Book Review: Out Past the Stars by K. B. Wagers

Cover of the book Out Past the Stars by K. B. Wagers
Out Past the Stars
by K. B. Wagers
Orbit, 2021

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).

Book Review: Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick by David Wong

Cover of the book Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick by David Wong
Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick
by David Wong
St. Martin’s, 2020

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.

Book Review: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

Cover of the book To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini
To Sleep in a Sea of Stars
by Christopher Paolini
Tor, 2020

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.

The Essential Importance of Fiction in Social Justice

This post by Jasmine Guillory is wise, wonderful, and true. Stop now and read it if you haven’t already.

Reading Anti-Racist Nonfiction Is a Start. But Don’t Underestimate the Power of Black Fiction
(Time, posted online on June 30, 2020, accessed July 1, 2020)

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:

Continue reading “The Essential Importance of Fiction in Social Justice”

Book Review: Turing’s Graveyard by Terence Hawkins

Cover of the book Turing's Graveyard by Terence Hawkins
Turing’s Graveyard
by Terence Hawkins
Running Wild, 2020

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.

Book Review: Network Effect by Martha Wells

Cover of the book Network Effectby Martha Wells
Network Effect
by Martha Wells
Tor, 2020

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.

Book Review: Titan’s Day by Dan Stout

Cover of the book Titan's Day by Dan Stout
Titan’s Day
by Dan Stout
DAW, 2020

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.

Book Review: The Pursuit of the Pankera by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover of the book The Pursuit of the Pankera by Robert A. Heinlein
The Pursuit of the Pankera
by Robert A. Heinlein
Arc Manor, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist on March 1, 2020.

This previously unpublished manuscript by Grand Master Heinlein will be in demand by his many fans and readers interested in the history of the genre. It’s based on the same premise and features the same characters as his The Number of the Beast (1980). Indeed, the first third of the book is identical. But the novel then veers into an entirely different story, appropriately, since the books are based on travel through alternate worlds. As in Beast, our intrepid explorers travel to various fictional universes: Burroughs’ Barsoom, Baum’s Land of Oz, Smith’s Lensman universe, confronting the idea that all fictional universes exist somewhere in the multiverse. Beast is recognized as the first work of Heinlein’s late style, but The Pursuit of the Pankera is mostly in his middle style and occasionally hearkens back to his earliest pulp action writings. Together, the two novels offer fascinating insight into an inflection point in the evolution of one of science fiction’s greatest writers. Pankera can also be read on its own, though it will be of greatest interest to Heinlein fans.

Book Review: A Pale Light in the Black by K. B. Wagers

Cover of the book A Pale Light in the Black by K. B. Wagers
A Pale Light in the Black
by K. B. Wagers
Harper Voyager, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist on February 1, 2020.

After almost driving themselves to extinction, human beings have colonized the local solar system and the nearby Trappist system, using an anti-aging drug to extend their lifespans. Every year, the military branches, which protect civilization, compete in the Boarding Games. This year, the Near-Earth Orbital Guard hopes to finally win against the Navy—if their newest recruit can be whipped into shape in time. Max Carmichael, a child of the most influential family on Earth, has broken with tradition and enlisted in the NeoG. But there’s a vast conspiracy afoot that threatens genocide on a massive scale. The big mystery establishes high stakes and the exciting competition sequences of the Games make this book a surprisingly fun read, but this is a character-driven story above all else. Every character is someone readers will enjoy spending time with, and exploring the characters’ relationships is the heart of the tale. Aside from a few stereotypical villains, no one is a bad guy. Wagers’ first book in the NeoG series is an unexpected and refreshing twist on military science fiction.

Book Review: The Light Years by R. W. W. Greene

Cover of the book The Light Years by R. W. W. Greene
The Light Years
by R. W. W. Greene
Angry Robot, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist on January 1, 2020.

**STARRED REVIEW** After the fall of Earth, humans colonize other planets, some of which are at war while host to increasing numbers of refugees, with the destitute living in urban squalor while the rich flee to their mansions. Flying between worlds on relativistic space ships are Trader families, who experience months as years pass for the planet-bound. Hisako Sasaki, an unauthorized child on the planet Gaul, is contracted to marry the Trader Adem Sadiq before she’s even born. Hisako grows up knowing her future is out of her control, while the Sadiq’s discover an ancient lost ship with technology that could change everything. There are elements of a thriller story here, but this isn’t about plot. Instead, it’s a social and family drama with a focus on character study and world building. The novel is conceived around a set of questions: How would the time dilation of relativistic travel affect civilization? How would space travelers relate to the planet-bound? How would it alter our perceptions of history and our responsibilities to one another? Greene builds his immersive and socially complex world on these deeply human questions. The Light Years is a story of resistance and acceptance, anger and forgiveness, and the costs of our actions.