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

Robyn Reviews: Winter’s Orbit

‘Winter’s Orbit’ is a sci-fi romance advertised as ‘Red White and Royal Blue’ meets ‘Ancillary Justice’. It’s brilliantly written with adorable characters and intriguing, complex worldbuilding – but it’s also got a darker side, and I feel like readers should be aware this isn’t quite the fun, lighthearted read they might expect.

Every twenty years, the treaty between the seven planets of the Iskat Empire must be redrawn. As the deadline approaches, the unexpected death of Prince Taam – the husband of Count Jainan, a representative of Thea – threatens hostilities between Thea and Iskat, casting doubt over the treaty. To solve this, a marriage is hastily arranged between Jainan and Prince Kiem, a minor royal with a reputation as an irresponsible playboy. However, it quickly comes to light that Taam’s death was no mere accident – and Jainan is the prime suspect. With the treaty on the line, Kiem and Jainan must learn to trust one another and figure out the truth before the Empire comes crashing down around them.

Kiem is one of my absolute favourite characters. He’s a social butterfly, a man who loves a good party and an adrenaline rush – but he has a heart of gold, throwing his soul into charity work and trying to make everyone happy. He knows his reputation and wields it like a shield, taking the blame for everything so others can live their lives in peace. He’s not particularly smart, constantly missing obvious signs – especially about Jainan – but he’s a real people person with an exceptional ability to network. He’s also hilariously clumsy, which leads to some truly brilliant scenes whenever he attempts to do anything practical (I love the bear scene so much).

Jainan is initially a hard character to warm up to. He’s stiff, cold, and formal, and constantly falling over himself to apologise for every menial slight – but it quickly becomes apparent that he’s scarred beyond imagining. Many of Jainan’s scenes are very difficult to read. His thought patterns are exceptionally accurate of someone who’s suffered prolonged abuse, and the way it affects his self-worth and demeanour is heartbreaking. Jainan is the main reason why this isn’t the light-hearted romance that some publicity makes this book out to be – for anyone with sensitivities around domestic abuse, this makes a powerful but harrowing read.

The worldbuilding is incredibly complex, and even after finishing the book some aspects are hard to fully understand. The story primarily focuses on Iskat, a planet with a monarchy which controls a seven-planet empire – but there are allusions to other empires and organisations, and the overall hierarchy is hard to parse out. That being said, the worldbuilding is still exceptional. Iskat itself is beautifully portrayed, and the complex politics between the monarchy, the military, and the intelligence service are intricately described. Everything feels real and plausible. The futuristic technology is neatly slotted in, and overall there’s incredible potential for future books to expand on the universe.

The plot has several threads – the slow-burn romance between Kiem and Jainan, the mystery of Prince Taam’s murder, the politics of trying to organise the treaty – all of which slot together very neatly at the end. The complexity and scope means the start is very slow, with a good third of the book passing before things kick into gear – but it’s worth it to have a backdrop and understanding as the action ramps up. At times, it can be a challenge to keep track of each thread, but it’s worth it for how clever the denouement is. There are many twists and turns, and whilst by the end some things are obvious, others come completely out of the blue. Maxwell’s writing is clever with lots of red herrings, but also plenty of foreshadowing of the brutal climax.

Perhaps the most impressive part is how truly fifty-fifty this is a romance novel and a science fiction novel. The two threads compliment each other beautifully, neither detracting from the other, and primary readers of either genre will likely find something to enjoy.

Overall, this isn’t always a lighthearted read, with graphic mentions of domestic abuse and torture – but it’s an exceptional debut, so with prior warning it makes an enjoyable read. I look forward to seeing what Everina Maxwell does next.

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 4th February 2021

Robyn Reviews: Nophek Gloss

‘Nophek Gloss’ is a brilliantly creative science-fiction book packed with futuristic technology, incredible theories about multiple universes, and fascinating alien races. However, it’s also an example of how an unlikeable protagonist can let an otherwise fantastic book down. I imagine fans of plot-driven complex science fiction will adore this, but fans of more character-centred books like me may struggle with certain aspects.

Caiden’s life is simple. Aged ten, his aptitude test deemed him to be the perfect mechanic, so ever since he’s worked with his dad to fix things. He’s tired of his dad refusing to answer questions or telling him he’s too young, but that’s OK – he’s fourteen, almost an adult, and he’s sure he’ll get the answers soon. Instead, his entire planet is destroyed by their overseers, Caiden only escaping by finding a mysterious ship – and with the aid of a mysterious crew of Passagers. Wracked by guilt and anger, Caiden dreams only of revenge – but the multiverse is a large and complicated place, and if Caiden is to survive it he’ll have to take drastic measures.

Caiden is a fourteen year old boy who goes through a hugely traumatic event. In a single day he witnesses unimaginable horrors and finds out that his entire life is a carefully constructed lie. Understandably, this takes a huge toll. Caiden suffers recurrent nightmares and bursts of uncontrollable anger. He makes rash decisions and lets his emotions take over. None of these things are his fault, and the’re common results of severe trauma – but they do make him a very difficult single POV character. His head is an unpleasant place to be, and – coupled with actions which are reckless at best – it makes him difficult to engage with. He also instantly seems to win over several of his new companions – part of this is explained later, but it felt far too unrealistic for a damaged and unpleasant child to so quickly make such close friends, even if they understood his trauma. He does improve a bit as the book goes on, but he’s never as compelling as I want him to be.

It’s a shame that Caiden is such a difficult character because everyone else on the ship is fascinating. They’re a variety of species, all with complicated – and equally horrible – pasts, and seeing into their heads and perspectives would provide an excellent counterpoint. I especially like the ship’s cook and medic – they’re initially very cold to Caiden, but they have an amazing animal companion and a heart of gold, and by the end it’s clear they’re secretly a massive softie. The ship itself is also, to an extent, alive – a popular science fiction trope that isn’t utilised that much here but has clear potential for the sequels.

The worldbuilding is the strongest part. Hansen paints a picture of an exceptionally complex world with layered politics, incredible xenobiology, fascinating future technology, and above all a feeling of complete uniqueness. There are familiar elements and tropes, but the overall creation is entirely unique. It’s a world that would be fascinating on the big screen, and spending time in it – even if that time involves dealing with Caiden – is a joy. The story is wide in scope, with a great deal of travelling between places, but each new place – be that a spaceship, a space station, a city, or an entire new planet – is developed with impeccable attention to detail. It’s a true triumph and a testament to Hansen’s strength as a creator.

Revenge plots are a stalwart of science fiction, but again Hansen spices it up and throws in some surprises. Some of the twists are predictable, but there’s enough there to keep it engaging and fast-paced. There are also no unnecessary distractions – no romantic sub-plots or other diversions – which I really appreciate. Caiden is a traumatised teenager out to avenge the death of his entire world – this isn’t the time for romance. The plot is dark at times – this isn’t a book to go into for those with any triggers surrounding death, including animal death – but the ending is hopeful, and there’s an undercurrent throughout that things will get better.

Overall, this is a book that some will adore for its beautifully complex worldbuilding and fast-paced, brutal plot, but others will struggle with because of the unlikeable protagonist and elements of implausibility. Unfortunately, I fall into the latter camp, but I can still appreciate Hansen’s strength as a writer. I don’t know whether or not I’ll seek out the sequel, but I’ll certainly be following Hansen’s career with interest. Recommended to fans of harder science fiction and intricate worldbuilding.

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 17th November 2020

Book Review: Greensmith

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

In amongst her other work, Aliya Whiteley has published an impressive number of novels. She first came to my attention when I read The Arrival of Missives and realised she produced original stories in a style I wanted to read more of. Her writing is playful and imaginative, mind bending and intoxicating. Her characters defy stereotypes yet remain ordinary alongside the various features that make them extraordinary.

Greensmith opens with an introduction to its protagonist, Penelope Greensmith, in the form of an online dating profile. We learn that she is a scientist in her fifties who is now somewhat lonely. A war is mentioned, one that caused her to flee to a remote cottage with her life’s work. She collects and catalogues seeds, building a flower bank that includes many species which may now be extinct. The Collection was started by her late father, who raised her following the death of his wife. Penelope’s grown up daughter, Lily, does not share her mother’s passion for the ongoing project.

With a basic background in place, plot gathers pace when a stranger, Hort, arrives unexpectedly in Penelope’s cottage garden. He wishes to talk to her about her Collection and the device used to prepare the seeds for storage – named the Vice. Although wary at first, the thought of the online dating app reminds Penelope she was looking for greater connection with the world beyond her current existence. When news of a virulent plague reaches her, one that is killing all plant life across the globe, she must decide on her future.

When considering life and its preservation, man has a habit of focusing on himself and, perhaps, other mammals. Yet all living creatures rely on plants for air and sustenance. If the plants die suddenly – in this case coating the world in green sludge – it will not take long for every other life form to expire.

It turns out that Hort is an inter-galactic traveller looking for a solution to the virus that is affecting many planets, not just Earth. He asks Penelope to become his companion – bringing along her Vice and Collection – to try to save her world. Hort is persuasive, and Penelope rather likes the idea of becoming a hero.

So, Greensmith is science-fiction. This requires a degree of world building, or should I say universe building, which the author tackles with a hefty dollop of humour. She gets around some tricky concepts by pointing out the limitations of language. How, after all, can something be accurately and fully described in English when nothing like it has ever been seen or experienced by any English speaking people?

The human brain has a habit of anthropomorphising – it sees shapes in clouds, faces on tree trunks or such items as potatoes. When confronted with beings and situations beyond her comprehension, Penelope copes by seeing them as something she can recognise and name – she is, after all, an expert in cataloguing. Her first aliens, other than Hort, are flamencos. She views their antagonists as lizards dressed in armour, knowing they look different to beings from other worlds who will define by their own standards.

Hort is harder to pin down. Attractive and enigmatic, reservations hover around his trustworthiness. Having left Earth with him, however, Penelope has little choice but to follow his lead. The one thing she will not give him free rein over is her Vice and Collection. Hort struggles to understand how he is not unquestionably her handsome hero in the film he creates of his actions and subsequent memories.

As plot is developed and progressed, the author’s writing style comes into its own. Each diversion offered is a delight as well as a further layer in the quirky world building. Penelope never loses sight of her goal – to save planet Earth and thereby her daughter. What she comes to realise is how insignificant one time and place is in the scale of the universe – yet how important the smallest thing can be in making life worth preserving.

“when the largest things made no sense, relief could reside in the smallest objects, the ones that needed so badly to be cherished, instead.”

The denouement ties up threads with aplomb, leaving a sense of satisfaction without compromising all that has gone before.

Any Cop?: This is a tale that is clever yet lightly rendered, offering much to consider within a universe created from witty concepts playing with recognisable features. It is science fiction that focuses on the fun side of storytelling, with a hat tip to how astonishing our natural world is. A timely yet always entertaining reminder that Earth deserves wider protection – not management – for the good of us all.

 

Jackie Law

Robyn Reviews: Unconquerable Sun

Unconquerable Sun is an action-packed, plot-driven novel, at the expense of its characters. Fans of epic space opera that bounces from action scene to action scene without pause will get a real adrenaline rush from this – but for those who need to connect to the characters to care about the story, this becomes more of a slog through over 500 pages of a confusing mess.

It is pitched as a gender-bent Alexander the Great in space. I adore Greek and Roman history and mythology, and I’m a huge sci-fi fan, so this sounded right up my street. Alexander the Great is a historical figure I’m less familiar with, but I know enough to see the parallels between him and his equivalent in this book – Princess Sun. Weirdly, however, Sun doesn’t feel entirely like the main character. This book contains multiple point-of-view characters – as many epic science fiction stories do – but while Princess Sun’s perspective is told in third person past, another character, Persephone, gets sections told in first person present. This gives the impression that Unconquerable Sun is about her, with the other characters merely lending a different perspective. Persephone is a promising character but also exceptionally irritating, and her sections being told in a different perspective disrupts the story’s flow.

The main issue I have with the story is how flat the characters are. As I read, I’m constantly being told what the characters are feeling, but never shown it. None of the feelings feel authentic, and I can’t fathom any of the characters motivations. Princess Sun is angry at her parents for treating her like a child and not believing in her ability – but if this wasn’t explicitly stated on the page, it wouldn’t be clear. Persephone is desperate to escape from her family’s clutches and make a stamp as her own person – but it’s never entirely clear why. She also falls instantly in lust with almost everyone she meets, which is irritating to read about and an unnecessary distraction from the plot. Zizou is actually a great character, and the only one to make me feel something, but vastly under-utilised. Princess Sun’s Companions feature prominently, but there are so many of them it’s very difficult to remember which one is which – especially as the reader is told so little about them beyond their names, so they never evolve into fully-fledged characters. It’s difficult for struggles and deaths to be impactful when the characters didn’t feel alive in the first place.

The setting and backdrop are intriguing. The Chaonian’s, led by Princess Sun’s mother Queen Eirene, have been at war with the Phene for generations. The Chaonian’s have military might – with military intelligence led by the Lee family – but the Phene have superior technology and the allegiance of the Gatoi, beings engineered to be the perfect soldiers. However, a few Gatoi have switched sides – one of them Princess Sun’s father, making her half-Gatoi and in many respects an unsuitable heir to the throne. The descriptions of the different cultures – Chaonian, Gatoi, Phene – and technological advances are very interesting, but never really developed. The story never slows its pace enough to allow any kind of explanation or worldbuilding. This mostly works, but there are sections where this becomes confusing and the story becomes difficult to visualise. The book takes place on such an epic scale that full description would probably put the page count somewhere upwards of eight hundred, but it might be worth it to make sure that the reader actually understands what’s going on.

The plot is the novel’s highlight. Most of the book is spent with the Chaonians, with occasional glimpses at the Phene’s plans through Apama – an intriguing character who deserved more screentime. There are tangled webs of secrets and lies, betrayals, assassinations, and frank invasions, and the plot never takes its foot off the throttle. I think this would work 100x better as a film than a book – so much happens that would be incredible to see on screen. It’s harder to take in via written format.

I feel I should also mention that this is marketed as an LGBT book, and it contains plenty of diversity, with relationships between all genders entirely normalised. Princess Sun is in a stable relationship with another female-presenting character, which seems to have great potential at the start but never becomes as prominent as the beginning hints at. The representation is generally done very well – with the exception of Persephone, who falls into the trope of bisexual or pansexual character who falls in lust with everyone.

Overall, a book that fans of fast-paced, plot-driven science fiction will adore, but those who like fully-fledged characters will struggle to connect with. Unfortunately, it isn’t my cup of tea.

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

 

Published by Head of Zeus
Hardback: October 1st 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Ministry for the Future

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Kim Stanley Robinson is a big name in sci-fi, best known for the Mars trilogy and 2312. His work tends to focus on ecological sustainability with a utopian rather than dystopian slant – less common in modern fiction. However, despite being a sci-fi fan, before picking up ‘The Ministry for the Future’ I’d never read any of his work. I’ll be interested to hear from other reviewers how this compares – the idea is fascinating, but the execution doesn’t have me completely sold.

‘The Ministry for the Future’ is established in 2025 in Zurich by the United Nations, an organisation aimed at conserving the future of humanity by battling the largest threat of the time – climate change. It brings together experts from around the world in various fields to tackle the problem from all sides – policy, economics, artificial intelligence, and direct action. However, the wheels of change are slow, and the effects of climate change are starting to be felt. The book follows the Ministry – primarily its leader, Mary Murphy – over decades, chronicling how the Earth might change and society might change with it.

The narrative style is what makes or breaks this book. It’s exceptionally factual, almost textbook-like. There are entire chapters dedicated to theory – of ecology, economics, engineering. Mary is the main character, but there’s still a level of detachment between her and the reader – and her chapters can’t make up more than a third of the book. The rest resolve through other perspectives – major characters, minor characters, unknown characters, even a carbon atom and a photon – and reels of information, regularly breaking the fourth wall to address the reader. As far as I can tell, much of the science is sound, although the feats of engineering are perhaps a little far-fetched for only happening ten or fifteen years in the future. However, it can be a hard-going slog reading multiple chapters of pure theory, especially when the characters remain superficial rather than pulling the reader in and making them care.

The major characters – Mary Murphy, Badim, Frank May – are all interesting, but very much characters. Mary always feels two dimensional. A career woman with no family (her husband died young), she moves between meetings and summits, taking breaks only to swim or wander aimlessly around Zurich. It’s hard to figure out what she cares about – if she’s even passionate about ecology and climate change – as she doesn’t seem to know herself. This may be a deliberate choice; an underlying theme in all of the characters is trauma and how this affects the psyche. However, this apathy can make her as hard to engage with as the reams of economic theory.

Frank is by far the highlight. The only survivor of a horrific heatwave, he suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s unstable and regularly makes terrible choices, but deep down he seems like a nice man – and he cares, which is enough to persuade the reader to care.

I am, by my own admission, a character-driven reader. The stories I love the most are those with intriguing, engaging characters – they don’t have to have a strong plot, just characters that feel real. This, with its carefully maintained distance from the characters, and arguably barely a protagonist at all beyond climate change, was never going to be a favourite. I think that some readers – especially those with a science background – will love this, but it’s very much a Marmite book. Recommended for fans of more complex sci-fi that emphasises the science over everything else and those looking for a bit of hope for humanity’s future.

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

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 8th October 2020