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

Robyn Reviews: Gideon the Ninth

Gideon the Ninth is one of the most chaotic books I’ve ever read. It’s completely non-stop, jumping from action scene to action scene until you’re left spinning around in confusion yet still too enthralled to look away. I read this in one sitting, occasionally stopping to grin at one of Gideon’s wittier lines. If you love fun, action packed fantasy you should love this – and if, like me, you’re usually more of a fan of character-driven beautifully written fantasy, it’s so cleverly constructed you should appreciate it equally as much.

Gideon Nav has had enough – of her life, her planet, and especially her boss, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, necromancer supreme and heiress apparent of the Ninth House. All she has to look forward to is an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She’s all set to stage a daring escape – successful, this time, after more than eighty attempts – when her plot is foiled by Harrowhark’s summons to take part in an inter-House competition. Win, and Gideon finally gets her freedom – lose, and she’s dead.

Gideon is a brilliant character. She has an impeccable sense of humour, always ready with a witty comeback – and truly, the comebacks and insults in this are so creative I want to use them everyday. Muir has an incredible imagination. Gideon is also dedicated, fierce, and such a firecracker that her personality shines through every page. A book about a character like her can’t be anything other than chaotic – but it’s the brilliant sort of chaos it’s fun to be part of. Gideon’s evolving relationship with Harrow is a spectacular highlight and it’s delightful reading about it.

Harrow makes the perfect counterpart. She’s controlled, disciplined, and always tries to stay three steps ahead of the game. Her and Gideon clash at every opportunity, and watching them have to pretend to be civil and try to trust each other is both hilarious and amazing. Harrow is also a necromancer, and the intricacies of necromancy are fascinating – it says something about how good a character Gideon is to overshadow it. Harrow provides an element of calm in the chaos – ironic considering how she’s further developed in the sequel, Harrow the Ninth.

The other characters are equally brilliant. Two of my favourites are definitely Palamedes and Camilla of the Sixth House. Palamedes is the consummate nerd, making a careful study of every aspect of the competition and letting others handle the heavy lifting. Camilla, on the other hand, is just as much of a badass as Gideon, but quieter about it. Where Gideon is brash and cocky, Camilla is introverted, lulling everyone into a false sense of security before she pounces. Dulcinea, of the Seventh House, is also intriguing – I don’t want to give too much away about her, but the relationship between her, Gideon, Palamedes, and Harrow is spectacularly written, if exceptionally frustrating.

The plot is non-stop, with action scene after action scene and constant quips and humour. The pace suits Gideon, who isn’t a character you can imagine ever sitting still. The necromancy element is brilliantly constructed, with exceptional worldbuilding. The premise of a game sounds unoriginal, but in practice this is unlike any other book I’ve ever written – the game is ever-present, but it’s the characters and their dynamics that steal the show.

Overall, this is a fabulous book that I’d highly recommend. Will you find it confusing? Yes. Is it still a great book? Double yes – and it’s so much fun. Try not to think about it too much, just go with the flow and let Gideon entertain you.

My review of the sequel, Harrow the Ninth, can be found here.

Published by Tor.com
Hardback: September 10th 2019
Paperback: July 14th 2020

Robyn Reviews: All the Birds in the Sky

‘All the Birds in the Sky’ is a profoundly strange book. It’s extremely ambitious, bending genres and written in a very particular style, but it doesn’t quite manage to carry it off. It’s also quite different to what you might picture from the blurb, which can lead to confusion as the story unravels.

The novel follows two individuals – Patricia, a witch, and Laurence, a technology-obsessed scientist – from childhood. Both are social outcasts, and thus thrown together. They’re too weird for school – nerdy before being nerdy was almost cool – and too obsessed in their own interests to be friends. Neither truly understands the other or believes they would be friends by choice. As they grow older, they lose touch – partially by choice, and partially through outside forces – but in adulthood, unusual circumstances force them to reconnect. Together, they could bring about the end of the world – or stop it.

The style of writing means there’s no connection between the reader and either Patricia or Laurence. It isn’t clear if this is a deliberate plot device – the reader failing to relate to them in the same way as their peers – or simply an accident, but either way it doesn’t work for me. They feel distant and two-dimensional, definitely stereotypes rather than people, and it makes it difficult to care what happens to them. It also makes them very forgettable – as soon as the novel is finished, its hard to remember any details you’ve just read.

The plot is the strongest part. The events of the novel are bizarre – Charlie Jane Anders has clearly done her research, because the science has a vague basis in reality, but coupled with witchcraft it becomes completely chaotic. The blend of science-fiction and fantasy is clever and intricately done. In many ways this boils down to simply magic vs science, but it feels ridiculous to dilute such a complex and confusing novel down to such a trivial description.

Unfortunately, what could be a strong and engaging novel is derailed by the writing. The entire novel is written in a detached and superficial manner – a bit like a newsreader telling an entire narrative in monotone without going into any details or justification. It reminds me of a poorly-written middle grade novel – not in content, which is definitely adult, but in the way it avoids explaining anything as if the reader won’t understand it. If the writing style is ignored it becomes an enjoyable, creative piece of literature, but without the connection with either the characters or the plot it becomes a bit of a slog to get through.

Overall, ‘All the Birds in the Sky’ is a creative attempt at fusion between science fiction and fantasy, with an intriguing premise and ambitious plot, but one which is let down by the writing. It may be enjoyed more by fans of experimental fiction than conventional science fiction and fantasy fans.

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 26th January 2016

Robyn Reviews: This is How You Lose the Time War

‘This is How You Lose the Time War’ is a gorgeously written novella that crosses the boundaries between sci-fi, romance, and literary fiction. It’s the sort of story that’s impossible to capture in mere words – it’s an experience, and to reduce it to a simple summary or review would be to do it a disservice. I also suspect it’s a Marmite novella – some will adore it, and some will find it confusing and lacking any sort of substance.

Somewhen and somewhere – and by the same token, everywhen and everywhere – there are two rival time agents. Each seek out strands of time – sections of history – and subtly alter them to the needs of their side. They race to get there before agents of the enemies, to tip the balance of progress in their direction. Amidst this war, Red finds a letter. Thus begins an unlikely correspondence across time and space between two ultimate rivals – a correspondence which would see both branded traitors and could lead to one side ultimately winning, or losing, the time war.

The issue with that summary is that the novella is only tangentially about the war. The war is there, it’s happening, and it’s important in that it’s the entire reason for Red and Blue’s existence – but it’s merely the backdrop. The real story is about Red and Blue. Red, an agent of the Commandant, made for a purpose, perfected, sharpened; a woman who needs nothing, but finds herself craving it anyway. Blue, an agent of the Garden, a woman who thirsts and hungers and wants – a thrill-seeker of extreme talent who finds herself out of even her considerable depth. It’s also a story about words – the power of language, connection, expression; the power of emotion and its conveyance. The ideas and language are elaborate, but the underlying themes are simple. This is a love story, albeit one with teeth.

The novella alternates between Red and Blue, with the bulk of the story told in the form of letters. At-first, the non-letter content seems superfluous and unnecessary – as the novella develops, it becomes more substantial, but the letters are still the emotive heart. The narrative style of both the action and the letters is elaborate. El-Mohtar and Gladstone craft prose which resembles poetry – overly fanciful and descriptive, but at the same time gorgeous. They use many words to say what could be said in far fewer, but it’s so beautiful it adds an ethereal nature to what is already an otherwordly story – after all, it is a story about time-travel.

This is a sci-fi novella in that it deals with time travel, but very light sci-fi in that very few of the concepts are explained. The origins of the warring agencies remain a mystery, as does the nature of time travel. References are made to parallel strands of time – multiverse theory – and other futuristic concepts like neural implants and nanites, but this is at heart a literary novella not a scientific one. It can be confusing trying to navigate this unfamiliar universe without any explanations, but no knowledge of them is required to appreciate the beauty of the central tale. A little exposition would make life easier for the reader, but I can see why the authors chose not to.

Overall, ‘This is How You Lose the Time War’ is a beautifully written, genre transcending novella that weaves a tale of obsession and forbidden love. It won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s an ambitious piece of fiction and a credit to its authors. Recommended to fans of gorgeous prose and stories that really make their readers feel.

Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Paperback: July 18th 2019

Robyn Reviews: Ancillary Justice

It would be faster to list the awards that ‘Ancillary Justice’ hasn’t won than the awards that it has. Leckie’s debut novel, it swept all the major science fiction awards – the Hugo, Locus, Nebula, BSFA, and Arthur C Clarke – instantly cementing its place amongst the greatest works of the genre. It’s always difficult to pick up a novel like this, because it comes with such high expectations. ‘Ancillary Justice’ does not disappoint. It’s not perfect, but the idea is so utterly audacious and so cleverly portrayed that I can see why it made such a splash on publication.

Once, Breq was the artificial intelligence of the ship Justice of Toren, controlling vast numbers of bodies – known as ancillaries. They spent over two thousand years serving the Radch, a warrior race led by Anaander Mianaai. Now, Breq is a single soldier – their ship and other ancillaries destroyed – out for revenge. The novel flips between the present – Breq seeking a weapon powerful enough to destroy Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch – and the past, showing what lead to the destruction of the Justice of Toren and put Breq on their path for revenge. At its heart, the plot is simple, but the strength of this book is in the rich, exceptionally different culture of the Radch and other races, and the linguistic dexterity required to write a novel about a character who is at once many characters, and many characters who are almost – but not quite – the same.

Is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative?”

Breq – or Justice of Toren, or Essen One, depending on the perspective – is fascinating. They’re not human, but they’ve spend two thousand years learning how to mimic one in their ancillaries. They’ve also gone from being a being spread out over many bodies to a being confined to one, which has clear effects on their psyche. Breq was designed to serve – to carry out the will of their ship’s lieutenant, and of Anaander Mianaai – but also to think, to weigh up decisions and decide the best course of action, and to be absolutely deadly when required. What happens to an AI like that when their prime directives clash? The idea of autonomy and consciousness is deftly explored, with Leckie using the medium of sci-fi to ask complicated questions about free will.

The line between human and AI is also examined. Breq is not human – but they experience emotions. They can use logic to decide the best course of action but also make emotional, irrational decisions. They struggle with things which come naturally to humans – the use of gendered pronouns, for example – but they form attachments to others like humans, and in many ways seem more human than not. There are some fascinating discussions in this book about what artificial intelligence could become, and where the line might fall – if there is a line at all. These are the sort of questions that I find extremely interesting.

“Without feelings, insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It’s just easier to handle those with emotions.”

I love how different Radch society can be to societies present on Earth. Gender is not a concept to the Radch, although it is to many of the groups they interact with. There is no such thing as privacy – every aspect of life is overseen by an AI. Class – specifically family lineage – is enormously important, as is religion, but the culture has changed so much you can believe this is thousands of years in the future. Some futuristic science fiction books feel too similar to present day society – no such claim can be made here.

Is this a perfect book? No – mainly because it’s confusing. It’s very difficult to write a book with many characters who are the same – with the same name, same speech patterns, same actions – but also different, and not have it end up confusing. Leckie gets very close, but the finale felt a bit messy and this made it lack impact. I also have issues with the character of Seivarden, Breq’s companion – they feel too good to be true, their motivations too opaque. It made them feel fake, rather than three-dimensional. Hopefully they’re developed further in subsequent novels in the trilogy. ‘Ancillary Justice’ deserves many accolades for sheer creativity, but – understandably for a debut – it isn’t quite polished enough.

Overall, I highly recommend this to any science fiction fan. It’s clever, unique, and pushes the boundaries of where science fiction can go. I’m looking forward to picking up further books in the series.

Published by Orbit
Paperback: October 1st 2013

Robyn Reviews: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

‘The Galaxy, and the Ground Within’ is the fourth and final book in Becky Chambers’ ‘Wayfarers’ series – a collection of loosely-connected space operas imagining an intergalactic future. Like all of her books, it’s a gorgeous, character driven tale, quiet and small in scope but absolutely brimming with humanity and emotion. It’s not my favourite entry in the series, but it’s a beautiful and poignant tale to end on.

The planet Gora is utterly unremarkable. It has no water, no breathable air, and no native life – not even the smallest microbe. However, it’s in convenient proximity to several more remarkable planets – and therefore makes a convenient stopover point for intergalactic travel. Ouloo, a member of the Laru race, runs the Five-Hop One-Stop – a place designed to cater to every sapient on their travels, no matter their needs. When a freak technical failure ends up grounding all flights from Gora, Ouloo finds herself playing host to four completely different sapients: her occasionally helpful son Tupo, an Aeluon called Pei, a Quelin exile called Rovsig, and – to her discomfort – an Akarak called Speaker, an alien even amongst aliens. The longer they spend together, the harder it becomes to stay diplomatic – for better or worse.

The only character to have featured in a previous ‘Wayfarers’ book is Pei – she’s Ashby’s love interest from ‘The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet’. However, seeing her from her own perspective is completely different, so this feels like a collection of completely new characters. ‘Galaxy’ is also the first Wayfarers book to have a completely non-human main cast. Chambers has proven time and time again that she excels at creating aliens – from the xenobiology to complicated cultures and political structures – and this is one of the best exemplifications of that. Each character is utterly unique, and their cultural backgrounds, complex politics, and relative xenophobia feel exceptionally believable. With the Akarak, Chambers has created her most unusual race yet, and the impact this has on the others’ relationship with Speaker is brilliantly portrayed.

This is a quiet story. There’s no plot beyond a group of different people being trapped for several days together unexpectedly, each with their own reasons to want to get away: Pei to meet Ashby, Rovsig to make an appointment, and Speaker to return to her unwell sister. The perspective alters between Pei, Rovsig, and Speaker, with very occasional chapters from Ouloo’s point of view as host. There are regular culture clashes, but there’s always an underlying sense of optimism that things can be better.

The underlying themes are many, but the overarching one is family and what it means. None of the characters have conventional family dynamics for their species: both Ouloo and Speaker spend time in pairs (Ouloo with her son, Speaker with her sister) when their culture would traditionally dictate a larger group, Rovsig is exiled from his family, and Pei is romantically involved with a human when her species forbids inter-species relationships. They each have a completely different perspective, and seeing how they all influence each other and come to understand each other’s beliefs is beautiful.

I can’t believe the series is over – Chambers’ world is so rich that it feels like losing a friend. Her writing is gorgeous and quotable, her worldbuilding immensely detailed and yet never overwhelming or confusing, and the diversity in her work is unparalleled. This book is one of the first major works I’ve seen in which a character uses neo-pronouns (xe and xyr), and it feels entirely natural.

Overall, ‘The Galaxy, and the Ground Within’ is a profoundly moving book – just like all its predecessors in the ‘Wayfarers’ series. This is a series where the books can be read in isolation, so if you’re a fan of character-driven stories and quiet, emotional reads, I highly recommend picking up the entry which interests you the most. For fans of stories about family and love in all its forms, this is definitely a book for you.

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

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 18th February 2021

Robyn Reviews: To Be Taught, If Fortunate

‘To Be Taught, If Fortunate’ is a beautiful, emotional novella which captures humanity in a way only Becky Chambers can do. Filled with poignant, memorable scenes it’s a little slice of hope in a world which desperately needs it.

Set somewhere in the early 22nd century, it imagines a world in which humans have developed the technology to explore nearby planets compatible with life. Instead of developing complex machines and terraforming, humans have transformed themselves, developing ways to optimise their bodies to whichever planet they land on at the time. Ariadne, an engineer, is one of a crew of four sent to investigate these planets. Put in a form of stasis between planets, the journey will take a mere decade or so for her – but eighty years will pass back home on Earth. Ariadne and her colleagues have no idea how Earth will have changed on their return. As they grapple with the claustrophobia of deep space, the joy of new discovery, the thrill of being the first humans to set foot on new worlds, and the deep sadness of leaving all their loved ones – including their beloved planet – behind, they must answer one key question: what’s more important, their mission or the fate of those back home?

Chambers specialises in character-driven science fiction. She can craft complex technologies, entire alien races with plausible xenobiology, and realistic forms of space travel, but the crowning achievement of her work is how much the reader comes to love the characters and how deeply it makes them feel. This novella is no different. Ariadne is an eminently relatable character. She never intended to go to space, joining the space agency intending to be an engineer with her feet firmly on the ground, and fell into the astronaut program by accident. She’s strong and intelligent, with tight bonds of friendship to each of her crewmates, but she’s also given up her entire life for this mission – and no matter how amazing the things they discover are, there are always moments of darkness and doubt. Chambers chronicles the highs and the lows so well that the reader can’t help but feel them as well. At the end of the day, Ariadne stands by her choices, but her journey to get there is both haunting and beautiful.

For a novel with, essentially, four characters, there’s a huge amount of diversity. Ariadne is bisexual, one of the main characters is asexual, and another is transgender. One of the characters is Latin American, another Black. Each of these things is noted but never used as a plot point or discussion. It shows how easy it is to naturally fill a book with diverse characters, and hopefully hints of an accepting future.

The main difference between ‘To Be Taught, If Fortunate’ and the work chambers is most known for, her ‘Wayfarers’ quartet, is the focus on ethics. Here, Chambers delves into the ethics of space travel – the colonial nature of humanity imposing itself on new planets, the risk to local ecosystems, the ethics to the astronauts themselves of taking them away from their families and decades out of their own time. These are complex issues with no clear answers, but the discussions posed are fascinating. None of these issues feel shoved in – they weave naturally through the plot and add another level of maturity. I adore the ‘Wayfarers’ books, but this is a more challenging undertaking.

Overall, ‘To Be Taught, If Fortunate’ is a fantastic novella that marries Chambers’ exceptional ability to write characters and deeply emotional stories with intriguing discussions on ethics and futuristic science. Recommended for all science fiction fans, along with fans of general philosophy and stories with heart.

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback:
8th August 2019 / Paperback: 3rd November 2020