2019 pick&mix


The first book in the Planetside SF duology.

Publication year: 2018
Format: Audio
Running time: 8 hours 38 minute
Narrator: R. C. Bray

Colonel Carl Butler is on semi-retirement from active duty. Many think of him as a war hero. When his old friend Admiral Serata contacts him about an investigation job on a far away planet of Cappa Three, he’s not thrilled. It seems that the son of a powerful politician has gone missing and the politician is demanding answers. The son is a lieutenant in the space force. Butler is reluctant to agree because he has bad history with Cappa Base. But he does agree.

When Butler, his young aide, and a seasoned bodyguard arrive on the base, after three months in cryosleep, the base is still fighting against alien population. Most of the soldiers on the base view him with distrust and suspicion but he tries to put their fears to rest. The official report shows that the young lieutenant was wounded and disappeared on the way to the hospital. The soldiers are tight-lipped, so Butler has his work cut out for him.

The book is told in first person. Butler is a seasoned soldier who doesn’t really think of himself as part of the brass. He’s no-nonsense type with a dry sense of humor. He drinks hard, which surprised me a bit at first, but it understandable when we find out about his history. He’s married and the book has a few mentions of his wife Sharon but she doesn’t appear. In the past, he has been sent to war on far away planets which is done by putting him into cryosleep. At one point he says that thanks for cryosleep he’s already 13 years younger than his wife.

Butler focuses on unraveling the mystery on Cappa Base. This is a mystery story as much as military SF. In this world, Earth has conquered several planets and basically plundered them for their natural resources. On Cappa Three, 90% of the population supports trade with Earth but the remaining 10% fight a guerrilla war against the Earth forces who want to practically strip-mine the planet. However, we don’t see much of the aliens as the action is focused on the human military. In fact, the Cappans feel like they’re just an afterthought or a substitute for a historical enemies. (They have yellow skin and big, slanted eyes…)

However, the mystery pulled me in, even if the world-building could have been deeper. I enjoyed Butler’s first-person POV and his attitude.

The narrator was very good and suited the voice of Butler very well.

A stand-alone SF book. Technically the third in Wayfarers series but you don’t have to read the others (although I recommend them).

Publication year: 2019
Format: Print
Page count: 359
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

This is not an adventure story. It has five POV characters who are remarkably different from each other, considering that they (mostly) live in the same place: the Fleet. They are all humans. The humans who live in the Fleet are called Exodans. They had to abandon Earth because their ancestors had made in inhabitable. Luckily, they were accepted into the galactic community of different species.

These are more like vignettes, flashes from their lives. I really enjoyed the book because I find their culture fascinating and it was fun to explore it. The book doesn’t really have an antagonistic force, unless you count the accident at the beginning of the book or evolving attitudes or technology.

A couple of the characters are restless and looking for something new in their lives. They were all touched, one way or another, by a disaster at the beginning of the book. They’re all reacting to it while getting on with their lives. Kip is a teenage boy who yearns to be able to leave the Fleet and find something else, something better or at least different. Sawyer lives in Mushtullo, an alien world where he works when he can and doesn’t have any family. When he’s once again unceremoniously fired, he decides to go to the Fleet where he doesn’t have any relatives left but he thinks he could make it there, among other humans. Tessa is a mother of two and her husband is a space ship mechanic. He’s away a lot and Tessa must try to deal with her five-year old daughter who was traumatized by the events at the beginning of the book. Isobel is over sixty and she’s a senior archivist, in charge of keeping the stories of the past alive. She’s also a host to a visiting alien anthropologist. Finally, Eyas is a caretaker. She takes care of the bodies of the dead. In space, everything is used and recycled and so are the bodies.

I very much enjoyed the alien anthropologist, Ghuh’loloan who is really not a Star Trek alien (although I adore some of them, too.:) ). She’s a Harmagian so she’s doesn’t have bones; she uses a motorized cart to get around and breaths through her skin. She has a air pouch which she vibrates so that she can talk.

This book has some ideas which are very, very different from our Western consumer culture. Such as every human in the Fleet is given water, air, food, and a place to stay. They can work and the society’s pressure, especially for the young, is that they stay and do something that benefits the Fleet. But that’s not a condition for getting food and air. They also don’t use money. They use barter. The galaxy around them uses money and some aliens see the Exodans as quite backward.

It also has some other very interesting notions which aren’t explored in fiction much (or at least I haven’t come across them). This is a quote late in the book:
“Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories. Cities are a story. Money is a story. Space was a story, once. A king tells us a story about who we are and why we’re great, and that story is enough to make us go kill people who tell a different story. Or maybe the people kill the king because they don’t like his story and have begun to tell themselves a different one.”

Of course I’ve read books about books which are about stories. But to put our whole society as a story is blunt (and wonderful). And money is a story, something we made up. We, the society, have just allowed it to take over, well, everything else.

This book, like the others in the series, is also happily inclusive. Xyr is a gender and species neutral pronoun for a person. Isobel is happily married to another woman and we see some other same-sex couples as well, and nobody comments on it.

The first book in the SF series White Space. Can be read as a stand-alone.

Publication year: 2019
Format: Audio
Running time: 16 hours 48 minute
Narrator: Nneka Okoye

Haimey Dz is a space salvager. She works in a small “tug boat” of a ship with Connla the navigator and the ship’s AI. The ship is too small to have a name but Haimey named the AI Singer. Haimey has a troubled past but this ship and the small crew are her home. Unfortunately for Haimey, Singer has been drafted and is leaving the ship soon. She’s already in mourning for the AI. The small crew are looking for derelict ships and old tech to salvage. However, on this trip they find more than they bargained for: a really old ship which has apparently belongs to the Korugoi, the people who died before the current nations rose and about whom the current people don’t know much about. Haimey goes in to investigate and an alien technological parasite latches on to her. Even worse, pirates know about the ship too and they’ve come to collect what they can. Haimey and her little ship manage to escape but the pirates are now after them and soon, so are the authorities.

This book has a lot of things I really, really liked: a complex and flawed female main character, a small crew, a lost ancient civilization, and alien species who are part of a vast galactic government. Humans are just a tiny minority who (IIRC and it’s so difficult to try to find anything from an audio book) were let in grudgingly. And it all works wonderfully. The aliens are strange but not too strange.

Also, the humans have implants which can control all of their body chemistry and so their moods, as well. Tech can also change their memories. There are some interesting conversations about this all. Well, interesting to me. No doubt some others will find them slowing the book down. Haimey comes from essentially a cult but has managed to get away from it and carries a lot of baggage. This is her struggle for her identity.

One other thing which endears Haimey to me is that she’s reader. She reads 19the and 20th century books and sometimes comments on them:
”They’re great for space travel because they were designed for people with time on their hands. Middlemarch. Gorgeous, but it just goes on and on. ”

They also debate and talk about politics, such as various political systems and how far you can program people, even when the programming is supposed to be for good reasons.
“Earth could have learned a long time ago that securing initial and ongoing consent, rather than attempting to assert hierarchy, is key to a nonconfrontational relationship. Because we’re basically primates, we had to wait for a bunch of aliens to come teach us.”
“There’s value in work you enjoy, or that serves a need. There’s no value in work for its own sake.”

The first book in the Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club historical fantasy series.

Publication year: 2017
Format: Audio
Running time: 13 hours 39 minute
Narrator: Kate Reading

I very much wanted to adore this book. I liked it and will probably continue with the series but it has a writing style which no doubt will make it almost unreadable to some people. You see, the characters critique the book while it’s written. This sounds like a cute or even charming style, and it is, at first. But ultimately, it robs the book of any tension. We know that the characters will not only survive the fight scene, they all become such good friends that they feel free to give snarky comments while reading the (presumably) first draft. I don’t actually think that most readers open a book just to see how high the body count will be (unless that’s part of the genre of the book, of course) but it takes away even the illusion of tension. Similarly, when we meet the characters who are commenting (and we do meet most of them along the story) again we know immediately that they’ll become good friends. These interruptions also constantly remind the reader that she, or he, is reading a story, preventing any sort of immersion in it. They happen all the time. All the time.

So, the book’s major selling point are the characters and their relationships. Luckily, I really liked them. I also adored the idea of the book.

Mary Jekyll’s mother has just died. Her father died years ago and left them almost penniless. First thing after the funeral, Mary must fire her staff. But since the housekeeper Mrs Poole is critiquing the manuscript we know that at least she will stay with Mary. Mary finds out that her mother has an account on another bank, paying to a “Hyde”. Mary knows that her father’s former friend and murderer Mr. Hyde died some years ago but now she realizes that he might be alive, after all. That’s significant because there’s a reward for information about Hyde. Since Victorian London offers poor and very poor choices to a penniless, orphan girl, she wants to get that reward. So, she goes to UK’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes to get help. He and Watson agree to help, out of civic duty, if nothing else. Mary and Watson go the Magdalene Society (for fallen women and unwanted girls) where Hyde is supposed to be. But instead of Mr. Hyde, they find 14 year old Diana Hyde. She’s abrasive and scornful of the nuns so the Society doesn’t want to keep her anymore, so they foist her on Mary.

Mary also gets some letters that were addressed to her father and using the clues in them, she finds out that there’s a secret society in London that is doing something horrible. With the help of Holmes and Watson, Mary and her friends start to unravel the mystery. Holmes is also trying to solve horrible murders in Whitechapel. Could Hyde be responsible?

I adored the idea of this book. The daughters (and other creations) of famous male literary figures coming together and having adventures as friends. Some of them view themselves as “monsters” who don’t have really a place in society, especially in the Victorian era.

They’re all very practical women. Most of them must be, to survive. Mary has taken over the household money because her mother had been seriously ill for years. Diana lived practically on the streets for some years. Catherine Moreau had to keep a level head to survive on Moreau’s island and later to simply support herself alone. The other two had similar circumstances. They all express their frustration with the limits that the Victorian culture puts on women. Yet, the book has a lot of humor, too. For once, Sherlock and Watson are clearly both the sidekicks to these colorful women.

I had a lot of fun listening this book and Kate Reading’s narration was as wonderful as ever.

The book has lots of quotable parts.
“No wonder men did not want women to wear bloomers. What could women accomplish if they did not have to continually mind their skirts, keep them from dragging in the mud or getting trampled on the steps of an omnibus? If they had pockets! With pockets, women could conquer the world!”

A realistic historical fiction which kind of glances at the myth of Cupid and Psyche.

Publication year: 1956
Format: print
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 2013
Finnish translator: Kirsi Nisula
Finnish publisher: Kirjapaja
Page count: 304 including two introductions to the book.

I’m familiar with the original myth but it’s been so long since I read it that it was great that one of the introductions has a brief recounting of it. It’s also fascinating to see the differences in the myth and Lewis’s version.

The story is told through the eyes of Orual, the eldest of Psyche’s sisters. If you’re expecting to see Cupid or much of the other gods, you’ll be disappointed. Also, Cupid is barely seen and Psyche is absent for most of the tale so I can’t really call this a retelling. Rather, a story inspired by the myth.

In this story, the Greek gods are very much out of the picture, rarely seen or heard, and not interacting with the humans. Even their famous tempers and desires are gone, apparently invented by humans. Although, some manner of jealousy might be seen near the end. Indeed, this reads like a historical fiction. The brief scenes where the deities are seen can be interpreted as dreams or visions.

Orual wrote this book when she is an old woman, as a memoir of what happened to her and her sister. She loved her sister very much and is bitter that the gods have twisted their story.

Orual is the eldest daughter of the king of Glome. Much to the king’s disappointment, she’s a girl and worse yet, ugly. Her sister Redival, however, is pretty. But the king’s wife died soon after Redival’s birth and he does his best to get another bride. The king is very temperamental and cruel. His kingdom is poor and he doesn’t have many allies. However, he manages to get another bride who dies giving birth to Psyche who even as a child is so beautiful that everything changes. Because Psyche’s mother is dead, Orual raises.

While Glome isn’t a real, it’s described as a realistic place. The people worship Ungit who requires sacrifices, mostly animals. Orual describes the scent of “holiness” as thick and pungent with blood.

The book has allusions to Christian thought, especially at the end. So, it can be read as a historical fiction, fantasy, or even Christian allegory. But it’s not too heavy handed, except at the end. But it has other themes as well, such as the difference between jealous, selfish love and selfless love which only wants the other’s happiness. Another is a the difference between “pagan” thought and Greek philosophy. Fox, Orual’s Greek tutor, teaches the “barbarians” Greek philosophy and tries to lift Orual and Psyche out of their barbarism.

The Finnish translation is excellent.

A stand-alone fantasy/SF novella.

Publication year: 2018
Format: Audio
Running time: 6 hours 44 minute
Narrator: Nancy Wu

Yên has wanted to be a scholar but when she failed her university entrance exams, she lost her passion, even though she’s hoping to retake the exams in a couple of years. Now, she’s just helping her mother, the village healer. But they live in a village where only the most useful members are allowed to survive. Because this world was used and abused by beings called the Vanishers who have now gone. They left behind an planet filled with diseases and pollution. The healers, like Yên’s mother Kim Ngoc, are doing what they can but their magic is too weak heal everyone.

When Yên’s friend falls ill, the only way for Kim to heal her is to summon the local dragon. The dragon comes in the form of a noble but cold woman. She heals Yên’s friend but in return demands a life. She expects to get the girl she healed but the village elders consider Yên to be far more expendable. By threatening Yên’s mother, they get her to volunteer.

Yên expects the dragon to kill her. But to her amazement, the dragon has two children who require a tutor. Yên agrees. She fears the dragon but is also attracted to her. The children are unruly but polite to her. The palace exists in a spirit realm and is shifting around her. It has rooms where she shouldn’t go because she could die there. And the dragons themselves have many secrets.

This story has a very complex background and it allows de Bodard to explore not just the issues of colonization but also of consent, racism, and power. The dragon, Vu Côn, turns out to be rather ethical (perhaps not surprisingly) and she tries to teach the children about the ethics of consent between people who have very different levels of power. She’s also a healer and is combating the diseases (or viruses as she sees them). On the other hand, she has a lot of power and is used to wielding it without consulting anyone else. And yet, when the Vanishers were on this planet, Vu Côn and the other dragons were their servants. So, she has seen the power imbalance on both sides.

Again, the background is very complex and needs a careful reading to pick out just what’s happening. I’m hoping de Bodard will explore this fascinating world some more. Also, there are things that aren’t explained enough, such as the magic system.

This is often pitched as a Beauty and a Beast retelling which made me uncomfortable because that story always has too much Stockholm syndrome to me. Clearly, de Bodard knows that baggage and is circumventing it by talking carefully about consent. Excellent!

An SF novella.

Publication year: 2016
Format: Audio
Running time: 5 hours 22 minute
Narrator: Emily Woo Zeller

Dai Viet Empire is at war and it shows in lack of resources and because many of the citizens are away, at war. However, this isn’t a war story. This isn’t an adventure story, either. It’s about politics and two strong women clashing because they resent their place in society and each other.

Linh was the magistrate of the 23rd planet. When war came to that planet, Linh’s assistant managed to convince her to flee. She’s come of Prosper Station where she has kin. She’s used to being a in control and having power; now she must be humble and beg for shelter. That’s very frustrating for her. She has six ancestor’s voices in her mem-implants. They constantly interfere in her thoughts and she must be respectful of them. Linh is also full of regret, especially when she hears what happened at the planet after she left.

The Mistress of Prosper Station is Quyen. However, she feels that she’s only a minor official because she didn’t pass her examinations. In her arranged marriage, she’s the lesser partner who isn’t as educated as her greater partner. However, war has taken many of the greater partners away and now Quyen has found herself in a position which she hardly could dream of. (In this universe, gender has no bearing of if a person is a lesser or greater partner – only if they’ve passed the examinations.) Quyen resents Linh’s intrusion and her station in life, so she gives Linh the chore of teaching young women. Linh, in turn, know that this is a slight and resents Quyen.

However, the station is run by an AI, Honored Ancestress, and it is failing. Also, Quyen’s kinsman (by marriage) has sold (or otherwise lost) his memory implants. One of the “people” in the implants comes from Quyen’s family and now it’s her job to retrieve them.

This is a complex world where familial relationships are honored above anything else. Many people interact very formally. For example, children shouldn’t criticize their parents, not matter what the parents have done. Also, kin is expected to help each other, no matter what. While others find comfort in that, and also in the AI who watches over everyone, others find it very confining. Also, the culture is very class oriented, although they don’t really call it class.

I felt the ending was a bit abrupt.

Linh and Quyen are both flawed people but very human because of their flaws. The world was fascinating and I’m happy to read more about it.

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