Review of Reactance by Dacia M. Arnold

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This young adult dystopia novella was self-published in August of 2018. It’s listed as Book #2 of the series, a companion piece to Apparent Power, and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Sasha Bowman is 18 and on the point of graduating from high school when disaster strikes. The awakening of a dormant gene divides society in the city of Denver into a new hierarchy of haves and have-nots. The haves can control and channel electricity, making them an asset, but also a danger to the general population. Sasha has the gene, which means people are afraid of her and the government wants to control her abilities. She and her mother are captured by the government, and put under control of DiaZems, people who can gather and use the power of people affected by the gene. The power-hungry Queen DiaZem murders everyone in the city without the gene, including Sasha’s father. Attracted by a friendly boy, Sasha writes some documents and then finds she is helping form a subversive organization, the Reactance. Can they fight against the new order and find some way to return the gene to a dormant state?

This should be well-received by the young adult age group. It’s a easy, quick read, written in journal format, that reveals Sasha’s problems and how her life suddenly changed when she became a captive of the DiaZems. Other issues investigated here include the responsibility of parents and the difference between activism and terrorism. I’m glad to see someone in young adult addressing that last topic.

On the not so positive side, this seems really soft-pedaled. I know someone wouldn’t instantly achieve wisdom when something like this happens, but Sasha has a lot of naiveté to overcome. It seems simplistic that she’s joined with a subversive group and doesn’t understand the consequences–or that the DiaZems don’t immediately come down on her in a really ugly way. If they’re murdering people, surely they’ve got means to watch, control and punish their captive population. I’ve missed the first book, so maybe I don’t quite understand the gene situation and the new political structure–a prologue to explain those would have been helpful.

Three stars.

Review of The Quantum Garden by Derek Künsken

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This novel is hard SF/adventure and was published by Solaris on October 15, 2019. It is #2 in the series, following The Quantum Magician, and runs 300 pages. This review contains major spoilers.

The Scarecrow shares the information he’s gathered on Belarius Arjona and his involvement in the recent Sub-Saharan Union’s rebellion and attack on the Congregate. In response, the Congregate defies the Banks and the Plutocracy and nukes the Garret, asteroid home of 4000 bioengineered Homo quantus. Arjona and Cassie Mejia are doing research on the wormhole system from their new inflation racer The Calculated Risk. The AI St. Matthew interrupts to let them know about the problem, and Arjona and Mejia make a plan to use the stolen time gates in the hold of The Calculated Risk to go back in time and rescue the population from the Garret. They lease and refit freighters, take them back in time and rescue everyone in the Garret that will leave with them. Homo quantus has been considered a failed genetic experiment, but suddenly their military potential is apparent, and the Scarecrow reclassifies them as bioweapons. Arjona and Mejia decide they need to hide the Homo quantus somewhere in their expanded wormhole system where they won’t be found. But their research on it isn’t complete—they need historical data in order to calibrate their model and plot courses. Arjona approaches Lieutenant-General Rudo and Colonel Ayen Iekanjika of the Union with a plan to go back in time and collect data from the planetoid Nyanga, offering the location of unknown wormholes in the Union’s Bachwezi system in trade. Rudo and Iekanjika are angry that Arjona stole their time gates, but Rudo agrees anyway. The Scarecrow is hot on their trail. Can Arjona, St. Matthew and Iekanjika obtain the data they need and successfully return without creating a paradox and changing the timeline of history?

This summary is a massive over-simplification, of course. As in The Quantum Magician, Künsken’s strong suit here is the science, all projected and highly plausible. The author comes up with entertaining applications; for example, where Cassie leads the Scarecrow on a chase through the multiple dimensions of a wormhole, and then doubles back for an inspired and unconventional attack. The entertaining Homo eridanus Stills is back for this installment, cursing in several languages as he brokers Arjona’s deal and then serves as the pilot to Nyanga-in-the-past. Most of the drama in the story falls on Iekanjika, who has to figure out the politics of the Union in its early days and decide what to do about causality in the timeline, while Arjona wanders off, stressing about a quantum intelligence on the planetoid that’s fated for extinction. Nobody is especially happy with each other by the end of this, so I’m expecting the story will continue as they work out their issues.

I had a few complaints about The Quantum Magician, but Künsken has fixed most of those issues here. There’s no real hook for the story, just an argument at the beginning, but the action line goes up sharply when the Congregate ship fires on the Garret, and it remains pretty gripping the rest of the way through. This is strongly plotted, the characters are fairly well-rounded and it’s strongly diverse. Künsken presents the ever-interesting Stills to fill the mid-novel slump some authors experience, and things get pretty intense as Iekanjika realizes the truth about the people she’s dealing with on Nyanga. I also have a fair idea what Bel and Cassie look like at this point, though I still didn’t get a good description. They’re bioengineered from Afro-Columbian stock, so have dark skin, hair and eyes. Arjona isn’t black enough to pass for the Shona stock of the Union, though, and has to darken his skin to pass. Besides that, Stills calls him “fancypants,” from which everyone will have to draw their own conclusions.

Highly recommended, especially for science geeks.

Five stars.

Review of Black Helicopters by Caitlin R. Kiernan

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This is a science fiction/fantasy/horror novella published by Tor in May of 2018. According to the description it’s “the expanded and completed version of the World Fantasy Award-nominated original,” and leaning to Lovecraftian horror. The original chapbook was published in 2013 by Subterranean Press, and this version runs 208 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Near Deer Isle, off the coast of New England, a fallen star has poisoned the sea. Authorities evacuate everyone they can, blow up the bridge and fire rockets from Black Hawk helicopters, but still fail to stop the Great Old Ones from rising out of the sea. The agent Ptolema waits at a pub in Dublin for agents from the other side, who have maybe turned, but maybe not. When they arrive, she plays a recording that alarms them. In a later meeting, one of the agents identifies the important characters in the recording as psychiatrist Dr. Twisby and albino twins. The twins, Bête and Ivorie, are the result of sadistic experiments, lovers, and maybe entangled quantum particles on the run in a chaotic universe. Ptolema later assassinates the two agents she spoke with. Twisby has Ivorie killed, collapsing the twin souls into Bête. Years later, the White Woman drops the vial that poisons the sea.

On the positive side, this seems to have a theme. The agents apparently represent chaos versus order, playing a symbolic chess game with butterfly effects through the years. There are layers of post-modern symbolism where we encounter various literary allusions, a chess game, quantum entanglements and a time loop. The characters are very well developed, and given a recognizable conflict to work with, might actually be likable. The author provides chapter headings that describe place and time—somewhat helpful to track the way this skips around.

On the not so positive side, this has serious readability issues. The story gets off to a promising start with Ptolema and the two agents in Dublin, but after that, it pretty much collapses into chaos. Although there are a couple of linear threads that weave through it, most of the chapters seem nonsensical and unrelated; put together, they achieve no apparent meaning. Be prepared to break out your French language; one chapter is written almost entirely in French. There’s some gratuitous sickness here, too, where a production company streams seppuku type suicides. (The victim hesitates, maybe not sedated enough…) Ick.

Two stars.

Review of The October Man by Ben Aaronovitch

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This novella is an urban fantasy police procedural released by Subterranean Press in May of 2019. It is part of Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series and runs 169 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The setting is Trier, Germany’s oldest city. A dog walker finds a man dead of noble rot, a fungus used in wine production, and circumstances are enough out of the ordinary that local authorities call the Abteilung KDA, a branch of the German Federal Criminal Police that handles supernatural issues. Investigator Tobias Winter, called in from holiday, plans to get there, deal with the problem, and get out with the minimum of paperwork. He teams up with local police representative Vanessa Sommer, and their investigation quickly links the victim with the Stracker vineyards, a pair of river goddesses and a middle-aged men’s social club. There seem to be a lot of issues left unresolved over the last couple of centuries. Can Winter and Sommer make sense of it all?

Good points: This should please fans of police procedurals. The characters are well rounded and have backstories, and the plot is intricate enough that it takes some investigating to find out what old ghosts everyone is hiding. There are a couple of plot twists that change the direction of the investigation, keeping interest up, and the mystery has a satisfactory conclusion. The German setting is different for an urban fantasy, though Aaronovitch admits to making up the vineyard, and the writing style is entertaining. There are some wry ironies lurking in there.

Not so good points: This doesn’t develop a lot of suspense, and the action line is fairly flat until a bump at the end. I didn’t get a strong impression of what the countryside looks like. Also, as the investigation takes shape, it’s fairly clear what is going on, if not who they’re looking for–so somewhat predictable. It’s a good book to curl up with on a rainy day, but not a really exciting read.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Dragon Child by Janeen Webb

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This is a fantasy novella published by PS Publishing Ltd., in July, 2018. It runs 105 pages. Janeen Webb is an Australian writer, critic and editor.

The shape-shifting dragons of Hong Kong can easily pass for human. They are wealthy, charming, sophisticated, glamorous, and completely ruthless. In a moment of high spirits, Lady Feng makes a mistake and eats a human infant in a remote mountain village. Feeling remorse, she leaves one of her own eggs as a replacement to be raised by human foster parents. The egg hatches, and the dragon child’s foster mother Mai Lin names the child Long Wei (Iron Dragon). The child quickly finds he can manipulate the village humans to do whatever he wants. The Lady Feng starts to worry, and belatedly, she tries to establish controls. She removes the child from his human family and places him in a school for young dragons, but he resists her authority, constantly at war with the other dragons and trying to break out of the school compound. Is there a solution for this problem?

This reads like a middle-grades story. Long Wei is a selfish, greedy, petulant child and constantly challenges adults. He has a huge chip on his shoulder because of being abandoned as a child, and hates the Lady Feng, even though other dragon young are not raised by their parents. He has no respect for people, and little for his dragon betters, at least until one of them slaps him down. He doesn’t seem to learn from that at all, and still looks for ways to get around authority to what he wants, which seems to be power and treasure. The story moves quickly and has a strong, rising action line that begins with Lady Feng’s oops and continues along smartly. The characterization and world building are decent for a novella, if not deep.

If this is supposed to be a morality tale, then it didn’t pan out so far. Long Wei doesn’t seem to learn anything in this installment. Lady Feng fails at getting him under control and he ends up more selfish and greedy than ever. On the not so positive side, the narration seems simplistic and the characters and world only painted in with broad strokes. There’s nothing intimate or touching here, and I didn’t really connect with the characters.

Three stars.

Review of Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

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This is a young adult science fiction novel published by Delacorte in November of 2018. It runs 515 pages. This is described as a trilogy, and book #2 called Starsight will be released in November of 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Spensa is seventeen. She lives below ground on the world Detritus, which is a desert planet encased in space junk. Periodic openings in the junk layer allow Krell fighter ships to descend and launch attacks that could crack the caverns and destroy human habitation on the planet. The DDF is in dire need of fighter pilots to defend both the surface Alta Base and the caverns. Spensa wants to fly like her father, but he was branded a deserter and a coward after the Battle of Alta, so she has to battle a lot of prejudice to get into the pilot training program. She finally succeeds and enters a class taught by her father’s wing mate Cobb. Because of the shortage of pilots, the cadets are forced into combat almost immediately, and members of the class start to die. Spensa stumbles over an ancient, abandoned fighter ship in a cavern near the military base. When she starts to rebuild it, she finds there are a lot of questions about the situation that she needs answers to. And was her father really a coward?

The characters are very well-developed here, and we get attached to the cadets. There’s a lot of experiential time devoted to the mechanics of the fighters and the experience of flying, a la military SF, but the best thing about it is the always-dependable Sanderson themes. The first is the nature of cowardice, and the next is the issue of independent thought. Spensa is a scrappy outcast, always having to fight to get ahead, and this gives her a different perspective than the entrenched wealthy and politically powerful people she is dealing with. As her goals turn out to be questionable, she starts to think for herself about the society where she lives. Her friend FM wonders what it does to have a military government and to glorify fighting instead of building a better society. “Most people never question,” FM says, “and doggedly go through the motions of an obedient life.”

On the not so positive side, I thought the resolution to this was a trifle simplistic. Besides that, it pretty much changes the meaning of everything that’s gone before, and leaves all of Spensa’s attitude, goals and efforts in this book completely empty. There was some foreshadowing of unexplained issues, of course, but nothing to predict the extent of the lies. Do the leaders of this society even know what it’s based on? It’s like all of the fabric of reality crumbles, and we have a sudden, fairly jolting shift in perspective. Sanderson says something in the acknowledgements about this being fueled by his own experience as a kid, so I’m thinking it’s an intended symbolism. There are also a few loose ends that I’m suspicious about. We’ll have to see how this develops in Book #2.

Four and a half stars.

Review of “I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land” by Connie Willis

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This is a speculative fiction novelette released by Subterranean Press in April of 2018. It runs 88 pages. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Connie Willis, she is an old hand at SFF, a multi-award winner and New York Times Bestseller. This review contains spoilers.

Jim is in New York City to make contacts for a book about the uselessness of nostalgia for obsolete technology. He does a radio interview where he gets in an argument with the host about how this applies to books. On the way to a meeting with a Random House editor, Jim is caught in a terrible rainstorm and ducks into a shop for rare books called Ozymandias Books. Although the store seems small, it opens into a storage area where Jim looks through the collection and eventually gets lost. He is rescued by a busy clerk and hurriedly catches a taxi for his appointment. When he tries to find the shop again later, he can’t.

“Ozymandias” is a Percy Bysshe Shelley sonnet from 1817 about great works that crumble and disappear. That states the story’s theme pretty clearly, about how we’re in danger of losing the body of knowledge contained in out-of-print books, now generally dumped in the landfill because they’re replaced by electronic media. Willis is excellent at creating entertaining characters and making things go wrong, and her work is always entertaining to read.

On the not so great side, nothing happens here. Jim leaves his interview, walks around, ducks into the store, looks at the books, leaves, and then can’t find the shop again. That’s it. It could have been a piece of flash fiction, but instead it’s been padded out to 88 pages. I was left feeling this is pretty empty.

Three and a half stars.

Review of The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson

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This novella one goes back a ways. It is billed as Elantris, Book II, was released by Brandon Sanderson’s self-publishing company Dragonsteel Entertainment in 2012 and won the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 2013. It runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Shai is a forger. She is caught in the palace trying to replace the Moon Scepter with her own forgery, and is offered a bargain by the Emperor’s councilor Gaotona. The Empress has been killed by an assassin and Emperor Ashravan left brain dead. If he doesn’t emerge from his chambers at the end of the mourning period and take control of the government, the empire will dissolve into chaos. Imprisoned in a decrepit chamber, Shai is charged with forging a new soul for the Emperor while the nobles who know of his condition maneuver for position. She starts to research the emperor’s life, seriously doubting whether she can create a soul. Shouldn’t she concentrate on a workable escape plan instead?

As usual, Sanderson provides a mysterious, talented protagonist who has her own failings, puts her in major jeopardy and lets the story play out to a satisfying resolution. The world building and details about how the magic works give this an extra layer of quality. Shai is in conflict with Gaotona and with others of the Emperor’s entourage, imprisoned with dark blood magic and under pressure from her own ambitions as well as those of the nobles and staff. Besides that, doesn’t she have an obligation to the empire to give them an effective ruler, as well?

On the not so positive side, I was a little disappointed that Gaotona’s character didn’t take on more depth here. There was also an opportunity to expand on the lives of other characters, including Frava, leader of the opposition, and the Bloodsealer who keeps Shai imprisoned. This would have given us better character dynamics, but maybe the length of the work affected the character developments. Regardless, this accomplishes what it needs to and gives us a positive upbeat ending. Recommended.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Doyle’s Law by Sam Roberts

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This is a hard science fiction novel, self-published by the author in November of 2018. It runs 486 pages. Roberts is an English writer, and this looks to be his first novel. This review contains spoilers, but I’ll try not to give too much away.

It’s 2142. The Neith is a space station in a high Venus orbit where scientist Jim Ryburn has spent a large part of his career conducting energy research. He’s getting slightly old and slightly alcoholic and his research has never produced anything at all of value. A decommissioning crew headed by Chief O’Connor has arrived and begun removing the station equipment for salvage. This is fairly typical all over the solar system. Without any means of really efficient spaceflight, maintaining the stations is just too expensive; plus, there’s no real way to get to the stars. A last shipment of ore comes in from Mercury on an automated hopper, and things start to go wrong. The hopper collides with the station, shifting its axis. Systems in the station begin to throw off alarms. The crew’s behavior starts to get erratic. Then, one of the airlocks blows out, throwing the station out of its orbit. What’s going on? Sabotage? Theft? Will someone come to rescue them before they fall into the planet? And what are those strange magnetic properties in the ore?

For anyone who’s wondering, Doyle’s Law as used in the book is apparently a play on Murphy’s Law, but not quite the same thing. It seems to be something like: “things that have happened, will happen.” This is a tight, entertaining plot with a major twist about midway and another at the end of the story that keeps the reader guessing. After the first twist, you can go along for the ride on most of it, but then the suspense builds up again at the end when you don’t know which way it’s going to go. The characters are engaging, especially Ryburn and Chief O’Connor, who ends up carrying most of the action, while at the same time trying to deal with his own failings as a leader.

On the not so positive side, I’d have preferred slightly more world-building. What’s here is adequate, and it’s a nice touch that everybody seems to work for soulless corporations, but I’d have liked a little more detail about what’s going on back home on Earth, and more on where this is headed in the future. I’m thinking everybody here is a little too trusting about that, but maybe the issue will be addressed in a sequel. It was a little uphill when the complexity started to build up, but that smoothed out about three-quarters of the way through. Also, the ending is the tidy, emotional wrap up that hard SF readers will expect, but I thought it was a little too pat. Things just don’t happen like that in real life.

Regardless of these little niggles, this is an entertaining, uplifting story about humanity’s quest for the stars. Recommended.

Four and a half stars.

Review of The Quantum Magician by Derek Kunsken

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This is Kunsken’s debut novel, a hard science fiction tale with an adventure bent. It was published by Solaris in October of 2018 and runs 500 pages. Book II of the series, The Quantum Garden, will be released in October 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Belarius Arjona is a transhuman homo quantus living in the 25th century. This means he is one of a genetically engineered race that can sense quantum states, and who can shift from normal to savant and fugue conditions for purposes of analysis. Arjona has problems controlling his fugue state, and as a result, he left the homo quantus research sanctuary at an early age to pursue life as con man. Because of his unique talents and highly successful reputation, Arjona is approached by the Union, a political entity that will pay a huge price to smuggle a fleet of warships through interstellar space in order to attack the Congregate. The Union ships are old, but refitted with a unique wormhole drive. Interested in the tech and the challenge both, Arjona takes the job, gets a talented crew together and sets a plan in motion. Will his team be successful? Or will they all die in the attempt?

Okay, so this is pretty amazing. First, the science, including the plan, the wormholes, the quantum perceptions and the projection of genetically engineered races, is all very well imagined, extensively described, and sounds completely plausible. Next, counter to the trend to totally plotless novels, this one is both complex and tightly plotted. (Yah!) Kunsken has set up Arjona’s plan in elaborate detail, including various fail-safe mechanisms, and then kicks the Rube Goldberg machine into motion so we can watch it all play out. This starts off slowly, as it takes Arjona half the book to analyze the job and assemble his team, but once the plan is underway, the story turns at least mildly gripping. We get a look at other engineered races besides homo quantus in this universe, a couple of which look pretty nightmarish. When things start to go wrong, of course Arjona has to leap into the breach, risking his own life to win the payoff.

On the not so positive side, there are some issues here with characterization, clarity and action line. Although some of the characters took on excellent color, Arjona and his love interest Cassie remain under-developed. They have almost no internal dialog. Arjona, especially, does not react to anything. We learn some about his background and personality from what the other characters say about him, but there’s really little to go by. Plus, Arjona doesn’t seem to pant, or sweat, or do anything, really, without a scientific analysis first. It’s like he stays in the savant stage—totally pristine and removed from any subjectivity. And Cassie is almost as bad–we don’t even know what they look like. Second, something about the way this is written makes is hard to follow. This may be related to the action line, but I ended up vague about the different political entities and about how the plot elements all fit together. Some of this may have to do with how I read the book—snippets at the car shop, more in the doctor’s office, etc., but somehow I doubt reading it again would bring these issues into better focus. The third problem is a flat action line. After the slow start, this book never really picks up much steam, and the climax, where there should have been a lot of suspense, turns out to be fairly sedate. This is somewhat saved by Arjona’s backup plan for the nightmarish-other-races thing, but I would have preferred more excitement in the plot execution instead. And last, I’m not sure “con man” is the best way to describe what Arjona does in this book. He seems more like an agent for hire to me.

Regardless, I’m hooked. I pre-ordered The Quantum Garden.

Four stars.

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