Robyn Reviews: The Ministry for the Future


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

Robyn Reviews: The Phlebotomist

The Phlebotomist is part medical sci-fi, part dystopia, and part fantasy novel. It’s audacious in scope and full of brilliant ideas, but they don’t always work cohesively together. The twist in the middle was shocking and completely unexpected, but the sudden tone and genre change didn’t work for me in the way I wanted it to.

Before reviewing this, I feel like I should give a disclaimer – I have a medical background. I’m always going to be pickier with medical sci-fi than any other genre, because I’m familiar with the theory behind it. It’s clear from the first page that Chris Panatier has done his research, with everything he includes more-or-less grounded in science, and I’m very impressed with the whole idea of a society segregated by blood type. There are a couple of inaccuracies (for example a reference to an O antigen, which doesn’t exist), but overall Panatier does a great job at incorporating medical science facts as springboards for science fiction.

The story focuses on Willa Mae Wallace – a Reaper for Patriot, the blood contractor that more or less rules society. The world has been ravaged by nuclear weapons, producing Grey Zones – areas full of people suffering from radiation sickness and other injuries who desperately need blood. With jobs mostly performed by robots, the main way for the populace to earn money is by donating blood – with the best price gained for O negative blood, which can be donated to anyone. Those with O negative have become rich, whilst those with AB positive live in slums, as their blood can only be donated to each other. Willa is AB positive, and has only dragged herself out of the slums by gaining her job as a Reaper (or phlebotomist). However, after witnessing an accident at work, Willa finds herself privy to Patriot’s biggest secret – and they’ll do anything to keep it from getting out.

Willa is an intriguing character. For one thing, she’s a grandmother – an unusual choice for a sci-fi protagonist – who’s been left completely bald, choosing to wear a wig of bright pink hair. Everything she does is to protect her grandson Isaiah. She’s got strong morals and a kind streak a mile wide, but – whilst she regularly reminisced about the past – she doesn’t always read her age. She’s an active lady with no age-related complaints, and I wish a little more had been done to make her seem like an older lady – or else she’d just been written as Isaiah’s mother.

While Willa is the majority point-of-view character, we get occasional chapters from the perspective of Everard, the member of a group of blood-hackers. These are interesting but mostly unnecessary – they never do anything to further the plot. They also do nothing to flesh out Everard as a character – while Willa gets some backstory, most of the other characters are little more than names on the page. This makes it hard to care when bad things happen to them, and lowers the stakes in what should be tense, dramatic moments.

My main issue with this book is more of a personal one than any flaw with the book itself, and that’s that it turned into something very different to what I expected. I went in expecting sci-fi dystopia, but by the end this was more of a fantasy novel with a sci-fi backdrop. I love fantasy, but I see so little medical sci-fi that I just really wanted a novel that explored the potential of that, rather than falling back on fantasy to add intrigue. My rating is purely based on personal enjoyment, and I really think that many others will love the direction it takes. I would prefer this as two separate books – one sci-fi dystopia, and one with the intriguing fantasy elements.

The ending feels a bit rushed in places – so much happens in a short space of time that it stops being as dramatic as it should be – but sets the book up for a potential sequel. Given that I’ll know what to expect, I might pick up a sequel if it appears – the world is excellent, and I’d be interested to see if Panatier explores beyond the boundaries of what we see here.

Overall, this is an ambitious book that didn’t quite work for me, but that I expect many people will love. If you’re a fan of genre-crossing sci-fi and fantasy, kickass grandmothers, and taking down evil corporations, this might be a book for you.


*Thank you to NetGalley and Angry Robot Books for providing me with an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review*


Published by Angry Robot
Paperback: 8th September 2020

Robyn Reviews: Harrow the Ninth


“You are a walking miracle. A unique theorem. A natural wonder.”
“I’ve just told you that I am the product of my parents’ genocide.”

Harrow the Ninth is one of the most audacious books I’ve ever read. It breaks every single rule of novel writing, launching the reader in with no explanation and making them more and more confused. The writing is gorgeous, filled with hauntingly beautiful descriptions and metaphors – but also with memes, an inclusion that wouldn’t work in any other book but works here. I’m frankly amazed that Tor agreed to publish this, but the literary world would be a far inferior place if they hadn’t. For all its sins, this is an absolutely brilliant book, and I can’t believe I have to wait an entire year to find out what happens next.

Harrow the Ninth is the direct sequel to Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel. Pitched as lesbian necromancers in space, Gideon the Ninth followed Gideon Nav – a child of the Ninth House whose only desire was to leave the Ninth House behind – and Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and Gideon’s sworn enemy. In a twist of fate, Gideon ended up accompanying Harrow to an inter-House competition as her sworn protector – her cavalier – as Harrow fought to attain Lyctorhood, the only thing that might save her dying House and its people.

“I saw your corpse.”
“Well, don’t tell everyone, or they’ll want to see it to.”

Where Gideon the Ninth was told from Gideon’s point of view, Harrow the Ninth is – of course – told from Harrow’s. Gideon was a wise-cracking joker, one of the best swordswomen of all the nine Houses but even sharper with her words than her swords. Harrow, on the other hand, is a nun. Stepping into her head is a complete tone change from Gideon the Ninth. Instead of a constant stream of insults and puns, there’s solemnity, piety – and, it gradually becomes apparent, insanity.

Harrow is the ultimate unreliable narrator. There are two threads – Harrow now, training with Mercymorn and trying to survive in a new world where she knows none of the rules (but understands she’s breaking all of them), and Harrow back at Canaan House. Except, Harrow’s version of the events at Canaan House is fractured. Wrong. Harrow’s mind holds all the pieces to the jigsaw but keeps assembling them incorrectly. It’s never clear how much of what Harrow sees is real.

You were an unfilled hole, but even a hole might be content in its emptiness.

Looking inside Harrow’s head is fascinating. From Gideon’s perspective, Harrow went from a hated enemy to a reluctant ally to a friend – and even something more. Harrow was devout but reckless, one of the most talented necromancers the Ninth House had ever produced but shackled by sheer piety. Gideon found her ridiculous – her insistence on full ceremonial dress, her reliance on bones over any physical strength. She also admired her – her strength, her terrible choices in worse circumstances. Gideon could relate to Harrow more than anyone else in the world.

Harrow as seen by Harrow is nothing like Harrow as seen by Gideon. Harrow as seen by Harrow is a monster. An abomination. Harrow is the result of the Ninth House’s ultimate sacrifice and she didn’t even come out correctly. She’s less a person than an inhabitant of a flesh suit. She wraps herself in layers of black and face paint to present a mask to the world that hides the screaming child within. She doesn’t have friends – she has allies, and even them she doesn’t trust. She prostrates herself before God – but God isn’t what she expected, and when a nun with nothing but her faith starts to lose that, is there anything left of her at all?

I was nothing but a chess move in a thousand year old game.

This isn’t a book for the faint hearted, and it’s not a book to read without the utmost concentration. It took me days to read, not because I didn’t love it but because I had to be in the right headspace to appreciate it. It’s a tangled mess, but a beautiful one. The ending perfectly untangles all the threads, then promptly snaps them, careening in an entirely different direction ready for the final book. It’s a masterpiece – nothing like what I expected but everything I didn’t know I needed. The majority of the book is also told in second person – a bold choice rarely seen in fiction but one that works perfectly here.

If you like fantasy, read this book. If you like science fiction, read this book. If you like unreliable narrators, read this book. And if you like stories that will remove your brain from your skull, put it through a blender, season it, and serve it as soup, then definitely read this book (although possibly not while eating soup. You have been warned.)

You sawed open your skull rather than be beholden to someone… You put me in a box and buried me rather than give up your own goddamned agenda.
I gave you my whole life and you didn’t even want it.


Published by Tor
Hardback: 4th August 2020

Robyn Reviews: Seven Devils

Seven Devils is a slow starter that grows into itself. The first half of the book is all introduction and exposition, but the second half is clever with twists both expected and unexpected – the ending especially. It’s worth persevering to enjoy the strength and character development at the end.

The book is set in an intergalactic empire ruled by a dictator who ensures his power by implanting chips in the heads of his citizens and sending commands to them via an AI, the Oracle or the One. He ensures that everyone is implanted by sterilising his citizens and growing new ones in vats. However, despite his efforts, a band of rebels – the Novantae – persist, fighting against his rule and seeking to liberate as many people as possible. Amongst them are Clo and Eris – deadly enemies forced to collaborate on their deadliest mission yet. Success could have huge implications for the Novantae – failure would mean certain death. Along the way, they pick up some unexpected stragglers – and this unexpected group must put their trust in each other to prevent the emperor and his son, Damocles, ensuring the end of the Novantae – and possibly the entire galaxy.

Eris was a brilliant, complex character, full of guilt and secrets. The more I learnt about her, the more I liked her. She got the most screentime because she had the most interesting backstory and role to play – in many ways, this would have worked with just her, Clo, and perhaps Rhea as point-of-view characters. Eris was a strong, ruthless character, but also very human in a way that none of the others seemed to appreciate.

Cloelia, or Clo, was one of the last people to have been born naturally rather than grown. She was an impulsive, rash character, prone to angry outbursts, but also fiercely loyal. She’s the sort of character I’d definitely want on my side – but I didn’t enjoy being in her head as much as I enjoyed being in Eris’s. She held too much of a grudge and regularly failed to see the bigger picture past a cloud of red mist.

Nyx, Rhea, and Ariadne made an interesting band of women. Nyx was much like Eris, except unlike Eris she’d spent a long time under the Oracle’s programming and had to grapple with that. Her sections were interesting, but not distinct enough from Eris’s to be entirely necessary. Rhea, the ex-favoured pleasure consort of Damocles, was a far more intriguing character – more could probably have been done with her than was achieved here, and I hope she plays a bigger role in the sequels. Ariadne, the Oracle’s engineer and a child genius, started strongly but became increasingly irritating. I appreciated that Lam and May never played down the trauma that her upbringing would have left on her and the impact it had – the depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder was excellent – but it wasn’t fun to read about, and her sections felt rather repetitive. She worked better as a side character than when she had her own point-of-view.

Overall, this made an interesting addition to the Star Wars-esque genre of science fiction focused on evil dictators and plucky bands of rebels. If that’s your cup of tea, stick with this – the payoff it worth it at the end.


Published by Orion
Hardcover: 6 August 2020

Book Review: Ace of Spiders


Ace of Spiders, by Stefan Mohamed, is the second book in a planned YA fantasy trilogy which began with Bitter Sixteen. Since I read that first book last month I have been eagerly waiting for this installment. It did not disappoint.

The protagonist, Stanly Bird, is now eighteen years old. He has remained in London and continues to work at Skank’s comic book store. He is also bored. After fighting the child abducting monster his life has returned to that of a normal, geeky teenager. With his powers continuing to grow he feels wasted on normalcy. The empowered friends with whom he lodges disagree. They believe that if their superpowers were revealed to the public they would be endangered, that the authorities would wish to use them for their own ends. Their run in with the secretive Angel Group confirmed their worst fears and they want nothing to do with that way of life so choose to lie low.

When a contract killer attempts to murder Stanly his friends demand that he remains indoors until they can uncover who was behind the attack. Stanly is unwilling to comply. He sneaks out at night, flying around the city and beyond. Just as it looks as though his friends may be losing patience with him more sinister developments demand all of their attentions. The Angel Group has returned to their radars and this may not be the only monster that the empowered are required to fight.

As with the first in the series the appeal of this book is the humour and wit of the writing. Stanly Bird is not the brightest bulb in the box, although his powers are undoubtedly impressive and great fun to consider. He is all the more likeable because of his flaws. His temper and tendency to daydream add to the authenticity, his awkwardness invites empathy.

Brought up alongside computer games, who wouldn’t dream of fighting the baddies if given the power of flight and telekinesis? The problem for Stanly and his friends is working out who the baddies are and what a handful of individuals can actually achieve, especially when the rest of London wishes to be left alone to go about their everyday lives.

The plot twists and turns as monsters rise from the depths, motivations within the Angel Group are revealed, and increasing numbers of empowered people are discovered. When the lives of those he loves are threatened Stanly must decide how far he is willing to go, if he is willing to kill more than just the monsters.

The denouement was a roller coaster of battles, destruction, switching allegiances and the awesomeness of mind control. The author has created a hero with powers a reader can only dream about, and then demonstrates how difficult it would be to live with them. He also has fun showing some of what could be done.

A rollicking good ride that I flew through and now desire more. This is impressive, entertaining, addictive stuff.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: Bitter Sixteen

bitter sixteen

Bitter Sixteen, by Stefan Mohamed, is the first book in a proposed fantasy trilogy for young adults. It introduces the reader to Stanly Bird, a cynical schoolboy who discovers on his sixteenth birthday that he has gained the powers of flight and telekinesis. As his closest companion is a talking beagle this is daunting but not as surprising as it might have been for someone else.

Stanly is a perceptively written, introspective teenager, a loner who has cultivated a brooding, mysterious persona that enables him to keep his peers at bay. His parents worry about his lack of friends but Stanly believes that they have enough problems of their own and has little patience with such concerns.

Having grown up alongside the fictional worlds of superheroes and computer games Stanly questions how he should use his new and burgeoning abilities. Living in a remote Welsh town there seems little scope for saving the world. He is also aware that it would be dangerous to let others know of his powers. He has no wish to be studied for scientific purposes or forced to fight for those with an agenda of their own.

Just as it seems that Stanly’s personal life may be looking up he is forced to flee to London where he discovers that he is not the only person with superpowers. He also discovers that his abilities are not as secret as he had believed. Thanks to his new friends he finds work in a comic book store. He battles monsters, both human and supernatural. He must also circumvent the adults who see him as a bad influence on his girl.

What sets this book apart from others in the genre is the quality and style of the writing. Stanly is a fabulous creation and is presented with such wit and humour that his exploits are a joy to read. Having superpowers is weird, dangerous but also fun, especially the flying bit.

Although written for young adults I thoroughly enjoyed this tale, proving once again that a good book is for any reader. The denouement was poignant but fitting; the story is concluded but I am so glad that there is a second book in this series due soon. Stanly Bird is not a character I wish to say goodbye to yet.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.


Book Review: Golden Son


Golden Son, by Pierce Brown, is an uncomfortable read. The writing is tight and the dystopian world plausible. It is Lord of the Rings meets a futuristic Game of Thrones. The pace is relentless, the politics twisted. Much of the story is of violent clashes with heroism and luck keeping the protagonist alive as his friends and foes die. It is unclear who stands for what as allegiances shift alongside the tides of battle.

The protagonist, Darrow, is fighting to bring down a rigid society based on a colour coded hierarchy. He was born a lowly Red but has been surgically changed to pass as one of the ruling Golds. Along with other rebels he has infiltrated the leadership in order to kick-start a revolution.

This is not just a tale of good trying to overthrow evil. The reason for the setting up of such a society was to create order for the sake of mankind’s future. As one of the leaders tells Darrow it replaced a system that was heading towards self-destruction, a system that sounds like the one in which we currently abide.

“Humanity came out of hell, Darrow. Gold did not rise out of chance. We rose out of necessity. Out of chaos, born from a species that devoured its planet instead of investing in the future. Pleasure over all, damn the consequences. The brightest minds enslaved to an economy that demanded toys instead of space exploration or technologies that could revolutionize our race. They created robots, neutering the work ethic of mankind, creating generations of entitled locusts. Countries hoarded their resources, suspicious of one another. There grew to be twenty different factions with nuclear weapons. Twenty – each ruled by greed or zealotry.”

Throughout the book is the recurring question of whether overthrowing the hierarchical order will lead to a better life for the majority of citizens. Darrow’s reasoning may be sound with his desire for individual choice and equality but any society requires decision makers and history shows time and again how power corrupts.

The strength of this book, aside from the quality of the writing, is that it acknowledges the shades of grey. It demands that the reader consider the many reasons behind any decision. It challenges idealism. Friendship, family, revenge and a lust for power are all explored. Key characters are multi dimensional, imperfect and believable.

Golden Son is the second book in a planned trilogy which started with Red Rising. I have not read this first book so came to it unaware of the back story. It took me some time to work out who was who in the large cast of characters but the story is well enough written to stand alone.

Politics is a dirty game and this book is full of the selfish and duplicitous as well as the brave and patriotic. It is written for and I would recommend it to young adults not least because it could demonstrate how revolution, even for a just cause, can have unforeseen and unintended consequences. Easy to read but not an easy read this is action adventure in a dystopian science fiction that will leave the reader eager for book three.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.


Book Review: The Forever Watch

the forever watch

The Forever Watch, by David Ramirez, takes a much used science fiction trope and injects it with enough excitement, pathos and originality to produce a thoroughly satisfying read.

The story is set on a massive spaceship called The Noah which is on a thousand year journey to a new planet following the destruction of Earth. The on board society is tightly controlled with hierarchies based on ability. Each citizen is wired into the Nth web, a computer system that monitors and controls all activity. When even thoughts can be read the only chance of privacy is the inability of the controllers to sift through the volume of data available to them.

The protagonist, Hana Dempsey, is a mid level bureaucrat who uncovers a disturbing secret and sets out in search of the truth. As a result, she and her partner become the catalyst for events that threaten the existence of all on board the ship. Is it sometimes better that secrets remain known only to a few?

Having read so many other books that started out with a similar premise I was around a quarter to halfway through before the plot had truly pulled me in. The first section is well enough written and the scene had to be set but I felt it lacked originality. Once it got going though I realised that the author was not going to follow the well worn path I had expected.

There are many books where a few good men overcome an evil administration but this story goes much further looking at reasons, consequences and the knock on effects of a wider dissemination of state secrets. If the price of peace and survival is a lie then should it be told?

The book is tightly written with a complicated plot that moves along at a rollicking pace. The detail is impressive making the technologies seem possible in that environment. Despite the powers that the people have, human nature with its many flaws remains and is explored. The society is satisfyingly diverse. All are expected to know their place and obey the rules or risk Adjustment.

The denouement ties up the many threads and, without descending into saccharin, left me feeling replete. The final line was inspired.

If you enjoy good science fiction then read this book. A slow burning start that could light up the way you think about the structures on which society is built.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.

Book Review: Lagoon

Lagoon image

Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor, weaves an earthly story around an alien landing off the coast of Lagos in Nigeria. It explores the imagined consequences for the residents of this corrupt and superstitious city of such an event, as well as individual and mob reactions to happenings that all would struggle to comprehend. Man seeking to exploit a situation for his own benefit is not a new subject to explore, but this tale offers an imaginative take on what is a familiar theme.

My reaction to the book remains mixed. I enjoyed the chapters told from the point of view of the non human creatures, particularly the ocean dwellers being slowly poisoned by human activity. I liked the magical abilities given to the small number of humans who still had some good in them to share. It was fun to imagine how a few could develop such power over evil even if in using that power their goodness were compromised. Not for the first time I wondered if the world would be improved if humans were wiped out.

I struggled to understand the segments of Pidgin English dialogue, not wishing to constantly refer to the translations of words and phrases included at the end of the book. Any sympathy that I may have felt for the hardships suffered due to poverty, or exacerbated by the struggling infrastructure that was unlikely to improve due to greed and corruption, was quashed by the seemingly constant desire by so many to trick or steal their way to wealth whilst pushing others down. I know little of Nigeria but any prejudices that I may have felt about the natives of the country were exacerbated by the characterisations in this book. One of the well educated protagonists had travelled yet stated that they had wished to return to Lagos. Having read this story I am at a loss as to why anyone would freely choose to reside in such a place other than with charitable aims.

The characters may have evoked little sympathy but I found the plot beguiling. The interweaving of alien powers and earthly magic was nicely written with a rhythm and cadence that perfectly suited the extra terrestrial tale. It is hard to see how any intelligent life form capable of reading the minds of man would choose to stay on this planet but by offering the prospect of enforced change radiating out through example and sacrifice, the story retained a message of hope.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.