Elizabeth Bear

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 third and final book in the Eternal Sky epic fantasy series.

Publication year: 2014
Format: print
Publisher: TOR
Page count: 430

Steles of the Sky continues right where Shattered Pillars ended. Al-Sepehr and his assassins seem to be even greater threat than before and our intrepid heroes are really struggling to face him and his allies. Also, when the story starts, the characters have all over the map doing their own things.

Overall, was a good ending to the epic fantasy trilogy with some surprises, too. However, there’s definitely room for more adventures to some of the characters, and the setting is also in an intriguing place.

One of the lesser seen secondary characters starts to call themselves Iskandar which greatly amused me, because that’s one of Alexander the Great’s Eastern names.

“Like any weapon, it only takes one mistake for me to turn in a hand.”

“Comforting thoughts should be questioned more stringently than any others. For they are more likely to lead us astray, as we wish to believe them.”

“It was unwise to dwell on eventualities. Here and now was the only world. Anticipation bred misery.”

The second book in the Eternal Sky epic fantasy series.

Publication year: 2013
Format: print
Publisher: TOR
Page count: 333

Bear plays with lots of epic fantasy troupes here. It’s not my favorite Bear book but it could be because I’m not really that interested in epic fantasy anymore. Please read the first book “Range of Ghosts” first because she doesn’t waste pages recapping what came before (which is good IMHO).

Re Temur who is the grandson of the great but dead Khagan is still in exile, looking for his lover Edene who was kidnapped by ghosts. However, his quest has changed. Now he, and his companions, are also looking for a way to wrest power from Temur’s usurper uncle and to unite the steppe tribes once again. To do that, Temur has to find a band of loyal steppe soldiers. But first, he needs to rescue Edene from Ala-Din, the headquarters of the followers of the Nameless, the Scholar-God. They’re also assassins who are hunting the small group.

Samarkar-la is a wizard and a former princess. She’s only recently come to her power but has studied magic for years. She’s also in love with Temur and follows him loyally. She’s also looking for a way to stop the leader of the assassins. Hsiung is a mute warrior-monk and Hrahima is a warrior from a tiger-like species. They’ve become a tightly knit band of friends who are very capable of facing the challenges of the road and the assassins.

Meanwhile, a terrible plague is sweeping across the lands. The wizards in Tsarepheth are trying to fight it, while struggling with intrigue. Also, the leader of the Assassins, al-Sepehr, has sent one of his people to cement Temur’s uncle’s claim to become the Khagan, the king of all steppe tribes.

Much like in the first book, in “Shattered Pillars” the main group is moving from place to place with disaster and assassins on their heels. The people around them plot and plan and we see glimpses of them. This book has many POV characters, some of them new.

I like particularly two characters: Edene, who was a secondary character at best in the first book, rose to an unexpected prominence in this one. I loved her development. She was a spirited steppe woman in the first book and now she’s heavily pregnant with a magic ring which gives her extraordinary powers. She managed to escape her captors and encounters dog-faced ghulim who seem to worship her as a queen. She’s determined to keep her unborn child safe and also rescue Temur from whatever dangers he’s facing. And the best way to do that is to become the queen of an evil, mythical place! Loved that even though I don’t really see how she can have a happy ending. I also really grew to like Saadet who is the twin of one of the lead assassins. Her situation is very complicated and interesting.

This whole series is set in a world that has clearly been inspired by the Mongols and the Middle-East. There are some twists to the cultures, which I quite liked, too, such as the Scholar-God being female and yet her religion has been twisted into supporting oppression of women. Apparently, women are so holy that they can’t be seen by men or do anything but menial labor…

The series has a lot of women with agency which was great. Bear also plays with the roles that men and women usually play in epic fantasy books.

“What was a book? Not just ink and fiber and stitchery: a series of processes. To a wizard, it was not a static object–but a human thought caught and bound, made concrete through sacred technology. Magic, then, and a deep form of it.”

Set in 1878 in Rapid City in Washington State, it’s a steampunk Western detective story.

Publication year: 2015
Format: print
Page count: 351
Publisher: TOR

Let’s get something out of the way: Karen Memory is a prostitute and she lives in a brothel. She’s also around 17 and not the youngest girl there. She’s also smart and loyal and cares for the other girls. But she prefers to work in Madame Damnable’s brothel to working in a factory, which was at the time dangerous and very dirty.

The book is Karen’s journal and so written in first person and with a dialect.

There are (at least) two main brothels in Rapid City. Hôtel Mon Cherie is run by Madame Damnable who doesn’t allow the girls to drink too much and keeps her place clean. The girls are like family to each other. Also, one of them was born a man. The girls also gather around at evenings, after the clients have gone, and read different sorts of books.

Then there’s Peter Bantle’s place where the girls are kept prisoners, underfed, and beaten. Unfortunately, Bantle is quite influential. One Chinese woman, Merry Lee, tries and sometimes succeeds in freeing Bantle’s girls.

The story starts when Merry Lee comes into Mon Cherie shot and supported by one of Bantle’s escaped slaves. Bantle follows with his goons but Karen and a couple of the other girls and Madame manage to send them away. But a war starts between the two brothels.

Also, a new marshal is in town following a man who murders prostitutes gruesomely. Marshal Bass Reeves is black and he isn’t going to get much help from the locals, except from Karen and her friends.

I really enjoyed this tale a lot. I did have difficulty with the language sometimes, though. I also really enjoyed the side characters and the references to earlier steampunk books, such as to Jules Verne’s books.

A stand-alone book set in the Promethean Age series.

Publication year: 2014
Format: print
Page count: 332
Publisher: Prime

One-Eyed Jack is the personification (Genus Loci) of Las Vegas, or rather one of the two personifications. The other one is his partner and lover Stewart, also known as the Suicide King. They’re in trouble because the personifications of Los Angeles (Goddess and Angel) are trying to kill them and to tie Las Vegas to L. A. Then Stewart vanishes and Jack panics. He conjures up the ghost of John Henry to help him. But two John Henrys show up.

In San Diego a vampire finds a way to get rid of his mistress and then he heads to Las Vegas as well. Why? He looks a lot like the King of Rock and Roll and Las Vegas is familiar ground to him. Meanwhile, back in 1964 two spies known as the American and the Russian are on the run from the Assassin. They’re somewhere in Manhattan when they hear that the Assassin has left for Las Vegas. Of course they follow him.

In this book, Bear plays around with media ghosts. They are characters familiar from various TV shows and movies (and books, I guess, too), and have become archtypes in the minds of (Western) people. The spies are from the year 1964 and they’re not named. They are all very recognizable and behave like their archtypes. While being media ghosts gives them some powers, on the other hand they’re also limited to what they can do; the genre powers and limits them. I’m fairly familiar with them and enjoyed them quite a lot. There are also some legendary ghosts from history. But the current day legends shape them, as well. On the other hand, the genus locii were real people before they died in the city they’re now tied to. Apparently, their lives somehow reflected the idea of the city and that’s why they’re now tied to it.

One-Eyed Jack is part spy story and part vampire story. It also has a smidgen of Western in it. It’s chock full of famous characters and I had a blast reading about them but I don’t think it’s fair to spoil them in a review.

The book has a lot of point-of-view characters, two of them in first person, the rest in third person. However, there’s low chance of getting confused because every (short) chapter has a heading which indicates the POV character. Jack and the undead, named Tribute, are the first person POV characters and they’re quite different from each other.

This is quite different from the other Promethean Age books. I think it’s readable without reading the other books, though, because the magical aspects as explained.

A stand-alone SF book.

Publication year: 2007
Format: print
Page count: 333 + an excerpt of Dust
Publisher: Bantam Spectra

André Deschenes is an assassin but he wants to be more. He’s convinced that he has the talent for “luck” or altering the probabilities of his own actions or even somebody else’s. He lives on Greene’s World, an alien planet where humans have started a mining operation. Most of the humans on the planet are working for the Charter Trade Company which is ruthlessly exploiting the local aliens and the planet. André does assassination for them. He comes from a family of conjurers, as the people who can alter probabilities are called, but he thinks that they are charlatans and want nothing to do with them. Instead, he seeks out Jean Kroc who is supposed to be a very powerful conjurer. He wants to be Jean’s apprentice. Unfortunately, he’s also contracted to kill Jean’s lover, Lucienne. Then there’s Cricket, André’s not-girlfriend and Lucienne’s and Jean’s friend. Cricket is an archinformist who specializes in finding information and doesn’t want any attachments.

Once again, I was fascinated by the world-building. The aliens are a peaceful, aquatic, egg laying humanoids whom the humans have classified as pre-industrial and therefore the humans can use their planet. The humans call them ranids or frogs but the aliens call themselves people. The ranids don’t have social genders and instead of he/she they use “se”. However, they do have endoparents and exoparents and have two different ways of defining a family. The whole greatparents thing was also fascinating. The humans exploit them ruthlessly but don’t want anyone telling that to the wider media. Oh, and they don’t speak in human way. Instead, they use tablet like devices to write out what they want to say and some have learned to lip read humans.

Undertow uses quantum physics in as part of the world-building and I’m not sure I even understood that part. But what I understood I really liked. However, I didn’t really connect with any of the human characters but I would love to get another story about the ranids to see how the ending affected them.

The book has somewhat slow start but once the plot starts rolling, it’s a rollercoaster ride to the end.

The third book in the Jenny Casey SF trilogy.

Publication year: 2005
Format: print
Page count: 400
Publisher: Bantam Spectra

Worldwired starts about nine months after the end of the previous book, Scardown. The world has changed after the disaster (and no, I’m not going to spoil it here) and after two alien starships (from apparently different species) have come to orbit near the Canadian starship Montreal. Unfortunately, for our heroes they can’t communicate with either of the alien ships. A couple of more scientists have been brought to the Montreal but they haven’t had any luck so far.

Meanwhile, international political scene is heating up. The Chinese are accusing Canada of trying to take over the world while the Chinese themselves are behind the disaster. Also, Unitek’s new manager it trying to make Canada’s Prime Minister Riel look bad so that she can be replaced with Unitek’s puppet. The politics in the book are really complex and before the end they involve every character.

However, where the book really shines, and what I enjoyed the most, was the first contact situation in orbit. The humans are thinking of a way to communicate with the aliens and trying some methods. Finally, they decide to send a group into one of the ships. Of course, things don’t go as planned.

Communication is one of the themes of the book and it’s ironic that the humans wants to badly to communicate with the aliens when they can’t communicate with each other. Also, the Artificial Intelligence, Richard Feynman and his various side personalities are in the implants and other nanotechnology which was initially given to the pilots. Now, everybody who is ”infected” with the nanotechnology is wired into Richard. In essence, they have telepathy with Richard and each other which will raise some serious questions about privacy. However, there isn’t enough time to cover that in this book. Also, some questions are raised about how much people can or should rely on Richard who is already running the Montreal, trying to repair Earth’s ecological damage, talking to people in their heads, and trying to communicate with the aliens.

The book has a lot of POV characters and shifts in POV which can be strange to so reader. Of course, the previous books had those as well. This is not an action/adventure SF, but more like a political thriller and ”real life” first contact story in one.

This book again defied my expectations which is a good thing.

The second book in the Jenny Casey SF trilogy.

Publication year: 2005
Format: print
Page count: 368 + an excerpt of Worldwired
Publisher: Bantam Spectra

Scardown continues right after Hammered and most of the familiar characters return. Jenny Casey has been partially reconstructed; she’s a cyborg with metal parts, enhanced reflexes and strength, and an artificial intelligence in her head. She’s also now a pilot to a spaceship. The technology comes from an alien ship found on Mars and the humans don’t really know how the faster than light drive works. However, thanks to humanity, Earth is on the brink of destruction and space seems to be our only hope. Unfortunately, Canada isn’t the only country with a spaceship – China has one as well, and both countries are determined to be the only ones who get to leave Earth.

Jenny, her lover Gabriel Castaign, and Gabriel’s children are in the middle of the space race in a very intimate manner. Gabriel’s older daughter Leah has been accepted into the pilot program along with a dozen other teenagers. Jenny is both proud of her and angry at her government for involving children. She also has to deal with the Unitek, the corporation which is sponsoring the Canadian space race but in a ruthless way. Oh, and Jenny is in around 50 years old and a Native Canadian.

We also follow one of the Chinese pilots, a former gang leader Razorface from the previous book, Elspeth Dunsay who is Gabriel’s other lover and the maker of the AI program, and various other characters. The variety of characters makes the plot quite complex and I recommend reading the books close together. I didn’t do so it was sometimes hard to remember what was in “Hammered.” But I’ve learned my lesson now and will continue with “Worldwired” very soon. This isn’t an easy comfort read, but the reader needs to pay attention and connect the dots herself. Also, the setting is quite complex and the history isn’t spelled out for the reader. I really enjoyed connecting the dots, though.

Personally, I didn’t care for the Razorface storyline which felt tacked on but otherwise I liked this book more than the first one, although it’s a bit too grim and dark for me still. Jenny’s part is written in first person present tense while all the others are in third person and past tense. It can be a bit jarring at first but it didn’t bother me.

A stand-alone SF book.

Publication year: 2006
Format: print
Page count: 392 plus an excerpt of Undertow
Publisher: Bantam

Michelangelo Osiris Leary Kusagi-Jones is spy, a bodyguard, and an assassin. He’s also something which his people call a Liar; extremely good at lying to everyone, especially to people close to him. About forty years ago, he met the love of his life and they were spies together on missions. Unfortunately, part of one of Michelangelo’s mission, 17 years ago, was to undermine his love’s mission and that’s exactly what he did. In the end, they were parted and sent to different worlds. But now, he has just been reunited with his love for one more mission. Once again, Michelangelo is a double agent with orders to betray his love. He isn’t happy.

Vincent Katherinessen is a diplomat and a spy. He’s also a double agent to his mother. He’s very good at his job and dedicated to it. He also loves Michelangelo still after 17 years spent apart.

Both have grown up in Coalition, a governing body which rose when the Old Earth’s natural resouces had been almost depleted and in order for humanity and the planet to survive, ruthless measures were taken. And they are still in effect. The ruling body of the Coalition seems to be a group of AIs called the Governors which were programmed by extreme environmentalists. The AIs literally decide who lives and who dies when human population grows too large. In the past, they killed off most of the human population in order to save the environment. Some humans also escaped to other planets and now the Coalition wants to govern all of those planets, too. However, the day to day governing is done by a human group called the Cabinet. Also, humans are forbidden to use any animals either as food, a source for food stuff (such as milk), or as slaves, generally called pets.

The Coalition is aggressively heterosexual to the point that being non-hetero is criminal and treated either with “therapy” or forced retirement. While women are able to vote or nominally become a candidate for the Cabinet, in reality they rarely have actual political power. Indeed, there are apparently no female diplomats. The Cabinet has only one woman in it and she comes from a planet where the women were rulers before the Coalition conquered it.

Vincent and Michelangelo are sent to New Amazonia. It’s a planet settled by disgrunteled women who made a society which benefitted them (of course). In New Amazonia, hetero males’ position in society is very limited: they have to have permission to leave the house they belong to. They also have to combat each other to death in the Trials. They’ve sent to train in combat when they’re 10 years old. But homosexual males, called gentle, can learn other things and even become scientists. This is done to protect women from males, rather than assuming that the would-be victims should protect themselves (as is pointed out on page 107).

The New Amazonias specifically requested “gentle” males or women as diplomats and that’s why Michelangelo and Vincent have been reunited and sent. However, they enter a complex web of treachery and politics where people are rarely what they seem at first glance.

The third point-of-view character is Lesa Pretoria, the head of security at the city. She had two surviving children. One of them is a young boy who will soon turn ten and be sent to battle. Lesa doesn’t want him to die in battle but instead to learn and have a better life that he could have on New Amazonia. However, that would mean trusting the male diplomats with the boy. And her family wants nothing to do with Coalition so that’s also her official policy.

Neither faction knows that an alien intelligence has taken an interest with New Amazonia. So far, humanity hasn’t encountered any aliens. New Amazonia is built on an old alien city, though, so the humans know that intelligent aliens have existed in the past.

The two cultures are, deliberately, intensely different from each other, from eating habits to personal relationships. I don’t think they’re meant to realistic and neither is ideal for the any of the characters. However, that’s what cultures tend to be like: ideal for a few, most can get by, and horrible for some. Little details stand out to me and make the cultures real. For example, when Vincent and Michelangelo come to New Amazonia, they’re horrified to see pets and people eating meat. At first they’re unable to eat much because butter or some other animal produce has been used in pretty much everything and they’re also very repulsed by the smell of cooked meat. Lisa carries her weapon, which is called her honor, everywhere and feels helpless without it. And Vincent and Michelangelo are called with the honorific “Miss” because “Mister” isn’t an honorific.

The culture clash is very interesting to me and I enjoyed the book. However, this isn’t a quick and light read.

This first book in the series is available for free from e.g. Amazon and Smahswords and from the series’ own website: http://shadowunit.org/episodes.html.

Publication year: 2007-2011
Format: ebook
Page count: 153 in pdf
Publisher: CatYelling

This is a collection of short stories and novellas. In the foreword about the origins of Shadow Unit Emma Bull writes that this is a TV show which just happens to be in the written format. And that’s what this is. Clearly these people are huge fans of Criminal Minds and have put their own twist to the series. I’m also a fan of the series and so I was very curious about this collaborative project. Each of the writers have contributed their own stories to the collection. The stories have the same characters.

Shadow unit is a nick name for Anomalous Crimes Task Force. It’s a special branch of FBI’s BAU unit, the Behavioral Analysis Unit. In essence, this is a team of profiles who are hunting serial killers, just like in Criminal Minds. The twist is that in this universe, paranormal things happen and some of the serial killers have been influenced by outside forces, the paranormal. Here it’s called Anomaly. The people who have paranormal powers are either gammas (really powerful and they seem to have some internal story with explains their powers to themselves) or betas (some powers but they can control it).

The character files are here: http://shadowunit.org/agents.html
On the surface, many of the character bear more than a slight resemblance to Criminal Minds’ characters. However, it seems to me that CM characters were the starting point and all of the characters were developed in different ways. And they do have some original characters, too. Daphne Worth is the new person on the team and the first POV character. She’s an experienced BAU agent and a former paramedic. We get to know the Shadow Unit characters and the world through her eyes.

Overall, I enjoyed these stories. Their format follows very closely CM episodes but they had more personal times: one of the (shorter) stories is about the agents’ evening get together for barbecue.

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