Tag Archives: science fiction

The City Inside

Science fiction novel set in futuristic India

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

Image is the of “The City Inside” by Samit Basu. The eBook is a stylised, futuristic version of a city with colourful rooftops, digital icons of people and a temple in the far background against a night sky.

“The City Inside” by Samit Basu is a science fiction novel set in Delhi, India in a not-too-distant future. The story is primarily about Joey, a young woman who has an extremely successful job as a reality controller: managing and editing the livestream content of her influencer ex-boyfriend Indi. However, her personal life pales in comparison; despite having a luxury apartment, she spends most of her free time sleeping at her parents’ house where her family carefully avoid saying anything controversial. Meanwhile, Rudra, the estranged son of a wealthy man who has been living incognito among struggling migrants, reconnects with his family at his father’s funeral. Avoiding his brother’s attempts to join the family business, when he bumps into Joey who offers him a job, he accepts. However, as Indi’s ambitions grow bigger and Rudra’s family interests begin to reveal their true nature, Joey and Rudra realise that corporate power and sinister conspiracies run much deeper than either of them could have possibly realised.

This was a richly conceived book with exceptional and completely plausible worldbuilding. Basu draws on contemporary sources of power and influence and imagines how they may have evolved a decade from now. Influencers have merged with reality TV: carefully curated content with fictionalised storylines and strategic advertising placements. Airborne-illnesses, increasing temperatures and air pollution have normalised mask wearing, filtered air and avoiding the outside. The setting in Delhi brings further layers of complexity and nuance; drawing on ethnic tensions, historical protests and political influence to create a conflicted present still grappling with caste, wealth and freedom of speech.

Joey was a really interesting character whose personality at work and personality at home seem almost completely incompatible, raising questions about how much her memory is influenced, and by whom. Joey is politically engaged enough and fluent enough in progressive discourse to be aware of her own moral shortcomings, and tries to make what little difference she can through her work. In contrast, Rudra’s attempts to completely distance himself from his family prove to be inadequate in counteracting the harm they are causing to society. However, any kind of political action is dangerous, and Basu pushes the reader to make up their own mind about what is right, what is wrong and what is understandable.

While I really enjoyed the setting and the character development, I did find the plot a little confusing. The book draws on cyberpunk traditions in science fiction and using digital spaces, avatars and social media to create and recreate reality, social connections and even business deals. However, between a meeting in one of these digital spaces, subject to surveillance on multiple levels, and the action really kicking off, I found it hard to keep track of exactly what was happening. Basu is quite a subtle writer, leaving a lot to the reader to interpret themselves, but when crucial plot items were happening I found that I was hoping for a little more clarity and a little less like scenes whipping by me in a speeding train carriage.

An intricate and highly original premise that conveys a lot but becomes a bit muddied towards the end.

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Forest 404

Fictional science fiction podcast set in a future where forests are memories

I recently moved house and I knew that a huge job was going to be getting the garden ready for the final inspection. In addition to running, I like to listen to podcasts when I’m gardening and I was in the mood for something outdoorsy. I was scrolling through different podcasts that were not too long, and I came across this one. I really enjoy radio plays and this one looked really interesting and unique.

Image is of “Forest 404” by Timothy X Atack. The audiobook cover is a picture of a black woman’s face in profile. The back of her head and her hair has been replaced with a forest.

“Forest 404” by Timothy X Atack is a fictional podcast set some centuries in the future about a young woman called Pan who works in a job sorting through sound recordings from the past. The recordings are from a time known as the Slow Times, before an event known as the Cataclysm that destroyed most of the data. Pan is very good at her job, and finds it easy to delete music and speeches and stories from another time to create valuable space for more data. However, one day Pan listens to a recording that changes everything. Something she has never heard before and something she cannot begin to fathom: a rainforest. Pan is mesmerised and listens to the recording over and over, but little does she know that making copies of the recording is not only illegal, it is extremely dangerous.

This was a really interesting project. There were 9 episodes of the story, 9 episodes of interviews with various experts about different scientific questions, and 9 different nature soundscapes. The story itself was really compelling. The voice actors were excellent and there was a palpable sense of tension and urgency. I really enjoyed the effortless diversity of this book as well, and the complexity of Pan’s relationship with Daria. However, the interviews and soundscapes were equally as engrossing. It was really relaxing listening to the soundscapes while working in the gardening, and because each episode is so short it never gets boring. The writing was really good, but the editing was also really good and the entire production was thoroughly immersive.

A really enjoyable podcast that is perfect for any sci-fi fans who enjoy the outdoors.

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Noor

Africanfuturism novel about human augmentation

Content warning: war, disability, harassment

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

Image is of “Noor” by Nnedi Okorafor. The eBook cover is of a young woman with dark skin and twist braided hair tied up in a bun. She is wearing a cowrie shell choker necklace and a jewel on her forehead. She is bathed in golden light.

“Noor” by Nnedi Okorafor is an Africanfuturism science fiction novel about a young Igbo woman called AO who has a number of cybernetic augmentations to assist her due to her disabilities. AO works as a successful mechanic in Nigeria’s capital city Abuja however not everyone accepts her for who she is. When she retaliates after being harassed by a group of men in the market, she finds herself on the run. Joining forces with a young Fulani herdsman called DNA, they find themselves heading towards a perpetual sandstorm in the desert seeking refuge and answers. Between them, they discover a national conspiracy and the untapped abilities that are their only hope of stopping it.

This was a fast-paced book in a reimagined Nigera that examines pressing social issues through a science fiction lens. I really liked the way Okorafor handled the stigma surrounding disability, and the complex relationship AO has with her augmentations, where they came from and the cause of her disabilities. The book really tackles capitalism and the consequences of giving too many rights and too much power to corporations. AO is a really strong character with a streak of recklessness and a clear idea of what she wants. I thought DNA, with his softer yet still courageous personality, was a good counterpoint.

There were some rather surreal moments in the book, such as when AO and DNA met a white yogi in the middle of a sandstorm. I will be honest and say that I think there were a lot of commentaries about Nigerian society and politics that I did not have the background to fully appreciate, especially the herder-farmer conflicts. I think that Okorafor was nevertheless generous enough with her writing to help any reader understand the broad factors at play.

A multifaceted story at breakneck speed that tackles critical social issues through creative technology.

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The Midwich Cuckoos

Classic science fiction novel about alien invasion and psychic children

Content warning: abortion, forced pregnancy, self-harm

One of my favourite science fiction books is by this author, and I really like the design of this set. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to get the price tag off the front cover which has spoiled the effect somewhat. I was going through my to-read shelf back in December looking for books for my Short Stack Reading Challenge and this one looked ideal. Although I’m familiar with the premise, it has inspired plenty of adaptations and other media, I hadn’t read this one before.

Image is of "The Midwich Cuckoos" by John Wyndham. The paperback book is resting on a dark brown table next to a record player with a jewel pink record. There is a cut of bright pink tea. The cover is of a young white man with brown hair who is lying down with his head on the ground. A black and white bird sits on his ear.

“The Midwich Cuckoos” by John Wyndham is a science fiction novel about a small English village called Midwich. One day, an invisible line encircles the town and everyone within it or who crosses it falls asleep. The next day, everyone wakes up more or less unharmed, except that all the women are pregnant. When they give birth, all the children are strangely similar with light blonde hair and golden eyes. As they grow up at an accelerated rate, the people in the village start to notice some even more unusual traits. With secret government organisations taking an interest, and increasingly serious incidents happening, questions begin to be asked not just about what to do about Midwich, but what to do about humanity.

This was a really interesting book that had an understated, very British, almost bureaucratic tone. A lot of the book is made up of conversations between different people in the town, especially between a young man called Richard and a well-known local author Gordon Zellaby. Richard is charged by a secretive Colonel to keep an eye on the situation, and over the years Richard reports what he sees. This narrative style creates room for a lot of subtle exploration of social issues such as motherhood, abortion and what it means to be human. I was surprised at how well the book has held up over time, and I also liked that despite being set in the UK, the book didn’t have a Western-centric perspective and considered the Earth as a whole which many science fiction books fail to do.

Although I understand why Wyndham chose this narrative style, at times it did feel like the pace was impeded and the text was very conversation heavy. However, the slow burn does lead to an explosive ending.

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Dune

Classic science fiction novel about politics, scarcity and terraforming

Everyone is talking about this book at the moment because it has just been adapted into a film. I picked up a copy not long ago, and added it to my list of books to read before I see the adaptation. The film has just been released in Australia this month, so I decided to try to read it in time to be able to go (pandemic allowing, of course) and see it in cinemas.

Image is of “Dune” by Frank Herbert. The paperback book is resting against what looks like a cliff made of sand. The cover is of a tiny figure standing on the edge of an enormous orange sand dune, with one semicircle side looking either like it is in shadow or like a black planet or the shadow of an eclipse.

“Dune” by Frank Herbert is a science fiction novel about a teenage boy called Paul who is the son of Duke Atreides and his Bene Gesserit concubine Jessica, who some consider a witch. When the Duke becomes steward of the desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, the whole House moves to this harsh new place that is lacking in water but wealthy in an addictive substance necessary for space navigation known colloquially as “spice”. However, being granted stewardship over Arrakis is not the boon it appears to be. The previous rulers, the Harkonnens, plan to overthrow the Duke and his House as a step towards a much bigger conspiracy for power. However, after undergoing a test with a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother, Paul’s destiny suddenly appears to be much greater than inheriting his father’s title.

This is science fiction in its truest sense: imagining humanity in a different space and time and pushing people to their limits. The world-building is exceptional with thousands of years of history encompassing the rise and fall of religions, the rise and fall of artificial intelligence (AI) and waves of human migration through the known universe. Herbert weaves the impact of each of these factors into present day Dune and the complexities of cultures, factions and schools form the basis of Paul’s journey towards leadership. For the reader who gets a little lost in all the information, there is a helpful glossary at the end of the book that explains things in even more detail. I think one of my favourite parts of the book were the practicalities of having to survive on such a dry planet and how that informs the behaviour and beliefs of the local Freman people in every aspect of their lives from the clothes that they were to how they handle the bodies of the dead. Herbert draws considerably from Islamic influences when writing about Fremen culture, and there has been plenty of interesting discussion about the depth of this engagement and what has been lost in the adaptation. I also really liked Herbert’s ideas about terraforming and how a planet’s natural resources and ecosystems can be learned and exploited to create a habitat better suited to support humans.

However, good ideas does not a book make. This was a really difficult book to read from a narrative point of view. Instead of chapters, the book is split up in to sections separated by quotes ostensibly from a character in the future who is writing the history of Paul’s life on Arrakis. While these were quite good goalposts when decided how long to read for, this book just took so long to get through that I found I was just reading one small section at a time before putting it aside. Herbert’s approach to plotting was to build up and build up an event, imbuing it with lots of tension, and then have Paul effortlessly overcome the obstacle without any difficulty which was not very satisfying.

Many of the minor characters were difficult to distinguish from one another and to me they served more as chess pieces with idiosyncratic appearances rather than individualised people. I thought Hawat (master assassin) and Halleck (master of arms) were the same person (they weren’t). I also got confused between Hawat and Yueh (doctor). Duncan Idaho (swordmaster) disappeared and then reappeared confusingly later on without much explanation, and the one character who I really wanted to learn more about was Liet-Kynes, the planetologist, who was not around for nearly long enough. I did really like Jessica, and it was an interesting dynamic having a teen boy coming into his power being mentored by his mother, but her relevance seemed to fade towards the second half of the book. Herbert did not really dwell much on the trauma that loss and war had on his characters, and apart from Paul’s maturation into an adult, there wasn’t a great deal of character development.

This was a difficult and frustrating book with a fully-realised universe that contemplates everything from politics to culture to economics to ecology. There are many more books in this series and I do not intend to read any of them, but I think I would like to see whether the film adaptation can draw out some more story.

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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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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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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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