Robyn Reviews: Far from the Light of Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 26th October 2021

Robyn Reviews: Artifact Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published by Gollancz
Paperback: 24th June 2021

Robyn Reviews: 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

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