Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, by Carlos Hernandez

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, by Carlos Hernandez, gave me warm fuzzies.

It walks the tightrope of middle grade fiction with flair, firmly accessible without condescending to the reader. It’s kind, it feels honest, it’s the kind of book that I’ll recommend to anyone (provided they don’t mind reading about kids in middle school). It’s a really solid book that deserves to be enjoyed by more people—and that more people deserve to enjoy.

There’s a couple things I think the story does really well, and I think I can cover them without spoilers.

I’m very aware that fiction is a facade. And I know that making it look and feel like something deeper, giving readers enough to cling to and build on to believe that the characters are full people, is a lot of work. Doing that for one or two characters is difficult enough. Sketching out the other nearby characters such that they also feel deep and don’t detract from the piece as a whole is beautiful.

Carlos Hernandez makes this story beautiful.

The kids who are our main characters all feel deep, human. And we see enough sides of them to believe that they are living, breathing, feeling people. This means the book never treats any of the kids in it as unknowable or other or villainous; even when characters don’t like each other, they’re still given the author’s empathy. It’s wonderful seeing a book put so much effort into humanizing its characters, and refusing to take the easy shortcut of using them like little cardboard cutouts.

And the adults nearby feel real too, in the slightly hazy seen-through-the-eyes-of-a-child way. They don’t get as much time as the kids (and that’s appropriate) but they round out the cast and give the impressionistic daubs of background color that evoke life without pulling the reader’s focus away from the main show. It’s a well written book. 

It’s also written differently than I would expect for MG science fiction. It’s far more slice-of-life than adventure, more about the smaller puzzles and dilemmas faced by the protagonists than about large scale adventures or quests. This isn’t bad, but it might surprise people who came looking for tense adventure. And it means that, if you don’t become emotionally attached, you might not feel compelled to see the emotional plots through.

That’s in part because the physical plot is several disparate chunks, woven together to create the overall emotional and personal arcs for our narrator Sal. This didn’t bother me (it’s a good book!) but I think it may have contributed to my distraction about halfway through, when I wandered away from the book for a few days. I wanted to continue the story, but I didn’t feel like it had grabbed me by the nose and was dragging me onwards.

When I describe it like that, I’m not sure why I like that experience in the first place. But I do like that in my adventure stories. And that’s not really what this story is about or what it feels like. Instead, Sal and Gabi Break the Universe is touching and sweet and well-crafted, and it does an excellent job of building personal investment to keep its audience hooked.

I think this works partly because Carlos Hernandez has done an incredible job of “frictionless writing,” making a story that just slides you along without any feeling of resistance or struggle. The story isn’t dragging you with it—you’re gliding, and it feels effortless. This might have been aided by my familiarity with Spanish, which shows up sans translation several times, but I also think Hernandez does an excellent job of working code-switching between languages into the book with a minimum of confusion. Oh, and despite obviously being the first of two books, this book ends in a way that feels good and self-contained.

Basically, it’s good. It’s well written. I recommend it. I have the sequel on hold at the library, and am looking forward to reading it as soon as I get my hands on it.

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A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers’ work, as I think I’ve written about before here, feels like a different kind of science fiction (and indeed genre fiction) than the stuff that I grew up reading as a kid. Her work is… emotionally textured, small in physical-plot scale, entirely about the characters in the story and their emotional journeys rather than about the big dramatic large-scale events which might be happening around them.

Her stories are about people before they’re about events. Sometimes big things happen, yes, but it’s the characters and their emotional lives that get our focus.

And this story, A Psalm for the Wild-Built (is it a novella? It’s certainly brief) feels even more character focused than the other books of hers I’ve read (the Wayfarer series).

That’s not a weakness.

I mean, none of this is a weakness, it’s what she does so well. It’s what sets her apart from so much other genre fiction (so much other fiction, period). I love this aspect of her work. What I mean to say is… the fact that this story feels even more character focused than her other books is a strength. It’s a delight.

The story is meditative, it’s charming, it’s sweet. It’s not without a hint of bitterness and sadness. But only enough to feel honest, only the amount that leaves me thinking “yes, this is precisely the way that would feel, this is just right as a representation of this very human emotional experience.” I often feel that way about things that Becky Chambers has written. Her skill at finding the emotional heart of an experience, and then expressing it in a way that resonates and sings, is one of the things I love about her work.

And that, no doubt, is why I love this story.

Well, it’s part of why I love the story.

There’s another large part, which is unique to me and a few of my friends; we’ve been playing a game of D&D for the past several years (yikes, we might be coming up on seven years at this point) and in many ways this entire book feels like the core of my (robot-plant) character. Reading a story that feels like it fully understands my character’s slightly-askew perspective on life—right down to the questions about purpose and… everything, really—is a joy. I feel like I’ve briefly shared brainspace with Becky Chambers herself. It’s fun, and it’s flattering: a writer I deeply respect reached similar thoughts when exploring this character’s emotional and psychological interior.

And all of this has left me wondering: where are the feeder-stories, the tributaries that lead new genre readers (or readers who love other parts of the genre) to this book? Is it happenstance? Does it rely on word of mouth?

I would not have found her work if I’d kept reading the adventure stories of my youth. I had read so many different high-plot high-action genre stories, with lots of exciting action going on and significantly less time given over to emotional depth. Had I continued reading “similar works” I suspect that I would never have picked up The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. In fact, I only read Chambers because a friend suggested that first Wayfarer book to me.

I hadn’t known that Becky Chambers’ stories were something I would love.

Anyways.

This is a good book. I recommend it, especially if you already know you like Chambers’ stories. If you haven’t tried her work before, this might be a little slow as an introduction (even if it is also quite short). But if you want good gentle science fiction all about very human emotions and philosophical struggles, this is a great piece for you.

Oh, yeah, this story also leaves me feeling better about the world, humanity, and myself. Other reviewers have called it optimistic, I’d call it heartening. It’s really very good in that way.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

TheLongWaytoaSmallAngryPlanet

This book is a delight.

This is one of the most character-focused small-scale stories I’ve read in a while; it feels both literary and feminist in that way, delving into personal moments and paying attention to humanizing (“personizing”? Several characters are aliens after all) every character. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet has emotional depth that was often lacking in the science fiction I read growing up, and delivers the wanderlust and quiet tension of venturing between the stars. I love it for that.

This book is a series of well-crafted vignettes that build upon each other time and again. Subsequent layers add depth and import, making the journey of the ship and its crew as much an emotional one as a physical one. I know I’ve just described how most novels should work, but something about this story made me hyper-aware of that fact in a very good way. Let me try to explain.

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