This review was first published by Booklist on March 1, 2021.
Preservation Station doesn’t see very many murders. So when a dead human is found in an empty corridor, Murderbot wonders if GreyCris is finally making their next move on Dr. Mensah. To find out, they’ll need to work with Station Security on the investigation—which could prove problematic, as the head of Station Security doesn’t like having a rogue SecUnit onboard. Things get even more complicated when a group of passengers from a passing ship goes missing, systems start malfunctioning, and no one knows who’s behind it all. After the first full-length, standalone Murderbot novel (Network Effect, 2020), Wells returns to a shorter novella and the main plotline from the first four books in the series. The formula remains successful: fast-paced and action-packed, with plenty of sarcasm and plans that don’t work as intended. But maybe this time Murderbot is starting to find their place in their new home. Maybe they could even make a friend or two along the way. And maybe that’s not as horrible as it sounds. Another strong entry in a series fans adore.
This review was first published by Booklist on February 1, 2021.
Just as humankind was on the brink of reaching the stars, fueled by new biotechnology that conveys near-immortality, the Earth was almost destroyed by a nuclear holocaust. Now, a once-great corporation is clinging to power from its orbiting stations, an Earth-side alliance seeks to overthrow it, and a new kind of artificial life lurks in the dark, where nothing is as it seems. Rex is an addict of Glow—a nanotech drug—who can’t remember who he is. When he’s taken in by a sect of nuns who promise salvation, he finds himself in a conflict that could destroy all he holds dear, hunted by something not of this world. He must survive long enough to solve the mystery of his own identity. In Jordan’s impressive fiction debut, the action and pacing are taut, the characters well drawn, the conflict compelling, and the world he creates is fascinating and immersive in its detail. His world building is reminiscent of the best space opera mixed with the gritty, violent dystopia of cyberpunk. Recommended for fans of Alastair Reynolds and William Gibson.
This review was first published by Booklist on January 15, 2021.
When Joseph Bridgeman was a teenager, his younger sister, Amy, vanished while under his supervision. She was never found and the loss tore his family apart. Twenty years later, in the midst of crippling depression, a hypnotherapy session unlocks a strange new ability: Joe discovers he can travel back in time. If he can figure out how this power works, maybe he can save his sister. Time travel is used to tell an intimate, personal story here: a tale of grief and guilt and what a loving brother will do to heal the wounds of the past. But there are moral quandaries posed by changing history and Jones doesn’t shy from that. The novel, originally self-published in 2015, offers an ending that isn’t as neat and happy as readers might expect: there’s a cost to getting what you want. Jones’ version of time travel is compelling; though the mechanism remains secret, the rules of time travel are clear. It’s a compelling set up for the next in the Downstream Diaries series.
This review was first published by Booklist on December 1, 2020.
Hail, Star of Indrana, seeks to broker peace between the Farian and the Shen, a task made unimaginably more difficult when she meets the Farian gods and discovers they’re not what everyone has long believed. Now, an ancient, dangerous enemy is hunting them down. To preserve peace and save her empire, Hail must discover the truth behind centuries’ worth of lies and avert an all-out war. But the cost might be more than she can bear, just when she was hoping to finally put violence behind her. What makes Hail such a likable character is her obvious love for her compatriots. What makes her admirable is her unwavering commitment to doing what’s right, even when it’s not at all clear what the right choice is. The story is a compelling mix of action and politics, but Wagers’ strength is crafting character-driven science fiction, and it’s on full display. Everyone, including the villains, are complex and compelling. Relationships, both old and new, are rich. Wagers offers a well-earned, heartfelt, and hopeful conclusion to the Farian War series (which began with There before the Chaos, 2018).
This review was first published by Booklist on September 1, 2020.
Zoey Ashe, still unsure how to manage her father’s massive criminal empire after the events of Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits (2015), receives a disemboweled corpse in the mail. Online trolls accuse her of being a cannibal and threaten to attack her home. A rival is growing a private security empire, which may or may not be involved in murder. When her beloved cat, Stench Machine, goes missing, Zoey is ready to tear the city apart to get it back. This may be Wong’s most timely and topical work to date, featuring incels, trolls, and the rise of private security. Wong’s trademark imagination and humor remain but it’s his grounded sense of humanity that elevates this work. Zoey is a good person in bizarre circumstances, doing her best to make the world a better place. Wong knows what makes people tick and his vision of humanity isn’t rose-colored. But he’s also fundamentally an optimist: there are solutions to the problems humanity faces. Not always neat or tidy, not always clean, but readers will feel that they—like Zoey—can stumble through.
YA/General Interest:Futuristic Violence in Fancy Suits won an Alex Award, so teen fans may come looking for its sequel.
This review was first published by Booklist on September 1, 2020.
**STARRED REVIEW** Paolini’s first foray into adult science fiction doesn’t do anything by halves. This is a massive work of space opera with a deep history and complex mythology, epic in scope and packed with action. Kira Navárez, a xenobiologist exploring a new planet, stumbles upon a piece of alien technology that upends human-settled space and sends her on a quest across the galaxy in the company of a scrappy group of traders and a possibly insane superintelligence, all in the middle of an interstellar war. Humanity’s first contact with aliens could spell extinction: the stakes don’t get any higher than this. The concepts in this book aren’t all that original, but the book is not derivative: this is Paolini’s love letter to the genre. The skills honed in his YA fantasy series, Inheritance (Eragon, 2003), are on full display here in his vibrant world building, especially in the mythology of the alien tech. Paolini populates this universe with a large cast of interesting and relatable characters, and mostly avoids reductive good guy/bad guy dynamics, lending the story a sincere emotional depth. Highly recommended for fans of James A. Corey’s The Expanse series and for fantasy fans willing to try space opera.
HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Paolini’s first novel since 2011 is a major departure, and those who grew up on his Inheritance series will be eager to see what he does in a novel sans dragons.
Black lives are not a problem to be solved or an academic text that can be studied. To recognize Black lives as ones to celebrate, empathize with and care about, here’s your antiracism work: read more fiction by and about Black people.
It brings to mind a story that has become core to who I am and how I see the world:
This review was first published by Booklist on May 1, 2020.
These 13 powerful, well-crafted stories by Hawkins (American Neolithic, 2019) have been aptly compared to The Twilight Zone: they offer a similar sense of dread and moral disquiet. These are tales of how things go wrong. Though it is marketed as a speculative fiction title, fewer than half are explicitly sf. “Turing’s Graveyard” examines identity and online dating gone haywire. “The Darkness at the Center of Everything” considers the mystery of time from ancient and modern perspectives. “The Thing That Matters” is an alternate history that imagines Ernest Hemingway and characters from the movie Casablanca all in Cuba in 1956. “Changeling” is straight-up creepy. “An Event in Judea . . . ,” about the crucifixion of Jesus, and “Acts of Contrition,” a murder noir exploring greed, spiritual mystery, and forgiveness, both flirt with sf tropes. The remaining stories are literary fiction, focused on the mistakes characters make in personal relationships. In the end, though, genre is irrelevant. Hawkins tells tales that fascinate him, and they provide a beautiful reading experience.
This review was first published by Booklist on April 1, 2020.
**STARRED REVIEW** Everyone’s favorite Murderbot is now working as a security consultant for Preservation Station. While accompanying several members of Dr. Mensah’s family on a research outing, they’re attacked by a ship that looks a lot like their old friend, the transport ship ART. Murderbot and Amena, Mensah’s daughter, are kidnapped and taken aboard, where they uncover a plot that leads back to a strange planet, corporate machinations, and a possible alien contagion. The Murderbot novellas were perfectly paced to fit a ton of action into a short form. Network Effect is just as action-packed, but the pace is now calibrated to fill a full novel, which gives it more breathing room and opportunities to explore the characters and the setting in greater depth. Relationships between all the characters are richer and more nuanced. Wells reveals more about Dr. Mensah’s family and some surprises about ART and establishes more details about how the Corporations function, the contrasts between the Corporate Rim and Preservation Station, the politics at play, and some of the history of pre-Corporate planetary colonization attempts. It’s a welcome expansion of this universe and lays the groundwork for more stories to come in a series that continues to grow and impress.
This review was first published by Booklist on March 6, 2020.
After striking manna in the oil fields, the citizens of Titanshade thought things were looking up. But federal troops have taken command, and people from all over the planet are flocking to the city in hopes of cashing in. Tensions are high leading up to a political showdown on Titan’s Day, the most important holiday of the year. When Carter and Jax are tasked to solve the murder of a Jane Doe in an alley, it unravels a complicated web of gang warfare, political machinations, and magic. And there’s something wrong with Carter . . . . Titanshade (2019) introduced readers to a compelling new world. The second book in the Carter Archives takes readers on a deep dive into its culture: politics and crime, social conflicts, fear and intolerance, local versus national interests, and especially the workings of manna and magic. It broadens readers’ understanding of how the characters relate to each other and maintains a wonderful sense of discovery. Stout proves once again to be a master of retro sf noir.