Tag Archives: scifi

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

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scorpion rulesThe Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2015.

400 years ago, the world collapsed into warring factions, and Talis, an Artificial Intelligence, imposed order by keeping the children of the political leaders hostage and under promise of death if their faction declared war. 16 year-old Greta is one of these Children of Peace, kept in a Prefecture in Saskatchewan. When a new alliance is formed that borders on her Federation, and their hostage Elian is brought to their Prefecture, Greta’s fear that she will soon be summoned to die for her mother’s decision seems about to be realized.

Bow (Plain Kate, Levine, 2010) has created an extraordinarily detailed and coherent world. Within a few pages, she answers all my ‘hang on, how does this work?’ questions, and though the logic of these hostages is quite horrible, it also actually makes sense. The decisions that Talis has taken on behalf of the world, in terms of peacekeeping, technology, and infrastructure, are brutally austere, and yet also something that could easily be in our future.

Greta is a challenging character and narrator. She is a rule abider, and follows what is expected of her as both a Princess (the world has gone rather feudal) and a Child of Peace. This makes her initially somewhat stiff and unlikeable, and it does appear that we are going to go down the well-trodden track of her only seeing the error of her ways when the defiant and rebellious Elian turns up. But Ms Bow is far too skilled a writer for that, and the second half of the book is full of thrilling twists and turns, as Greta takes hold of the power she did not realize she had.

The large cast of multicultural support characters, both human and AI, are vividly drawn and fit into the world with ease. Princess Xie, Greta’s roommate and best friend since she first arrived at the age of 5, is emotionally exquisite and is shown to have far greater understanding of the system than anybody else. And Talis, despite being the world-ruling AI, is also hilariously and scarily flippant about his power and decisions.

Talis’s rule is to ‘make it personal’, and Ms. Bow has written a very smart novel about the conviction and perception of those individuals who challenge the imposed solution despite the stupidity of the human race. This is the first book in a series, and fans of intelligent dystopian fiction will love it.

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Replica by Lauren Oliver

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bookcover_replicaReplica by Lauren Oliver
HarperCollins, October 2016.

With this very enjoyable first book in her new duology, which takes on the big theme of what it means to be human, Lauren Oliver returns to the sci fi/dystopia genre of her splendid Delirium trilogy.

Lyra and Gemma are both connected with the mysterious Haven Institute which is situated on a remote Florida island. Lyra, or 24, is one of the many replicas (or clones) that live there. Gemma’s father was one of the founders of Haven. When a bomb goes off on the island, Lyra escapes and Gemma makes her way down to Florida – from their different perspectives, they both want to find out who they are and what Haven’s purpose really is.

Told from the perspectives of Lyra and Gemma, the author has taken the interesting if not entirely successful decision to write this as two novellas rather than the usual interleaved chapters. I applaud trying new things, but I feel maybe it would have worked better in the traditional way. In the intro, Ms Oliver talks about the Rashomon effect, but it is much harder to detect this when you are not reading the two accounts side by side, particularly in an eBook.

The created world is thought-provoking and cohesive, and, as she did with Delirium, the author gradually drops in new information to build a fuller picture, but does this without ever leaving the reader frustrated or confused. The science of what is going on at Haven comes in a couple of big information dumps and I found it a bit confusing, though I suspect it’s not essential to follow precisely. Suffice to say that the scientists at Haven are Up To No Good.

I really like the two narrators and the voices that Ms Oliver has created for them. Lyra is precise and a little cold. Ms Oliver is largely successful in creating a character that knows nothing about the outside world, except what she has occasionally seen on TV or overheard from the Haven staff, and then to convey her wonder and confusion as she encounters it. Gemma becomes more intriguing as we get to know her and her family background.

Both girls have love interests (and all main characters appear to be white). Lyra flees from Haven with hunky 72, who is of the silent brooding but “beautiful” type, and Gemma’s ride to Florida is Pete, who is of the fresh-faced, handsome, nice, and inexplicably drawn to the outcast girl type. Neither really develops much beyond that. As the young women dig deeper into who they are, their beaux’ responses add new dimensions when the idea of love as a marker of humanity is explored.

The plot rattles along, with twist following twist, and the two accounts add developments without being repetitious. Unfortunately, the novel just sort of ends on an incomplete note, so we’ll have to wait for the concluding sequel, though yay for dropping the treading water middle book of a trilogy!

Ms Oliver’s books are always worth reading, whether realistic or speculative. Fans of her previous novels won’t be disappointed, and Replica could well attract some new readers.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

Space Hostages by Sophia McDougall

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space hostagesSpace Hostages by Sophia McDougall
HarperCollins, 2016.

I enjoyed Mars Evacuees (2015) very much, it was a Cybils finalist, and it made a great read for the 5th/6th grade book club at my son’s school. So I was excited to get the eARC for the sequel, Space Hostages (which was published in the UK in 2015), though it has taken me quite a while to get round to reading it.

The intrepid band of Plucky Kids of Mars, as Alice, Josephine, Carl, Noel, and Thsaaa are now known on Earth, are once again heading off into space, along with Goldfish, the “undaunted, floating, blue-eyed American robot fish, on a mission to educate youth.” This time it’s a pleasant vacation trip for a ceremony to inaugurate the Morrors’ new home planet. But on the way, their spaceship, Helen, is captured by the giant lobster-like Krakkiluks, who believe that the humans and Morrors have occupied a territory belonging to their Great Expanse.

Once again, the plot has a leisurely start, in which we find out, in a meta-twist, that the previous book was, in fact, Alice’s memoirs published in this fictional world. There is a slightly sagging middle when the Plucky Kids are separated. Alice, Josephine, Carl, and Goldfish end up on a different planet, and their exciting adventures here are rather slowed down by their, to me, tedious efforts to communicate with the indigenous Eemala (though fair play to Ms MacDougall for not having the aliens all speak English). Noel and Thsaaa have their own adventures back on the Krakkiluk ship, but both narratives felt longer than they needed to be.

I also found the characters from the previous books a bit less fresh and striking than before. Josephine is more withdrawn since Mars Evacuees was published and is duct tapeless. Carl is also rather gloomy, and Noel gets little airtime. However, Goldfish continues to entertain: “We’re going to need teamwork, and imagination, and heavy duty weaponry to handle this!”, and Helen, the wistful, sentient, poetry writing, AI spaceship in love with her captain, is an excellent addition.

Alice’s narration is as drily and self-deprecatingly witty as before – “First contact is incredibly socially awkward” – and this lightness, together with our knowledge that these are her memoirs, keep the novel from being too scary, even though some of the situations are very intense.

McDougall makes considerable effort to keep the alien species non-humanoid and diverse. Not only do they look different from us, but they have different values: the warrior Krakkiluks are obsessed with married love, but have no time at all for children. The Eemala are less original, as they feel a little like furry, flying, humans.

There is a theme of colonization, which is delicately woven in, much like the first book looked at the idea of reactions to the other. The most obvious proponents are the Krakkiluks, and McDougall spins in subtle ideas about the social and cultural implications for both oppressors and oppressed, as well as bringing it home by having Carl makes a tart comment on the colonized caring for the colonizers’ children. And the humans are not entirely innocent with their captain proclaiming “The stars belong to us.”

Space Hostages can stand alone as there is a quick catch up at the beginning, but readers would be missing out if they started here. Overall, this is a very entertaining, intelligent, and imaginative sequel but, though satisfying, is just not quite as good as Mars Evacuees.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

The Last Full Measure by Trent Reedy

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last full measureThe Last Full Measure by Trent Reedy
Divided We Fall, Bk 3
Scholastic/Levine, 2016

The 2nd Civil War, which 18 year-old Danny Wright was accidentally instrumental in starting, rages on as more states secede from the Union. Danny and friends are now back in Freedom Lake, Iowa, which is firmly under the thumb of the white supremacist Brotherhood of the White Eagle. Danny is no longer interested in fighting, and can think only of getting out of the war, so when he comes across a resistance movement that is planning to do just that, he is eager to join. But can he ever truly escape?

This lengthy final book in the trilogy once again gives Danny many moral challenges and decisions to make, and many bullet-intense action sequences. However, unnecessarily longwinded news bulletins, from the rest of Pan America and the world which is crumbling into World War III, slow the pace to a crawl and take the focus off the main story.

Does this work as a possible parable for the near future? Parallels are drawn with the Nazis in World War II, and some of the language and arguments put in the mouths of characters in the book, both national and international, is not too far off what we’re hearing now. Though Danny himself does not “give a shit about any of that liberal versus conservative stuff”, I suspect that with the possibility of President Donald Trump looming, many readers may be more politically conscious. There is even a sly poke at Trump, as Mexico closes the border to fleeing Americans.

Reedy has succeeded rather too well in giving his protagonist the authentic voice of a not particularly well-educated or articulate teen boy, and while this was not too much of an issue in the first two books, it becomes very grating now – the number of times Danny describes something as “jacked-up” is off the charts, and describing his girlfriend as hot because she is carrying a rifle feels distinctly icky. Danny’s close friends still don’t have much dimension, and the plethora of other characters are usually nothing more than a string of names, though I grew rather fond of Mrs Pierce, the elderly and sage leader of the resistance.

With the now-requisite death of a major character, and a somewhat foreboding ending, Reedy finishes off the trilogy in what should be a satisfying and emotional way. However, by that point I was just skimming through to get to the end, so I was more than a little disappointed that what had started out so promisingly in Divided We Fall, ended up an overly ambitious and somewhat flabby damp squib.

Reviewed from an ARC.

The End of Fun by Sean McGinty

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end of funThe End of FUN by Sean McGinty
Disney Hyperion, April 2016.

Though heavily disguised with all sorts of gimmickry, this is a poignant tale of growing up, and accepting the world for what it is.

After the death of his grandfather, the will leads 17 year-old Irish-American Aaron O’Faolin on a treasure hunt, but, of course, what he is really searching for is connection with his family and friends, and to fall in love.

Told with a mixture of fairytale whimsy and gonzo humor, Aaron narrates his history, from his failed suicide attempt at 10 when his mother left, through abandoning his prescribed medication and running away to San Francisco, and finally his return home to Antello, Nevada.

Overlaid on top of this is the augmented reality implant FUN®, in which Aaron’s virtual buddy Homie™ keeps popping up with unsolicited advice, and Aaron scores points by giving “yays” to such entertainingly and pointedly over the top brands as the Hearthealth™ lifestyle of Kashi® Heart to Heart ™ Honey Toasted Oat cereal. To add to all the other ideas crammed into this novel, there is also an outbreak of Avis Mortem, in which a large proportion of the bird population is dying.

The different threads just about coalesce into a whole as Aaron follows the path of an Irish fairytale given to him by Katie, a 23 year old Irish-Basque teacher with whom he falls in love. And, of course, his quest leads him to the realization that reality is more fun than FUN®.

The sympathetically drawn, fully realized extensive cast of characters includes Aaron’s family, his best friend Angelo ‘Oso’ Sandoval, the Mormon Latham family, and his love interest, Irish-Basque Katie.

McGinty’s debut novel has an appealing voice and attractive characters, and readers who have enjoyed Andrew Smith’s off kilter fiction will find a home here.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Dark Energy by Robison Wells

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dark energyDark Energy by Robison Wells
Harper Collins, April 2016.

I’ve read most of Robison Wells’ books and have really enjoyed the combination of interesting set ups and fast-paced action, and have always appreciated that he writes duologies, thus getting rid of the boring middle book in a trilogy at a stroke.

Dark Energy is, for the most part, a terrifically paced, tightly plotted scifi thriller set in the right now. A massive alien spaceship has crashed into the Midwest, killing thousands, and Alice’s NASA bigwig Dad is called in. Rather than leave her behind in Miami, he enrolls her into the tony Minnetonka School for the Gifted and Talented. When the inhabitants of the spaceship finally emerge, they are surprisingly human looking, and two of them are placed at Minnetonka, but it is only when the spaceship is being explored that it emerges that all is not what it seems.

The pacing of the majority of this novel is superlative. As Alice settles into school there is little indication of the drama yet to come: she makes friends, she finds romance, and she learns the ropes. When aliens Coya and Susika are introduced to the school, there is some fun with them not knowing the ways of human world, including not understanding Alice’s teen snark, as well as some mysteries: why won’t they talk about their mother? Why don’t they wear shoes? Then the tone darkens considerably as Alice and her friends are invited by her Dad to come into the spaceship to document it. What they find is sickening and raises some big questions.

The final section, however, lost me a bit. As the true aliens emerge, they feel slightly silly early-Dr Who monsterry, and the pace becomes frantically fast and felt muddled. I felt a lot was not resolved satisfactorily, despite an end-tying up epilogue. It appears that this is a standalone, though frankly, as I was racing towards the end, I didn’t think it was going to be, as there was so much left unexplained.

Dark Energy is a step forward for the author in terms of characterization. Alice is a fully rounded, not always likeable, smart teenage girl and the support characters, including her two science nerd roommates, and her potential love interest are all several cuts above cardboard.

Alice’s mother was Navajo and, confounding my initial dark thoughts of token diversity, Navajo rituals and traditions are integral to the plot. According to the author’s note at the end, he has some personal experience of these and has run his writing past experts. I’m no Debbie Reese, and I’m sure she will thoroughly analyze Dark Energy, but it does appear to me that Mr Wells has done his due diligence and used his knowledge respectfully. Update: Debbie Reese has reviewed Dark Energy and does not recommend it.

I hope between ARC and publication, the ending will get sorted out because I feel this could be Mr Wells’ best novel to date. However, even as it stands, it will have plenty of appeal to teen readers who enjoy scifi in a current day setting, and those who look out for strong female leads.

Thanks to Harper Collins and Edelweiss for the digital ARC.

Just a couple of postscript gripes. The title seems a bit lame and generic – there’s a prologue that sort of justifies it, but that feels bolted on and even says “This story isn’t about dark energy.” And the cover (at least on the digital arc) appears to show a truck, whereas Alice’s car is, crucially, a BMW 550i GT.

The Fog Diver by Joel Ross

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fog diverThe Fog Diver by Joel Ross
Harper, 2015.

The winners of the Cybils were announced yesterday and the winner of the award for the category that I was judging, Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction, is…The Fog Diver by Joel Ross. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reviewing all the other titles on the shortlist, except Mars Evacuees, as I’ve already written about that.

This fun, action-packed middle grade steam-punky dystopia is set in a future where a Fog toxic only to humans covers the Earth. The few remaining people live above the Fog in the rigidly economically stratified Rooftop, and impoverished salvage crews take their rickety airships out, sending down ‘tether boys’ through the Fog to scavenge from now empty houses. One such crew, Hazel, Chess, Bea and Swedish, are desperate to find something valuable as their guardian has fallen ill with fogsickness.

The crew is a created family, scooped up from the slums and the streets by Mrs. E. 13 year-old Chess, the narrator, has a mysterious affinity with the Fog; dark-skinned Hazel is the captain and she has the other kids’ trust and confidence as she always has a plan; Swedish is the muscle with a heart of gold; and gearhead Bea is “Our kid sister, with short red hair, big green eyes, and smears of grease on her face.” The support characters are a little slight – Kodoc is an evil villain, Vidious wears a cape and calls everyone ‘poppet’ (though that made me smile) – but work well enough to serve the plot.

There is some terrific wordplay as the crew harks back to the old times: “May the horse be with you,” a constellation called Oprah, bees that can spell, and a running gag about the word ‘garbo’. I like that these are perfectly pitched for the intended reader – clever and gettable.

Some serious issues are threaded into the drama: The origins of the Fog are connected with human exploitation of the Earth, and there are no safety nets (physical or metaphorical) for the have-nots of Rooftop. But Ross blends these into the story and the action without any didacticism and with a light touch.

Although initially there is some fairly clumsy information dumping to get the world and the characters established, even this is woven in with action scenes. And once the well-structured and well-paced plot really takes off, with all the pieces clicking gratifyingly into each other, it is a giddy ride to the satisfying conclusion, with plenty of untied threads left ready for the sequel due out in May.