Review of The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

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This fantasy novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Tor.com on 19 February 2019 and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Agents Hamed Nasr and Onsi Youssef of the Ministry of Alchemy in 1912 Cairo are called into action to investigate reports of a ghost on Tram Car 015 that is attacking women. After investigating, they decide the car is possessed by a djinn instead of a ghost. The fee for a consultant is high, so they decide to try a Soudanese woman, Sheikha Nadiyaa, who has a reputation for successfully dealing with recalcitrant djinn. She is involved with the suffrage movement in Cairo, where the women are organizing to win the right to vote. Nadiyaa agrees to try to contact the spirit, but when she does, it attacks her. She identifies it as a Turkish spirit, and further investigation reveals a smuggling plot gone wrong. Is there any way the agents can get rid of the spirit?

This story returns to the busy fantasy universe of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo,” and the cross-dressing Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi of that work makes a cameo appearance in this book’s epilogue. The narrative features an #OwnVoices authenticity and is based on historic, early 20th century Cairo. This universe also has steampunk elements, as we encounter machine persons called boilerplate eunuchs, along with the djinn-driven tramcars. We also get a look at a movement determined to obtain voting rights for women, actually written into the Egyptian constitution by 1956.

On the less positive side, these characters don’t really come alive for me, and the slight tongue-in-cheek humor of the narrative reduces the importance of what they’re trying to do. The way the suffrage movement is featured seems forced, as it’s not really integral to the story. I was also slightly offended that Hamed and Onsi try to undercut the usual djinn consultant by going to an (unlicensed?) woman. Gratifyingly, she did send them a big bill.

Three stars.

Review of Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

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This novel is science fiction and #2 in the Skyward series, following the novel Skyward. It was released by Tor in November of 2019 and runs 461 pages. This review contains spoilers.

At the end of Skyward, Spensa Nightshade has found that reality is a long way from what she’s always believed. Humans have been imprisoned on Detritus, guarded by the Krell, and Spensa has found she has cytonic abilities to hear and teleport ships through the Nowhere—the method her ancestors used to get around in space, which can be amplified by an unknown “cytonic hyperdrive.” As the humans have made advances into space, conflict with the Krell has increased. Human techs locate a video on one of the orbiting space platforms and, watching it, Spensa has a terrifying vision of delvers (inhabitants of the Nowhere). She screams cytonically and accidentally contacts an alien pilot, who hyperjumps into Detritus space. The ship is damaged by the automated guns on the platforms. Hoping to capture its hyperdrive, Spensa and her Skyward flight try to rescue the ship, but find there’s no hyperdrive aboard. The pilot is injured in the crash landing, but gives Spensa coordinates for Skysight, the center of alien government. Spensa and her flight leader Jorgen make a quick decision, and Spensa disguises herself as the injured pilot, then uses the coordinates and her cytonic ability to hyperjump there. She is welcomed by Cuna, a representative of the Superiority, and enters a training program to provide fighter pilots for the Superiority, supposedly to defend against the delvers. With the help of her ship’s AI M-bot and Doomslug, her odd pet that has stowed away, Spensa tries to navigate the alien politics and manages to make friends with various representatives of the “inferior” races Cuna has assembled into his fighter units. Spensa builds a spy drone from a cleaning bot and finally learns the secret of the hyperdrives. She gets caught with the drone, but there’s a coup afoot in the Superiority government. Can Spensa save Detritus, rescue M-bot and Doomslug and get away?

This is a really condensed summary, of course. The novel has a great plot, full of twists, turns and revelations. The characters are very well developed, full of alien idiosyncrasies, and the action/suspense starts up right at the beginning, making this a pretty gripping read. Spensa operates by the skin of her teeth, developing into a leader herself within the assembly of misfits that makes up her new flight. The book also features a constant undercurrent of discussion about aggression versus non-aggression and how each one affects a particular society. The Superiority prides itself on non-aggression, for example, but has to draft alien pilots to do the dirty work of defense. Meanwhile, they suppress these “inferior” races, keeping hyperdrives away from them so they can’t develop economically. Humans are painted as the real bad guys in the picture for their highly aggressive and dominant tendencies. Meanwhile, M-bot is finding ways to work around the programming that keeps him confined and enslaved. Will that turn out to be dangerous?

On the not so positive side, Skysight doesn’t seem that alien of a place, and some of this seems a little over-simplistic, especially the way Spensa interacts with the aliens and the way she develops a method to deal with the terrifying delvers. M-bot comes across as immature and sulky, and we all knew Doomslug was going to figure in this somehow, right?

Highly recommended.

Four and a half 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 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.

Review of The Glass Cannon by Yoon Ha Lee

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This novella is science fiction from Lee’s collection Hexarchate Stories and picks up the main plot just after Revenant Gun ends. The collection is published by Solaris and runs about 400 pages. The novella is billed as Machineries of Empire Book 4 and follows Ninefox Gambit, Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun. This review contains spoilers.

Hexarch Kujin is dead, but he’s left Shuos Jedeo in pieces. Ajewen Cheris, now retired from the Kel and hiding out as a simple math teacher on Esrala, still holds most of his memories. The newly resurrected Jedeo sort-of-clone remains memory deficient and is the guest (a.k.a. prisoner) of Hexarch Mikodez. Mikodez seems to be keeping Jedeo around 1) because he’s not sure how to destroy him, and 2) because Mikodez wants to know why Kujen’s command moth mutinied at Terebeg. Jedeo is restless, tortured by his lack of memory about the 400 and some years of his existence, so he conspires with the servitor Hemiola to escape and find Cheris, hoping that will answer some of his questions. He finds Cheris at her home on Esrala and demands to have his memories back. His arrival triggers troops that try to stop them, and the two fight their way out, while Jedeo explores the capabilities he gets from being made from a moth. Cheris and Jedeo escape in the needlemoth Jedeo has stolen and head for Kujen’s Avros Base where Cheris expects to find equipment she needs to aid in the transfer. Can they get inside the base? Successfully transfer the memories? What are they going to do about the bloodthirsty needlemoth, whose harness is now damaged? And has Mikodez been tracking them all this time?

This piece features Lee’s signature strong plotting, wry humor and lively imagery, only less so because it’s a shorter piece. This doesn’t fix the loose ends left at the end of Revenant Gun, but it does get us a little further down the road. Lee seems to be terrific at leaving those loose ends, so I expect this will be a never-ending series. The issue with Kujen is (maybe) done, and the survivors have successfully established a new order, but now they’re about to be faced with a revolt from both the moths and the servitors. This serves them right, of course, because they’ve been enslaving these beings for a long time. Plus, we now see Jedeo reintegrated as himself, with the additional powers he’s gained from being created from a moth. If he was dangerous before, he’s now even more of a weapon. Plus, he and Cheris seem to have ironed out their differences and joined forces.

On the not so positive side, this felt a little messy. The young Jedeo mostly throws himself at things instead of thinking, and Cheris/Jedeo just lets him take the punishment. This works, of course, because of Jedeo’s moth-derived body, but it still comes across as sort of stupid on his part. He doesn’t regenerate immediately, and he’s taking a risk that someone/something will figure out how to kill him. After all, we know that moths CAN be killed. A bunch of them died in the last book. Plus, there seems to be an excess of pain and torture here, as if Lee is catering to fans who enjoy it–and there’s a touch of humor about it that feels unhealthy. And last, Jedeo is in danger of losing his dignity as the author jerks him around through all these manipulations. I like him because he’s human, dangerous and effective, not because he’s a travesty and a puppet.

Four stars.

Review of Alita: Battle Angel

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This is a science-fiction action movie based on the 1990s Japanese manga series Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro. The film was released by 20th Century Fox in February 2019. It was directed by Robert Rodriguez, co-produced by James Cameron and written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis. Weta Digital created the special effects. Rosa Salazar stars as the cyborg Alita, Keean Johnson as Hugo, and Christoph Waltz as Dyson Ido. I notice this is on the ballot for the Dragon Award.

Iron City is a noisy, industrial dystopia after The Fall. It’s full of decaying tech, dangerous street gangs and bounty hunters stalking their prey. Above it floats the pristine sky city of Zalem where the rich and powerful live. A dismembered cyborg falls from the sky city into a trash heap in Iron City and is found by Dr. Dyson Ido. He attaches her head and torso to a body he previously built for his daughter, and calls her Alita. When she wakes, she has no memory of who she is. Alita makes a best friend in Hugo and starts to explore her capabilities, which seem to be very physical. She competes in Motorball against other cyborgs and does well. When corrupt forces in the city suddenly come after her, she finds she has high-level fighting skills. Can she save herself and her friends?

The most unusual feature of this film is the protagonist Alita, a CGI animated character created with the aid of motion capture, while most of the other actors seem to be live-action. Alita has huge eyes and first appears as just a head and torso, which is later attached to different bodies. Unlike early efforts at placing animated characters into live-action films, Alita fits in well and has fairly natural movement, though she’s still clearly animation. The film doesn’t have much of a plot, but instead explores Iron City, presents Alita’s backstory through flashes of memory and introduces characters who are apparently emerging from her past. There’s plenty of action and fight-choreography, and an emotional climax when Hugo is at risk.

On the not so positive side, Alita’s character remains flat, regardless of emotional moments and pained facial expressions. This makes the sentiment seem forced. Clearly the film is aimed at an audience who is familiar with the manga, but if you’re not, the plot is confusing because the flashbacks aren’t enough to explain the full situation. There are some apparent cameos among the characters, which suggests the main purpose of this installment is to set up for sequels.

Two and a half stars.

Review of Free Dive by C.F. Waller

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This novel is a science fiction thriller published by Cosby Media Productions that runs 336 pages. It has apparently made the Amazon #1 Best Seller list in the past and was nominated for a couple of awards. This review contains spoilers.

Dexter Knight and his partners Cam and Lydia have developed AI operated robots to steal salvage from the ocean floor, and are currently working on retrieving teacups from the Titanic which they can sell for a nice price. Eventually one of their sales goes wrong, and a mob with guns moves in to kidnap them and hijack their operation. Uncertain of who they’re working for, the team deploys their robots in the Marianas Trench, where an unknown object starts to look like an alien artifact. Knight is attracted to the research team’s scientist Ronny, a little put off by the tough Russian ramrod Katya, and struggles to deal with the project’s gun-toting management. The artifact starts to look more dangerous as they continue to investigate. Is this a threat to human civilization?

On the positive side, this is a well-written adventure story with entertaining characters and a nice, rising action line that develops considerable suspense. There’s plenty of space in it for the character interactions and a few plot twists to keep the story interesting. It didn’t turn out like I was expecting at all. The maritime details are sketchy but generally believable. Waller also has an interesting take on AI bots, and I thought their behavior here was a little unsettling. Hmm. Following up on that could actually produce another interesting novel.

On the not so positive side, I had some suspension of disbelief issues with the activities of the aliens and the tolerance of the technology the research team used in the Trench. Yeah, in an emergency, I can see stretching things a little, but (as little as I know about ocean exploration) I think working at the Trench depth went a little beyond that and wouldn’t really be possible. Also, I thought some of the characterizations were a bit over-the-top, which detracted some from the story.

Entertaining but not er, deep. Three and a half stars.

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