Robyn Reviews: Iron Widow

‘Iron Widow’ is an ambitious, Chinese history inspired, YA fantasy with elements of sci-fi, romance, and social commentary. It packs a lot into its 400-odd pages, and while it tells an entertaining and fast-paced story, it does at times struggle with trying to do too much.

Huaxia has been at war with the mecha-aliens beyond the Great Wall for generations, with their best means of attack the giant Chrysalises – giant transforming robots powered by a powerful male pilot and a female concubine. The fact that the female often dies is a necessary sacrifice. Zetian, however, will never forgive Huaxia for her sister’s death – and when she enlists as a concubine-pilot, it’s purely to assassinate the male pilot responsible. When she achieves the impossible – overpowering the psychic link between them and ensuring he is the one who dies instead – it rattles Huaxia to the core. In revenge, they pair her with the most controversial of their pilots – Li Shimin, powerful and renowned for murdering his entire family. However, Zetian is not giving up her new power so easily – and by leveraging their combined infamy, she’s determined to bring the entire misogynistic system to its knees.

Zetian is fierce, determined, and full of anger and vengeance. She’ll stop at nothing to bring down her sister’s killer – and once she’s done that, to turn the entire system on its head. Her motives are admirable – she clearly loves her sister, and hates that most women simply accept being mere vessels or batteries for male power – but gradually, as her influence grows, she also starts to crave power for power’s sake. It’s subtly and cleverly done, and even when Zetian doesn’t seem to be doing the right thing its difficult to stop rooting for her after growing so attached.

Li Shimin is a more nuanced character, kept a mystery for a large amount of the book. There are horrors in his past, and its difficult to know whether to pity or revile him. However, as more is revealed, it’s clear his story is a more complex one than first meets the eye. He provides a good counterpoint to Zetian.

The other major character is Gao Yizhi – Zetian’s only friend from her original village and the son of one of the richest and most influential people in Huaxia. Unlike Zetian and Shimin, Yizhi always comes across as a genuinely nice and supportive person – not perfect, but a breath of fresh air amongst the darkness. Yizhi clearly adores Zetian, and their dynamic is always excellent.

‘Iron Widow’ is one of the only mainstream YA books featuring a polyamorous relationship, and this is exceptionally well handled. The chemistry is authentically written and the characters have some wonderful open discussions about polyamory.

The worldbuilding is solid, although clearly not the novel’s main focus – this is a plot and theme driven novel rather than anything else. The system behind the Chrysalises and the origins of the aliens is one of the most intriguing parts, and from the ending its apparent this will be delved into much more in the sequel. The ending, again, is strong, satisfying but leaving plenty open for the next chapter.

The main issue is that so much is explored that none of it can be explored to its full depths. Feminism is a key theme, but there’s minimal delving into the origins of the current patriarchal system. Power is another – but again, while this is explored, it doesn’t feel entirely satisfying. Admittedly, this is the first book in a series, so it has to leave itself revelations for the sequels – but after reading, little of the book lingers, which is a sign it didn’t quite have its intended impact.

Overall, ‘Iron Widow’ is a fun, fast-paced read, audacious in scope and solid in execution. It might have benefitted from an extra hundred pages to help it go slightly deeper into its subject matter, but if you’re looking for an action-packed YA fantasy this should fit the bill.

Thanks to NetGalley and Rock the Boat for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Rock the Boat
Hardback: 7th October 2021

Robyn Reviews: Far from the Light of Heaven

‘Far From the Light of Heaven’ is pitched as a locked room mystery in space, with elements of space opera and elements of old-fashioned detective drama. It’s an audacious premise, and while it doesn’t entirely come off, it’s still an entertaining and fast-paced story.

Michelle ‘Shell’ Campion is from a line of astronauts, and there was never any doubt in her mind that she’d end up in space. For her first mission, she’s assigned as First Mate on the starship Ragtime – an entirely ceremonial position, providing backup to an AI captain that’s never failed. Except, when Shell wakes in the Lagos system, she discovers the AI has failed – and some of her passengers are dead. With the help of Rasheed Fin, a disgraced investigator from the colony Bloodroot, his robotic partner Salva, and a couple of unexpected allies, Shell must figure out who’s attacking her ship – before they kill them all.

The story starts strongly, introducing the main players and setting the scene organically, without resorting to reams of description of technology or futuristic culture. There’s also clear foreshadowing, with emphasis on the infallibility of the AI and hints of characters needing a redemption arc. It’s unclear exactly how far into the future the novel is set, but the Earth described retains hints of current culture whilst also showing hints of divergence, making it easy to settle in.

All the characters are likeable enough without being particularly memorable. The strongest is probably Larry, an ageing governor on Lagos Station and friend of Shell’s late father. Fin also has an intriguing backstory and brings an emotional element sometimes lacking from some of the others.

I have two main criticisms of this book. The first is that there’s a level of disconnect between the reader and the characters throughout – they’re deliberately kept at a distance, very much observing through the keyhole rather than sitting down at the table. It makes the characters seem a little two-dimensional, and also makes them less memorable. Every moment of tension loses some impact because the reader empathises less without that connection. In a book that relies on a fast-pace and constant threat of danger, that’s a major downside.

The second criticism is related to the first, and it’s a loss of believability towards the end of the novel. Science fiction and fantasy as a genre revolves around the reader believing in the major or science within the book – believing that, in this world or version of it, these things are possible. Perhaps due to the lack of reader connection, ‘Far From the Light of Heaven’ starts to lose its plausibility towards the end. There are certain elements I couldn’t bring myself to buy, and it affected my enjoyment. That being said, the novel tries to pack an awful lot into a short space of time, and I admire Tade Thompson for having the guts to try and pull something so difficult off.

The mystery element is creative, twisty, and keeps the reader guessing, so in this way the novel excels. Thompson isn’t afraid to blend genres and go down rabbit holes to hide the twists, and many of the new directions are completely unpredictable. Some of the foreshadowing is there, but it would be incredibly difficult to guess the ending before at least three quarters of the way in.

Overall, ‘Far From the Light of Heaven’ is a solid mystery novel that utilises its sci-fi setting well. For fans of character-driven stories it’s a weaker tale, but for fans of fast-paced, audacious novels that like to try something new it’s a recommended read.

Thanks to Orbit UK for providing an arc – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 26th October 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Second Rebel

‘The Second Rebel’ is the epic sequel to ‘The First Sister‘, expanding the world in scope and complexity and continuing to tell a tense, action-packed tale reminiscent of a morally-greyer Star Wars. Where ‘The First Sister’ is a solid novel elevated by the excellence of its ending, ‘The Second Rebel’ is brilliant throughout, keeping the reader on the edge of their seat. Once again, the ending is a punch to the gut- and also shows that the author won’t pull their punches when it comes to beloved main characters. This is a dark and gritty sci-fi in places, and a recommended read throughout.

Where ‘The First Sister’ alternated between three perspectives – Lito, First Sister, and Hiro – with the latter only in the form of audio recordings, ‘The Second Rebel’ ups this to four. The additional point-of-view, Lucinia sol Lucius – Lito’s sister – sees the world very differently to her brother, and also lends a touch of youthful naivety and optimism missing from the now battle-hardened other characters. However, the highlight of the book is Hiro, allowed to flourish instead of being relegated to recorded snippets. Hiro is sarcastic and irreverent, but also deeply caring, and their struggles throughout the book are both harrowing and moving to read about. There’s a single chapter at the end with a fifth perspective, but to provide any more insight would be a spoiler – I had guessed the twist, but its still an excellent one that I’m looking forward to seeing develop in the finale.

The worldbuilding is expanded greatly, and is one of the strongest parts. Beyond the Icarii and Gaens, the Asters play a much larger role than they did in The First Sister, and there’s also the introduction of the Synthetics – a powerful yet mysterious group poised to play an even larger role in the finale. Lewis avoids info-dumping, weaving all the parts of this expanded world in seamlessly. They also excel at creating culture – each race feels distinctly different, with their own lifestyles, social and political structures, and places in the wider universe.

For most of the book, the four protagonists are separate, each following their own storyline. Unusually in a multi-perspective story, there isn’t a weak link – each storyline is engaging, and its enjoyable rather than cumbersome jumping between them. First Sister’s storyline is a bit separate to the rest – all of whom are more clearly on the same side, and working towards similar goals – but this broadens the book, providing intriguing context about the world outside Lito, Hiro, and Lucinia’s bubble.

Another of Lewis’s strengths is the many fight scenes throughout the book. Fight scenes can be chaotic, but Lewis choreographs them all well, giving them realism and brutality. Its always obvious whats happening and what each characters limitations are. This is definitely a book to heed the trigger warnings for, but if you don’t mind gritty action it does it exceptionally well.

The one criticism the book could have is that it’s over 150 pages longer than ‘The First Sister’ and it does take a little time to warm up. Part of this is Lewis trying to explain the basis of the plot of ‘The First Sister’ so that readers don’t have to reread the first book before digging into this one. For those who prefer not to re-read, this will probably be greatly appreciated – I reread the first, so for me it was a little more cumbersome. However, once it got past this section, the story flowed beautifully and passed impressively quickly for an over-500 page book.

Overall, ‘The Second Rebel’ expands and improves on ‘The First Sister’, telling an engaging and action-packed story with all the best aspects of complex space opera. Highly recommended to all sci-fi fans.

Thanks to NetGalley and Hodder and Stoughton for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the contents of this review

Published by Hodder and Stoughton
Hardback: 24th August 2021

Robyn Reviews: Subject Twenty One

‘Subject Twenty One’ is a dystopian novel with an intriguing premise. The dystopian genre dominated the YA scene for several years, with The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Maze Runner series’ possibly the best known examples, but since then it’s been a tough genre to crack. ‘Subject Twenty One’ is simply written, but puts a fresh spin on older ideas, creating an engaging and highly readable story. First published by Locutions Press in 2018 as ‘The Museum of Second Chances’, it’s now being reissued under a new name by Del Rey.

Elise is a Sapien – a member of the lowest order of humanity and held responsible for the damage inflicted on Earth by previous generations. Sapiens are given limited education and kept in poverty to atone for their ancestors’ crimes. When Elise is offered a job at the Museum of Evolution, she sees a chance to build a better life. Her task is to be a companion to one of the recently resurrected Neanderthals, Twenty-One. However, the job comes with risks – at the Museum, she’ll be under greater scrutiny than she ever has been before, putting her and her family’s secrets at risk. Plus, the more time she spends with Twenty-One, the more she starts to realise how little there is keeping her from a cage of her own.

The world Warren creates is excellent. Set only a few hundred years in the future, it’s changed enormously. The advent of genetic engineering has led to a race of superhumans, Homo Potiors, who run society. All skilled jobs are performed by Homo Medius – another race of genetically engineered humans, inferior to the Potiors but far superior to the un-engineered Homo Sapiens. Homo Sapiens was responsible for the destruction of the planet and extinction of untold species, and therefore cannot be trusted. All of humanity lives on four highly controlled bases – each named after a component of DNA – with the rest of the world given over to rewilding, allowing Earth to heal. Its a simple yet effective concept. As a Sapien, Elise is taught very little about her world, and it’s fascinating learning about evolutionary concepts and the structure of her world with her – and then seeing how Potior-taught truths are challenged.

Elise makes a very likeable protagonist. Her father is a sceptic, convinced that the Potior and Medius are going to move against the Sapiens, and raised her to be prepared for war and survival. Elise, in contrast, is more trusting and genial – but also lonely, as most of those around her see her family as freaks. She also has a younger brother who’s Deaf, which is seen by society as a marker her family has poor genetics. Elise is friendly and caring, always looking out for her family – especially her brother – but her friendliness means she easily forms attachments, and as a companion the biggest no-no is becoming attached to her Neanderthal. It’s interesting seeing how Elise grapples with her warring responsibilities – how her loyalty to her family starts to chafe against her loyalty to her new friends at the Museum.

The supporting cast is also excellent. Samuel and Georgina, a Homo Medius scientist and doctor respectively, are two highlights – both are always nice to Elise despite her designation, but there’s always an underlying uneasiness of how much the different classes can truly trust each other. Twenty-One, the Neanderthal, is brilliantly written – he’s lived all his life in a cage, alone except for his companion, and the way this has affected his psyche is both horrible and fascinating.

The science is kept to a minimum – Elise has never been allowed much of an education, so she barely understands concepts like evolution, let alone how the Museum is bringing back extinct animals. It makes this a highly accessible read. The language is also very simple. It took me some time to get into the book because of this – at times it felt over-simplistic – but the story is fast-paced and the content engaging, and after a while the language starts to suit the story. It’s a little unclear if this is aimed at the YA or adult audience, but given the more basic language and Elise’s age, I’d put this in the YA bracket.

Overall, ‘Subject Twenty One’ is a solid addition to the dystopian genre, with elements of Jurassic Park crossed with a standard YA dystopia. Recommended for fans of both the former, plus those who enjoy a fast-paced story and explorations of human ethics.

Thanks to Del Rey and Netgalley for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Del Rey
Paperback: 1st July 2021

Robyn Reviews: Artifact Space

‘Artifact Space’ is an action packed space opera with a multitude of subplots. The author’s debut science fiction novel, it has a confidence and scope that make it feel like it belongs to a master of the genre. With the constant action and sheer number of characters and threads, it can feel very confusing, and there are times when the flow is lost entirely due to the novel’s breakneck pace, but overall it’s an enjoyable addition to the space adventure genre.

Marca Nbaro has always dreamed of escaping the orphanage she grew up in and venturing into space – but thanks to her whistleblowing and a minor scandal, she’s barred from serving. Undeterred, she pools her entire life savings into simulators, hackers, and forgeries, bluffing her way into a position as a Midder on the Greatship Athens. However, leaving behind her old life isn’t so easy – and between the ever-present threat of blackmail, acting like she has a clue what she’s doing, navigating the microcosm and culture of Greatship life, and an unexpected threat to the Athens, Marca starts to realise she might have traded her dangerous life for one even more perilous. As the Athens sets off on a two-year round trip to make humanity’s most important trade – obtaining xenoglas from the only other sentient alien species they’ve ever made contact with – Marca is trapped to deal with whatever the universe decides to throw at her next.

Marca Nbaro makes a brilliant protagonist. Unusually for a novel of this length, she’s the single point-of-view character, but her perspective is an engaging one. With a horrible, traumatic background, she definitely has elements of PTSD – but she also has incredible grit and determination and a tendency to react to danger by throwing herself headlong into it. She trusts no-one, reacting warily to simple things like touch, and her lack of willingness to ever admit to weakness constantly gets her into trouble – but she’s intelligent and gutsy and easy to root for. It’s also wonderful seeing how, as the novel goes on, she starts to come out of her shell – never fully, but a huge step from where she starts. Her growing friendship with her roommate, Thea, is lovely, as is the way her respect of her colleagues starts to resemble friendship too. There’s a romance, but it’s very slow and subtle – in keeping with Marca’s triggers and defensiveness – and feels beautifully organic.

The side characters are numerous – so numerous it takes a significant amount of time to figure out who everyone is, and sometimes names are thrown in and it’s a challenge to remember who they are – but there are some real gems. Mpono is one of the highlights – an androgyne, which appears to be a third gender marker somewhat equivalent to the non-binary spectrum, Mpono is confident, talented, and takes absolutely no nonsense. They’re tough, but as Marca starts to get to know them, it also becomes clear that they also have a wicked sense of humour and really care about their friends.

The plot is constantly moving, never given a moment of rest. The overarching plot revolves around a threat to the Greatships of mysterious origin, but there are numerous subplots – Marca’s lies to get on the ship in the first place, the politics of life on the Athens, and a secret to do with the aliens they’re travelling to meet. The subplots are less woven in and more thrown into a soup, with events constantly occurring that may or may not affect the overall story. This makes the story chaotic, but somehow works – everything becomes quite unpredictable, and whilst it can be hard to keep track of everything there’s still a compulsive readability to the story.

The world-building happens organically throughout. The reader is thrown in the deep end, picking up tidbits as they go along – sometimes from Marca learning about them, and sometimes inferring from context. It’s a novel that best suits a reader familiar with the science fiction genre, as many of the basics are genre staples that would be harder for a new reader to infer. It’s essentially set in a version of the future where Earth, or Old Terra, has been mostly destroyed, but humanity has instead expanded throughout the universe thanks to technological advancement and a form of faster-than-light travel known as Insertion. There are several different factions, each based on Earth’s geography – an African faction, a US faction, a Chinese faction – each of which has home planets and their own space force for war and trade. The factions are allied, but not entirely – the friction between them is a major subplot. The use of familiar names works well, and it’s nice to read a space opera that doesn’t assume the entire Earth allied as one organisation when it conquered space.

Overall, ‘Artifact Space’ is an exceptionally fast-paced and creative novel, highly readable with an excellent cast of characters. Its scope is huge, and the sheer amount happening is regularly confusing, but despite this its easy to enjoy. Recommended for fans of space adventures and novels with non-stop action.

Thanks to NetGalley and Gollancz for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Gollancz
Paperback: 24th June 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Ones We’re Meant to Find

‘The Ones We’re Meant to Find’ is an exceptionally clever science fiction dystopia. The first half is shrouded in mystery, many elements strange and confusing, but the payoff is spectacular.

Cee has been trapped on an island for three years, with no knowledge of how she arrived or concrete detail of her previous life. All she knows is she has a sister, Kay. Determined to find her, Cee spends her days scavenging parts, trying to build a boat to take her away from the island. Meanwhile, 16-year-old science prodigy Kasey is grappling with the sudden disappearance of her sister Celia. Kasey lives a life of isolation, preferring logic to people. Her eco-city’s lifestyle – spending as much time as possible indoors, socialising using holos and regularly using stasis pods – suits her in a way it never suited Celia. However, the more she thinks about Celia’s disappearance, the less sits right with her – and she decides to retrace her sister’s last steps, solving the mystery once and for all.

Of the two protagonists, Kasey is the more initially interesting, although Cee does her best to equal her at the end. Intensely logical, Kasey doesn’t understand people. She looks at life through a lens of science and numbers, analysing situations to determine the most sensible course of action – and not understanding why everyone else doesn’t do the same. Kasey cares deeply about her sister – they’re extremely different, but Celia is important in a way that defies Kasey’s otherwise logical life. Practical but un-streetwise, Kasey can concoct a solution to any problem – but possibly not a solution that anyone else would accept.

Cee is also practical, but her emotions are bright and all-encompassing where Kasey’s are a mere inconvenience. Alone on an island – apart from her robot companion, U-Me – Cee’s only concern is to get to her sister. She’s smart and practical, but throws caution to the wind in her desperation to find Kay. Cee is easy to empathise with, and her desperation is striking. However, as the story progresses, it becomes clear there’s far more to her than initially meets the eye – and it’s this complexity that really makes her character compelling.

Joan He’s worldbuilding is intricately detailed. Earth is facing ecological disaster, with pollution and climate change threatening humanity with extinction. The privileged have fled to eight eco-cities – floating cities where people live in the smallest possible amount of space, minimising their carbon footprint by leading predominantly virtual lives. Science has advanced to almost eradicate disease, and each citizen is fitted with an implant that functions as both a health monitor and a miniature computer. He makes all the advances seem believable, and whilst the complexity of the setting takes some time to fully understand, the way the reader is left to figure everything out for themselves fits in what is a generally tricky and mysterious novel.

While this is definitely a science fiction novel, its also a story about moral ambiguity and what it means to be human. Joan He is constantly exploring humans and their differences. Kasey, as a prodigy, is working towards saving humanity, despite not fully understanding humanity herself. Cee, alone on an island, is trying desperately to remember and figure out who she is. The juxtaposition between Kasey’s life in an eco-city and Cee’s on an abandoned island highlights the differences between Kasey and Cee themselves. The struggles with identity and humanity are beautifully written, making the denouement even more powerful.

Overall, ‘The Ones We’re Meant to Find’ is a novel worth persevering with. The start can seem slow and confusing, but by the end the depth and cleverness is staggering. Recommended for all fans of dystopia, ethics, and complex science fiction.

Thanks to NetGalley and Text Publishing for providing an eARC – this does not affect the content of this review

Published by Text Publishing
Paperback: 24th June 2021 / eBook: 4th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: Project Hail Mary

‘Project Hail Mary’ is the latest science fiction book by Andy Weir, most famous for writing ‘The Martian’. It’s an audacious book, packing in a huge amount of science alongside Weir’s typical humour and witty characters. There are a few minor niggles, but overall this is an excellent, well-balanced story. Fans of ‘The Martian’, and of science fiction in general, should find plenty to enjoy.

A very long way from Earth, a man wakes up. To his surprise, he can’t remember his own name – but that’s almost insignificant when he figures out he’s stranded on a spaceship with only two dead crewmates for company. As his memories start to return, he starts to remember an extinction-level threat to humanity – and he realises succeeding at his mission is the only possible way to prevent it. Too bad he can’t remember what that mission is right now. Against all the odds, he’s determined to figure out what he has to do – after all, he’s the only one out here in space. Isn’t he?

The book contains several distinct arcs, with variable pacing, but each flows smoothly and feels engaging. The first, the protagonist figuring out his own identity, is the slowest. There’s a great deal of exposition, but the reader and the protagonist are figuring everything out together, creating a strong sense of empathy. Weir also drops in little nuggets of humour, adding lightness to what can otherwise be long and difficult scenes. By the time the protagonist – Ryland – comes to understand his own identity, the reader has been granted all the basic scene setting, and the story thus transitions smoothly into the next arc – an intriguing direction which would be a spoiler to discuss.

Ryland is very reminiscent of Mark Watney, the protagonist of ‘The Martian’, but also has his own idiosyncracies. He’s an optimistic pessimist, outwardly light-hearted and funny, but also plagued by deep-seated negative thoughts. Endlessly practical and incredibly smart, he figures out most problems surprisingly easily – although he has a tendency to overwork and sometimes overlooks things staring him in the face. He’s impossible not to like, and while he isn’t perfect he has a good heart and tries to do the right thing.

This is a very sciencey book, with a lot of complex physics thrown in. I can’t pretend to understand every aspect, but whilst Weir stretches the boundaries of plausibility he still keeps everything the right side of believable. It’s definitely a book aimed at readers of hard science fiction – for those without basic knowledge of science, sections may read a little like a semi-accurate textbook. The jargon is all explained but, in order to strike the right balance between giving enough information and avoiding info-dumping, a little accessibility is probably lost. I’ll be interested to read the reviews of complete non-scientists to see how they find it, especially the physics component.

Weir should also be credited for his imagination. In some ways, ‘Project Hail Mary’ is much like ‘The Martian’, with a man on a mission alone in space – but beyond the basic premise, there’s a vast divergence. ‘The Martian’ contained a great deal of creative and complex science fiction. ‘Project Hail Mary’ goes even further, showing off the diversity of space and the potential that offers. Its hard to discuss this in detail without giving anything away, but I’m impressed.

My main minor issues lie with the humour. Mostly, this works really well, adding lightness to heavier scenes and depth to Ryland’s character. However, in places, it just comes across crass. There are a couple of scenes with random references to sex, presumably for comedic value, but it just comes across awkward and threatens immersion and believability. However, the story is otherwise gripping and clever, and its still easy to enjoy even with a few odd scenes.

Overall, ‘Project Hail Mary’ is an excellent science fiction novel, combining hard science with an engaging story and likeable characters. Recommended for fans of Weir’s previous work, but also all fans of hard science fiction, creative worldbuilding, and stories with light humour.

Thanks to NetGalley and Del Rey for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 4th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: A History of What Comes Next

‘A History of What Comes Next’ is an enormously clever book, part alternate history and part science fiction novel. The writing style will likely be polarising, but for those who appreciate something a bit different it’s an exceptionally worthwhile read.

Germany, 1945. Nineteen-year-old Mia is sent from America to infiltrate the Nazis and locate Wernher von Braun, Germany’s most esteemed rocket scientist. Her mission is to get hold of von Braun and his missile technology before the Russians can capture it. Naturally, von Braun is suspicious. But Mia isn’t an ordinary nineteen-year-old – in fact, she isn’t even human. Her people have been secretly shaping human innovation for thousands of years. But is her help benevolent, or does it spell the dawn of a greater danger?

There are two primary perspectives, Mia and her mother Sarah, and both are fascinating. On the face of it, both they and their thoughts resemble humans – but as the story progresses, both the differences and similarities become more stark. Sarah has long accepted her people’s way and differing morality, whereas Mia questions, creating interesting ethical conundrums. Where Sarah is relatively solitary, caring only about her daughter and a distant friend, Mia forms attachments – a scenario which, again, creates smaller whirlpools within the larger chaos. Personally, I found Mia’s perspective easier to relate to, but I suspect Sarah’s will resonate with all who have experienced parenthood.

Neuvel takes slight liberties with the order of innovations, but by and large draws his inspiration from actual historical events. The inside depictions of the Soviet-American space race are fascinating. The political backdrop of World War Two and the subsequent descent into the Cold War meshes surprisingly well with the more speculative, alien elements, and its easy to believe Sarah and Mia could actually have had a hand in it. There are also brief mentions of other major events – Sarah’s only friend, Hsue-Shen Tsien, is a Chinese man in America amidst the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, and there are little snippets of the ensuing racial and political tension. Similarly, Mia becomes close with a woman named Billie, a Black woman whose family fled the US for Russia with the introduction of the Jim Crow laws. These little extras add important historical context and paint a rich tapestry for the action that unfolds.

The writing style is sedate, with an almost stream-of-consciousness style. Some will likely find this slow or irritating, but I found seeing into the heads of Mia and Sarah brilliant. Neuvel perfectly captures the otherness of their alien heritage, whilst balancing the influences of their Earth upbringing and attachments. He also deftly avoids dumping large amounts of information in one place, instead weaving just enough into the narrative to clearly understand what’s happening without being overwhelmed. In places, the flow is broken up with an abrupt twist. The first time this happens it feels jarring, but as the story moves on it works – again, it feeds into the stream-of-consciousness, the mind following a thread then suddenly being distracted by another one.

Overall, ‘A History of What Comes Next’ is a bold novel, but one that speculative fiction readers should find plenty to love about. Recommended for fans of alternate history and novels unafraid to challenge convention.

Thanks to Penguin Michael Joseph for providing a finished copy – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Penguin Michael Joseph
Hardback: 4th March 2021

Book Review: Skyward Inn

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Humans had been through so many changes. Evolutionary changes, yes, but more than that, much more than that. Who lived where and who loved what and who hated who: what was allowed and what was forbidden and all of it changing, changing with every generation.”

Skyward Inn is science fiction that explores what it means to be human and its cost. It opens at the titular inn where the landlady, Jem, is drinking after hours with her assistant, Isley. They have run the place together for more than seven years, since they returned from Isley’s home planet, Qita.

Skyward Inn used to be called the Lamb and Flag, before Jem bought it with her military tour completion bonus. It is situated on a hill close to the rural community in Devon where Jem was born and raised – where her brother and son still live. This area is now part of The Western Protectorate – an area kept free from the computer connectivity, including implants, which the rest of the island accepts as a price worth paying for instant answers to questions along with other comforts and entertainments.

Jem and Isley declare their love for each other but do not touch – at his insistence. When customers have left, they reminisce about their time on Qita, an area now mined for resources. History reports that the Qitans gave up their world peacefully when humans invaded, that it was a war without casualties. The alien population are not, however, made welcome on Earth. Isley has done his best to assimilate – although his world translates this idea differently. He is still treated with suspicion by locals.

Fosse, Jem’s teenage son, lives with his uncle, Dom. The boy dreams of leaving the confines of the Protectorate, although with no clear idea of where he would go. Dom is a pillar of the community, responsible for the trades that enable its residents to acquire goods and services they cannot provide for themselves. People who can afford it want more than can be made available and a black market flourishes – a weakness in the supposedly strict control over comings and goings.

News of an encroaching virus leads to changes in travel rules and quarantine. Then three strangers arrive and take over an abandoned farm. Fosse is drawn to the interlopers, especially the women. He fears the man and his manipulations – his apparent power over his companions. Fosse is torn between a feeling of invasion and the prospect of a path towards his own escape.

Skyward Inn also has an uninvited visitor to contend with. Won is a Qitian whose arrival upsets Jem due to her apparent closeness to Isley. He shows no surprise at her presence but is concerned by her predicament. Won’s ability to travel has malfunctioned – her suit requires a replacement part. To get rid of her, Jem must take the risk of asking the law-abiding Dom for help.

“All it took was the arrival of one more Qitan and I’ve begun to separate this situation into sides. How human I am, no matter how hard I try. We residents of the Western Protectorate, setting up our boundaries, priding ourselves on not being barbaric compared to the tiny villages not a few miles away. Being human is the problem, the huge problem in a nutshell”

The story is mostly told from the points of view of Jem and Fosse. It explores how power revolves around information, and the human need to feel appreciated – to belong. There is an instinct to protect what is believed rightfully owned, be it people, property or values. There is arrogance in what is assumed to be a right, whatever the cost to other beings.

Earthlings do not understand Qitan society. The aliens are assumed to be peace loving because they did not put up a fight for Qita. This is regarded as weakness, the Quitans assumed to pose little threat to their invaders. Differing principles lead to a lackadaisical approach to finding out what is valued and why. As the truth is gradually revealed, Jem must make a difficult choice.

This is a prescient tale for a time when nationalism appears to be on the rise and historical accuracy is being questioned. It may be human instinct to fear the outsider, but change arrives whether or not it is invited.

Any Cop?: In her writing, Aliya Whiteley presents important topics to consider with the lightest of touches. This is a story to be enjoyed for its imaginative world building and development that can be mined for so much more.

 

Jackie Law

Robyn Reviews: Skyward Inn

‘Skyward Inn’ is a beautifully written and profoundly strange piece of speculative fiction. It goes in a completely different direction to what I expected before picking it up, with creepy, almost gothic, undertones, but the quality of the writing makes it hard to look away.

Skyward Inn is a place of refuge – a place people of the Western Protectorate come to drink brew and reminisce on simpler times before the war between Earth and Qita. Run by a human, Jem, and a Qitayan, Isley, both veterans of the war, it epitomises the peace that now exists between the races. But peace is a fragile thing, and the arrival of an unexpected friend of Isley’s threatens to upset the balance. As things start to change, Jem must decide where her loyalties lie.

The story is told from two perspectives – Jem’s, in first person, and Fosse’s, in third. The perspectives change regularly, so the use of both first and third person works well, clearly delineating which character is being followed. Jem is a fascinating character. She fled her home in the Western Protectorate as soon as she could, abandoning her family for adventure – and formed a strong connection with Isley, another outsider who’d never quite felt they fit in. She and Isley spent years trading stories, eventually returning to the Western Protectorate (once Devon) to open their Inn. Jem is a fiercely independent woman, the sort who struggles to form any deep connection with anyone – and as time goes on, it becomes clear that she doesn’t even know Isley as well as she should. She feels guilty for abandoning her family, but at the same time she sees the world more in dreams than reality, and a life shackled to the same village is no place for a dreamer.

Fosse is a teenager struggling with his changing desires. Raised by his uncle Dom, he doesn’t feel like he quite fits – he’s not accepted by the other children, and he’s frequently overwhelmed by urges like anger. Fosse is harder for me to relate to than Jem, but he makes an intriguing counterpart – very different in many ways but also very similar in some. His naivety and raging emotions are painted starkly by Whiteley, and whilst his head isn’t always a comfortable place to be, it’s undeniably very human.

The plot is slow, spreading out gradually like a fungus. The reader is introduced to the characters and setting – a very recognisable traditional rural village in many ways, albeit with a few stark differences – with Jem and Fosse seeming very separate, before everything is gradually brought together in an intricate web of connections. About halfway through, the book changes tone, going from a literary science fiction novel to more audacious and strange speculative fiction. The first half is more my speed than the second, but both are brilliantly written and nothing feels out of place. The ending is fitting, leaving a few loose ends but not so many that the book feels incomplete. It’s an intriguing concept, and while it’s not one I expected it’s certainly thought-provoking and intelligently done.

Overall, ‘Skyward Inn’ is a clever – if odd in places – speculative fiction novel that lingers beyond the last page. It isn’t what I expected from the blurb, but equally it’s an impossible novel to summarise without giving anything away. Recommended for fans of speculative fiction and literary fiction that goes a bit off piste.

Published by Solaris
Hardback: 18th March 2021