The Black Tides of Heaven, by Neon Yang

The author’s name has changed since initial publication, hence the different name on some hard copies and publicity images

The Black Tides of Heaven, by Neon Yang, left me feeling a little narratively unmoored.

I suspect that the biggest cause for that was my own fault: I put the book down about halfway through, and then took over a month to return to it and finish it. But that means that I’m writing this from an odd place. I’m not sure how much my perspective has been shaped by that prolonged delay, and I can only recommend that you take my review with a grain of salt or three. The book certainly seems to have worked better for other people than it did for me.

Part of my sense of being narratively adrift grew from the way in which the book is divided into sections, with each section separated from the last by a big temporal gap. Each section felt like an extended short story about that time period in our POV character’s life. But chaining those extended short stories together into one novel didn’t feel like it created the narrative cohesion I wanted.

In some ways, this is the opposite of the cool technique that Martha Wells used for her first four Murderbot novellas. Where Wells wrote a series of four stories that each gave a snapshot of emotional development and then kept them in separate novellas to let them stand on their own and build on each other, Yang has written those separate stories and put them all in one book. It didn’t work as well for me.

Writing is all about adding just enough to let your audience fill in the rest, without adding so much that they get tired of it. I think Yang went just a little too light for me. I could sketch out the narrative arc and tell you what the points of growth and resolution were, but it didn’t feel like there was quite as much connective tissue between the narrative dots as I would have liked.

Maybe, if I’d expected the book to consist of those discrete mini-stories beforehand, I’d have a different opinion of it now. Maybe, if I hadn’t put the book down halfway through, I’d feel like Yang cut out just the right amount of material. Instead, none of the smaller segments individually brought me the kind of narrative movement or growth that I wanted. And the individual segments didn’t quite gel together to make the larger whole feel quite right either.

But…

Maybe I’m still looking at this the wrong way. There are several other books out by Yang, all in the same series, at least one of which looks like it’s supposed to be semi-contemporaneous with or closely following this book. Perhaps those, in connection with this one, would give me the more complete perspective and narrative arc that I’m looking for. I’ll probably pick those up and read them just to find out. Maybe not right away.

Having said all that, I should add that The Black Tides of Heaven has solid child-parent struggles, a setting that feels refreshingly distinct from standard Western fantasy, and lots of good queer content. And it’s well-written! I feel bad complaining so much above when the fault may be my own. Whoops.

So, if any of those things sound interesting to you I suggest checking the book out. And I recommend reading it all in one go, or at least not stopping for over a month right in the middle. That was definitely a mistake on my part.

Exit Strategy, and more Murderbot from Martha Wells

Martha Wells does an excellent job of wrapping up her arc in Exit Strategy (Murderbot #4).

Her habit through the first four novellas of layering in emotional struggles alongside but separate from the underlying physical plot—separating the drivers of the physical and emotional plots in ways that are contrary to most current practice—works really well here. That separation allows her to write Murderbot as a proactive character, reaching for goals that it chooses for itself, without requiring Murderbot to be complicit in pushing its own emotional development. That’s important, because Wells has created a character with zero desire to engage in personal emotional content (despite its love of human media), which means that Murderbot starts the series uncooperative in pursuing any emotionally charged plot.

It’s a neat combination of a driven and reluctant protagonist, in one package.

Murderbot’s reluctance to engage in emotionally charged plot only makes the conflicts Wells builds towards in Exit Strategy even more satisfying. And because of all that, because of the character transformation that Wells laid out over the course of the first four Murderbot novellas, I cried as I neared the end of book four. It was that good.

Having now read the rest of the (currently available) series, I think Wells’ use of a multiple-novella arc was ingenious. I think those first four novellas together may even be stronger than the novel-length Murderbot story. This isn’t due to a lack on the novel’s part—rather, I think it’s an outgrowth of how the novellas serve Murderbot’s growth uniquely well.

Some thoughts on this…

Any time that a character needs to experience emotional growth and change, it helps to have your story cover a long enough time period for that change to feel real. It’s also useful to have there be multiple mutually reinforcing circumstances that coincide, over time, to produce the gradual shift. Both of those things are easier to do over the course of multiple novellas, where literary convention allows the story to wander across more spaces, times, and situations without the requirement of tying all the developments into a single cohesive unit of story. An obvious parallel: it’s the same freedom of expanded narrative space that allows a six hour miniseries to offer more character growth than a three hour movie. Spreading that character transformation out, especially when it’s a big and complicated one, gives the character’s growth space to breathe, expand, and feel less forced.

The usual alternative—the approach most similar to a movie’s, and the one favored by action and adventure stories since the 1800s at least—is to have the story produce a high-tension crucible of a climax, where all the preceding character development comes to the fore and shakes out like an earthquake of personal growth. That single big conflict has to encompass, even prove, all of the character’s transformation in the story. That means that if there are multiple points of change, they all need to be set up ahead of time. The groundwork is often elaborate, and a large degree of genre-savviness is simply learning to recognize those story preparations.

Storytelling is all artificial; it’s artifice working as hard as it can to look natural and real. And it’s harder to make something look real when you’re forcing it to go as fast as possible, with nary a moment to breathe. Giving a big character transformation more space therefore helps to smooth everything out and make a tumultuous period of transformation look right.

That’s what Martha Wells does with her first four novellas.

I think her novel length piece, Network Effect, is still good. I enjoyed it a lot, and happily recommend it to anyone who likes the Murderbot series. But it doesn’t do all the same work that the first four novellas do. In some ways, the important emotional journeys of Network Effect belong to people besides Murderbot… and they aren’t as resonant or rewarding for me as the arc Murderbot completed in Exit Strategy.

They’re still good though.

But now I’ve run out of new Murderbot to read, and I’m at a bit of a loss. My next few library books aren’t ready yet. And once I have them I don’t expect them to be as good, or as good in the same ways, as Murderbot.

I’m really looking forward to whatever Martha Wells writes next. I hope it’s more Murderbot, but I’m excited for whatever it is.

Blade Singer, by Aaron de Orive and Martha Wells

This isn’t Murderbot.

It’s really not fair to compare the two. But because I found this book by looking for other things involving Martha Wells—that felt like Murderbot—I’m afraid it’s doomed to comparison. This was the available book, with Martha Wells’ name attached. It wasn’t what I was looking for.

I did finish it.

Blade Singer isn’t Murderbot. It’s straightforward portal fiction, with a powerful fey three musketeers vibe. All genres I like. Clearly intended for that awkward threshold between middle grade and young adult, where the plot is very middle grade but the writing is a tad more complex, Blade Singer has a mix of genres (and a target audience marketing category) that I have strong opinions about.

Honestly, this book is fine. I enjoyed it. My quibbles with it are perhaps unreasonable.

Leaving aside my desire for more Murderbot, I think this is actually a solid book to give to a younger reader who enjoys fantasy, fey and faeries, swashbuckling and musketeers, or portal fiction. And it’s a solid choice for any younger reader who might like those things and hasn’t gotten deep into books yet. It isn’t as immediately accessible as other simpler reads (it’s no Warrior Cats), but it’s not especially difficult either. On that front, it lands the upper middle grade rating pretty solidly.

However… as someone who’s quite familiar with (and enjoys) all the genres involved, this book also doesn’t offer any big surprises or new takes. It isn’t transforming the genres, or at least not in a way that offers a story more complex and nuanced and to my taste. It doesn’t succeed where other ostensibly-for-children fiction has thrived, with the depth required for cross age-market appeal (think She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, most Pixar movies, or Nnedi Okorafor’s middle grade work like Akata Witch or Shadow Speaker).

Blade Singer’s stumbling blocks for me, I think, were its moral and emotional plots. They were present, all the requisite structure was there, but they felt almost bland. Like I could see the action on the page, and I knew how it would or should play out, but I never felt pulled into it, into feeling it. And I know this book could have done that. All the puzzle pieces were there.

Part of that could have been the close over-the-shoulder third person narration, but I know other close third stories have succeeded for me where this book didn’t. And while adding more filigrees to the moral and emotional plots might have helped make them less straightforward, I don’t think that would have solved the issue for me—I don’t feel pulled in just because something’s complex, I enjoy something being complex when I’ve already been pulled in. I think it came down to something about the characterization, and the fact that I simply bounced off of fully connecting with the narrator, Manny.

Your mileage may vary.

But that emotional bounce, and having a solid physical plot while struggling with the emotional and moral plot, reminds me of my own experience first writing fiction. With most of my preceding storytelling experience coming from running RPGs, I struggled to make stories with emotional connection or character depth. I’ve written about all that on this blog before.

And maybe I’m reading too closely here, but I think Aaron de Orive had a similar starting point (both in terms of games and the fiction he consumed). He’s involved in writing for RPGs and video games, and the authors he mentions on his personal site aren’t known for their excellent depictions of relatable complex emotional people, not like the modern authors I’d compare them to. Many are the same authors I read as a kid.

For me at least, writing linear fiction was a puzzle that I didn’t even realize I wasn’t solving. Most adventure fiction I’d read as a kid didn’t have much emotional depth or nuance. And while I knew how to elicit reactions from my players, that was all about setting up the stage with the right plot pieces and then letting them complete all the robust internal character struggle in their own heads. I didn’t know how to show that on the page. Sometimes, I still don’t.

But I wanted Aaron de Orive (and Martha Wells, she’s credited as a co-author even though this doesn’t feel anything like her other work I’ve read so far) to yank on my heartstrings. I wanted these authors to reel me in deep and leave me really feeling the joys and sorrows of the characters involved. That didn’t happen. And I didn’t feel attached enough (as I did with Murderbot) to complete the loop myself.

But as I said above, my quibbles are probably unreasonable. Blade Singer has more emotional depth than those adventure stories I read as a kid. It’s not a bad book! It’s perfectly fine, and I do recommend it to anyone who likes the relevant genres. And, to really enjoy it, I think you’re best off reading it as a kid who doesn’t have as much experience with these stories.

All Systems Red & Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells

I love Murderbot.

I’m late to the game, I know. But if there’s any upside, it’s that there are already a bunch of Murderbot stories for me to read. I don’t have to wait for them to be written and published.

The downside, of course, is that I’m reading them through the library and other people are being slow and I just want more Murderbot now please and thank you. This enforced wait is especially jarring given that I got my hands on the first two on the same day, blazed through them both, and now have to wait for the rest of the series to be free (in order, no less).

Why do I love Murderbot? Probably for many of the same reasons that other people do. Martha Wells has done an excellent job forging a voice for this character, dry, wry, and full of sardonic wit. And Murderbot is not an especially reliable narrator, even if it may think of itself as one; while it does generally admit to its emotional experience eventually, it spends a good deal of effort trying not to. Plus, while it so clearly wants to think of itself as not-a-person, Murderbot’s internal monologue is extremely easy to sympathize with—which makes it feel even more person-like, even while it protests that it is not a person.

The inversion of expectation is another part of what I love so much about Murderbot. Who’d think a security cyborg would want to spend all its time watching soap operas, listening to music, or binging its way through trashy fiction? The fact that Murderbot simply wants to be left alone, not be looked at or spoken to, not be asked to do anything, and simply be allowed to indulge itself in stories… it’s delightful. It’s relatable. To my reading, Murderbot is anxious and depressed and just wants some peace and quiet. But it’s (of course) Murderbot’s inability to get the peace and quiet it desires that makes this all work so well.

I have mixed feelings about reluctant protagonists, mostly because of how our collective love of them in media shapes the way many people make their characters for RPGs. Players’ desire to make their characters match that popular reluctant archetype often plays out to their and their play group’s disservice, in my experience. But when a narrative is so wonderfully fit around that reluctance (much easier to manage in a linear narrative, of course)… well. It’s hard to match that narrative tension, and the struggles of someone with so relatable a set of goals and desires, faced with extraordinary circumstances, only make it better.

This character is very good. The story is very good. Martha Wells has done wonderful things here.

I owe my mom for this next observation, given that she made it while I was telling her about the book.

In some ways, Murderbot is reminiscent of Ferdinand the Bull (one of my favorite childhood characters and books). 

Murderbot is seen by everyone else as an object, and an object of fear, violence, and suspicion at that. But much like Ferdinand, it only wants to spend its time quietly, peacefully, not bothering anyone and not being bothered.

Unlike Ferdinand, Murderbot struggles to see itself as anything but an object—finds its own object-hood safer, maybe more comfortable, than thinking of itself as a person—and works to avoid any confrontation that might jostle the status quo. Better to remain in the limbo that you know, be it ever so depressing, confining, and uncomfortable, than to risk seeking something better. Though in Murderbot’s case the risk involved is quite literally obliteration, so maybe the caution is warranted.

Extremely vague *SPOILERS* follow.

I’m also fascinated by the shift from the first story to the second. Where the first felt like a more whole story, something that contained a more complete and satisfying emotional & character arc, the second story felt like an installment, another step along a longer path. The second also had elements that left me thinking of the differences between what a character *thinks* will be important—as well as what the longer term plot demands as another step along their path—and what is actually most transformative for them.

The Witness for the Dead might be a good example for disambiguating this: there are a lot of mostly-unrelated side plots, and only one or two of them tie back into the central intrigue of the story. Katherine Addison could have cut those side plots, or rewritten and collapsed them into the central plot somehow, but the first option would have left the story feeling sparse and the main character’s emotional journey unsupported… while the second would have felt too contrived, unreal. We put up with the second (those contrived, perfectly neat stories) in our fiction all the time, because we’ve been trained as readers to expect the elements of a story to all tie in together in the end, but that’s rarely very true as a depiction of real life—and allowing for divergence in those plot lines is both freeing and lets the author give more space to the rest of the world beyond the immediate plot of the story.

So in The Witness for the Dead our narrator pursues a series of different investigations and jobs, only some of which tie into his primary task. And while he’s trying to resolve one central investigation, it’s his struggles with the other ones—which have little bearing on the first—that inform his emotional growth and development. His initial concern is less important to his personal realizations.

All Systems Red meshes these struggles. All the plot conflicts, Murderbot’s personal emotional conflict and its external physical plot conflict, are wound together into one thread. There’s no real divergence, the whole thing is extremely neat.

But Artificial Condition makes space for divergence by containing parallel plot lines that feed into each other while remaining separate. Murderbot’s biggest emotional and personal growth comes from the plot line, the conflict, that it is less initially invested in. Thus Murderbot thinks that one course of action, one set of objectives, is the important one… only to find out that the other holds at least as much importance to it, that the way it is treated by humans matters far more to it than it had ever realized or accounted for before. This means that Artificial Condition changes the way the story had approached its combination of character development and physical plot in All Systems Red, and that’s at the core of why this sequel feels notably distinct from the first story.

*END SPOILERS*

Anyway.

I’m loving the Murderbot Diaries. I recommend them completely. They’re very good.