Giving up on The City in the Middle of the Night was a hard decision that was easy to do once I made it. It has nothing to do with the book. Her writing is great, and I was drawn into the world building. Alas, I realized shortly after I picked it up that I was really, really not in the mood for science fiction. Sometimes that happens.
I had two main high-level thoughts whilst reading Gnomon, and they’ve made me undecided about whether or not I like the book.
The first was: this is a science fiction version of Foucault’s Pendulum. Gnomon has a deep debt to Umberto Eco and his everything-is-a-great-grand-scheme book from 1988. The whole book is a convoluted conspiracy that maybe didn’t start out being a conspiracy but there were patterns that turned it into a conspiracy it was meant to be all along. In this day and age, when so many people want things to be conspiracy theories that aren’t, and that turns out to be really, really damaging to society, I actually had very little patience for this (and it was the reason that I ended up skipping ahead to the ending after reading about half the book).
The second thought is that you can tell, as he’s laying the groundwork for the conspiracy in the early chapters, that he is his father’s son. John LeCarré is, of course, a master at telling these kinds of stories and Harkaway has learned the mechanics from him. It’s well done and to be admired.
So: while the mechanics are very well done, the overall story wasn’t one I wanted to read. So I didn’t.
This is a universe where monsters are created when people commit horrific acts. August is one of those monsters, created from a school shooting. Kate is human, the daughter of a mobster who keeps people safe from the monsters by controlling them much like he controlled (controls? it’s not quite clear how in the past it is) his crime empire. Kate is on her way to becoming a different, very human kind of monster, while August just wants to be human.
These books are a very sweet story about two people who become friends and grow up under what can only be called very trying circumstances. Recommended if you’re at all into YA or that particular branch of science fiction.
Can I interest you in an angry woman? One who wants power and has been kept on the sidelines her whole life? One who gains the ability to turn people into ash, and still can’t get the men in power to take her seriously?
How about a different angry woman – this one is quiet and uses her super-power to look like other people. You don’t really know what she looks like until the end of the book, and it’s not the point anyway. But she is out for herself, and slipping between the cracks to hide after she’s taken what’s hers and that’s another kind of power.
Or maybe an angry teenager, one who is growing up slower than normal because her power to bring things back from the dead also makes her cold and her body function slower than it should. I don’t think she wants to be normal, per se, but her life is definitely not even close. She might like at least one normal teenage experience in her life.
How about two angry men, one who can control pain and the other who can heal, who are so alike it’s ridiculous, each determined to end the other?
I read Vengeful right after the Dr Christine Blasey Ford hearings. It was perfect for my mood, and it might be VE Schwab’s best book yet. It was definitely better than Vicious, her earlier book in this series, which was nothing to sneeze at.
The City & The City is for the Venn diagram of people who like Raymond Chandler and science fiction. It’s a mystery, a police procedural, that involves two cities that exist in the same space but in different dimensions. Sort of. The bureaucracy that governs the two cities is Kafka-esque.
The mystery could stand on its own, but would be way less intriguing without the odd Eastern European dual-citied setting. It allows for twists and turns and part of the intrigue is figuring out how the two cities coexist. Allow for some mind-twistiness with this one.
I totally read Vicious because I liked the Shades of Magic series. I liked Vicious, too – the idea behind the book is that superheroes exist and two college students (one of whom is named Victor Vale – an ideal comic book name) figure out how to turn themselves into superheroes. But something goes wrong and instead of becoming heroes, they become supervillains instead.
And that’s really all you need to know going into it. They’re friends and then they become supervillains and it’s a good story. It’s not intellectual, but it is fun and it invites you to think about the nature of good and evil, but only if you really want to.
Becky Chambers writes charming science fiction novels that are primarily about all of the forms that love and family take, and Record of a Spaceborn Few is no exception.
Humans have long since left Earth and been integrated into Galactic society, but there are people who still live on the ships they first set out on, constantly improving and working on and changing those ships so people can continue to live comfortably on them. (And in a great touch: those ships are built from dismantled skyscrapers and other buildings and city structures from Earth – the Golden Gate Bridge or the Chrysler Building could be part of any ship.)
The plot comes from the fact that humans are relatively poor and technologically backwards and the Fleet is essentially that small town every teenager wants to leave for the big, exciting city. But there is also at least one person looking to come back, looking for a place to belong.
“All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” – Tolstoy
(Not that the book is on par with Tolstoy, but the quote is relevant here.) Record of a Spaceborn Few is the story of the town and the people in it, full of warmth and love in many different forms. Definitely recommended.
A Closed and Common Orbit has strong themes around parenthood, specifically motherhood, and about what it means to be human. There are two parallel storylines. First, in the past Pepper is one of many human girls who clean up trash for reuse and recycling, at least until she escapes; how she makes it off the world she lives on, who takes care of her, all of that. Second, in the present day, Pepper is doing something highly illegal: taking an AI who’s meant to be running a ship and put it into a human (robot) body. Her name is Sidra; how Sidra perceives the world and interacts with it and adjusts, that’s this story.
The chapters interweave, letting you see how both are forming who they are and how they react to their very different worlds. This is different form than the essentially short-story collection of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and it works.
This is a universe I love, and you so rarely get good science fiction that focuses on women. It’s all the more precious for that.
I have a sneaking suspicion that somewhere in Becky Chambers’ creative process for this book she thought, “I really miss Firefly.” This isn’t a criticism, and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet doesn’t read as fanfic. But there is some shared DNA.
Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer as a clerk, running away from something, we don’t know just what. Along the way we get to know her and her crewmates as they journey across the galaxy to create a wormhole from their destination back to civilization. It’s not set up as a series of short stories, but that’s the book’s structure – each interlude tells us something new about one of the crew or the relationship between the everyone. We get to see where everyone shines and what their flaws are.
And it’s also about getting along – and not getting along – with each other. We are different, we come from different cultures, we like different things, but in the end we’re all just trying to make our way in the world. A little understanding goes a long way.
I ended up listening to the audiobook, despite the fact that I’d bought the paperback. I’m glad I have both – I walk a lot, and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet was good company. But I also like being able to go back and pick out the particular story/chapter I want to re-read in the physical book.
The Windup Girl, overall, might be as good as the pull quote on the cover says. But I was 100% turned off by the girl-on-girl rape scene at the beginning that’s in there solely to show how the titular Windup Girl was in a slave-like situation. There were other, less sensational, ways to illustrate her slavery. Just… no.