Saturday Star Wars: Chaos Rising (Thrawn Ascendancy #1) by Timothy Zahn — Book Review and Lingering Questions

Hullo everyone, and welcome back to Saturday Star Wars!

It has been a while, hasn’t it? Rest assured, I’m riding high on a Star Wars wave which’ll keep me pumping out regular editions of this column for a few weeks, at least!

Today, I’ll share with you an excerpt of my Chaos Rising review, which you can read in full over at the Fantasy Hive:

I hold Thrawn in such esteem because few characters signify the sci-fi elements of the Star Wars DNA better than he does. The best Thrawn stories, I have always held, are strong enough that they would thrive in a setting different from the Star Wars one. If you were to crop all the important plot points and characters, and only have to do some fine-tuning to make of a franchise novel something unique and original, could you do it? When it comes to most Thrawn books, the answer is a resounding yes. (With the exception of Thrawn: Alliances, that is, which incidentally is the weakest of Zahn’s Chiss-centred works.) These novels are enhanced by being in the Star Wars universe, not dependent on it.

Chaos Rising is a return to form for Zahn. The first in three novels which chronicle Thrawn’s ascendance in his native Chiss Ascendancy (you didn’t think I would resist, did you?), this does exactly what you want a Star Wars novel to do after the horrible dog’s breakfast** that was the sequel trilogy. It expands the fricking universe in ways that are beyond engaging, while offering a whole new look at our title character. One character I was crazy about in the Thrawn: Treason novel makes her return here – Admiral Ar’alani, whose personal history with Senior Captain Thrawn goes far deeper than I dared hope. She’s one of the main PoV characters in this one, and the novel is all the better for every sentence spent through her perspective; Ar’alani is almost a foil to Thrawn in some ways. Though incapable of seeing what he sees (Thrawn is a tactical genius, capable of understanding both the strategy and tactics of other species by studying their art and philosophy), Ar’alani excels at seeing through the minefield that is Ascendancy politics, and her own insights into military matters are no small thing. Through an unlikely friendship with the more junior officer, Ar’Alani proves an invaluable ally in the political machinations taking place against Thrawn.

One of the consistent points of Thrawn’s characterization across thirty years of books, comics and even animation has been his inability to process the world of political intrigue. In Chaos Rising, there’s no end to the Chiss’ blunders. Add to that the complex hierarchical order of the Ascendancy, with its nine ruling families plotting and conniving against each other for greater power, and you will begin to see how great a blind spot Thrawn’s political ineptitude is.

To read the full piece, click on the link above!

Right, with all this wonderful praise in mind, I’ve a mind to ask several questions. Some spoilers below, read at your own peril! Here’s what I want to learn in the next book:

  • Who guided Yiv the Benevolent? The very last scene at the end of Chaos Rising offers us a name, but what’s behind that name? Is this an agent of the power that has the Chiss Ascendancy desperate enough to fake Thrawn’s exile?
  • Is that exile faked? Timothy Zahn confirmed as much in 2017’s Thrawn, but could it be that this might be retconned, or that it was a lie told by Thrawn to close the gap between him and his foe in that piece, Nightswan? With the political clime against the senior captain the way it is within the Ascendancy, that is a distinct possibility.
  • How far is Thalias going to enter into the politics of the Mitth family, to keep the politically inept Thrawn safe? One of the finest scenes in the book showcased her conversing with the ailing Patriarch of the Mitth, and his revelations about Thrawn will doubtless place her in the thick of family politics. This leads me to my next question…
  • What will be the repercussions for Thrawn? Though he has succeeded with flying colours, the Chiss are staunch isolationists, loath to strike against someone without provocation. Yes, Thrawn managed to skirt through the lines and succeeded in what was necessary — but he was told there would be consequences, and I don’t doubt they will cost him.
  • And my last but most important question: Did Ar’alani and Thrawn bone? When she made commodore, a rather suggestive few lines hinted towards the possibility.

Those are the leading questions — when I return to them a year from now, I do hope I’ll have answers to all of these. Until then…

Join me over the next three weekends as I review Volumes 5, 6, and 7 of the Doctor Aphra graphic novel! That sounds exciting – it’s exciting, isn’t it?

Pawn (Sibyl’s War #1) by Timothy Zahn — Book Review — The Fantasy Hive

Blurb: Nicole Lee’s life is going nowhere. No family, no money, and stuck in a relationship with a thug named Bungie. But, after one of Bungie’s “deals” goes south, he and Nicole are whisked away by a mysterious moth-like humanoid to a strange ship called the Fyrantha. Once aboard, life on the ship seems too good […]

Pawn (Sibyl’s War #1) by Timothy Zahn — Book Review — The Fantasy Hive

The Faith Machine by Tone Milazzo — Book Review (Storytellers On Tour)

The Faith Machine is one of the strangest, most bizarre books I’ve read in recent memory, and no less fun for it. With spies, psychic abilities, tons of action and betrayal, Milazzo’s novel channels Cold War thrillers mixed with almost Marvel-scale superpowers in a juggling act that was consistently entertaining throughout!

Where shall I begin? This novel follows a three-act structure, the first taking place in Africa, the second in America, and the third in North Korea; each one takes about a hundred-and-something pages of this 392-page novel, and each has enough going on to make for its own tiny novella, if the author had so chosen.

There are plenty of laughs to be had in The Faith Machine, based on all kinds of hilarious situations and exchanges between characters, as well as plenty of pop references. The novel is hilarious enough to make you forget all about the fact that this is an “ESPionage” story, unafraid to pull its punches, willing to go in some dark, disturbing places. Some of the imagery is downright shocking, and the trials some of the character

And the characters are a likable lot, all eight of the ensemble. There’s Dr. Park, the leader of the team, a Korean-American psychologist tasked wtih the enormous responsibility of keeping seven Cards (psychic spies), unstable one and all, together, as they . I won’t go over each and every one of the Cards, but I thought they made for wonderful characters. They’re bursting with personality from the very first time you come across them on the page:

A dusky young woman in an AC/DC belly shirt came running down the drive, swinging an ax after a man in a dirty T-shirt and boxers. “Jacob! I told you I didn’t wanna be on the internet!” Her unkempt brown hair bounced with her wild gait as she closed in.
Gabby stopped trying to kill Jacob whe she sawPark and Ainia. “Oh, hi, Park! What are you doin’ here?” She let the ax hit the ground.

Few things better than ax-wielding ladies in AC/DC shirts, I always say. I appreciate how divergant the cast is — these are folks from all walks of life, and the author does an admirable job of giving them unique, nuanced voices. For the most part — occasionally, a line read across as unpolished or as the author’s unbridled commentary, but that was a very, very rare occurance indeed! Further, I would’ve liked some more time spent with the leader of the ensemble, Dr. Park, whose last stretch of development I can’t help but feel didn’t conclude so much as stop in place.

The twists and turns are a delight — so many red herrings, very well executed. I did sense the last big twist coming, but a few of the smaller ones along the way blindsided me, which is something I am all for!

I admired the prose — it nails that pulpy feel of Cold War-era spy thrillers. The style is clear, exact, always directing the reader into any given scene with precision.

I will say, I’m glad I did not read the entire blurb on Goodreads before I picked this one up, because it spoils the first third of the novel. Bit of a strange choice, that.

My score for The Faith Machine is 4/5 stars! It had some elements I wasn’t sold on, but make no mistake, this is a solid sci-fi thriller, one well-worth your time.

The Girl and the Stars by Mark Lawrence – Book Review

Release Date: 21 April 2020
Published by: ACE
Genre: Fucked if I know. Fantasy, sci-fi elements.
Pages: 369
Format: Hardback
Review Copy:  Courtesy of the author.

The Girl and the Stars is a spectacular opening act to what promises to be one of the finest trilogies of this new decade*.

So many of my fellow bloggers have spoken to the quality of Mark Lawrence’s writing, a fact I have only the barest hint of experience with, in the form of Prince of Thorns, Mark’s debut. I had high expectations but… It’s no stretch to say that they were overcome, with remarkable ease, by this latest release.

I hesitate to call The Girl and the Stars a fantasy novel – chock-full with sci-fi elements, it reminds me of the writing of Zelazny and Gene Wolfe more than anything else in how seamlessly it falls under the cap of speculative fiction; the world is, though its characters might not realize it, a post-apocalyptic one. That’s the speculative fiction trifecta right there! Don’t draw any conclusions yet, though – Lawrence might make use of many different genre conventions but in doing so, he makes of them a homogenous mass. Otherworldly is a term often used for fantasy novels, rarely so apt as it is for The Girl and the Stars.

It is a triumph of the imagination, and a wonder. The characters are relatable and deeply human, even those you’d least expect to be. Helming the series is lead character Yaz, a young woman of the Ichta tribe torn away from her family and the life on the ice she has always known:

She lived a life in the jaws of the wind, her eyes trained to find meaning within a hundred shades of white and grey. She lived as a singular mote of warmth upon a vast and lifeless wilderness.

Yaz is forced into the subterranean darkness** of a hole in which the broken children of the tribes – those too different to survive the cold of the ice – are thrown. Lawrence does an excellent job creating a world in the throes of ice, a cruel surface that holds an ever-present danger…only to throw Yaz into a world beyond the one she could’ve imagined, and one she is unprepared for. How could anyone be prepared? The world below the ice is alien – warmer, holding buried secrets and ancient threats. But also the promise of a life different to the one Yaz has spent her whole life living.

I adore the abilities Yaz and those other survivors in the hole have, what Yaz thinks of as magic but is hinted to be something different at one time or another. Mark does a wonderful job introducing how each gift works, and then exploits all of them in unexpected ways at just the right moment. The results are nothing less than a series of thrills.

I admire the way the author shapes a culture like that of the Ichta early on: “Even in their tents they wore mittens anytime that fine tasks were not required. It was easy to forget that people even had fingers.” Look at the way he makes of these people something unique. Through describing so small a thing, he’s already differentiated the Ichta in a memorable way, and has introduced a motif that has an effect on Yaz throughout – skin contact. The prose is brilliant at this throughout – introducing small details and not just calling back to them but using them to the best effect imaginable, creating the illusion in the reader that every detail has some hidden meaning.

Lawrence does an excellent job in exploring several themes throughout the 370-page count of this novel. The questioning of the nature of compromise is present throughout – does survival in the harshness excuse the sacrifice of those who are born different or broken? That’s a question Yaz is drawn to time and again. She is also drawn towards the need to know herself, in a way that mirrors the obsession one of the most fascinating antagonists in the novel, Theus. Something else that haunts the pages is the mention of “fire and glory,” or “Greatness, torment and fire.” Look out for that one.

As for the ending…I have three words for it***: Such sweet torment. Questions linger, a score of them at least. It’s going to be a long wait until the next one – lucky for me, I have plenty of Mark Lawrence’s books to catch up on in the meanwhile. My score for this masterpiece is 6/5, 11/10! 

P.S. If you, like me, enjoy listening to music while reading books, a couple of soundtracks work wonders as background – Austin Wintory’s soundtracks for Banner Saga 2 & 3, and Piotr Musiał’s Frostpunk score.

*If Mr. Lawrence disappoints us down the line, I say we lynch him! Or, if that’s not your thing, write a strongly worded letter.

** This is incidentally the second excellent fantasy book telling the story of a young woman surviving underground through what seems at times sheer force of will I’ve read this year, the first being Rob J. Hayes’ Along the Razor’s Edge.

*** I have a lot more than three words, but the book hasn’t yet been released. I would, in fact, like to scream bloody murder – maybe in a couple of weeks? A deep dive? Do I hear an amen?!

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #01) by Martha Wells – Book Review

This review was originally published over at booknest.eu!

Published by: Tor.com
Genre: Sci-fi
Pages: 152
Format: paperback
Copy:  Borrowed from my local library. Support your libraries, folks!

While browsing through the rows of books in English in the Swedish library I frequent, I came across Martha Wells’ All Systems Red, a novella whose cover I dimly recalled seeing years before on Tor.com. I looked through my To-Read list and – surprise! – this one was nowhere near it…as if that would stop me. I grabbed it, stole away Ada Palmer’s too Like the Lightning as well, in case someone thought this thin novella too conspicuous. Long live sci-fi!

By the end of the night, I’d read through the first of these titles with barely any effort.

All Systems Red offers a fun story from the point of view of an anxiety-riddled robot with several biological components and a touch of misanthropy: “I liked the imaginary people on the entertainment feed way more than I liked real ones, but you can’t have one without the other”. This SecUnit calls itself Murderbot and seeks to avoid all direct interactions with its human wards, interested only in watching the tv, music and game programmes on entertainment channels. If this isn’t enough to make the Murderbot relatable, I don’t know what will.

Stuck on a planet with a band of scientists performing geological studies, our protagonist hopes to avoid any sort of excitement; unfortunately for him, this is a sci-fi novella intent on putting Murderbot on the spot and testing its mettle! A few action scenes are only to be expected – and they were well handled and entertaining.

The prose is serviceable – not quite excellent, but it doesn’t need to be. There’s plenty of great interactions, the dialogue never tends towards the heavily expositional and the personalities of all the scientists, led by team leader Mensah, shined through. Oh, and the humour? Golden: “Yes, talk to Murderbot about its feelings. The idea was so painful I dropped to 97 percent efficiency. I’d rather climb back into Hostile One’s mouth.”

In terms of antagonists, the architects behind our protagonist’s woes don’t make for anything especially memorable; they’re rather archetypal, presenting rather the depths to which human greed tends to go when a group of people goes off the deep end. It works well and keeps our SecUnit and his group of scientists on their toes and pushing themselves as hard as they can to survive.

Once embroiled in a crisis, Murderbot is willing to put its life on the line for the band of humans it has been tasked with protecting – despite it hacking its governance module. The same module that allows anyone who’s signed a deal with the Company – like the scientists – to command Murderbot. By working to save Mensah and the rest of her team from a shadowy enemy, then, Murderbot is exercising its free will – and this is at the heart of what’s examined in Wells’ novel. The question is one of freedom and compassion and examination of the self, and the text goes a long way in showing how Murderbot exercises all three.

My score for All Systems Red is a 4/5. This is a legitimately enjoyable adventure in a science fiction setting with plenty of good zingers and a socially awkward Robocop – what’s not to love?! I’m looking forward to reading more about Murderbot in the future! I’ll definitely be picking up his story when I’m next in my local library!

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor – Book Review

Published by: Tor.com
Genre: Sci-Fi, Afrofuturism
Pages: 96
Format: ebook
Purchased Copy: from Amazon
Awards: Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella (2016)

Calvin Park spoke about this one over at one of the recent episodes of his Under a Pile of Books podcast; and since I’ve been trying to finish the last few squares for r/fantasy’s yearly bingo challenge, a book on the topic of afrofuturism was most welcome.

Sometimes, everything about a story is excellent – the voice, the worldbuilding, the protagonist – with the exception of one huge, glaring error, a detail overlooked in such a low-key manner that you might not even notice it at first. Then, once you’ve put Binti away, you pause, take a breath and consider.

That is when the final third of this 90 or so pages long novella falls apart.

But before I touch on this spoiler-heavy section of the review, allow me to offer credit where credit is due. Nnedi Okorafor’s respect for the culture of Binti’s people (which draws inspiration from the Himba people of Namibia) along with its infusion with mathematical knowledge make for a fascinating vision of a society both new and steeped in tradition. The way ideas such as mathematical harmony and “ancestral magic” as some call what Binti does, are presented, enrichens the world, and the internal conflict Binti goes through – between following into the footsteps of her ancestors and going after her own desires – plays out in an interesting way.

It’s an engaging read, which I finished in a little over an hour, having enjoyed many of the ideas within – some of them core tenets of science fiction.

Now, onto the SPOILER-filled part of my review, which illuminates the extent of the problem with Binti.

The Meduse, an alien species that counts itself as one of the enemies of the humans and has long warred with them, assaults a ship traveling towards Oomza University. On this ship is Binti, one of the dozens or even hundreds of students on their way to Oomza Uni. Out of all of them, only Binti and the ship pilot survive. Everyone else is slaughtered in seconds, all at once. Binti eventually manages to talk the Meduse out of their attack on Oomza Uni and comes to represent the aliens before the directorial council of the university. Together, they all come to an agreement that sees the stinger the Meduse came to Oomza Uni to reclaim returned to its rightful owner, and everything concludes with a peaceful resolution and the seeds of friendship planted between two old enemies.

So what’s the problem? Let’s look to the Meduse, and what they do here.

The following notion is a turning moment in Binti’s personal perception of the aliens: “Now I could never go back. The Meduse. The Meduse are not what we humans think. They are truth. They are clarity. They are decisive. There are sharp lines and edges. They understand honor and dishonor. I had to earn their honor and the only way to do that was by dying a second time.” That said, to ignore the fact that the Meduse killed a ship full of prospective students is ludicrous – and this is just what happens, when at the end of the novella, during negotiations, the professors of Oomza University agree to return the stinger of the Meduse leader on whose order the massacre is perpetrated; not only that, they demand one of the Meduse come study at the university. What of the slaughtered students? It’s as if they are forgotten by everyone involved – their deaths forgotten, too, by Okorafor, judging by the speedy resolution she offers.

Based on this alone, Binti, much as I enjoyed most of it, shouldn’t have won a Nebula award. This is a glaring mistake and though I’m very interested in the works of Nnedi Okorafor, to praise her work for such naivete goes against the spirit of science fiction. Look at Le Guin’s “The Word for World is Forest,” a SF Masterpiece which treats ; look at the conflict between terrans and the people of the Forest, and how it ends. When one side slaughters dozens or hundreds, there can be peace…but the kind of harmony Okorafor’s characters find after the shortest negotiations is an impossibility, which overlooks so much of the nature of humanity. Not the better part, perhaps – but a part of who we are, nonetheless. Voices should be crying out for justice and for vengeance; there should be words of righteous indignation spoken. But there are none – instead, there is harmony.

It is not earned. Binti’s growth and individual understanding of the Meduse doesn’t wash away the weight of what they have done. The stolen stinger, as fine a reason as it is to the culture of the Meduse for the perpetration of slaughter and the planning of a yet more grand massacre, is no excuse most anyone would accept. And that…that’s a serious overlook on the part of Okorafor, all the more shocking for the brilliant way in which she captures the culture of Binti’s people, and the work she does on the Meduse.

My score for this one is, regretfully, a 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.

The Outer Worlds Review – Great Dialogue, Good Characters…Okay-ish Gameplay?

The Outer Worlds was one of the games I was most excited about in 2019 – so why did it take me this long to finish it? It’s got a lot going for it – the great dialogue, the memorable characters who don’t get nearly enough screen-time, and the…okay…gameplay? No, that doesn’t sound right – Obsidian wouldn’t do something like offer the minimal amount of customization in terms of weapons and equipment, right? They wouldn’t offer us a really boring Perk system in the place of Fallout’s V.A.T.s, would they?

Oh, they would? Ah, then.

That is unfortunate.

It’s not that I disliked The Outer Worlds – but I’m nowhere near as taken with it as I hoped I would be. In this twenty-two minute long video, I’ve gone at great length to explain what my problems with Obsidian’s latest consist of.

Mechanicum (Horus Heresy # 09) by Graham McNeill – Book Review

This review was originally posted over at booknest.eu.

Graham McNeill seems to me the most consistent of all the Black Library authors working on the Horus Heresy series. I put aside Dan Abnett here, whose abilities as a writer I hold in high esteem over the excellent Eisenhorn trilogy. This is the third Heresy novel I’ve read written by McNeill, and it’s the third one I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.

 Here are a few commonalities between all McNeill’s Heresy novels so far:

  • They move the overall plot of the Heresy along. False Gods showed Horus’ corruption; Fulgrim was the most WarHammer 40k book I’ve ever read, with all the gleeful corruption of Chaos and ultraviolence and the purple prose which was most certainly written to fit the ridiculousness that is the Emperor’s Children legion and to play on this whole meta aspect  – and you can take that to the bank, Mr Rob Hayes’ hat! (Love you, Rob)
  • They’ve got characters who do not bore the life out of me. Looking at you, Battle for the Abyss.
  • The narration is always to die for. I needed a third point, okay? These bulletpoints must always go in threes at the least, doncha know?!

These all certainly earn McNeill some credit*. But even if this was the first book of his I’d read in the Heresy series, I’d still have enjoyed it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m conscious of a number of issues which don’t make sense to me either because I’m not steeped deep enough into the lore of this mega-event, or because McNeill and co. didn’t quite think things through when they were moving all the different plot pieces in planning the greater span of the Horus Heresy.  

In terms of characters, there were a few memorable ones. First among them is the Forge Mistress Koriel Zeth, who is a proud bearer of the torch of scientific progress passed down since the Enlightenment, prob’ly, a torch that is doomed to be swallowed by the torrential sea of Chaos during the Heresy. I really liked Zeth for her irreverence towards the nonsense of the Machine God and her ambition to unlock the secrets of the universe, for her willingness to sacrifice everything to stand against zealotry and all the dark horrors seeping into Mars under the direction of Kelbor-Hal, Fabricator General of Mars.

As likable as her but for many different reasons is Dalia Cythera, a girl from Earth who has an intuitive understanding of the workings of technology. Saved from a cruel death sentence for fiddling with technology (making it better) by Zeth, Dalia finds herself in the middle of Mars’s deadliest conflict yet.  Around her is a nice cast of supporting characters, most of them hardly what you’d call deep, since there’s plenty more going on than just Dalia’s storyline. They do their jobs quite well, though, as Dalia ends up fulfilling a dangerous, important role that sadly seems to never be referenced again in any other Warhammer 30-40k book. Aw, shucks.

On the other side of things, we’ve got…MECHS. Pardon, Titan Legions waging war on one another. It’s entertaining and entirely forgettable. Seriously, I finished this one about two months ago and I can’t even recall the name of our PoV character. I liked him! I can remember that much; it’s just that his storyline is your average tale of glory, heroism and sacrifice that’s to be expected of the setting.

My biggest issue with this here book is – all of this is happening on Mars, Earth’s literal back porch  and not until the end of the book does it seem as if anyone is willing to check out what’s going on with the neighbours. And when the big wigs over at Earth do notice something is wrong, they send a punitive force that roughly equates to a five-year-old with a stick coming into the Martian neighbour’s yard to put an end to a drunken brawl. Blimey, this Horus Heresy really is a mess sometimes.

Other than that, The Mechanicum was really quite solid. I was entertained throughout, which is why I’m happy to give it a 3.5/5, which I will helpfully bump up to 4 stars on Goodreads – I’m such a nice guy, aren’t I? It’s a good read, if you can ignore the glaring elephant in the room – our very own planet, Earth.

You might enjoy this one if you like:

  • the Adeptus Mechanicus, aka those weird robot fellas who knock on your door and always try to sell you on “Our Lord and Saviour, the Machine God”;
  • Mechs. Just…mechs;
  • Some real cool characters, actually;
  • and last but certainly not least, loads and loads of heresy;
  • Oh, and more! Prob’ly.

 HEEEEEEEREEEEEEESYYYY

*What’s with me and finance today? I still can’t live down The Dragon’s Bankerby Scott Warren. Now there’s a fun fantasy if you need one!  Oh, also, if you want to read my thoughts on some of the other Horus Heresy books, you can check my blog out, The Grimoire Reliquary. They’re not reviews, per se but I recall complaining loudly about some of the novels.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Book Review

What’s there to say about this one that hasn’t been said before?

Vonnegut is among the quintessential American authors, someone who, despite writing science fiction, transcended the stigmata of SF without difficulty, entered popular American consciousness and hasn’t left it since. Its message strongly abhors the very notion of war, decries the brutalities of it and relates the horrors of the Second World War in bloodcurdling detail. It’s not an easy book to read or listen to, not even with James Franco’s voice relating the events Billy Pilgrim goes through. Billy Pilgrim, unstuck through time, going back to World War 2 and forth into the sweet unknown; Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist. Billy Pilgrim, prisoner-of-war in Dresden, shoved forth into Slaughterhouse-Five with the rest of them, along with one Kurt Vonneghut, though he himself never makes use of the name.

“And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”

Billy Pilgrim, who is kidnapped to Tralfamadore and stuffed into their zoo along with a woman he comes to love. Billy Pilgrim, who knows the hour and the method of his own death, and knows it is predestined, and does not fool himself into believing in the folly of free will*.

So it goes.

What’s between the covers of Slaughterhouse-Five is real. It’s anger and it’s fury and maybe it’s helplessness, too, at the perpetual cycle that churns out war and its injustices. Monstrous, terrible as they are. Vonnegut shows it how it is; no glory can be found amidst the mud and ice – only the illusion of it in the eyes of the vainglorious prick Roland Weary, whose pettiness and cruelty plant a seed the poisonous fruit of which eventually results in the death of a good man.

It is also a critique of America, in two of the most poignant paragraphs I have read in recent memory:

“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.”

These words were true when Vonnegut wrote them, and they resonate so much stronger today. I fear they will resonate stronger yet tomorrow, and tomorrow, and the one after it, as well.

Strange, perhaps, that I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I enjoyed the Sirens of Titan. But I appreciate its merits; appreciate, even, that it has more merits than Sirens does. I’ll always remember 2019 for Vonnegut, for this and Sirens and perhaps Breakfast of Champions, if I manage to get through it before the closing of the year.

—————————————————————————————————————–

* But these are not Vonnegut’s beliefs; just because his main character believes it, and the Tralfamadorians believe it, doesn’t make it so, my friends. The only reason I mention this is, Vonnegut seems to have gotten a lot of flack for it in the past.

Oh, and do I even need to tell you how great James Franco does as narrator? No. No, I don’t.

Starsight by Brandon Sanderson – Book Review

This review was originally posted over at booknest.eu!

Skyward was an explosive whirlwind of action, quick dialogue and quirky characters that went immensely deep by the time I reached its closing chapter. Little surprise here, as this is Brandon Sanderson we’re talking about. Starsight, meanwhile, is a different beast altogether, delving into the complexities of the galaxy outside of the human settlement/prison that is Detritus.

Spensa is a warrior – if you’ve read Skyward, you know this to be true. Hell, you’d know it to be a severe understatement, since the scudding girl has grown up listening to the finest tales of heroes Old Earth folklore has to offer and wishing to be every single one of them. Beowulf? Sure! Conan the Barbarian? You guessed it! Over the four hundred and fifty pages of this novel, however, Spensa is forced to play a deadly game she does not excel at, constrained into the role of spy when she gets an opportunity that’s impossible to pass by. Leaving her home behind in the guise of a humanoid alien (holograms are so cool!), Spensa has one task – to steal the Superiority’s secret method of hyperdrive transportation.

Most of the action takes place on a space station by the eponymous name of Starsight, which is also the seat of the Superiority. This dread empire intent on humanity’s destruction turns out to be much, much different from what Spensa imagined. This galactic society is so dissimilar to the humanity of Detritus; the most striking moment that illuminated the gap between these aliens and the humans was Spensa’s reaction at the notion of graphic designers, a profession unimaginable to someone who has spent most of her life struggling for survival.

But what is this novel, at its heart?

Starsight is an exploration of the other, and a way to reconcile with it. It is a story of fear, of facing that fear and growing stronger for the staring down of it. It is a tale of friendship, loyalty and sacrifice. And it is beautiful.

On the exploration of the other, I have already said something. But let me dig a little deeper: the two sides of this other are signified by two of the Superiority’s high-ranking officer, Winzik and Cuna. A dione, Cuna is tall and wanky and inhuman, with a predatory smile that puts Spensa on edge. It’s by her invitation that the non-Superiority humanoid pilot, Alanik, is invited. “Alanik” continually questions her motives for the invitation, suspecting Cuna of seeking to use her as a spy for her own political advantage. Winzik, meanwhile, is one of the Krell, as the humans of Detritus call them, a crab-like bureaucratic creature in charge of the Defense ministry. It is his push for creating a pilot force of “lesser, non-prime intelligence aliens” that is the reason behind Spensa’s opportunity to infiltrate the Superiority.

What of fear? The closing of Skyward revealed *Skyward Ending Spoilers until the end of the paragraph* Spensa’s cytonic  and I’ll admit, it got my brows lifted in my trademark look of suspicion. Cytonics sounds positively chthonic and that, even though it means relating to inhibiting the underworld, also puts me in mind of Chthulhu nonsense! I thought with this level of exactness… and the early description of the delvers, the other-dimensional threat that casts a long shadow over much of this novel did indeed tap into that same well-spring of horror of the unknown. It’s the terror of scale, the idea that these otherworldly creatures live beyond the confines of our space and time, too great to even comprehend: “The black mass shifted toward the planet. Were those arms I picked out in the shadows? No, could they be spines? The shape seemed intentionally designed to frustrate the mind, as I tried—against reason—to make sense of what I was seeing. Soon, the blackness simply became absolute.” (39) This is but one of the quotes which plays on this fear…but in typical Sanderson fashion, both my original impressions and those of Spensa’s get twisted around in ways neither of us could’ve dreamed of by novel’s end.

I couldn’t possibly wrap this review up without talking about the new friends Spensa makes along the way. While I regret not having more of Kimmalyn, Jorgen, Cobb and the rest of our merry band of human pilots struggling for humanity’s survival present for a sizable chunk of the book, plenty of new characters make up for this. My absolute favourite new addition to the cast has to be Hesho, a tiny sentient fox monarch, the former monarch of a sizable chunk of his home planet. This member of the kitsen, as his species is called, reminds me of Spensa the way she started off – hungry for glory and heroics and not wholly conscious of the ridiculous level of cheesiness she occasionally exhibited. Some of the funniest pieces of dialogue come from Hesho’s lips: “’Ah, the indignities you must suffer when your people are a true democracy and not a shadow dictatorship ruled by an ancestral line of kings. Right?’ The other kitsen flying past raised a cheer for democracy.” (208) As you might imagine, Hesho is quite a bit removed from your average kitsen, much as he likes to claim otherwise.

He’s far from the only one. Notable characters include Morriumur, the only dione aggressive enough (in the entirety of the species) to try out for fighter piloting. There’s also Vapor, who is a fragment, a species that’s, well, vapor-like. They lack tangible bodies, instead consisting of…I don’t know exactly, some form of gas which, when they are in a resting state, has the smell of cinnamon. Invisible and able to take over electronics, Vapor makes for one of the most interesting characters introduced in Skyward’s world yet. I’m looking forward to learning more about her species.

The prose is, in the usual Sanderson fashion, perfection. It allows the reader to lose themselves fully in this world, while also opening up questions, challenging the reader’s pre-conceptions and delivering clever twists, some of which I saw coming; most of which I didn’t. The very best of escapism, in one neat package, and as you’ve no doubt seen, with a glorious Gollancz cover to grab the attention of  My Skyward cover was the US edition – which is a nice cover, don’t get me wrong, but so generic next to the Gollancz one. I now feel the desperate need to get the UK edition of Skyward as well, just so I can have both covers next to one another – that’s how good the artwork is.

This one is an ace, a 5/5 on Goodreads, a Masterwork, a 10/10! Not a dull moment to be had, not a single of the annoying elements that so often seep into books that are marketed as YA. Bravo, Brandon, you did it again, you madman.