Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

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Layers. Layers on layers on layers, ploys on top of ploys, backstabbing all the way down. And somewhere, sandwiched between all those knives, a few people trying to make a tyrannical empire a better place despite itself.

Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series (of which I’ve read the first two books) feels like a reimagining of the fundamental critiques of Warhammer 40k—but instead of trapping his work beneath cynical satire and Poe’s Law, Yoon Ha Lee renders his critiques of empire transparently and with heart.

Ninefox Gambit is a new presentation of classic sci-fi military fiction, discarding the traditional fetish for the tools of war and replacing it with an exploration of the human cost of imposing and maintaining empire… and of resisting and rectifying it. It does this all with a setting in which the violent and malignant imposition of hegemony is part and parcel of the exotic technological base necessary for interstellar civilization, and in which heretical practice literally erodes the power and capabilities of the empire’s technologies; mathematical and spatial relations, punctuated by suffering and pain, form the bedrock of calendrical technology, and the embrace of this calendrical tech-base has trapped the Hexarchate in a never-ending cycle of violence and subjugation.

With the Hexarchate’s rulers a group of professionally inhumane paranoiacs, determined to retain their power and uphold the stability of their realm with no care for the cost in lives, it takes a very special kind of heretic to oppose them.

If you like science fiction, or military fiction, or anti-imperial explorations in uncomfortably familiar alien settings, this book is for you. If you want your books to explain everything to you and never leave you piecing together elements of a setting or story… I might suggest something else.

Also, if you’ve traditionally avoided sci-fi mil-fic because it’s one long paean to unquestioning support of cis-het male hegemony, don’t worry. This series radically normalizes queered gender and sexuality. I really appreciated that.

In case you couldn’t guess, I think this book (and series) is great. I don’t want to say more, because I want you to experience it for yourself. I strongly recommend Ninefox Gambit.

If you like this book, I’d also recommend Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant.

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Light Years, by Kass Morgan

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Light Years is a fine book, nestled deep in the readily-identifiable heart of its genre. It never Continue reading

Ignite the Stars, by Maura Milan

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I struggled my way into this book. Not because the characters or setting didn’t compel me, but because the writing clashed with my expectations. The language of the text did not reliably flow for me, and several early conversations felt stilted or unnatural. It was jarring and distracting where I wanted it to submerge me completely.

But I persevered, and I’m glad that I did. It was the characters, the setting, and their underlying tensions that kept me going. Though it’s clear from my early jarring experience that Maura Milan and I don’t communicate on the same wavelength, her story is marvelous. I happily finished Ignite The Stars, and by the end I felt none of the disjointed language I’d experienced earlier.

Now, I haven’t re-read the start. I don’t know whether there’s simply one piece of the text that is written differently, or whether I became used to Milan’s writing and stopped noticing what had been difficult for me earlier. Other books I’ve read (like Graydon Saunders’ Commonweal series) are certainly an acquired taste that take a great deal of work to access and appreciate—and while I know that about them, I’ve lost track of how hard I worked to access them the first time. It’s not clear to me whether I’ve lost track of my difficulty accessing this book as well.

Regardless, I admire what Milan has made here. Few YA sci fi books I’ve read recently do as good a job of incorporating stories of oppression, hate, and exclusion, let alone deal with the consequences of hegemonic expansion or intolerance against refugees and ethnic groups. When they do incorporate these elements, they rarely feel as honest as this—like they’ve been tacked on to add some socially conscious edge to a story, instead of existing as part and parcel of this story’s world. Milan has done the second.

Moreover, she’s done the second while making a good story. Yes, there are some very specific genre story beats that you’ll see coming. If you’re already familiar with the particular tropes, you won’t be surprised (no I won’t spoil them). But Milan has made something that feeds all my genre expectations while still incorporating everything I mentioned above, and I admire it a great deal.

Honestly, I hope that I could do half as good a job as she does.

So yes, I recommend this book. That goes double if you want YA sci fi with a school plot and light romance elements. If you have language trouble early on, stick with it—there’s good story worth reading on the far side.

Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi

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I like the one on the left more.

I’m a sucker for a good cyclical story, for plot elements interwoven early and revisited at the climax. That’s part of my love for Die Hard and Hot Fuzz. This book is neither of those movies, but it does many of the same structural things.

My feelings for Ship Breaker are slow and warm, less the quick shine of delight than the steady glow of admiration. I enjoyed it a great deal, but I was particularly impressed by the way in which Paolo Bacigalupi built up the feel of coming full circle, and filled it with excellent foreshadowing as he established the struggles to be faced. I also appreciated the book’s explorations of family, loyalty, and love, how they felt etched deep in the text, part of the world that seeped out through every pore. Despite their omnipresence, I never felt as though the book was beating me over the head with its themes; I even ignored them for a while simply because of how completely they merged with the characters and text. Like a shot from a skilled pediatrician—medicine delivered amidst pleasant distraction—they were slipped into the rest of a seamless whole, the needle unnoticed until it was gone. Not perfectly slick, but very well done.

This book is easy to read as a hero’s journey, but Bacigalupi avoids the wish-fulfillment capability-fantasy that periodically crops up in genre stories. People struggle and strive through difficulty and danger, people learn and grow, but they never feel superhuman; the main character’s most fantastical accomplishment is quickly learning to read. This preserves a rough and prosaic taste that grounds everything, making the moments of higher tension even more piquant in contrast. It’s something I like a great deal.

I haven’t even addressed the setting or characters, the way Bacigalupi enmeshes the reader in the world without explaining anything, without needing to explain anything. It’s another thing I admire and aim for in my own stories, and I want you to discover it for yourself if you haven’t already. I wasn’t surprised to see Tobias Buckell thanked in the afterword, and if you like Ship Breaker or its ilk I’d strongly recommend Buckell’s Arctic Rising and Hurricane Fever.

Cosmic, by Frank Cottrell Boyce

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This is not the kind of book that I read when I was a kid. It’s not quite the kind of book that I prefer to read right now. Despite that, I enjoyed it.

In terms of age range, Cosmic is definitely middle grade. I can see why it is called sci fi, but I think that classification is misleading when compared with other middle grade science fiction. With an allowance made for several advancements beyond current technology, this story is fundamentally about our own world—and the few pieces of advanced technology that are present don’t change that.

The writing honestly made me uncomfortable, and didn’t pull me in right away; the story moves slowly, and from the beginning I felt a looming sense of dread due to the effective foreshadowing. I wonder whether readers of the intended age would feel differently. Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, for example, is famously fun for kids and terrifying for adults… perhaps Cosmic is similar?

I don’t mean to say that the book is bad: it’s actually quite good, once you get into it. But it’s slow and meditative, and it took a while to grow on me. Also, when it did finally grow on me, I felt like I was appreciating it very specifically as an adult; that’s quite distinct from how I’ve felt about some other good middle grade sci fi I’ve read recently. Perhaps a reader less invested in the adventure fiction that I loved as a kid would be more interested in Cosmic. Or maybe I’m just not the right kind of kid inside to really enjoy this book.

If you want a meditation on growing up, the arbitrariness of childhood and adulthood, feelings of connection and responsibility, and maybe just a little bit of space, Cosmic is a good book for you. If you want something fast paced and snappy, I suggest you look elsewhere.

Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

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I’ve been reading a lot of Young Adult and Middle Grade sci fi over the past few months. A good deal of it has been a grind, predictable material that didn’t excite me but which I knew I had to finish for due diligence. Not so with Illuminae. This is a book I inhaled. It was fun, tense, well-paced, and knew how and when to stab me in the feels.

If you like sci fi, action/thriller stories, and dramatic feels I strongly recommend it. This is solid YA sci fi.

I also strongly recommend reading it in hard copy. I don’t know whether an ebook would deliver the experimental (and effective) layout and formatting, and I’m certain that an audiobook would lose a lot of the value. It’s like Code Name Verity in that way. There are layers of paratextual content that would disappear without the physical book in front of you, and the design itself is worth appreciating.

Though the book is thick, it isn’t dense. The designers’ formatting and layout choices make excellent use of space and spatial alignment to convey the book’s underlying pretext, as the whole piece is found-text: transcripts of chat logs, audio files, video records, and more. There are a few places where the layout and design get even weirder, and most of those spots worked extremely well for me. I won’t spoil them.

Speaking of spoilers, I have some appreciative thoughts which don’t ruin anything but which might be considered *spoiler-ish* by the sensitive. There was a moment a ways in when I realized that there was no guarantee that things would turn out “well” for the primary subjects of the story. I returned to the first pages, re-read the contextualizing introduction, and confirmed my fears. I read on, heart firmly in throat. I was very impressed. I deeply appreciate any book that manages to make such good use of its underlying context to pull the legs out from under the audience, and Illuminae managed that skillfully. *End spoiler-ish*

I don’t think I need to say any more, honestly. Check out the book. If you like the first page, sit back, read on, and enjoy.

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

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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.

Continue reading

Overlord

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Overlord is a pulpy, terrifying thrill ride of a B-movie. It feels like an over-the-top World War 2 Delta Green scenario, and an homage to a genre I learned to love through John Carpenter’s films. Having read more about the movie, and learned more about the practical effects used, I’m even more impressed.

As a B-movie it’s quite good, though it rang a bit hollow for me. I think there might have been a little more to the character development arc for Jovan Adepo’s Boyce that didn’t survive to the theatrical cut I saw, and I would have loved to see that. But it’s probably okay: high tension Nazi-killing historical science fiction B-movies aren’t best known for their character development.

I initially wasn’t sure whether to feel happy or miffed about the movie’s portrayal of the 101st Airborne as an integrated force when it was not. Here’s Wikipedia’s article on racial segregation in the US armed forces.

The happy side has won. It’s very easy to explain.

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Arisia 2017!

I don’t have anything elaborate for you today. I’m going to be a panelist (and a moderator) at Arisia, starting this evening, and that’s keeping me busy.

If you’re there and want to see me, check out these panels:

  • Poor, Unfortunate Souls – Villainous Perspective (Fri., 8:30pm)
  • Heard the Dice Hit the Table – Games as Fiction (Sat., 11:30am)
  • The Stories People Play (Sat., 2:30pm)
  • Shame on Slut-Shaming (Sat., 5:30pm)
  • Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make Fantasy (Sun., 10:00am)
  • Bleed: Emotion in Roleplay and LARP (Mon., 10:00am)

I hope you have a good weekend!

The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex

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This book is a quiet piece of genius. It’s hilarious, and far deeper than I had expected it to be. And somehow it delivers on its premise without beating you over the head, even as it makes its commentary abundantly obvious to anyone who’s willing to pay attention. I think I’d be hard pressed to find a middle grade adventure novel that I liked more.

I wouldn’t say it’s the best, because I don’t like committing myself to statements like that, but you’d damn well better do yourself the favor of reading this book.