that needed just a bit more suspense.

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Monsters of Men

Young adult science fiction novel about fascism, colonialism, sexism and war

Content warning: fascism, colonialism, slavery, violence and sexism

I started reading this series a couple of years ago and spaced out the first and second books like I often do with a series. It hadn’t quite been a year since I read the second book, and I probably would have waited a little longer, but then a film adaptation of the first book in the series was released earlier this year, and I thought I had better wrap up the series before I saw the film.

Image is of “Monsters of Men” by Patrick Ness. The cover is orange text and circles against a black background, and the book is superimposed against a background from the Mars Perseverance Photo Booth, which was released around the same time to promote the current NASA mission to Mars.

“Monsters of Men” by Patrick Ness is the final book in the “Chaos Walking” series. The story picks up immediately after the events of the preceding book where a scout ship from another wave of settlers has landed near the fraught city of New Prentisstown. A three-way war is afoot between Mayor Prentiss’ men, the secret organisation the Answer and the native species of the planet known as the Spackle. Todd and Viola find themselves separated again: Todd trying to persuade the Mayor into negotiating peace and Viola trying to warn the new settlers of the unrest that awaits them if they land.

This is a challenging finale to a compelling series. Ness distinguishes this book from the other two by finally giving voice to one of the Spackle, previously only referred to by the number 1017. Renamed The Return in this book, he struggles with his own hatred towards the humans who enslaved and tortured his people which makes it difficult to truly return to the fold and ways of his people. I really enjoyed The Return’s chapters, and felt that through his perspective, the book’s commentary on colonisation became much more well-rounded. A key theme in this book is redemption, and the extent to which we can overwrite past decisions with new ones. I felt that Viola’s worsening health and her difficulty in meeting with Todd created a sense of tension that really helped to propel the book along. I also really liked how Ness tackled the issue of literacy, and despite being denied an education, Todd’s feelings of personal inadequacy.

Having read this book as a finale to the “Chaos Walking” series, I do think I need to comment briefly on the film adaptation. Despite how much I enjoyed the series, the film was pretty lacklustre. It suffered from having so many writers involved, and sacrificed depth for awkward moments and rushed storytelling interspersed with prolonged chased scenes.

If by chance you went to see the film, I can assure you that the series is much better.

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

The Love Virus

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

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Image is of a digital book cover of “The Love Virus” by Eleni Cay. The cover is pink text against a pink and beige background of vertical computer code.

“The Love Virus” by Eleni Cay is a verse novel about a young woman called Katie whose life is turned upside down when she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Casting aside her studies at Oxford University and her fiancé, Katie struggles to adjust to her loss of mobility and requiring significant personal care while in hospital. However, in some chapters, Katie is on a retreat in a country called Andratalia. With two bickering travellers accompanying her, Katie tours this hot land and meets some of the curious locals. As the book progresses, the two realities converge and Katie must find her own path forward.

This is an original book, told in long form poetry, with some science fiction themes. Cay draws on her own experiences of MS and the strongest parts of the book are the visceral scenes of Katie having to relinquish control over her body to those caring for her. Katie’s friends, family and fiancé all respond in different ways to her diagnosis, and there are some really important messages in this book about consent and inspiration porn. Cay explores what an alternative variant of MS could mean, amplifying the uncertainty, fear and hope around experimental treatments for chronic conditions. I found the poetic style very readable, and the story had a dreamy flow to it.

I think that the part I struggled the most with were the scenes in Andratalia. The majority of the text in these chapters is the dialogue between Katie’s two travel companions bickering over their competing philosophies. While the purpose of this journey becomes clear later in the story, I was a little disappointed to see Cay falling back on old stereotypes to describe the local people of Andratalia. Given the book hints at themes such as global conspiracy, genetic engineering and experimental medication, I felt that perhaps Andratalia would have been more interesting as a futuristic tech haven rather than a tropical paradise.

This is a really creative book in both theme and in form that blends lived experience with fiction to consider life and love with MS.

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Welcome to Night Vale

Novel set in fictional podcast’s paranormal town

A particular genre of podcast that I enjoy is fictional podcasts, and one of the very first fictional podcasts I started listening to was “Welcome to Night Vale“. If you’ve never listened, the podcast is in the format of a show on a community radio station run by the mysterious and charismatic Cecil. Each episode includes updates about the town’s unusual happenings and immerses the listener deeper and deeper into the unusual and ominous culture of Night Vale as well as regular segments known as Weather and Traffic. Some years ago, the creators of the podcast released a novel set in the town and I jumped out and bought a copy. Although my partner read it at the time, it has waited on my bookshelf, watching me judgmentally with its crescent moon eye symbol. Finally, I relented.

Image is of “Welcome to Night Vale” by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor. The purple book is on a table in front of baskets of fake fruit and a plastic flamingo. It appears to be nighttime in the background.

“Welcome to Night Vale” by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor is a novel set in the eponymous town where all manner of strange, paranormal things happen. The story is about two women: Jackie, who runs a pawn shop and has been 19 years old for more years than she can remember, and Diane, a single mother struggling to raise her teenage son who is going through puberty and who also changes shape constantly. When even more strange things than usual begin happening in Night Vale, unlikely pair Jackie and Diane must work together to solve the mystery of the man nobody seems to remember and find their way to King City.

This is a contemplative book with a mildly threatening aura that takes the reader on a journey through lesser known parts of Night Vale. In addition to some of our favourite characters from the podcast such as Cecil and his boyfriend Carlos, we meet new characters and explore some new and particularly dangerous areas of the town such as the Library. The book weaves together several threads and themes to explore broader issues of identity, family, adolescence and parenthood. Although a difficult character in some ways, Diane’s challenges in relating to her son as he grows up were both relatable and poignant. I enjoyed the transcripts of radio show episodes as interludes, with Cecil reporting with alarming accuracy on Jackie and Diane’s activities and whereabouts. The scenes with Jackie’s mother were particularly unsettling and really set the menacing and absurdist tone we have come to know and love from the podcast.

While there were a lot of aspects of this book that were well done, I did find it a little slow to get started. The characters spend a considerable time musing on their own circumstances, and it is some time before the action kicks off. I think that perhaps now wasn’t the best time for me to read this book. We are currently living through a time of significant uncertainty, with things like borders opening and closing and changes in rules about where, how and with whom we associate happening suddenly and without much warning. This is a book that really leans into the unexpected and decisions made by authorities (known and unknown) are often arbitrary and inexplicable, and reading this book made me realise that I do have a bit of fatigue around these things and probably impacted how much I enjoyed it.

Nevertheless, a valuable contribution to the Night Vale universe in a complementary format to the podcast, definitely a book for fans.

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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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