Review: The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

41910151._sy475_Verdict: Great world, mediocre writing.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Published by Orbit, February 6th 2020

Find it on Goodreads.

I’m Fetch Phillips, just like it says on the window. There are a few things you should know before you hire me:
1. Sobriety costs extra.
2. My services are confidential – the cops can never make me talk.
3. I don’t work for humans.

It’s nothing personal – I’m human myself. But after what happened, Humans don’t need my help. Not like every other creature who had the magic ripped out of them when the Coda came…
I just want one real case. One chance to do something good.
Because it’s my fault the magic is never coming back.

The Last Smile in Sunder City is a brilliantly voiced fantasy for fans of Ben Aaronovitch, Rotherweird or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and the debut novel from actor Luke Arnold – known for his lead role in Black Sails!

I should have loved this. The world Luke Arnold created here (post-magic, well-thought-out, imaginative) is absolutely brilliant. I adore stories that deal with the fall-out of an event that fundamentally alters the laws of the physical world (see N. K. Jemisin’s books and Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Divine Cities trilogy for excellent examples) and this book does this incredibly – on a world-building level. I got the impression that Arnold’s imagination is endless and the way in which he thought out how this sudden disappearence of magic would influence different magical races worked really well for me. I also really like mysteries set in an urban fantasy kind of epic fantasy world. Sunder City is a brilliantly done fantasy city, with flavours of a darker Ankh-Morpork. But there were two big kinds of problems I had with this book – one that I think is a problem with the book itself and one which I have to admit has more to do with my own reading tastes.

First for the more “objective” criticism I had: I found the writing clumsy. This showed itself mostly in a pacing that was, frankly, abysmal. The story moved in fits and bursts to suddenly coming to an absolute standstill, with the backstory and the world-building integrated in heavy, heavy info-dumps. While it did not bother me as much as it could have if the word hadn’t been as fascinating, it led to the book feeling much longer than it actually was. The writing is also clumsy on a sentence-by-sentence level and filled with odd descriptions that took me out of my reading flow (examples: “My boots sucked up mud like hungry dogs in a pit of peanut-butter…”, “Thick smoke tunneled through my nose like an escaped prisoner…” or my personal favourite “The future of […] looked darker than a blackbird’s shadow at midnight”).

But ultimately my main issue with this book came down to the main character: Fetch Philipps is everything that annoys me with male protagonists in noir type stories. He is a guilt-ridden, alcoholic, direction-less, and unpleasant private investigator who is not snarky or intelligent enough to be interesting. He is also weirdly indistinct as a main character – he reads super young in the flashbacks and middle aged in present time, he reacts more to what is going on than being a more active player, his motivations are deeply selfish until they suddenly aren’t, and his narration never became a distinct voice for me (and additionally, I found it fairly male gaze-y). I admit that this has a lot more to do with my own reading tastes but he really did rub me the wrong way. He is also, and this is a petty issue, disgusting – there were a few scenes where he behaves in a weirdly disgusting way in order to intimidate (?) people (like when he downs the drink the bartender he is questioning spit in or when he drinks from an open bottle although other people informed him there were flies swimming in there).

Content warning: trauma, loss of a loved one, alcoholism, substance abuse

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Quotes are taken from an advanced copy and are subject to change.

 

 

Review: Rosewater by Tade Thompson

38362809Verdict: Strange, hard work, really really cool.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Science Fiction

Published by Little, Brown Book Group UK / Orbit

Find it on Goodreads.

Rosewater is a town on the edge. A community formed around the edges of a mysterious alien biodome, its residents comprise the hopeful, the hungry and the helpless—people eager for a glimpse inside the dome or a taste of its rumored healing powers.

Kaaro is a government agent with a criminal past. He has seen inside the biodome, and doesn’t care to again—but when something begins killing off others like himself, Kaaro must defy his masters to search for an answer, facing his dark history and coming to a realization about a horrifying future.

I am really unsure about my feelings for this one, except for this: it is pretty damn cool. And I cannot wait to see where Tade Thompson takes this story next.

Rosewater is a town in future Nigeria, built around an alien biodome which opens once a year to heal everybody in the vicinity of the opening. Since the aliens have landed, some people have started developing powers. One of those superpowered individuals, and possibly the strongest, is Kaaro, the main character of this brilliant novel. We follow Kaaro’s story, unchronologically and confusingly. I actually had to start the book over because I tend to not read chapter headings and had not realized that the book is set in different timelines.

Tade Thompson does not make it easy for the reader to follow the story – every timeline is told in present tense, even when Kaaro remembers doing something. There is a in-story reason for this stylistic choice (my favourite kind of stylistic choices are informed by the narrative, so I adored this) but this doesn’t make it any less confusing. The reader is along for the ride and either figures stuff out on their own or they don’t. For me, that worked really well – I like when authors trust their audience this way. And while I am still not completely certain to have grasped everything, what I understood of the story was quite brilliant.

I really liked how the framing of the story from Kaaro’s perspective colours the book – especially because he is not a particularly great person which only becomes obvious after a while. He does not feel the need to be a good person or to save the world or to do anything really, and as such he makes for a very interesting protagonist. The way other characters react to him shows more of his personality than his own narration  – which I just found so cool.

So yes, I thought that this was a lot of work but I found it very rewarding in the end. I enjoy Science Fiction that feels different and books told in interesting perspectives, so this was always going to work for me.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Little, Brown Book Group UK in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

28962996Verdict: Brilliant premise, clumsy execution.

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Date read: April 20th, 2018

Published by Orbit, 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

A space adventure set on a lone ship where the clones of a murdered crew must find their murderer — before they kill again.

It was not common to awaken in a cloning vat streaked with drying blood.

At least, Maria Arena had never experienced it. She had no memory of how she died. That was also new; before, when she had awakened as a new clone, her first memory was of how she died.
Maria’s vat was in the front of six vats, each one holding the clone of a crew member of the starship Dormire, each clone waiting for its previous incarnation to die so it could awaken. And Maria wasn’t the only one to die recently…

I have complicated feelings on this and as is customary in such cases here are my thoughts, first in listform and then more elaborated (it feels like I haven’t done one of those reviews recently).

Pros:

  • That premise.
  • The plot.
  • The world.

Cons:

  • The characters.
  • The narration.

I adore the premise of this: six clones who are crewing a spaceship filled to the brim with cryo-sleeping humans all wake up newly cloned with no memory of the last 26 years and a broken AI and have to figure out who killed them all and what is going on and why the space ship is turned around. I do love a good closed room mystery and the added sci-fi twist was wonderfully done. I found the plot exciting and the worldbuilding mostly wonderful. I loved the way this book created very specific rules and laws and stuck to them. I have many thoughts on the ethics of the technology described.

I was also never bored with this book and mostly sped through it (and I have been having the worst reading month). I found it in places funny and in others heartbreaking.

But. And this is a big but. The characters are dreadfully realized in such a way that for a good chunk of the book I thought this must surely be intentional (I had a whole elaborate theory that is kind of spoilery – especially because it turns out the opposite was true). It doesn’t seem to have been intentional though. Wolfgang in particular did not in the slightest resemble any human being I have ever met – and yes I understand why his backstory might give reasons for that, but it didn’t work for me. There is also a part fairly early on where Wolfgang challenges another clone to some sort of macho test of physical prowess, while they are starving and a murderer is among them. Which is weird in and of itself – but then the medical doctor on board has a thought along the lines of “knowing what she did about testosterone this seems to be normal behaviour” … and I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t think that is normal behaviour.

The narration also did not work for me. We jump between the characters by way of a semi-omniscient narrator but still the information needed is hidden from the reader in a way that did not feel natural and got annoying pretty fast. I think I would have prefered to have stuck with one of the clones, Maria preferably, because she is by far the most interesting character and I think it would have worked a lot better for the story progression.

But, I did enjoy this a whole lot. It was just what I needed to get out of my reading funk and it kept me glued to the page, eagerly trying to find out what was going on. I thought the way the story was structured and the backstories integrated was wonderful. And the world IS brilliant.

Review: Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse #1) – James S.A. Corey

8855321Verdict: I have mixed feelings.

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Published by Orbit, 2011

Genre: Science Fiction

Find it on Goodreads.

James S.A. Corey delivers compelling SF that ranks with the best in the field. In Leviathan Wakes, ice miner Jim Holden is making a haul from the rings of Saturn when he and his crew encounter an abandoned ship, the Scopuli. Uncovering a terrifying secret, Jim bears the weight of impending catastrophe. At the same time, a detective has been hired by well-heeled parents to find a missing girl, and the investigator’s search leads him right to the Scopuli.

This was so far outside my comfort zone that I am not all that sure how to review the book. I did enjoy it (for the most part) and I am planning on continuing with the series but I had some issues with parts of it.

This is relatively hard science fiction compared to some other books in the genre I have read and I have to admit that some of the rather drawn-out descriptions of life in the Belt and of galactic war did make my eyes glaze over. I am not very good at visualising fighting scenes; and man, are there quite a few of those. I did, however, love the world building a whole lot. I loved the differences (subtle and not so subtle) between people born on planets and those born in space), I loved the way the societies evolving made so much sense, I love how central conflicts were based on different life-expiriences.

I thought the book had some pacing issues; the beginning being slow did not bother me, I liked how the authors put their pieces into place and took the time needed to expand the world organically; I loved the middle (I had so many theories!); but thought the last 150 or so pages dragged (I did like my theories better!).

I also had issues with the main characters: they felt tropey and represented tropes that annoy me (hard-boiled detective past his prime with an alocohol problem. Naive but righteous captain with womanizing tendencies of the “let’s put women on a pedestal”-variety). I want to hit them on their heads repeatedly. I also learned way more about their testicles than I would want to. I do want to see where they characters might go next which is a good sign.

I am trying to read a wide variety of Science Fiction novels and novellas this year because I am so very sure there will be books that I will absolutely adore; it is a genre I have not read enough of and I think that needs to be remedied. It also means I will read some books that might not work for me completely. This is one of those books. I buddy-read this with my boyfriend and even though I hopelessly overtook him (and cannot talk about my spoilery thoughts just yet), I did love reading this together. That feeling of spending time with my boyfriend really did help the book and is one of the reasons I am excited to keep reading the series, at least another book.

Review: A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2) – Becky Chambers

29475447Verdict: I love Becky Chambers optimistic science fiction despite its pacing issues.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date Read: January 23rd, 2018

Published by Orbit, 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

Lovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who’s determined to help her learn and grow.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that no matter how vast space is, two people can fill it together.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet introduced readers to the incredible world of Rosemary Harper, a young woman with a restless soul and secrets to keep. When she joined the crew of the Wayfarer, an intergalactic ship, she got more than she bargained for – and learned to live with, and love, her rag-tag collection of crewmates.

A Closed and Common Orbit is the stand-alone sequel to Becky Chambers’ beloved debut novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and is perfect for fans of Firefly, Joss Whedon, Mass Effect and Star Wars.

I absolutely adore Becky Chambers’ brand on optimistic science fiction. It is filled with wide-eyed, immersive, positive energy and I LOVE that. I love how inclusive her imagination is and how thoroughly thought out her world is. The aliens feel exactly that: alien. They are different not just in the way they look but in the way they think and behave and in the way their societies are structured. But still, the different races exist more or less peacefully and most people we meet along the way do their damned best to be nice to others. I find this so very refreshing.

This is a stand-alone follow-up to The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet (which I enjoyed immensely) that is very loosely connected. Here we see Lovelace trying to adapt to her new life with Pepper, as well as learning more about Pepper’s childhood. However, much like the first book, the plot is rather incidental and for a very long stretch this feels more like a series of vignettes where Becky Chambers shows off her impressive imagination. Unlike the first book, this got a bit slow for me in parts. Maybe because the cast of characters is not as big or maybe because the novelty wore off a bit. But in the end, she combines the different stories skillfully and with an emotional punch, that I cannot begrudge her the way of getting there.

I love stories centering on identity (this comes as no surprise), and Chambers does this skillfully and as I said thoroughly optimistically. I adore her ruminations on what makes somebody a person and how this might change as technology adapts. Her themes of belonging and family (born and found) are important. I love how at the core this is not about science as much as about sociology. And I love the warmth her stories have. I cannot wait for the third part to release later this year.

First sentence: “Lovelace had been in a body for twenty-eight minutes, and it still felt every bit as wrong as it had the second she woke up.”

Review: The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth #3) – N. K. Jemisin

31817749My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Date read: 24 August 2017

Published by Orbit, August 2017

Verdict: Mesmerizingly brilliant with a framing device that I adored so much.

Find it on Goodreads.

THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS… FOR THE LAST TIME.

The Moon will soon return. Whether this heralds the destruction of humankind or something worse will depend on two women.

Essun has inherited the power of Alabaster Tenring. With it, she hopes to find her daughter Nassun and forge a world in which every orogene child can grow up safe.

For Nassun, her mother’s mastery of the Obelisk Gate comes too late. She has seen the evil of the world, and accepted what her mother will not admit: that sometimes what is corrupt cannot be cleansed, only destroyed.

And this is how you end a trilogy.

This book was quite possibly (/definitely) my most anticipated book of the year; N. K. Jemisin has yet to dissappoint me and I just love love love her brand of fantasy. I love how intricate and well thought out her worlds are and how political they are at their core while she still never ever sacrifices her story to make a point. The final installment made me appreciate the overall brilliant work she has done in creating this cruel, wonderful, amazing world even more.

This world and its social structure makes so much sense and feels so real that it made me sad. It is perfectly structured to mirror our own world in miserable ways. I adore this political core and its relevance (<spoiler> and its ultimate optimism </spoiler>). I adore the originality of the stone eaters (and their creation myth in particular) and how their interactions are always just a little bit off to never let the reader forget that they are <i>different</i>.

But even more than the world building I adore the characters. They are what makes this book for me a true favourite: Essun and Nassun are such vividly imagined, flawed, wonderful creations and adore how their actions and reactions mirror each other while they are still separate and complete characters in their own right. I love how this, at its core, is a story of family, blood and found, about how violence breeds violence, how mistakes can be repeated, how decisions shape our lives.

On thing I realized upon finishing this book is how much I appreciate how N. K. Jemisin frames her stories; I love how the framing makes sense and its originality, here I especially adore it. The framing device used fits perfectly to the world she has created here and to the way her story unfolds.

So yes, brilliant way to end a brilliant trilogy. I cannot recommend the series enough. I am in love, still. (And heartbroken.)

First sentences: “Time grows short, my love. Let’s end with the beginning of the world, shall we? Yes. We shall.”