Category Archives: Science Fiction

Red Sister

Fantasy novel about assassin nuns

This was a set book for the feminist fantasy book club I am in, and broke the trend a little by being written by a man. I have to say, it wasn’t a particularly enticing cover, and it was subject to significant ridicule before we even had the meeting. I mean, it really is so bad, I’m tempted to start a new category on my blog for ugly book covers. Needless to say, my expectations were not high when I bought it for my Kobo.

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Contender for the worst book cover ever? 

“Red Sister” by Mark Lawrence is a fantasy (and kind of science fiction) novel about a girl called Nona who is taken from her home, placed on a cart with other children and taken to a city to be sold. The children are inspected for physical signs for their potential to have the traits of each of the original tribes: hunska, marjal, quantal and gerant. Her dark eyes, dark hair and incredible reflexes suggest hunska blood, and Nona is sold to a fight hall. However, after a violent incident, Nona is sentenced to death and is rescued at the last minute by Abbess Glass of the convent Sweet Mercy. Nona is enrolled to become a novice and train to become an assassin. Far behind her peers in her literacy and social skills, and with her past threatening to catch up with her, Nona must learn to walk the path before it is too late.

 

This is a fast-paced, immersive read that mixes elements of fantasy, science fiction and your classic, young adult magic school. I really enjoyed the world-building in this book, and the concept of a world completely frozen except for a thin strip along the equator kept warm by a mysterious red moon. The idea of a planet long ago settled by humans who have made it their own and who have special abilities is one that I have read in Anne McCaffrey, C J Cherryh and even Patrick Ness‘ books – and it is a premise that I simply never get tired of. Lawrence is a strong writer who is able to explain some of his complicated magical concepts, and allude to technology that, while the characters don’t understand, the reader recognises, in a clear way. I also liked how much uncomplicated queer content there was in this book, and Lawrence’s handling of relationships.

I think the thing I struggled with was the plot itself. The timeline was a little all over the place, sometimes doubling back, sometimes skipping ahead years at a time. While the theme of “Nona is under threat” was constant, the nature and source of that threat was in constant flux. I felt like the trial at Sweet Mercy was confusing and a little pointless, with Abbess Glass as opaque, unpredictable and infuriating as Dumbledore. The book also seemed divided in two with the demons from Nona’s past forgotten, and a new threat to the mysterious shipheart introduced very late in the story. I think all the elements were there, but they just felt like they needed a little reshuffling or something. Honestly, I just wanted to know more about the original tribes and the red moon, and less about who was trying to attack Nona at any given second for no discernible reason.

This was a very easy book to read, and there were plenty of things I liked about it, but I’m still on the fence about whether or not I’ll read the second book in the series.

 

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Binti

Himba-inspired afrofuturism

My feminist fantasy book club has been in full swing, and we deviated a little for our most recent book and tried a Hugo-award winning science fiction novella instead.

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“Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor is an eponymous science fiction novella about a young Himba woman who defies her close-knit family’s wishes and runs away to accept an offer as the first Himba person to study at an intergalactic university. Although far from her family, Binti proudly displays her distinct culture with her very visible otjize. However, when the ship is boarded by a hostile alien race, it is Binti’s unique culture that may be salvation.

This is a quick, intense novella that throws you headlong into Binti’s world. Okorafor pulls together all the classic elements of science fiction with space travel, aliens with tentacles, futurism and social commentary. Okorafor is a spirited writer, and this is an incredibly quick read. There are lots of pockets of technological ingenuity scattered throughout the book, and I love Okorafor’s approach to Afrofuturism and how it pays homage to traditional culture while weaving it seamlessly with science and space travel.

I think the only difficulty, which is one I have experienced with novellas before, is that because the story is so quick, it’s a little bit hard to get attached to the characters. There is an incident that happens about halfway through the book, and Binti refers to the impact of it several times afterwards, but the affected characters were introduced so briefly it is a little hard to empathise.

Nevertheless, this is a creative, enjoyable story that you will whip through in no time.

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The Frankenstein Adventures

Adventure retelling of classic horror story

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

“The Frankenstein Adventures” by Bil Richardson is a retelling of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” to celebrate the 200 year anniversary of its publication. Drawing inspiration from more modern interpretations of the story, Victor Frankenstein is happily married to his wife Elizabeth and is busy trying to create life with his assistant Igor. When he hears that his old school nemesis is working on creating life himself, Victor takes a couple of shortcuts to win the race. However, when things don’t work out to plan, his creation flees and unwittingly kicks off a manhunt across the countryside.

This is a fun- and pun-filled story that takes elements of a classic story in a more modern, action style. Richardson has a clear writing style with a strong focus on dialogue and wordplay. I actually much preferred Richardson’s version of Victor Frankenstein, much more than Shelley’s gnashing mess of a man who, to his own detriment, is completely unable to face his own mistakes. I liked that Victor and Frank reconcile at the end and each acknowledge their own part in the events that played out.

I did feel that the setting of this book was a little confusing. It wasn’t exactly clear exactly where Castle Frankenstein was, but it did seem to be somewhere in America rather than in Europe. I also had some questions about the audience for this book. I understand that Richardson is quite keen to get young boys reading, and while I think that elements of this story will appeal to them, most of the characters are adults and there is a lot of quite gruesome violence. I also found Maria’s story, while synonymous with what happens to William in the original story, to also be quite disturbing and never fully addressed.

An interesting take on a classic story, Richardson’s Frankenstein family is far more emotionally intelligent than the original.

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The Knife of Never Letting Go

Dystopian young adult science fiction with a gender twist

I have been reading this author for a while, and I was so excited to meet him in person at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last year. I think that he really is the cutting edge of young adult fiction right now, and when he told me last year that he had a character in one of his series with the same name as me, I knew I was going to have to give it a go. To celebrate 10 years of publication, the series was recently released in these very striking editions with black-edged pages and I absolutely had to have them. It has been a while since I’ve reviewed a book with tinted edges, and there is also a film adaptation currently in production, so I thought I’d better get moving.

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“The Knife of Never Letting Go” by Patrick Ness is a dystopian young adult science fiction novel about a boy called Todd Hewitt who lives in a place called Prentisstown. In a town inhabited solely by men, where everyone can hear everyone else’s unfiltered thoughts at all times, Todd is the youngest. Spending most of his time alone with his dog Manchee, Todd is waiting for his 13th birthday, the day he will become a man, which is just a month away. However, when Todd stumbles across an impossible silence, everything he thought he knew about his town is thrown upside down.

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Sorry, my dog was just being too cute not to include this one

When I picked up this book, what I was expecting the satire of “The Rest of Us Just Live Here” or the poignancy of “Release“. However, this is a very different story. One thing I love about Ness’ writing is that he is not afraid to commit completely to exploring a difficult, nuanced issue. In this story, Ness creates a world where there truly is a difference between men and women. He uses what he knows about gender in society and throughout history to take this difference to its horrifying extreme. When I read “The Power“, this was the book I was hoping for and finally I got it. I also really liked that Ness constantly placed Todd in difficult moral situations and did not always let him choose the right way. Todd struggles with feelings of guilt and conflicting interests, and is by no means the perfect protagonist. Ness is also an incredibly versatile writer and there are a lot of subtleties in the language he uses in this book.

As much as I was hooked by this story, I can’t give it a perfect review. There were some things that happened in the narrative that I wasn’t quite sure about. Also, because we learn about the world as Todd learns about the world, there are some big knowledge gaps that we as the readers can identify but where Todd (somewhat maddeningly) doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. I do appreciate that this is a trilogy, so there is still a lot yet to happen, but it is a very ambitious story and I wasn’t always completely on board with the way the story was unfolding.

Nevertheless, Ness is an excellent and relevant storyteller and if I had teenagers, I would be giving them his books.

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The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking Book 1)

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Time Crawlers

Collection of science fiction short stories

Content warning: suicide

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

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“Time Crawlers” by Varun Sayal is a collection of six science fiction short stories. The stories cover a range of themes from a subtle alien invasion (Eclipse), suicide for entertainment (Death by Crowd), a bureaucracy-obsessed magical being (Genie), time-bending beings (Time Crawlers), a powerful telekinetic (The Cave) and a super-weapon (Nark-Astra).

Sayal is a clear, engaging writer with a tongue-in-cheek style. Science fiction is often a very America-centric genre, and I really enjoyed reading another science fiction author writing from a non-European cultural perspective. I love the way Sayal weaves science and Indian culture together and peppers his stories with references to internet culture.

While I found Sayal’s stories very creative, several of them had a very similar ‘interview’ format with one person explaining a concept or idea to another person. I think that the ideas and the characters are definitely there, but I would like to see a bit more plot.

A fun and cheeky collection of stories that freshen up the science fiction genre.

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Time Crawlers: Dystopian Science Fiction Stories around Time Travel, Alien Invasion, Dark Artificial Intelligence, Psychics

 

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Saga Volume 9

Epic fantasy and science fiction graphic novel series

I’ve been following this series pretty much as soon as it first came out. Even though I am certainly hooked, I have had some concerns for a while that the series has been getting a little stale. I chatted on my podcast some time ago that the author recently announced that the series would be going on hiatus for a year, and so I decided I’d stuck with it this long, I might as well read this last volume. Now, if you’re not up to date, I’d stop right here because this will be full of spoilers.

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“Saga Volume 9” by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples begins some time after the end of Volume 8. Hazel, her parents Marko and Alana, Sir Robot IV, his son Squire, the two journalists Upsher and Doff, Petrichor and Ghüs have left Ghüs’ tiny world with Ianthe with the The Will (now known as Billy) forcibly in tow hot on their heels. When Upsher and Doff offer Marko and Alana a chance at a completely new life, the offer is very tempting to others in the group. However, before long Ianthe and Billy have caught up with them and nothing is certain anymore.

“Saga” has been, well, a saga and there is no shortage of drama in this volume. Staples’ art is as mesmerising as ever, and the story continues to shock at every turn. However, I have to say that Hazel’s extremely melodramatic narration has really started to grind on me. There were some parts where I felt it matched the story and art really well, but generally I find it a bit ham-fisted. Vaughan is certainly fearless when it comes to nixing his characters, but in a similar way to the George R. R. Martin, there does get a point where too many of your favourite characters are gone and you just aren’t that invested in the ones left.

I really do think that a hiatus is a good idea. This book ends on a big twist and I’m just not sure where they are going to go from there. A break will hopefully let Vaughan recharge and come back with some fresh ideas to wrap up the series.

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Saga Volume 9

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The Rain Never Came

Post-apocalyptic Australian fiction

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

“The Rain Never Came” by Lachlan Walter is post-apocalyptic fiction set in a not-too-distant future Australia plagued by drought. Bill and Tobe are best mates who live in a derelict town that has been all but abandoned. They spend their empty days drinking at the local pub. However, when the pub’s bore runs out and they see some mysterious lights on the horizon, Bill agrees to leave town with Tobe.

Australia really lends itself to desert dystopian stories and the premise of this one was interesting. Set around Western Victoria, I enjoyed imagining the hot Victorian summers I grew up with taken to their extreme. I was intrigued by the mysterious ruling entity that decreed that everyone had to be moved to northern regions where there was still rain. This is an action-packed book and once Bill and Tobe are on the road, the action is non-stop.

There were some things that were a bit difficult about this book though. Walters writing style is very active and his characters are constantly doing things like walking, looking, smiling and laughing. Although as the story progresses, we learn a little more about Bill and Tobe’s past, what I really wanted to learn more about was the world they lived in. It wasn’t completely clear why people were being forced to leave the towns, and I would have liked to have had some more reveals about what led to this situation and what the purpose of the mass removal was.

A compelling idea, but I would have liked more world-building and character development.

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Doomsday Book

A friend of mine gave me a copy of this book a very long time ago. Perhaps just before I started writing this blog! This copy has a pretty understated and uninspiring front cover, and despite the fact that it won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, it has gathered dust on my shelf for years. I’ve recently reorganised my bookshelves so I now have a shelf dedicated to books I haven’t read yet, and finally it was this book’s turn.

20180721_131041-641834144.jpg “Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis is a one of those books that is both science fiction and historical fiction: a time travel book. Set in the mid-2050s in Oxford England, the book is about a student of Medieval history called Kivrin who is to be the first person to travel back in time to the 1300s for historical research. Aghast, her professor Mr Dunworthy tries to talk her out of it, but Kivrin has the firm support of the acting Head of the History Faculty and the expedition is to go ahead. However, while Dunworthy frets about the margin of error and whether Kivrin did arrive in the correct year, both in the 14th Centry and in present day Oxford, there are far, far bigger problems.

This is an absolutely engrossing book. Willis is an incredibly skilled writer who is brilliant at creating and maintaining tension. The book flips back and fourth between Kivrin in the 1300s and Dunworthy in the 2050s, and no matter which part I was reading about, I was on the edge of my seat. Willis drops hints and suggestions throughout the book and keeps you guessing right until the very end about what is going to happen. I was also really surprised to find out that she is not actually English. She really captured that peculiar brand of British humour that combines the absurd with the chaotic and uses a lapse in otherwise very good manners to comedic effect. However, I wouldn’t consider this a particularly humourous book and the darker and more tragic parts of this book really underline Willis’ flexibility as a writer.

I think there was only one single tiny thing that got under my skin about this book and that is Willis’ tendency to repeat facts and dialogue in order to ensure that the audience appreciates their significance. While I think that this is a good technique to make sure that your audience is picking up what you’re putting down, it did occasionally feel a little heavy-handed.

Anyway, it really was no surprise that this book won so many awards. It is a cracking story and I am really inspired now to read more books by Willis, including more in this series about time-travelling historians.

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The Left Hand of Darkness

Following the very sad news that Ursula K. Le Guin died earlier this year, my feminist fantasy book club decided to commemorate her by reading one of her books. Le Guin was the first woman to win the Hugo Award for best novel for this book, so expectations were pretty high.

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“The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. Le Guin is a science fiction novel about a man called Genly Ai who has been sent to a frozen planet called Gethen as an envoy. The plot is quite complex, but essentially, Ai comes from a confederation of planets called the Ekumen and has been living on Gethen for some time learning about the planet’s humanoid inhabitants and their peculiar culture. The Genthenians only have one sex: each person goes through a sexual cycle with the potential to be either male or female at its peak. Ai has been working towards a meeting with the “King” in a country called Karhide so he can issue an invitation for Gethen to join the Ekumen. However, Ai’s efforts are undone when he fails to understand the subtle messages communicated by the Prime Minister Estreven.

Not unlike “Orlando“, this book was clearly groundbreaking when it was first released. The edition that I have has an introduction written by China Miéville, who praises the novel and its ability to reveal something new on each rereading. Published in 1969, 50 years ago next year, it certainly was a very unique premise. This is a very complex novel that explores what a society would be like with not quite no gender, but if everyone could experience either gender. The politics and the cultural differences between countries on a Genthen are done cleverly but subtlety, and I think they require a lot of concentration to pick up on the nuances of Genthenian people. Le Guin conjures a palpably icy world, nicknamed Winter by Ai, and the later chapters traversing through a white wasteland read almost like a journal of Antarctic explorers.

However, this book is not easy to read. To begin with, and this is the biggest criticism that Miéville alludes to and Le Guin herself acknowledges in her own introduction, the way gender is handled in this book feels clunky. I think the significance of the fact that each person on this world essentially is at once both male and female is lost because of the Le Guin’s choice of pronouns. I understand that in 1969, gender neutral pronouns in English weren’t really a thing, but given their prevalence across languages around the world I’m not quite sure that holds up. I understand that historically, he has been used in English to be gender neutral, but I think in this case it’s just confusing.

I think that even though it’s such a critical element of the story, the androgyny of the Genthenians simply is not centralised enough in the storytelling. Ai is the lens through which we observe this world. However, so much of the description is on the political structures and the weather, I felt like I was constantly searching for a foothold to understand what Le Guin’s imagined people were like and what their culture was. I appreciate that an inability to understand them and the way gender influenced their culture was a key issue for Ai and his mission, but I think such a fascinating idea should really have been done a bit more justice and have been given a bit more airtime.

I think the other problem I have with this book is a problem that I often have with older science fiction. The writing style is often quite cold, and relationships and emotions are often stated to exist rather than shown or felt to exist. Maybe this as well was exacerbated by Ai and his unreliable narration, but later in the book I felt like all of a sudden a relationship was there just because Ai said so, not because it had really been established.

I honestly could go on and on about this book, there really is so much in there to unpack and maybe one day I’ll have to read it again and see if, like Miéville, I can discover more on a second reading. I think this book really has a lot of important and interesting things to say, and was one of the first books to say them, but it is a difficult book to read and does feel impenetrable at times.

 

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The Power

Content warning: gender, sexuality, sexual assault

A lot of people have been talking about this book. Friends, bookshops, Obama. It was the most recent book for the feminist fantasy book club I’m in, so naturally I had to give it a go.

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“The Power” by Naomi Alderman is speculative fiction about what would happen if women worldwide suddenly discovered that they had the power to create electricity. This new ability drastically shifts the global power balance between men and women. The story follows the journey of four main characters. There is Roxy, the plucky English girl with huge power whose family is embedded in the criminal underground. There is Allie, an American girl who escapes her abusive adopted family and finds a calling. There is Margot, the ambitious American politician and mother. Then, there is Tunde, the Nigerian journalist who watches and tells the world what he sees.

This book could have been fantastic. It had all the elements for an incredibly interesting and creative story. I really liked the way that Alderman conceived the way that the power worked. I liked the touch of the archaeological interludes with illustrations and artefacts. I liked the diverse cast of characters. Probably my favourite part about this book was the characters. I found Roxy and Allie’s friendship fascinating, and at times actually quite romantic, and was disappointed when Alderman decided to keep it strictly platonic. I found the tension between Margot and her daughter Jocelyn whose own power was faulty to be really interesting, and I would have liked to have seen more on that. Tunde was a great male lens through which to experience the changing world.

It was fast-paced and Alderman is an engaging writer, but ultimately this book is really a series of missed opportunities.

First of all, Alderman’s vision of a world turned upside down by providing women with physical power felt so limited. Alderman suggests that if this were to happen, the result would basically be a mirror image of the world today. Women would start to be responsible for all the crimes that men today are responsible for. Men would be afraid to walk alone at night. Women hungry for power would ascend political ranks purely for self-interest. Surprisingly, I found this world vision much harder to believe than the idea that women would suddenly develop the ability to shock other people. I can see how Alderman wanted to throw gender inequality into sharp relief but the result was that it made inequality seem like it was a question of physical strength rather than a question of thousands of years of social and cultural attitudes. It would have been much more interesting to depict a world that was fundamentally different to ours rather than a world that was simply the reverse.

Then, of course, were the missed opportunities. Here you have a book about gender, all the women have the power to give electric shocks, all of the men don’t, you then have a female character whose power is faulty and you have a male character who is able to use the power and you don’t write about the LGBTIQ implications that that might have?! I couldn’t believe that Alderman didn’t take the obvious next step and comment on, at a bare minimum, the implications for intersex people in her new world. None of the women seemed to be queer. There were no trans characters. It’s 2018, we all know that sex, gender and sexuality aren’t black and white and I couldn’t believe that Alderman didn’t say anything about Margot’s daughter Jocelyn’s difficulty with her power and the implications that that might have had on her sex or her gender identity.

The other thing I couldn’t understand either is how you can apparently have swathes of women rampaging across the world having (sometimes non-consensual) sex with men but have absolutely no discussion whatsoever of pregnancy, children and motherhood (except in relation to the mothers or existing motherhood of the main characters). There was so much focus on the power as the singular biological difference that completely governed behaviour, yet no focus on the actual biological difference between the male and female sexes that arguably does have the biggest impact on our lives: the ability to have children. I just couldn’t understand how this consideration was absent on the narrative and the only time children were mentioned in this story it was utterly abhorrent.

Instead, the story focuses on Middle-Eastern war, American politics and British gangs. Alderman clearly views the Middle East and South Asia as the worst places in the world for women, and so she makes them equally the worst places in the world for men. I think this choice, and in particular the scene in India, really showed a lack of imagination and sensitivity.

There is so much going on in this book, despite some of the missed opportunities I listed above, and one thing that I felt I could have done without was the voice in Allie/Eve’s head. The somewhat motherly, sassy voice that encourages Allie’s rise to spiritual power, I really didn’t think it added much at all. If it was designed as a mechanism to make Allie seem like an unreliable narrator by suggesting that she experienced auditory hallucinations, it could have been done much more realistically and sensitively towards people who do experience that particular mental health issue (especially given Allie’s trauma). If it truly was intended to be a spiritual voice, I don’t think it achieved that either.

Anyway, I could continue but this review has really gotten quite long. I think that this is probably going to be a pretty divisive book. Some people are going to enjoy it, and some will be annoyed by it. For me, I think if you have such a good idea, why not be brave and push the boundaries a bit?

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