Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Review: Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear

Cover of Ancestral Night
Title: Ancestral Night
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Series: White Space #1
Pages: 512
ISBN: 9781534403000
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Published: 5 March 2019
Genre: Science Fiction / Space Opera
Source: Library loan

Buy it from:
The Book Depository

Haimey Dz thinks she knows what she wants. She thinks she knows who she is. She is wrong.

A routine salvage mission uncovers evidence of a terrible crime and relics of powerful ancient technology. Haimey and her small crew run afoul of pirates at the outer limits of the Milky Way, and find themselves on the run and in possession of universe-changing information.

When authorities prove corrupt, Haimey realizes that she is the only one who can protect her galaxy-spanning civilization from the implications of this ancient technology—and the revolutionaries who want to use it for terror and war. Her quest will take her careening from the event horizon of the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s core to the infinite, empty spaces at its edge.

To save everything that matters, she will need to uncover the secrets of ancient intelligences lost to time—and her own lost secrets, which she will wish had remained hidden from her forever.

Ancestral Night had me captivated as soon as it mentioned an Alcubierre drive. Bear takes the use of Alcubierre drives, plays around with all the ramifications of their use, and takes that as the starting point to build an absolutely fascinating, thriving universe around. The White Space universe feels lived in, populated by both aliens and humans with their own distinct characteristics and governed by the Synarche, a multi-species governing body, founded on the principle of using resources for the greater good.

I loved the trio of salvagers, well most of them. Haimey has a wicked sense of humour and her interactions with Singer, the spaceship AI, provides for some hilarious snark. The third member, Connla, wasn’t all that interesting. He seemed almost too good to be true and the repeated descriptions of his physique became slightly grating. The introduction of the space pirate Zanya not only drives the conflict but also provides for a fascinating juxtaposition of beliefs. Her societal outlook differs vastly from Haimey’s and she ultimately acts as the catalysts which forces Haimey to confront the trauma of her past and to explore the various transformations she has gone through.

Bear explores the malleability of memory, the impact of trauma and the concept of identity in interesting ways. Some sections focusing on Haimey’s past could have been condensed slightly to prevent repetition and to make it feel less like a detour from the main storyline without compromising on the pacing.

There are moments that left me completely awestruck where I couldn’t quite believe the direction the story takes. Ancestral Night is a riveting space opera, filled with loads of adventure and an entertaining spin on the big dumb object trope. With homages to Iain M. Banks, fantastic use of the science behind Alcubierre drives and an absolutely compelling universe Ancestral Night was the hard sci-fi hit my brain craved. I definitely want to see where Bear takes us next. Highly recommended!

The Rating: 7.5/10 (Very Good)

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Review: Velocity Weapon by Megan E. O'Keefe

Title: Velocity Weapon
Author: Megan E. O'Keefe
Series: The Protectorate #1
Pages: 544
ISBN: 9780316419598
Publisher: Orbit
Published: 11 June 2019
Genre: Science Fiction / Space Opera
Source: Purchased

Buy it from:
The Book Depository

Sanda and Biran Greeve were siblings destined for greatness. A high-flying sergeant, Sanda has the skills to take down any enemy combatant. Biran is a savvy politician who aims to use his new political position to prevent conflict from escalating to total destruction.

However, on a routine maneuver, Sanda loses consciousness when her gunship is blown out of the sky. Instead of finding herself in friendly hands, she awakens 230 years later on a deserted enemy warship controlled by an AI who calls himself Bero. The war is lost. The star system is dead. Ada Prime and its rival Icarion have wiped each other from the universe.

Now, separated by time and space, Sanda and Biran must fight to put things right.

Velocity Weapon by Megan E. O’Keefe starts off the Protectorate series with a bang - an epic space opera featuring devastating weapons, a rogue AI, ruthless political machinations and a hint of an even deeper mystery at the core of everything. It’s one of those books where you can’t really say much about it without potentially spoiling things.

This is my first introduction to O’Keefe’s work and I really enjoyed her writing style. The worldbuilding is kept down to the essentials and slowly builds up into a captivating whole as you progress through the story and more of the elements slot into place.

The characters are compelling with three narrative strands being weaved together. The major story is told through the viewpoints of Sansa and her brother Biran as they try to navigate the conflict between Ada Prime and Icarion and find each other among the detritus of a battle fought on two different fronts. The third viewpoint character, Jules, provides a larger perspective at the darker underside of the world with hints of some major revelations to come.

Velocity Weapon excels at delivering exhilarating twists and turns which will keep you glued to the pages. I dare you not to fall in love with Grippy and Bero and I can’t wait to discover what adventures await. Recommended!

The Rating: 7/10 (Very Good)

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Should SFF Classics Be Required Reading?

There have been some recent Twitter discussions about whether classic SFF novels are important and if they should be required reading for someone who wants to get into speculative fiction. Does reading the classics make you a better fan? I have some thoughts on the importance of speculative fiction classics and a Twitter thread just wasn’t enough space…

Think of SFF as a house. You stumble upon this beautiful futuristic looking building, it looks interesting and at your approach the door slides open with a welcoming chime. You enter the building and discover limitless corridors lined with colourful doors. Each door leads to a different room and every room is furnished in their own unique way. Some offer dark delights, some have futuristic starscapes and others open onto magical landscapes. They are all there for you to explore to your heart’s content.

Where two corridors meet you find a plain wooden door with a tarnished plaque etched with one word - basement. Wooden stairs lead down into a dim interior illuminated with a single flickering light bulb. If you are interested you can go investigate down there and poke around the storage boxes, check the wiring and pipes and inspect the foundations. They are important, they hold things up, and they are the foundational base the structure rests on. But you are not required to go into the basement. You don’t need to delve through the dust and dirt. You can just run around the beautiful, airy rooms and discover the untold wonders they each hold. Without ever having set foot in the basement you can be perfectly content.

Inspired by what you see you can go on to add a second storey to the building. A story filled with wonders of your own making. Something a little shinier, more modern and perhaps even a little better than what came before. The basement will always be there. Once you are ready, when it calls to you and the time is right you can go explore that old basement too.

Among the dust and grime you’ll discover wonders tucked away in dark corners. You’ll find boxes filled with interesting things to examine and poke. Things that can fuel your sense of wonder, things to show just how far the world has come, things to give newfound context, to inspire and to be refurbished into something brand new. There will be things that still hold up well while others have crumbled away into moldy piles. But be warned to get to the treasures you are bound to have to wade through dusty cobwebs, face scary spiders and you might even uncover a skeleton or two…

With that overly long metaphor (which I’m kinda proud of) out of the way I think it boils down to the following. Do the classics matter? Yes and no. Having to read the classics should never have to be a requirement for entering SFF fandom. There shouldn’t be any gatekeepers with checklists quizzing newcomers about some obscure knowledge that signifies your bona fides as a ‘true fan’ . There are so many fantastic science fiction, fantasy and horror books being released each year that readers can be perfectly content without ever having to resort to reading the classics.

Does this mean the classics are obsolete? Definitely not. The classics are the foundations of the genre. While many classics are problematic when measured against modern norms they can offer useful historic context. Some classics have stood the test of time and still offer that same sense of wonder and cultural relevance as the day they were published. But there’s often a disconnect between modern readers and older material. Trying to force someone new to the genre to read something just because it is a classic and you HAVE to read it, is a surefire way to quickly douse any spark of curiosity they might have had.

A reader will know when they are ready to go explore the classics if they want to. There should never be a sense of obligation to read anything. Familiarity with the classics doesn’t make you a superior SFF fan. There aren’t any entry exams and you won’t be ranked on any leaderboards. Discover what you love. Read widely, read what makes you happy and most importantly have fun.


What do you think? Should the classics be required reading?

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Opening Lines: Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear

Some novels have the ability to draw you in from the start. A single line or paragraph can grab your attention in such a way that the novel just demands to be read. Opening Lines is a feature where I'll share some of the best opening lines that hooked me.

The boat didn't have a name. He wasn’t deemed significant enough to need a name by the authorities and registries that govern such things. He had a registration number—657-2929-04, Human/Terra—and he had a class, salvage tug, but he didn’t have a name.

Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear

A space salvager and her partner make the discovery of a lifetime that just might change the universe in this wild, big-ideas space opera from Hugo Award-winning author Elizabeth Bear. Halmey Dz and her partner Connla Kurucz are salvage operators, living just on the inside of the law...usually. Theirs is the perilous and marginal existence--with barely enough chance of striking it fantastically big--just once--to keep them coming back for more. They pilot their tiny ship into the scars left by unsuccessful White Transitions, searching for the relics of lost human and alien vessels. But when they make a shocking discovery about an alien species that has been long thought dead, it may be the thing that could tip the perilous peace mankind has found into full-out war.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Review: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Picture of the cover for A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
Title: A Memory Called Empire
Author: Arkady Martine
Pages: 461
ISBN: 9780529001594
Publisher: Tor
Published: 26 March 2019
Genre: Science Fiction
Source: Purchased

Buy it from:
The Book Depository

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn't an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.

Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan's unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.

In A Memory Called Empire, the first book in the Teixcalaan series, Arkady Martine presents a truly engrossing story about a galactic empire in decline. From afar the Teixcalaanli Empire appears to be a wondrous, pristine bastion of civilisation subsuming barbaric worlds in order to bestow the gift of civilisation to them all. Through the eyes of newly minted ambassador, Mahit Dzmare, we soon discover that the seemingly pristine facade is splattered with blood, rot and decay. While trying to uncover what happened to her predecessor Mahit has to navigate the political landscape of a culture she is just barely equipped to handle.

"But there was a point in knowing how the last person to hold all the knowledge you held had died, if only so that you could correct the mistake and keep your line alive a little longer, a little better. To stretch the continuity of memory just a bit farther, out on the edges of human space where it feathered away into the black." (p 135)

A Memory Called Empire is a remarkable, beautifully written novel exploring a myriad of themes — identity, colonialism, the persistence of memory, the power of language, the duplicity of words and how it shapes and builds society. It also examines the power of an individual, and of individual identity, and how that power can reshape the world even when pitted against the might of an entire empire.

This is a slower, intricate read which demands that you take your time to enjoy it to its fullest. It rewards the attentive reader with beautiful prose, nuanced worldbuilding and fascinating concepts to unpack and ponder. Without a doubt this has been one of the best novels I’ve read this year. My review is woefully inadequate to even try to do it justice. Highly recommended!

Addendum: A Memory Called Empire has just won the Hugo award for best novel so I'm not the only one who thinks it's great.

The Rating: 8/10 (Great!)