Books: Obelisk Gate

26228034Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
Published August 18, 2016
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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.

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Books: All The Birds In The Sky

25372801All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Published January 26, 2016
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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
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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: A Closed and Common Orbit

2qir5w7A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Published October 20, 2016
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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!

Books: The Dark Forest

23168817The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu, Translated by Joel Martinsen
Published August 11, 2015
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In the first volume of Cixin Liu’s Hugo-nominated Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, a secret military project sent signals into space to make contact with aliens. The signal was captured by an alien race on the brink of destruction, who formulate a plan to travel to Earth, a trip that will take four centuries, and stage an invasion. The Dark Forest continues this story. Although their ships will not arrive for 400 years, the Trisolarans have planted sophons, subatomic particles that give them access to all human information on Earth, making it nearly impossible for humanity to form a response that the aliens will not see coming. Only the human mind remains a secret.

As a result, the Wallfacer Project is formed, a plan that grants four selected individuals almost unlimited resources to design separate and secret strategies, which are to be hidden from both Earth and Trisolaris through misdirection and deceit. Most of the Wallfacers are influential statesmen and scientists, but Luo Ji is a wildcard. A Chinese astronomer and sociologist of seemingly little consequence, he is baffled by his new status, and yet he is the one Wallfacer that Trisolaris fears.

Is there some pay-off at the end of the book? Yes. Is it enough to justify slogging through 500 pages of this? Not even close.

I was acutely aware that the first book in the series, The Three-Body Problem, was not my kind of book (see my review here), and yet I was capable of admiring its merits and understanding why it had been so acclaimed. Not so with The Dark Forest. The book suffers from a bad case of Second Book Syndrome and manages to not only be dull and devoid of interesting characters, but also uncomfortably misogynistic throughout.

It is clear that characters are not a strength of Cixin Liu’s. Most of his characters have so few distinguishing characteristics that they all blend together into one bland, not particularly likable, type. The female characters, of which there are few, fare even worse. His women exist primarily as love interests for the male characters, who lead, make the tough decisions, and generally hold positions of importance, including all four Wallfacer appointments. This may be a realistic stance. Given the state of the world today I suspect men would be chosen, based on the assumption that they have a stronger background in both scientific accomplishments and strategic warfare, and yet I can’t help thinking how much more interesting the story would have been (in the hands of another writer that is) if a female perspective and plan had been included.

I could have put aside the lack of main female characters if the minor characters had been three-dimensionally written, but there are problems here too. Multiple women (again, from a small cast of female characters to begin with) betray their husbands, enough to make me wonder if the author has some unresolved issues. Additionally, The Dark Forest opens with its womanizing main character’s latest fling being killed in an attack on them both and the main character initially can’t even remember her name. When he does, the author never reveals it.

But the most offensive portrayal of women comes from the main character, Luo Ji, falling in love with an imaginary perfect woman that he has created. Far from being told this is abnormal, the doctor tells him he doesn’t have a sickness, he just has natural literary talent in creating a character so real the writer is unable to control them. “There’s nothing excessive about imagination. Especially where love is concerned,” says the doctor. It’s a scene made particularly ironic by the fact that Cixin Liu’s characters are so one-dimensional it’s hard to imagine any of them having a mind of their own.

Luo Ji is so infatuated with this non-existent women that it destroys his one close relationship with a real woman. When he is appointed a Wallfacer and has the resources of the world at his disposal in order to save the planet, he uses them to find a real woman who fits exactly the image he has in his head, by describing the woman to his bodyguard and asking him to find her and bring her to him. The imaginary woman is described as:

“She… how should I put it? She came into this world like a lily growing out of a rubbish heap, so… so pure and delicate, and nothing around her can contaminate her. But it can all harm her. Yes, everything around her can hurt her! Your first reaction when you see her is to protect her. No, to care for her, to let her know that you are willing to pay any price to shield her from the harm of a crude and savage reality.”

“She likes to wear-how would you put it?-simple, elegant clothing, a little plainer than other women her age.” Luo Ji nodded dumbly, over and over, but there’s always something white, like a shirt or a collar, that contrasts sharply with the dark colors of the rest of her outfit… Finally, she’s not tall, one hundred and sixty centimeters or so, and her body is…well I guess you could say slender, as if a gust of wind could blow her away.”

In a particularly unbelievable turn of events, the bodyguard finds a woman who exactly matches this description, brings her to Luo Ji, and they proceed to fall in love and have a child together. The impending alien invasion is easier to believe than this ridiculous plot twist. After they’ve been together for a few years, long enough for her to produce a child, the woman (Yan Yan) is quite literally fridged! She’s put into refrigerated hibernation along with her daughter, effectively held as hostages to ensure that Luo Ji does his duty as a Wallfacer by producing a strategy! If this wasn’t disturbing enough, Yan Yan herself is infantilised, described repeatedly as innocent, trusting, and childlike (all of the following quotes come from just five pages):

“Looking at her innocently holding the wineglass stirred the most delicate parts of his mind. She drank when invited. She trusted the world and had no wariness about it at all. Yes, everything in the world was lying in wait to hurt her, except here. She needed to be cared for here.”

“She flashed him that innocent smile that dashed his heart to pieces.”

“She tilted her head, giving his heart a jolt. The naive expression was one he had seen on her countless times before.”

“The look in her eyes was one of slight curiosity mixed with goodwill and innocence.”

“He was completely overcome by her childlike nature.”

Putting aside the poorly written characters and sexism, there are things that keep The Dark Forest from being a complete dud. The book has less of a focus on physics and hard science-fiction, which makes it easier to understand for those of us without a science background. The translation, by Joel Martinsen instead of Ken Liu, also seems better and less clumsy this time around, although there is some purple prose that I’m not sure if I should attribute to Liu or to Martinsen.

The concept is interesting, and I particularly enjoyed the parts of the novel set in the more distant future and the glimpses at technology in this world. Leaf houses, screens on every flat surface, personalized ads (including an ad for a bandage shortly after a character is in an accident) are all imaginatively rendered and created a detailed picture in my head. There are also scattered moments of humour, such as when a character is repeatedly targeted for assassination, but is informed that he will receive compensation for each failed attempt on his life. Each Wallfacer’s plan is also interesting to read about.

The Dark Forest paints a rather grim, but realistic I think, portrait of humanity and how we would react to a crisis like this. When humanity is aware that the Trisolaran fleet will be coming for them and strategies for survival are looking uncertain at best, some try to escape but Escapism is banned, as humanity can’t decide on who should be allowed to survive. Of course the most interesting part of the novel is the reason for its title. I’ve whited this out and warned for spoilers below, so scroll past if you’re considering reading this.

*SPOILERS for the end of the book/central concept*

In sharp contrast to the optimism of Star Trek with its United Federation of Planets, the author presents a dark answer to the Fermi paradox, proposed by physicist Enrico Fermi in 1950, which asks why humans haven’t seen evidence of intelligent aliens when the probability of their existence is high. The novel takes its name from the analogy used to describe the state of the universe. Liu posits that the universe is a “dark forest”, which is populated by predatory species who will wipe out lesser beings. Most intelligent life forms therefore know well enough to keep quiet in order to preserve their existence, but “there’s a stupid child called humanity, who has built a bonfire and is standing beside it shouting, ‘Here I am! Here I am!’ In sending a signal to the universe, humanity has made itself vulnerable. 

*End of SPOILERS*

I’m a keen supporter of diverse voices in books and particularly in Science-Fiction, a genre which is still predominantly being written by white men, but that diversity shouldn’t come at the cost of three-dimensional female characters. I wavered stubbornly over whether I should try to finish the series in the name of reading all of the Hugo award nominees for best novel this year, but reviews for Death’s End, the final volume in the series, have convinced me that this would be a waste of my time. With no one to root for and the book often demonstrating the worst of human civilization, it’s difficult to care about whether humanity survives or not. It’s a shame that the potential of The Three-Body Problem was squandered in such a way.

Reading the Hugos: Ninefox Gambit

26118426Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Published June 14, 2016
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Ninefox Gambit marks a couple of personal firsts for me. It’s the official start of my challenge to read all of this year’s Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel (I read The Three-Body Problem, the first book in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, earlier this month but its the final book that is nominated this year for Best Novel). It also marks my first venture into the military sci-fi subgenre. I had my doubts about the subgenre, wondering if the battles waged would be detrimental to the development of interesting three-dimensional characters, but as it turns out, I worried for nothing. Ninefox Gambit is an enjoyable and completely unique read, although not always easy to understand.

When Captain Kel Cheris bends the rules, using heretical tactics to save her teammates from death, she is disgraced and her team disbanded. However, Kel Command gives her a chance to redeem herself by taking part in a plot to retake the Fortress of Scattered Needles from the heretics. To do so, she must ally with the undead Shuos Jedao, a tactician who has never lost a battle and may be able to successfully besiege the fortress. However, Jedao is remembered for going mad in his first life and murdering two armies, one of them his own. And he’ll be in Kel Cheris’ head the whole time.

The one issue I had with this book was that I felt it desperately needed either an extra paragraph in the synopsis that said something about the world, or a glossary to keep track of the character names, factions, and even maneuvers Yoon Ha Lee throws at the reader with limited explanation. Ninefox Gambit is one of those books that throws you into the deep end and hopes you can swim. Now this isn’t something that puts me off a book (I am a Dorothy Dunnett fan after all!), but it can make things difficult in a science-fiction setting where the reader is left to concentrate not just on the story but also on trying to figure out the make up and rules of an entirely new world with limited guidance.

Here’s the context I wish I had known when I started this novel. It’s set in the hexarchate, a far-future society that relies on advanced mathematics to produce a shared calendar that is more than just a measurement of time and that shapes everything. The large volume of people all adhering to the high calendar and celebrating the same holidays produces exotic effects that seem almost magical. However, the effects only work as long as everyone follows the same calendar. Since most of the hexarchate weapons and technology are exotic, dissidents can cripple hexarchate technology by changing the calendar and therefore the math that underlies reality. Dissidents, seen as heretics, are punished severely by the empire, destroyed whole planets at a time, so the hexarchate is perpetually at war.

The world has six different factions (hence hexarchate), including the technology-oriented Nirai who have knowledge of mathematics, the warrior Kel who routinely carry out dangerous and sometimes suicidal military missions, and the cunning, amoral Shuos who carry out intelligence and are responsible for strategy and tactics. If you’re interesting in reading Ninefox Gambit, I recommend checking out the author’s faction cheat sheet, published on his website by reader request, which looks really helpful for keeping the factions straight!

The world building is evidently really unique and well thought-out, I just didn’t feel like I had the context to grasp it all and it did detract from the reading experience for me. There is a lot to love about Ninefox Gambit though, especially the main characters.

Cheris is an instantly likable character. A mathematical genius, she has the ability to be one of the Nirai, the technology-oriented faction, but chooses to join the military Kel faction because she wants to be part of a team. Aside from being a female math genius and a skilled warrior(!), Cheris has a signifier, the Ashhawk Sheathed Wings, that means she’s very mentally stable, she is a mediocre duelist, and she unwinds by watching ridiculous dramas.

It’s her push and pull interactions with Shuos Jedao, the shifty imprisoned immortal General, that make the book for me. The relationship is one of necessity and mutual dependence. Cheris needs his tactics to stand a chance at her nearly impossible mission to retake the fortress, while for Jedao it presents an opportunity to to escape his immortal imprisonment in the bleak black cradle for a time, but does he have an ulterior motive? Cheris’ internal thoughts as she tries to determine how much she can trust this man and how much he is keeping from her are really interesting.

I really enjoyed Ninefox Gambit and I will definitely be hunting down the second book in the series, The Raven Strategem, which comes out in June. Part-way through the book I remarked that it was a cross between Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy and I hold to that, although I think there’s a dash of The Traitor Baru Cormorant in there as well. It adds up to a totally unique concoction and now that I’ve familiarized myself with the world, I can’t wait to see what Yoon Ha Lee does with it next! Recommended if you like your sci-fi political, smart, and sometimes complicated, but also a lot of fun.

Books: The Three-Body Problem

20518872The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
Published November 11, 2014 (originally published 2007)
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Objectively I can see why The Three-Body Problem is so acclaimed. The concept behind it is fascinating, the science is well thought out, and although the book is set during and directly following China’s Cultural Revolution, it touches on themes that are relevant today. Personally though, I found The Three-Body Problem a bit of a slog.

There are a few reasons why the book didn’t click with me and the biggest one is genre. Admittedly I tend towards the Fantasy side of Science-Fiction & Fantasy. Much like my general preference for musicals over plays when it comes to live theatre, a science-fiction novel has to be really special for it to speak to me in the same way that a fantasy book does. I’ve read some fabulous science-fiction in the past few years though, including the first two books of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, Lois Mcmaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, and Erin Bow’s YA sci-fi Prisoners of Peace duology, so what was it about The Three-Body Problem that put me off?

Well, Liu’s book belongs to the “hard science fiction” sub-genre, which is characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy. To put it another way, there was too much science in this science-fiction novel for my librarian brain. Hard science isn’t an immediate no for me (I really enjoyed The Martian, I think because it was written with such a sense of humour), but it means a novel has to work harder to appeal to me, by containing a really engaging plot and/or characters who are deep and well fleshed out. I didn’t have that experience with The Three-Body Problem. Physics and math were never strong subjects for me, as evidenced by my Bachelor’s degree in English and my profession as a librarian. For many people who come from STEM-backgrounds, I expect the scientific plausibility will be a selling point rather than a detractor, I’m just not one of those people.

Across all genres, I enjoy reading about interesting, fully fleshed out characters who I can really connect with. Sadly The Three-Body Problem does not offer enough background or depth on its characters to spark a connection. I liked Wang Miao, I was intrigued by Ye Wenjie, and I appreciated Da Shi because his sarcasm and somewhat jerky behaviour at least meant that he had some personality to differentiate him from the other characters, but that was it. Without the emotional connection to characters, the most I could feel was a vague curiosity about three body and the eventual way that events will play out for the human race.

Finally, I found The Three-Body Problem really slow. I think I had read 185 pages in this nearly 400 page book before I felt like I was into it. It is the first book in a series so obviously some leeway is required to set up the world and the action, but I felt like the pacing was uneven throughout. However, it’s not all bad. There were a few things I thought the book did really well, namely:

Trisolaris. The most interesting parts of the book for me were the interludes set in the virtual reality video game world of three body. Liu creates an incredibly interesting and unique world with “chaotic” and “stable” eras, a civilization that continues to rebuild and advance in technology even after facing and being destroyed by various occurrences, and a race who dehydrate themselves in order to survive the volatile chaotic eras. These chapters were among my favourites in the book and I loved hearing about Trisolaris and its inhabitants.

Concept/Themes. It made a lot of sense to me that a character who has experienced tragedy during the Cultural Revolution and who looks around and sees the Cold War tensions of East and West decides that humanity can no longer help itself and needs outside intervention in the form of an alien race. In this day and age where the world seems to get wackier every time I check the news, the concept, while pessimistic, made a lot of sense to me (although I’m skeptical that an extraterrestrial power would be a better option).

Ultimately this just wasn’t the book for me, but I am intrigued enough to see where the story goes next. Honestly if I hadn’t committed to reading the Hugo Best Novel nominees I think I would still pick up the second book in this trilogy, but not for several months. However, I’ll be tracking down a copy and working my way through The Dark Forest in June.

Reading the Hugos

hugoawards

The finalists for the 2017 Hugo Awards, which honour achievement in science-fiction and fantasy, were announced via social media on April 4, 2017 and this year’s nominees are very exciting!

Since the awards are voted on by supporting or attending members of the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon), in recent years there has been some controversy as organized right-wing campaigns (the “Sad Puppies” and the “Rabid Puppies”) sought to undermine what they saw as a movement towards recognizing diversity and more literary takes on science-fiction and fantasy that rewarded “niche, academic, overtly to the left in ideology and flavour” works by lobbying voters to support their suggested nominees, generally white men, who likely would not be nominated otherwise. (This is my simplified view, George R.R. Martin is quite involved in the Hugo Awards and has discussed the matter more thoroughly on his Not a Blog for anyone interested).

As a result, I was extremely pleased to see such a diverse slate of nominees for this year’s awards. African-American author N.K. Jemisin, who (deservedly imho) won Best Novel last year for The Fifth Season is nominated again for her second book in the series, Obelisk Gate. In fact the Best Novel category is completely devoid of white men, while including authors who are transgender, Asian and Asian-American, and gay.

With such an exciting slate and works that look interesting and all very different from one another, I’ve decided to read all six Best Novel Hugo nominees before the winners are announced at Worldcon on August 11th! Since one of the nominees (Death’s End by Cixin Liu) is the third book in a trilogy, I’m also going to read the first two books in the series, The Three Body-Problem and The Dark Forest. I’ve already read Jemisin’s Obelisk Gate, but will be re-reading in July to prepare for the release of the final book in the trilogy, The Stone Sky, in August. This gives me 3 months to read the eight titles.

I’ve decided to stick to just the Best Novel nominees this year, but the Short Story, Novella, and Novelette nominees also look interesting. And as a sidenote for any musical theatre fans, Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs is nominated with his band Clippin’ for their album Splendor & Misery in the Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form category! I haven’t listened to it, but it was an interesting surprise when I first read the nominees!

Here are the six nominees for Best Novel that I will be reading:

Hugos

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor Books / Titan Books)
An ancient society of witches and a hipster technological startup go war as the world from tearing itself. To further complicate things, each of the groups’ most promising followers (Patricia, a brilliant witch and Laurence, an engineering “wunderkind”) may just be in love with each other.

As the battle between magic and science wages in San Francisco against the backdrop of international chaos, Laurence and Patricia are forced to choose sides. But their choices will determine the fate of the planet and all mankind.

All the Birds in the Sky offers a humorous and, at times, heart-breaking exploration of growing up extraordinary in world filled with cruelty, scientific ingenuity, and magic.

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager US)
Lovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who’s determined to help her learn and grow.

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

Death’s End by Cixin Liu (Tor Books / Head of Zeus)
Half a century after the Doomsday Battle, the uneasy balance of Dark Forest Deterrence keeps the Trisolaran invaders at bay. Earth enjoys unprecedented prosperity due to the infusion of Trisolaran knowledge. With human science advancing daily and the Trisolarans adopting Earth culture, it seems that the two civilizations will soon be able to co-exist peacefully as equals without the terrible threat of mutually assured annihilation. But the peace has also made humanity complacent.

Cheng Xin, an aerospace engineer from the early 21st century, awakens from hibernation in this new age. She brings with her knowledge of a long-forgotten program dating from the beginning of the Trisolar Crisis and her very presence may upset the delicate balance between two worlds. Will humanity reach for the stars or die in its cradle?

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris Books)
Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics. Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics. Cheris’s career isn’t the only thing at stake. If the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next.

Cheris’s best hope is to ally with the undead tactician Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress.

The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own. As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao–because she might be his next victim.

The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit Books)
The season of endings grows darker as civilization fades into the long cold night. Alabaster Tenring – madman, world-crusher, savior – has returned with a mission: to train his successor, Essun, and thus seal the fate of the Stillness forever.

It continues with a lost daughter, found by the enemy.

It continues with the obelisks, and an ancient mystery converging on answers at last.

The Stillness is the wall which stands against the flow of tradition, the spark of hope long buried under the thickening ashfall. And it will not be broken.

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer (Tor Books)
Mycroft Canner is a convict. For his crimes he is required, as is the custom of the 25th century, to wander the world being as useful as he can to all he meets. Carlyle Foster is a sensayer–a spiritual counselor in a world that has outlawed the public practice of religion, but which also knows that the inner lives of humans cannot be wished away.

The world into which Mycroft and Carlyle have been born is as strange to our 21st-century eyes as ours would be to a native of the 1500s. It is a hard-won utopia built on technologically-generated abundance, and also on complex and mandatory systems of labelling all public writing and speech. What seem to us normal gender distinctions are now distinctly taboo in most social situations. And most of the world’s population is affiliated with globe-girdling clans of the like-minded, whose endless economic and cultural competion is carefully managed by central planners of inestimable subtlety. To us it seems like a mad combination of heaven and hell. To them, it seems like normal life.

And in this world, Mycroft and Carlyle have stumbled on the wild card that may destablize the system: the boy Bridger, who can effortlessly make his wishes come true. Who can, it would seem, bring inanimate objects to life…

I have The Three-Body Problem and Ninefox Gambit checked out my local library now, so those will be my May contributions to this challenge. Stay tuned for reviews later this month!

Have you read, or are you planning to read any of this year’s Hugo nominees? What do you think of the nominees?