Saturday, April 11, 2015

Review: Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson

Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson
Published: Tor, 2011
Series: Book 3 of the Spin Sequence

Warning: This book is the final volume of a trilogy, so there are some spoilers of the first two books (Spin and Axis) ahead!

The Book:

“Turk Findley has been transported 10,000 years into the future by the Hypotheticals’ temporal arch, and now he has been taken in by a fanatical limbic democracy that expect him to facilitate their eventual glorious communion with those same Hypotheticals.  They are traveling through the series of arches that link the human worlds, moving back to the destroyed, uninhabitable Earth.

Turk is not the only survivor from his time.  Isaac Dvali, the experimental child who was created to communicate with the Hypotheticals, has also come through the temporal arch.  Turk’s other companion is Treya, a far future woman whose mind also contains the personality of a woman from his time, Allison Pearl.  In a twist of space and time, their story is filtered into the mind of a troubled young man from Turk’s past, Orrin Mather, who lives in the latter days of the dying Earth.  Tying past and future together, the story of the Spin is finally drawing to a close.” ~Allie

I’ve read a number of Robert Charles Wilson’s novels in the past, all of which I have reviewed on my blog.  I think that the more I read of his work, the more I enjoy his style of storytelling!  The Spin Sequence is a series of three novels that could be considered standalone, but which would be best read in order.  Vortex in particular feels like more of a sequel to Axis than to Spin, since it resolves the stories of two of the main characters of Axis, Turk and Isaac.  Robert Charles Wilson’s latest novel, The Affinities, will be coming out soon, on April 21st!

My Thoughts:
A different span of time is covered by each of the novels of the Spin Sequence.  Spin covered the lifetime of a group of people who experienced the night when the Hypotheticals’ shield first covered the Earth.  Axis occurred perhaps decades later, and covered specific events that occurred in a very short time frame.  Vortex ties the two schemes together with dual storylines: one that is compact in time, set in Turk’s youth, and one that is much more expansive, beginning 10,000 years later.  The two stories are connected through the character of Turk Findley and the personality of Allison Pearl, as well as by the mysterious transfer of Turk’s story from the future into the mind of Orrin Mather, a man from his past.

The two stories are linked in more subtle ways as well, such as by the development of the understanding of the Hypotheticals and by the fate of the damaged and eventually destroyed Earth.  I remember thinking in Spin that simply providing more fossil fuel resources to the Earth was not a great solution to the energy crunch problem, so I appreciated seeing the long-term effects of that play out here.  On a personal level, as well, the dual storylines address the act that has shaped and shadowed much of Turk’s life--his not-quite-accidental killing of a man, which is first mentioned in Axis.  Isaac also struggles with defining the meaning and purpose of his life, which was originally designed to serve the purposes of others.  I enjoyed the way the stories complemented each other, and was eager to learn what was behind their more mysterious, direct connection.

In addition to being nicely complementary, I felt that the two separate storylines were intriguing in their own rights.  In Turk’s past, the story was told from the point of view of the psychiatrist Sandra Cole, who is initially tasked with interviewing Orrin Mather to determine his suitability to be taken into a Texan involuntary psychiatric care system.  The cop on his case, Bose, introduces Sandra to Orrin’s story of Turk Findley’s future, and together they try to uncover the truth behind the origin of his writings and why someone seems to want him to be locked up.  The story covers a place and time in human history we haven’t seen much of in the trilogy, where the environment of the Earth is in decline and the Martian extended life treatment is a controversial issue.  The far-future is suitably strange, with the limbic democracy of the giant floating island of Vox, it’s hard-coded faith in the Hypotheticals, and the ‘cortical democracies’ that oppose them.  I enjoyed following Turk as he learned how things work in this strange new world, and saw both the appeal and horror of this particular new human way of life.  The conclusion of the series ties everything together, and it provides the kinds of revelations and explanations that I have been patiently waiting for since Spin without losing the story’s emotional, human core.  Altogether, I think this was an excellent conclusion to a highly entertaining series.

My Rating: 4.5/5  

Vortex provides a wonderful conclusion to a series that I have enjoyed, and it finally provides some of the answers to the questions first raised in Spin. The narrative manages to handle both large and small scale, by focusing on two storylines that are separated by 10,000 years.  Each of these stories are entertaining in their own right and complementary to one another, and they are tied together beautifully in the final act.  In the far future, the story follows Turk Findley, who has awaken to find himself a guest of the fanatical limbic democracy Vox, a mobile nation that is headed for the dead Earth and communion with the Hypotheticals.  His story is somehow transferred into the mind of Orrin Mather, a drifter who lived on the dying Earth in the time of Turk’s youth.  The novel relates the grandeur and horror of events that have shaped humanity and the universe, without losing touch with the emotional, human journey of its handful of characters.  I’m happy that the series has ended on such a high note, though I am a bit sad that my experience of this interesting universe and its characters has now come to a close.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Review: The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
Published: Angry Robot Books, 2014
Series: Book 1 of the WorldBreaker Saga

The Book:

On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations and reshape continents, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past...while a world goes to war with itself. In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin. At the heart of this war lie the pacifistic Dhai people, once enslaved by the Saiduan and now courted by their former masters to provide aid against the encroaching enemy.

Stretching from desolate tundra to steamy, semi-tropical climes seething with sentient plant life, this is an epic tale of blood mages and mercenaries, emperors and priestly assassins who must unite to save a world on the brink of ruin. As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war; a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family to save his skin; and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father's people or loyalty to her alien Empress.  

Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself. In the end, one world will rise - and many will perish.”

This is the third book I’ve read by Kameron Hurley.  I’ve read God’s War and Infidel from her science fiction bug-technology trilogy, and have unfortunately not yet read the conclusion, Rapture (a failure of planning, not of intent). I bought The Mirror Empire during Hurley’s book-launch promotion, so I actually have a copy with a signed book plate!  I believe I will also be receiving a review copy of The Empire Ascendant at some point, so hopefully I’ll manage to have that review up near the publication date.  In other news, Hurley is also going to be publishing a space opera novel, The Stars are Legion, in 2016!

My Thoughts:

The Mirror Empire is the first novel of an unusual, dark, epic fantasy series. If you think that the description in the blurb above sounds very complicated, that’s because it is.  While it features the usual detailed cultures and magic system of epic fantasy, the setting itself is far from ordinary.  This is world of organic buildings and mobile, carnivorous plants, where the magic rises and falls with the prominence of the various satellites.  It is also a world that can be connected through blood portals to other, ‘mirror’ worlds, where the same peoples have experienced differing histories that have led to a wildly diverging present. There’s a massive amount of information to take in, but it is revealed only as it becomes directly relevant.  This approach avoids long explanatory sections, but also makes it a little difficult to get a sense of the world early on.  So far, though, getting to know this world has been worth the effort, and I expect that the familiarity gained through this novel will make it much easier to dive into the next.

The world of The Mirror Empire also follows the current trend toward dark, gritty fantasy, where any given character can very easily be hurt, maimed, or killed, and the lines between good and evil are blurry at best. The death and violence throughout could be a little overwhelming at times, but the novel never quite went past my ‘grimdark’ limit.  Part of that may have been because the grittiness of the setting was not established through the particular use of culturally-sanctioned violence against women. In fact, gender roles and expectations appear to vary significantly across the variety of cultures and races. In one culture there are three recognized genders, and in another, one can self-identify as any of five accepted genders.  The closest any culture comes to the usual gritty fantasy setup is Dorinah, where pseudo-medieval gender roles are reversed.  It was one of the more interesting twists on a generally boring culture that I’ve read, though I am happy that this culture was not the sole focus.  I’m curious to see how these cultural differences will affect the story to come.  

As in most epic fantasies, the novel follows a handful of diverse viewpoint characters. The four primary characters are Lilia, Ahkio, Roh, and Zezili.  Lilia seems most like a fantasy protagonist to me, with her tragic past and her great magical potential.  However, she is neither beautiful and nor completely able-bodied, and she spends a lot of time focusing on protecting herself from a world that would kill her without a care. Ahkio has been thrust into a leadership position that he neither expected nor wanted, and I spent a lot of time tensely waiting for him to fail horribly. I enjoyed the Roh’s childish exuberance, but I dread to see what the world will eventually force him to become.  Zezili, a powerful woman of Dorinah, carries a lot of the negative traits that are often forgiven in heros, and I am curious to see how she may develop in future novels. There were also a handful of interesting secondary viewpoint characters, such as the Dhai hero Ghrasia and Zezili’s delicate husband Anavha. I enjoyed the very different perspectives provided by each of the viewpoint characters, and I think that this is a group I will happily follow through the sprawling fantasy story that The Mirror Empire has begun.  

My Rating: 4/5

The Mirror Empire starts off a dark epic fantasy series that takes place in a very unfamiliar world, and features a set of characters that don’t fall into the standard epic fantasy archetypes. The world is incredibly complex, with many cultures, multiple worlds, a satellite-based magic system, and an unusual physical setting. There are no long explanations to break up the narrative, so an understanding of the world is pieced together as you go along. The viewpoint characters are diverse and have interesting flaws, and I think it is a group that will make for an entertaining long-term story.  I’m already looking forward to the sequel!  

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Review: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
Published: Orbit, 2014
Series: Book 2 of the Imperial Radch
Awards Nominated: Nebula and BSFA Awards

The Book:

“Breq was once a human segment of a spaceship’s AI, comfortably integrated with machines and other bodies’ perspectives.  Now she has only one human body left, and she knows who to blame for her loss— Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch.  That same Anaander Mianaai has chosen to adopt Breq into her family, to give her command of the ship Mercy of Kalr, and to dispatch her to Athoek Station, the home of Lieutenant Awn’s sister. 

Athoek is a relatively peaceful system that was annexed 600 years ago, and is now mainly concerned with the growing of tea.  However, old class and cultural divides are still causing problems, the Station’s AI is mysteriously unhappy, and not everything the leaders say seems to add up.  Athoek is going to be a difficult knot for Breq and her crew to untangle. ~Allie

This is the second novel of the Imperial Radch, and this is a series in which the books should definitely be read in order. So far, this series has been hitting all the right notes for me, and I’m looking forward to Ancillary Mercy!

My Thoughts:

Ancillary Sword picks up after the events of Ancillary Justice and follows the same protagonist, Breq the former ancillary.  The story this time is a smaller-scale, slower, and more intimate, as it focuses on the interpersonal and intercultural relationships within a single system in Radch space.  Since it takes place entirely within Radch space, where no one considers gender, the use of female pronouns as default is less noticeable than in Ancillary Justice. I still enjoy how clearly this one choice demonstrates the irrelevance of gender to the story.  Breq’s role is more complicated in Athoek than her narrow focus of the previous novel, but she does her best to apply her own sense of rightness and justice to every situation that arises.  The social problems she addresses are pretty black-and-white (such as oppression, slavery, and domestic abuse), but it seemed sadly realistic to see how difficult it was to force people to understand that the problems even existed.

There is no longer a past storyline, through which we could see Breq’s existence as an ancillary, but I appreciated that she is still something slightly different than human.  Her ability to process information allows Mercy of Kalr to feed her information on the activity and emotional states of the crew, so the single-narrator format is not quite as limited in perspective as it could have been otherwise.  It was also interesting to see how she struggles to cope with the loneliness of a single-body existence.  As for the rest of the cast, while I wish Seivarden had played a slightly larger role, there were plenty of other memorable new characters.  In particular, I enjoyed Breq’s mentor-like relationship with the teenage Lieutenant Tisarwat, who is struggling with a crisis of identity on top of her more ordinary teen problems.  I hope that she continues to play a major role in Ancillary Mercy.

In some ways, Ancillary Sword does feel a bit like a middle book. Though there’s plenty going on, not much of it concerns what I’d considered the major questions of the series, such as the civil war within Anaander Mianaai’s mind or the stability of the treaty with the mysterious Presger.  However, even though these threads may not have progressed, I enjoyed the focus on a single location and group of people. There were many things happening on Athoek on a variety of scales— oppression of populations, interpersonal problems, crime, potential diplomatic incidents, and so on.  Everything seemed to fit together quite naturally, making a story that was very easy to follow and enjoy, and the conclusion tied up the novel nicely. I’m looking forward to seeing how Breq’s life will continue in Ancillary Mercy!  

My Rating: 5/5

Ancillary Sword is a wonderful sequel to the book that took many awards by storm last year, Ancillary Justice.  The story is quieter and set on a smaller scale than the first book, with a more character-oriented focus.  Since it takes place entirely in a system of Radch space, the default use of female pronouns is also less noticeable. The plot mostly involves Breq coming to a new system and doing what she can to address injustices on both small and large scales, and I have continued to enjoy following her perspective.  Of the new characters, my favorite storyline would have to be that of the young Lieutenant Tisarwat, who Breq (sort of) takes under her wing.  I’m looking forward to the conclusion of the trilogy, Ancillary Mercy, which is planned for publication later this year!