Books: Obelisk Gate

26228034Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
Published August 18, 2016
I finished my re-read of Obelisk Gate, the second book in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, on schedule as the last book in my Reading the Hugos challenge, but I’ve been dragging my feet on writing a review for it, not because I didn’t love it (I did!) but because I’ve been exhausted this week and wanted to have the time to do it justice in review form. I considered rushing home last night and trying to write something up before the awards were announced Friday evening but was too tired to ultimately do it. The upside is that it means I get to write this review with the knowledge that for the second year in a row N.K. Jemisin has won the Hugo Award for Best Novel! It really is a deserving series, imho, her finest works of fiction (that I’ve read) to date, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the final book in the trilogy later this month. Congratulations to N.K. Jemisin!

Obelisk Gate is set in a world called the Stillness, a single supercontinent where Earthquakes occur frequently and the aftermath every few centuries results in a “Fifth Season”. Seasons are sporadic climate events which cause flora and fauna become hostile, changing their behaviour to fit the dangerous atmosphere, a time when the sky turns ashy, and human “comms” declare martial law. Seasons also inhibit civilization from ever evolving beyond a certain point. In fact, the world has only lasted this long because of orogenes, a marginalized group of people (also known by the slur “rogga”) born with the ability to manipulate thermodynamics, who can quell shakes. But orogenes are an oppressed minority, killed by those who don’t understand, or kept in check by Guardians of the Fulcrum, who can resist their power and control orogenes through fear.

Picking up right where its predecessor left off, in mid-conversation nonetheless, Obelisk Gate continues the story of Essun and her daughter Nassun. Having learned that the Earth is a) alive and b) angry, Essun learns that her old friend Alabaster, a powerful orogene, has a plan to placate Evil Earth and eliminate Seasons forever, and that he needs her help to do it. But as the Season encroaches, can she learn fast enough from Alabaster’s cryptic instructions or will they seal the fate of the world? In perhaps the more heartbreaking of the two narratives, we also backtrack to Nassun and her struggle for acceptance by her bigoted father and by the world at large.

Obelisk Gate isn’t so much a better book than The Fifth Season, as it is a worthy sequel with the advantage of reader familiarity. In her first book of this trilogy, Jemisin creates a world so different from our own and rich with detail that it’s a lot to take in. Obelisk Gate has a head start because it can assume the reader is already familiar with the mechanics and prejudices of the world from the first book in the series. This allows for an easier transition that builds on the exquisite world-building and the fully developed but flawed characters introduced in The Fifth Season to continue Essun’s story.

While its predecessor shifted between three non-linear POVs (Damaya, Syenite, and Essun), Obelisk Gate proceeds in a linear fashion, narrowing the focus to one character we’re familiar with, and one who is new to us. I remember initially finding The Fifth Season so jarring partly because Essun’s chapters are written in the second-person, a perspective I don’t think I’ve ever encountered before in published fiction! Much like adjusting to the one gender pronouns in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, where all characters including those who are biologically male are addressed as “she” and “her”, the use of second-person in The Fifth Season took some time to get used to. The second-person chapters continue in Obelisk Gate but again, with familiarity it’s an easier read.

Although the book’s setting and the abilities some of its characters exhibit place it firmly in the realm of fantasy, I’ve recommended this series successfully even to those who don’t usually read fantasy. The prose is absolutely gorgeous and the worldbuilding, while complex, is so well thought out and deep that it transcends genre. Many second books suffer from taking a step back from the action, but Obelisk Gate is far from hesitant in its storytelling. The pacing gives the characters time to breathe and develop, but also includes enough action and suspense to keep the reader engaged.

I also really enjoyed these characters. Essun has been so guarded for much of her adult life, and has been through such trauma, that she finds it difficult to connect with others, but Obelisk Gate gives her people to care about, a position in the comm that matters, and a higher purpose. I love her snarky yet caring exchanges with Alabaster, as these two share such a complicated and bitter history but they also need one another. And then there’s Nassun. My heart breaks for Nassun. As her childhood slips away forever when she realizes by calling her bigoted father “Daddy” she can more easily manipulate him to continue to see her as his daughter and not as a “rogga”, and as she falls so quickly into loving another being as a father-figure because she has been so starved of affection from those close to her.

Whether you’re a fan of fantasy novels or not, I really can’t recommend this series highly enough, and if you’re a fan of fantasy and you’ve never read any of Jemisin’s work, well what are you waiting for?! The final book in the series come out this week I believe, and I know it will be an exciting, but bittersweet experience to say goodbye to this series I love.

Books: Now I Rise

22817331Now I Rise by Kiersten White
Published June 27, 2017
Like the first book in the series, And I Darken, White’s novel is a gender-swapped YA re-imagining of Vlad the Impaler as a young woman named Lada Dracul. Determined to sit on the throne of Wallachia, which she believe to be her birthright, fierce Lada leads her men on a quest to win allies to her cause and reclaim the Wallachian throne. Her narrative is paralleled with that of her brother Radu, who is working as a spy inside Constantinople and reporting to the Sultan Mehmed.

It did take me a bit to get back into the world, but this is likely because I didn’t re-read And I Darken before diving into Now I Rise. Ultimately I found it the more engrossing book, one that takes the Dracul siblings on separate but parallel journeys. I loved the symmetry of a brother and sister with different strengths who are keenly aware of each other’s gifts and of their absence.

Both characters are utterly fascinating. Lada is fierce and often downright mean. Her methods, at least initially, involve force, but she begins to long for her brother’s skill at subtlety and politics as the road to the throne proves more difficult than she had expected. In contrast, while he feels guilt about his deception, Radu effectively uses subterfuge and skillful persuasion to help the Sultan bring about the fall of Constantinople. However, he often thinks of his sister and her more straightforward methods of obtaining the same result.

I enjoyed the first book in the series, And I Darken, giving it a solid four stars on goodreads, but I loved Now I Rise. Judging from others’ reviews, I’m not alone in this. I suspect this difference is because the first book introduces the world and two interesting and completely different protagonists, but Now I Rise sees Radu and Lada make choices based on what is important to them, be it power, religion, love, etc., and then feel the weight of the consequences. With each character there is a distinct sense that they have blood on their hands. These are people who have been forced to make terrible choices, and who must live with them, wondering if they have done the right thing. It’s a rough progression into adulthood, from which neither will emerge unscathed.

As someone who enjoys stories about difficult choices, and about situations where characters make decisions that are morally ambiguous, Now I Rise really appealed to me. Radu especially, but Lada as well, begin to see that things are not so simple as good and bad, and question whether the ends justify the means. Although it’s said in a different context, there’s a quote from my favourite series of books, The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, where a character gives the protagonist a piece of advice to “Speak as you would write: as if your words were letters of lead, graven there for all time, for which you must take the consequences. And take the consequences.” It’s that last line that has stuck with me over the years and I think it’s relevant here, where Lada and Radu find out the hard way the bittersweet cost attached to getting what they want and must live with it.

The minor characters in this book, on all sides, are wonderful. I loved the father-daughter relationship between Hunyadi and Lada, the friendship and feelings between Radu and Cyprian, and the support and love that Nazira (I could write paragraphs about my love for Nazira!) and Radu share. Of course there are also the complicated relationships that each Dracul sibling has with Mehmed, the Sultan.

Lada and Radu both change over the course of their journeys, becoming less naive about the way things work. By the end they are no longer content to be pawns who are used/manipulated by others. While I adore Lada, her unabashed ferocity and desire to go after what she wants, it is Radu who stole my heart. His journey is especially devastating to read about as he doubts himself and all that he is doing to people he has begun to care for. Now I Rise is that most wonderful of things, a sequel that improves upon its predecessor. I cannot wait to find out the fate of the Dracul siblings when book three in the Conqueror’s Saga is published next summer!

Books: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

292838841The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
Published June 27, 2017
As a fan of musical theatre, the combination of a rakish, devious, but lovable main character named Monty, and the similarity of the title to that of one of my favourite musicals, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, meant that my first impulse was to burst into one of its song (Perhaps “It’s Better With A Man”?). Once I suppressed this urge though, I found a quick-paced YA historical fiction novel that doesn’t shy away from exploring issues of race and sexuality in 1700’s Europe.

Part of the appeal that The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue held for me was the setting. I’m a sucker for a good hist fic book, but surprisingly there are still relatively few YA historical fiction books out there. Even more unusually, The Gentleman’s Guide is set in early eighteenth century Europe, not in one of the more popular time periods (such as the Renaissance, Victorian era, or the Regency). The story follows Henry “Monty” Montague, a young gentleman who enjoys gambling halls, alcohol, and trysts with both men and women. Monty is expected to settle down and take over his family’s estate, but first he gets to embark on a final hurrah, a Grand Tour of Europe. He’s accompanied by best friend, Percy, who he is secretly in love with, and his practical and bookish younger sister Felicity.  Monty’s light fingered approach soon turns the trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt though, and secrets are revealed on all fronts.

Monty is definitely a flawed character. Although he has dashing good looks, dimples, and is sometimes a quick thinker, he’s also impulsive, reckless, and an insatiable flirt who dulls the pain of his seemingly unrequited crush on Percy through alcohol. More than once Monty lands the travelling group in trouble because he hasn’t stopped and thought about his actions. Yet his ardor for Percy is real, and it’s this earnest emotion that makes Monty a character that we root for, despite his flaws.

Percy, on the other hand, is a hard character not to like. His heritage and identity as the ward of nobles, but also a biracial man in a time when slavery still existed, is deftly handled. My only complaint is that because Percy is so proper and has learned to act in accordance with social customs, because as a man of colour he can’t get away with Monty’s wild actions, we don’t get as much insight into Percy’s thoughts as I would have liked.

The great surprise was Felicity though. Barely mentioned in the summaries for this book, this lone central female character is an absolute delight. Monty’s capable younger sister longs to study medicine, can always be found with her nose in a book, and acts a bit as the Hermione of this trio, practical and collected in a crisis. I loved her slightly abrasive, but genuinely loving underneath sibling relationship with Monty and how she doesn’t shrink away from what needs to be done.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue does rely heavily on one of the oldest tropes in the book, miscommunication. However in this setting, where a man choosing to reveal his love for another man could not only result in the loss of a friend but also a fate at the end of a hangman’s noose, the miscommunication is effectively employed.

The story itself is a tremendous amount of fun. Once The Grand Tour goes off the rails, the resulting adventure involves robbery by highwaymen, imprisonment, pirates, poisoning, and more. Author Mackenzi Lee moves the action along at a brisk pace, but gives us quieter interludes where Percy and Monty can share a moment, or reflect on themselves. Remarkably, although the novel generally has a light tone, it discusses a wide range of serious issues that effect our characters, such as homophobia, abuse, racism, disability, and sexism with the appropriate consideration they deserve. The friendship between Percy and Monty is deep and affectionate, and it develops believably, although both characters have wounds past and present to overcome.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is an enjoyable YA historical fiction read that uses its 1700’s setting to explore serious issues of race, disability, and homosexuality. I loved the relationship between Percy and Monty, and this book also features one of the best central trios I’ve ever encountered. I also loved the fact that the end includes detailed author’s notes that place the book into its historical context! Definitely recommended, especially as a fun summer read.

Books: All The Birds In The Sky

25372801All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Published January 26, 2016
All the Birds in the Sky is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Seeming to transcend genre, (the closest match I could come up with is magic realism speculative fiction) the book deals with serious themes of nature vs. technology and climate change, through two outsider pre-teen protagonists who just might grow-up to destroy, or save, the world. While some building blocks of the story will feel familiar (boy meets girl, they’re from completely different worlds, etc.), All the Birds in the Sky is a unique novel that offers a lot to admire, including a two-second time machine, a matchmaking AI, and a snarky parliament of birds.

Beginning in childhood, All the Birds in the Sky tells the story of Patricia Delfine, a witch who can talk to animals, and Laurence Armstead, a science and technology genius, who builds a two-second time machine in middle school and tries to perfect artificial intelligence in his bedroom closet.  Set apart by their odd “witchiness” and aptitude for technology respectively, they are bullied and ostracized by their peers, and misunderstood by their parents. This adversity makes wary allies and then genuine friends out of Patricia and Laurence, despite their very different world views. They reconnect as adults in San Francisco, but Patricia and Laurence are on opposite sides of a war between science and magic set against the eco-apocalypse, and the fate of the world depends on them both. Probably.

I really loved Patricia. In a less-talented author’s story, I could so easily see her being relegated to the manic pixie dream girl role, but fortunately for the reader, in All the Birds in the Sky she’s a flawed character who lives a life independent of her love interests. Working crappy server/waitress types of jobs during the day, by night she tries to make up for past mistakes by using her magic to discreetly help people, in ways that include easing an AIDS patient’s pain and ensuring an addict can never use again. Patricia’s greatest struggle is that her large heart and desire to help everyone leads her to close-calls with the magic-users’ principle of enforcing humility through warning against aggrandizement, the principle of thinking too highly of yourself or your powers. I also loved that in times of panic Patricia remains calm and thinks practically, but she still feels very deeply.

I wasn’t quite as connected to Laurence, who comes off a little ungrateful and demanding at times, but he mostly won me over. The secondary characters are well-rendered, each feeling distinct and interesting, and I liked that most of the characters are shades of grey rather than solely good or evil. The author also casually includes a non-binary character as one of Patricia’s friends, which is fabulous to see in SFF.

Aside from the characters, I also really enjoyed the science vs. magic/nature vs. technology theme of the novel. Patricia, who can talk to animals, and Laurence, an engineering genius, are set up respectively as the embodiment of nature and technology, but although these concepts seem to be opposites, it turns out there’s more common ground than initially expected. Without giving away too much, the overarching idea seems to be that things are better when humans communicate and work together than when we act without understanding, which I think is important.

The prose is generally simple but effective for the story Anders is telling, and she sprinkles humour throughout, not in a Pratchett or Douglas Adams way where humour is the predominant quality, but I definitely chuckled from time-to-time.

I do have a few complaints. The assassin subplot that runs through the first part of the novel in the presence of creepy Mr. Rose is abandoned without much in the way of follow-up. I also found the end of the world came on very suddenly. Admittedly I can see how this would be the case. Mentions and vague threats about the impact of climate change are there in the background of the novel, just as in the present day, so a quick escalation to disasters that threaten the planet makes sense, I just didn’t see it coming and felt a bit blindsided as All the Birds in the Sky built to its climax. Ultimately though, these are minor complaints in a short, unique novel that’s well worth your time.


Books: Too Like The Lightning

26114545Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer
Published May 10, 2016
When I updated my progress on goodreads to 80% of the way through this 432 page book I still didn’t know whether I was interested in continuing this series – not exactly a ringing endorsement. As it turns out, taking a step away from the book for an extended weekend (it was both too dense for me to read between plays at the Toronto Fringe Festival, and physically too heavy a hardcover for me to carry around when I was travelling between venues on foot) brought some much needed clarity. I didn’t miss Too Like The Lightning when I put it down. Not even a little. Much like the first volume of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (not the odious second volume), it’s the kind of book that is clever and will appeal very much to a certain type of person. That person just isn’t me.

The story is told through a framing device, with Mycroft Canner recording his version of events for a distant future reader, but in the style of an Eighteenth century account. Throughout the story he maintains a dialogue with the reader, imagining our reactions to certain narrative choices. Through Mycroft’s eyes we learn about the 25th century. On the surface, this world is a utopia, where people can use a vast network of cars to travel to different continents in a matter of hours, lifespans have reached 150 years, nation loyalties are no more and so there is world peace. Fear of organized religion, caused by religious violence, has led the world to outlaw the public practice of any kind of religion, yet there are mandated weekly one-on-one sessions with sensayers, a sort of spiritual counselor who present answers to spiritual questions from multiple belief systems. Gender distinctions have become distinctly taboo so most use the neutral pronouns thee and thou, and there is an extreme form of censorship that requires complex labeling of all public writing and speech. Oh, and there’s a boy who can bring inanimate objects to life which threatens the very stability of the world.

Palmer has created the ultimate unreliable narrator in Mycroft Canner, a convict who has been sentenced in the 25th century way (based on an idea from Sir Thomas More that was never actually implemented), to wander the earth, without home or property, serving at the command of any citizen who needs labour. Allusions to the severity of Mycroft’s crime are scattered throughout the text. For example, the name Mycroft is no longer one that people use, and Canner’s identity is kept a secret from all but a select group of citizens. It’s more than halfway through the book before the reader learns exactly what Mycroft did and, as our narrator would no doubt say, “Beware reader! it’s gory!”

Unsurprisingly, since she is a professor in the history department at the University of Chicago, Palmer’s first novel is heavily influenced by the eighteenth century Enlightenment period (especially the writings of Voltaire) and by humanist thought. It makes for a weighty philosophic read, but I thought the author’s ambitious emphasis on ideas hindered her plot development and her characters.

I had a number of issues with Too Like The Lightning. I found it slow moving, with more politicking than plot. I usually enjoy works that involve political intrigue, but I just didn’t find it very interesting here, perhaps because I didn’t have a strong connection to any of the characters, and therefore didn’t care which group came out on top. I liked the characters, I just didn’t fully connect with any of them and I don’t feel invested enough to continue the series and learn their fates. I was also disappointed that the story doesn’t stand alone very well. There are some books in a series where there are unfinished threads leading to the next volume of a series, but also a clear sense that a chapter of a larger story has finished. I didn’t get that with Too Like The Lightning.

For all this negativity, there are things I admired about the novel. It’s unique. I have never read anything like Too Like The Lightning before, and as much as I love the science-fiction and fantasy genre, it’s a rare thing to encounter a book that’s so completely different from anything that came before. The world building is also tremendous. To knock down the world we’ve known, one with gender distinctions, religion, and loyalty to nations, Palmer creates new systems of belonging for her 25th century setting.

Instead of nations there are seven supranational bodies called Hives, which people join based on their shared interests, rather than their place of birth, seemingly based on the idea that “what we choose means more than what is handed to us by chance.” Instead of families there is the bash’ system (derived from the Japanese “basho”) where individuals are born into a bash’ but often choose to leave and join or start a new bash’ in their twenties based on mutual interests and values.

The world is diverse, and the use of gender pronouns is unusual. The world claims to be a strictly gender neutral society where the usage of gendered pronouns is taboo, but Mycroft suggests that the world is not truly a gender neutral society, but just pretends to be gender neutral. He breaks this restriction on social custom often by including gendered pronouns in his narrative, and yet these correspond with his impression of how individuals fit his ideas of gender, not their biological sex. Cousins, the spiritual Hive of sensayers, are referred to with the feminine pronoun, even when they are biologically male, like Carlyle Foster, and the wolfish Dominic is given male pronouns by Mycroft despite being biologically female. I gather from the author’s answer to a question on goodreads that the intention is to make the reader feel uncomfortable and to present a world that has failed on the gender conversation, and given up too easily, but I don’t think this point comes across in the text.

All in all, Too Like The Lightning is a frustrating read. At its best it presents intriguing world building and visions of a possible future with a centrally controlled car system that makes traveling an ease. It also stimulates important thought about the place of gender, religion, and censorship in our world. However, it’s a confusing novel that’s sometimes downright incomprehensible, weighed down by its own ideas. Although I don’t think Too Like The Lightning succeeds in its ambitions, I can’t help but admire its creativity.

Books: The Refrigerator Monologues

32714267The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente, Illustrations by Annie Wu
Published June 6, 2017

With sharp and pointed prose, Catherynne Valente riffs on the fates of women in superhero comics in The Refrigerator Monologues. This short story collection tells the stories, in their own words, of the six women who make up the Hell Hath Club, a support group where deceased girlfriends, wives, and others killed because of their association with a comic book hero or anti-hero, meet to share their stories. Although this quick read is often not subtle in its critique of the way women in comics are written, the stories are compelling and Valente’s unique prose fits this concept to a T.

In some ways Valente’s prose reminds me of reading a Neil Gaiman book. Both authors are fountains of unique, imaginative, playful, and sometimes dark ideas, who come up with worlds and concepts so wildly inventive and full of colour that I can’t begin to imagine what being inside their brains must be like. I’d previously read a few books in Valente’s Fairyland series and while I enjoyed the unique turns of phrase and creativity in her world, it didn’t quite capture me emotionally. Despite its short length, I thought The Refrigerator Monologues was more successful at getting me to connect with its characters.

The title plays on “women in refrigerators” or “fridging”, the term that comics writer Gail Simone coined to sum up the common trope in which female comics characters meet tragic ends purely to advance the (straight, white) male hero’s story and character development. As a critique of this lazy writing, The Refrigerator Monologues is incredibly effective.

These women are often just as, if not more, capable as their hero boyfriends. There’s the scientist whose formula creates her boyfriend’s powers, the woman whose own powers grow to such heights that her hero friends view her as a threat and seek to cut her down, and yes, an actual woman in a refrigerator, gruesomely murdered to send a message to her newly powered boyfriend. The voices of all six women are full of rage and regret, and no small amount of bitterness (generally justifiably, although it does make some of the chapters run together rather than stand as distinct voices). They are women who never had the agency in life to be at the center of their stories, to have stories at all that didn’t revolve around the male hero, but here in Deadtown they finally have the chance to share their version of events.

Paige Embry, Julia Ash, Pauline Ketch, Blue Bayou, Daisy Green, and Samantha Dane. They all feel real, and they’re generally well differentiated from one another. Despite all being women in comics who met similar unjust ends, their backstories are very different. I gather from other reviewers that there are echoes of actual comics women here (notably Gwen Stacey and Karen Page) but I wasn’t familiar enough with the genre to pick out these references (except Harley Quinn – that one was obvious even to those who have never read a Batman or Harley Quinn comic in their lives!). Comics knowledge is an asset, but by no means a requirement to enjoy this book though. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the genre understands the frustration of watching female characters used only to further the male narrative.

I’m not usually one for short story collections, but with The Refrigerator Monologues Valente creates six compelling stories that are seamlessly joined together through brief interludes in Deadtown. The world of Deadtown itself is subtly, but well, drawn and the comic backstories of each character are well thought through. The author has obviously worked hard to construct believably superhero and villain names that are not already in use, and plots and side characters that you could see truly existing as fully fledged comics in their own right.

It’s not a perfect book, I found the Pauline Ketch character grating, and although the critique of the way comics women are written is important, it’s a little heavy-handed. Still, this collection is worthy of admiration. The other women are engaging, their tragic fates induced the appropriate bitterness and pathos in me, and the world-building is tremendous. The Refrigerator Monologues is an insightful and creative read that most will enjoy.

Books: Tash Hearts Tolstoy

29414576Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee
Published June 6, 2017
A story of internet fame, friendship, and family, Tash Hearts Tolstoy is an enjoyable YA contemporary read that offers more in the way of plot tension, both from internal and external factors, than some of its fluffier YA peers. Admittedly YA contemporary is not my genre, but I was won over by Tash Hearts Tolstoy, admiring the creativity and determination of its seventeen-year-old protagonist, the depiction of an underrepresented sexuality, and the realistically rendered characters, who each have quirks and flaws.

The book is told from the perspective of Natasha “Tash” Zelenka, co-creator of an amateur webseries based on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina called “Unhappy Families”. Tash wants nothing more than for the show to find an audience, but when it’s mentioned by a superstar vlogger, she gets more than she bargains for as the show suddenly takes off. Although she loves the positive comments and attention the series is getting, Tash dwells on the few negative reviews it receives and feels pressure to deliver the series to a satisfying end. When “Unhappy Families” is nominated for a prestigious Golden Tuba award, her cyber-flirtation with fellow nominee Thom Causer has the potential to become something more, but only if she can figure out how to tell her crush that she’s romantic asexual.

At a time when we’re finally seeing better representation for people of different races, religions, and sexualities in books, TV, and movies, asexuality is still woefully under depicted. I can count on one hand the number of explicitly asexual characters I’ve encountered in fiction, let alone ace protagonists, and I can’t tell you how important I think Natasha “Tash” Zelenka will be for asexual teens. To be told that they are valid, that they’re not broken, and for romantic asexuals (who experience romantic feelings but aren’t interested in sex) to know that it’s possible to have a relationship and be loved for who they are is crucial. I loved that Tash is sure of her sexuality and not willing to compromise again on sex, but she’s also struggling with labels and with how to explain her feelings and lack of them to others.

As someone who generally doesn’t read a lot of lighter novels, I was relieved to find that while Tash Hearts Tolstoy is certainly still a positive book, it has a little less fluff and a little more grit to it than some other books in the genre. The characters here have a lot to deal with. Money is an issue, illness, changes to the family structure, concerns over which university to attend, internet fame and internet hate, and arguments with family all play a role in the story, as well as the more typical YA concerns of relationship drama and group dynamics.

I loved that the characters all felt so real to me. Tash is endearing, a protagonist who is creative and takes the initiative to begin a production company with her friend and embark on adapting a classic Russian novel into a more accessible contemporary web series. She has goals, passionate interests, and even makes a habit of talking to a poster of scowling young Leo Tolstoy that hangs in her room. This kind of history crush is definitely something I can understand (I have definitely never talked to my print of William Pitt the Younger addressing the House of Commons, nope not at all).

I also liked Tash’s friends and family. George, who seems like a bit of a prick, is definitely conceited but he also has moments where he comes through. Tash’s best friend Jack is calm and collected, able to remain clear-headed on set when Tash is overcome by emotion, but Jack is also not demonstrative, and can be prickly and tactless. Each character is distinct and flawed, yet their good qualities also shine through.

Just because I don’t watch any webseries doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the effort, creativity, and dedication that must go into making one, and Tash Hearts Tolstoy offers a fascinating glimpse into the process. I really enjoyed reading the descriptions of scheduling, adapting scenes, and even worrying about things such as continuity, while constructing a popular webseries.

The rather large downside is that even this novel with an asexual protagonist has the obligatory YA love triangle. When will our society be free of the love triangle plot device?! I don’t think it was necessary here, and a meeting with one point of the triangle that is obviously influenced by the kinds of skeptical comments asexual people sometimes receive (but how do you know you don’t like sex until you’ve tried it? etc.) struck me as a little forced. Also, as nice a symbolic gesture as it is, I found a late in the novel decision Tash makes to be rather silly, all things considered. My complaints are minor though in the face of this enjoyable book that offers important representation and characters that I wanted to spend more time with.

Books: A Closed and Common Orbit

2qir5w7A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Published October 20, 2016
Looking for a much-needed escape from the dystopian genre that’s so prevalent in fiction today, or from the real world political landscape? Becky Chambers’ Hugo-nominated follow-up to 2014’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is the remedy.

A Closed and Common Orbit is the rare sequel that manages to improve on its predecessor. As much as I loved The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, I thought the book’s lack of overarching plot and the absence of any tension made it feel more like a series of vignettes than a narrative with any purpose. Chambers’ talent for creating characters who are uniquely likable and the diversity of species and cultural norms that she injects into her writing meant that The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet still worked exceptionally well, but I appreciated the more directed plot this time around. I also enjoyed the parallels between the present and past timelines, both of which are coming-of-age stories about identity, friendship, and carving a place for yourself in the world.

Told through alternating chapters, A Closed and Common Orbit consists of two parallel stories. The primary narrative, which picks up 28 minutes after the events of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (and therefore involves heavy spoilers for the end of the first Wayfarers book), belongs to the ship’s AI formerly known as Lovelace. New to existence itself, she also has to come to terms with the unexpected manner of her existence, living in an artificial body (she calls it “the kit”) that was never meant for her, and passing for a human being. Despite support from Pepper, a tech and maternal figure who gives her a job and a place to stay, and Pepper’s partner Blue, Sidra struggles to identify with her physical body and to see the body as a reflection of who she is on the inside. I suspect this will resonate with some readers, as will Sidra’s fear that someone will discover who she really is.

The other story is set twenty years in the past and follows a young Pepper, known in these chapters as Jane 23. Created as part of a slave class by a rogue society of genetic engineers, ten-year-old Jane labors in a factory, drinks her meals, and has never seen the sky. But when an industrial accident gives her a chance to escape, she hides away in a nearby junkyard and spends her teenage years building a way off of the planet.

There’s something empowering in reading about these two young women who are shaped by tragic pasts, but who start over, gain autonomy, and shape their own identities. Pepper uses her gift for fixing things to make a life for herself and a living in her shop. Although Sidra is uncomfortable in her own artificial skin, she uses her ability to acquire knowledge by downloading files through the Linkings to find solutions to her problems, including flaws in her programming, and demonstrates a love of learning. Both characters quite literally name themselves and become more than they were engineered, or programmed, originally to be.

As in her first novel, Chambers’ demonstrates great imagination and diversity in her creation of original alien species. For example, the Aeluons are a four-gendered society who communicate through colour-flashing cheek patches. Differences are respected and welcomed, and although the Firefly-esque found family crew of the Wayfarer is nowhere to be found in this book, the idea that friendship and the families you choose are every bit as, if not more, important than romantic or sexual love, sends a positive message. Through Sidra and the plight of other AIs, as well as the genetically engineered slave class children like Jane 23, Chambers argues that marginalized groups are human too and worthy of respect, support, and equality.

A Closed and Common Orbit is a genuinely moving tale of likable characters, who you will root for, finding themselves and finding strength in each other. It’s empowering and it is affirming, saying that it’s okay to be different, to feel anxious, to need help and to receive it. Although there is an unfortunate rushed feeling to the ending, as if an awards show has started playing the music and Chambers knows she needs to wrap up ASAP, it’s a minor complaint about a wonderful book, and I for one can’t wait to read whatever she has in store for readers next!