A+ #BookReview: The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles by Malka Older

A+ #BookReview: The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles  by Malka OlderThe Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles (Mossa & Pleiti, #2) by Malka Ann Older
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: climate fiction, mystery, science fiction, science fiction mystery, space opera, steampunk
Series: Investigations of Mossa & Pleiti #2
Pages: 208
Published by Tordotcom on February 13, 2024
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Investigator Mossa and Scholar Pleiti reunite to solve a brand-new mystery in the follow-up to the fan-favorite cozy space opera detective mystery The Mimicking of Known Successes that Hugo Award-winning author Charlie Jane Anders called “an utter triumph.”
Mossa has returned to Valdegeld on a missing person’s case, for which she’ll once again need Pleiti’s insight.
Seventeen students and staff members have disappeared from Valdegeld University—yet no one has noticed. The answers to this case could be found in the outer reaches of the Jovian system—Mossa’s home—and the history of Jupiter’s original settlements. But Pleiti’s faith in her life’s work as scholar of the past has grown precarious, and this new case threatens to further destabilize her dreams for humanity’s future, as well as her own.

My Review:

Like the opening of the first book, The Mimicking of Known Successes, in this delightful steampunk-y, space opera-ish, not-exactly-dark academic mystery series, this second entry begins not with the discovery of a dead body as most mysteries do, but rather with the disappearance and presumed deaths of a whole bunch of bodies.

But presumption, like assumption, involves drawing conclusions that may or may not be born out by evidence. Evidence that the still mysterious Investigator Mossa is determined to collect. Possibly, she’s driven to go that extra bit as an excuse to visit with her now on-again lover Scholar Pleiti at the University at Valdegeld.

Entirely too many of those missing bodies are/were students at the University, and Mossa isn’t above using that connection as an excuse to visit Pleiti AND involve her in her work. Again. Just as she did in their first adventure.

A lot of people DO go missing on Giant – otherwise known as Jupiter. The architecture of the colony, which is made up by rings of platforms stationed around the gas giant, leaves a lot of room for both accidental and on-purpose plummets to death and destruction, whether self-induced or pushed. Searching for missing persons is consequently the raison d’être of the Investigators, of whom Mossa is a part.

But the number of missing has jumped to a degree that is statistically implausible, leading Mossa to an in-person search for those missing. Some of them will be found perfectly safe, because that happens all-too-frequently.

The question in Mossa’s inquisitive mind is whether those findings will bring the number down to something reasonable. She doesn’t believe so. And she’s right.

While Mossa is looking into missing bodies, Pleiti is dealing with a body that has been found. The mad scholar/scientist that Mossa and Pleiti pursued in that first book, the man who pointed out that all of the busy research of the university was merely the ‘mimicking of known successes’ and had little chance of ever coming to fruition, the once respected rector of the university who may have derailed the university’s entire reason for being for centuries, has been found. Or at least his corpse has been.

But the effects of that death, and the events that led up to it, still chase our intrepid investigators. And may have more to do with all those missing bodies than anyone imagined.

Escape Rating A+: There’s something supremely comforting about this series – and I’m oh-so-happy it IS a series because The Mimicking of Known Successes could easily have been a one-off.

I think it’s the combination of the outlandish and exotic with the comforting and familiar. At first it seems pretty far out there, literally as well as figuratively. Jupiter is far away and seemingly totally inhospitable. And it kind of is. But still, humanity has adapted – at least physically. We’ve made it work.

At the same time, the way it works is so very human. They are still close enough in both time and space, relatively speaking, to see their lost home as something they might return to while also romanticizing the past and the possible future.

And the university is so very much academe in a nutshell, to the point where both books’ titles absolutely ring with the sense of academic politics being so vicious because the stakes are so small, caught up so tightly in the petty grievances of scholars that are more invested in scoring off against each other and/or proving their superiority than they are about real problems and practical solutions.

Which comes right back around to the whole story of the first book AND the motivations that lead to all those missing persons that Mossa is hunting for in this second one. Hunting, in fact, all the way around the train tracks that ring the planet to a hidden platform as far away from the University as it can get – and back around again to the place where both stories began.

To the University, and ultimately to the Earth it claims it wants to return them to – even as it settles into its comforts and grievances in a way that makes the reader wonder if anyone really, truly does.

What carries the story along, what holds it up around those rings and over that gas giant, is the relationship between Mossa and Pleiti. They live in different worlds, and approach those worlds from opposing perspectives. Mossa, the Investigator, the ultimate pragmatist, always on the hunt for a new mystery, and Pleiti, the scholar and dreamer ensconced within the comforts and comfortable stability of the university. Their relationship didn’t work the first time, because they couldn’t meet in the middle and let each other in.

This time around they’re a bit older, sometimes sadder, occasionally wiser. Or at least wise enough to know that they are better together than they are apart, even if that togetherness has and even requires more space that one or the other might desire.

Watching them try, following them as they attempt to join two worlds and two perspectives that aren’t intended to meet in any middle, adds something very special to this delightfully charming science fiction mystery that will keep readers coming back for more.

Particularly this reader, left desperately hoping for a third book in the series.

A- #BookReview: The Tusks of Extinction by Ray Nayler

A- #BookReview: The Tusks of Extinction by Ray NaylerThe Tusks of Extinction by Ray Nayler
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: climate fiction, science fiction
Pages: 192
Published by Tordotcom on January 16, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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When you bring back a long-extinct species, there’s more to success than the DNA.

Moscow has resurrected the mammoth, but someone must teach them how to be mammoths, or they are doomed to die out, again.
The late Dr. Damira Khismatullina, the world’s foremost expert in elephant behavior, is called in to help. While she was murdered a year ago, her digitized consciousness is uploaded into the brain of a mammoth.
Can she help the magnificent creatures fend off poachers long enough for their species to take hold?
And will she ever discover the real reason they were brought back?
A tense eco-thriller from a new master of the genre.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

My Review:

When we first slip into Dr. Damira Khismatullina’s mind she is fighting the long defeat against ivory poachers along the banks of the Ewaso Ng’iro River in Kenya. She and her colleagues are losing the battle, and they know it. But they can’t stop fighting because they know that something precious will be lost if they can’t save the elephants.

She doesn’t know that she’s already lost; the battle, the war, and even her life, in a cause that is so very worthy against an implacable enemy that can’t be defeated but only delayed. Because her real enemy, the elephants’ true foe, isn’t poachers. It’s human greed. And that’s inexhaustible.

Dr. Damira may have lost her battle, but she’s not the only one fighting this war and conventional methods are not the only way to fight it. Because it’s not just about the elephants. It’s about the planet that made them.

Which is where Damira the mammoth comes into this story. Russian scientists have created a frigid version of Jurassic Park in the taiga, and have brought back not dinosaurs but mammoths in the hopes of pushing back climate change – at least a bit – by protecting and expanding the taiga and ultimately halting, or at least slowing, the melting of the permafrost.

But the newly resurrected mammoths are dying. They don’t know how to BE mammoths, and the captive elephants they were bred from didn’t even have the skills of how to be a wild elephant to teach them. But Dr. Damira Khismatullina did. Or does, as she was the last remaining expert on elephant behavior in the wild.

But she’s dead. The poachers killed her. And delivered her head back to the government to send the message that no one was permitted to even attempt to control the slaughter.

Compared to resurrecting an entire extinct species, implanting Dr. Khismatullina’s consciousness into a single member of that species was a piece of cake. So Damira the mammoth was reborn as the matriarch of the mammoth herd. She taught them to BE mammoths – or at least close enough for them to survive and even thrive in their new environment.

Just in time for the ivory hunters to find them. But Damira the mammoth matriarch has very different imperatives than Dr. Khismatullina the scientist did. And considerably more weapons at her disposal.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this one up because I utterly adored the author’s debut novel, The Mountain in the Sea. I mean I really, truly, seriously loved that book. To the point where I’ll be picking up everything he writes for years to come.

But that was so damn good that while I had hoped that The Tusks of Extinction would be good, I didn’t even expect that the lightning of that first book would fit into the novella-sized bottle of Tusks. Which it doesn’t – quite. Howsomever, that does not in any way mean that Tusks isn’t good, more that it has a VERY high bar to get over and not nearly as much space to run up to it.

The ecoterrorism that forms the background of The Tusks of Extinction is, unfortunately, very much like the mess the world has become in The Mountain in the Sea, something we can see all too clearly from here. Elephants NEED their tusks. Humans do not NEED ivory. They just want it because it’s rare and it’s difficult to obtain, and it’s precious because of those factors.

And humans are so very greedy, which explains the state of the world in a nutshell. (I digress, but only sorta/kinda. Dammit.)

So there’s a whole lot of sad hanging over this story, again, as there was in The Mountain in the Sea. But without that joy of discovery that carried Mountain, and without that surprising, albeit equivocal, sweetly bitter ending to a story that I expected to end in all bitter all the way down.

Also, as a science fiction reader, I wish that The Tusks of Extinction had a bit more time to explain how Russian science managed to reach BOTH the ability to resurrect an extinct species à la Jurassic Park AND the science needed to implant consciousness anywhere at all, let alone into another species, formerly extinct or otherwise. THAT story would be fascinating and we only get the barest hints of it here.

All of that being said, what makes this story work is the juxtaposition of the evolution of the new mammoths set against the total lack thereof of the humans that Damira left behind. Even though that evolution is likely to leave her fighting the long defeat yet again. At least this time around she has considerably better weaponry and is unlikely to live to see its ending.

Review: Like Thunder by Nnedi Okorafor

Review: Like Thunder by Nnedi OkoraforLike Thunder (The Desert Magician's Duology #2) by Nnedi Okorafor
Narrator: Délé Ogundiran
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: African Futurism, climate fiction, fantasy, science fiction
Series: Desert Magician's Duology #2
Pages: 336
Length: 10 hours and 23 minutes
Published by DAW, Tantor Audio on November 28, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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This brand-new sequel to Nnedi Okorafor’s Shadow Speaker contains the powerful prose and compelling stories that have made Nnedi Okorafor a star of the literary science fiction and fantasy space and put her at the forefront of Africanfuturist fiction
Niger, West Africa, 2077
Welcome back. This second volume is a breathtaking story that sweeps across the sands of the Sahara, flies up to the peaks of the Aïr Mountains, cartwheels into a wild megacity—you get the idea.
I am the Desert Magician; I bring water where there is none.
This book begins with Dikéogu Obidimkpa slowly losing his mind. Yes, that boy who can bring rain just by thinking about it is having some…issues. Years ago, Dikéogu went on an epic journey to save Earth with the shadow speaker girl, Ejii Ubaid, who became his best friend. When it was all over, they went their separate ways, but now he’s learned their quest never really ended at all.
So Dikéogu, more powerful than ever, reunites with Ejii. He records this story as an audiofile, hoping it will help him keep his sanity or at least give him something to leave behind. Smart kid, but it won’t work—or will it?
I can tell you it won’t be like before. Our rainmaker and shadow speaker have changed. And after this, nothing will ever be the same again.
As they say, ‘ Onye amaro ebe nmili si bido mabaya ama ama onye nyelu ya akwa oji welu ficha aru .’
Or, ‘If you do not remember where the rain started to beat you, you will not remember who gave you the towel with which to dry your body.’

My Review:

Like Thunder is the second half of the Desert Magician’s Duology, and the follow-up to the utterly excellent Shadow Speaker. Like that first book, Like Thunder is a story within a story, as the whole duology is a tale of a possible future, and a lesson to be learned, told by the Desert Magician himself.

But it is not the Desert Magician’s story, no matter how much that being meddled with the characters and the events that they faced. Just as Shadow Speaker was the story of Eiji Ugabe, the titular shadow speaker herself, Like Thunder represents her best friend Dikéogu Obidimkpa’s side of the events that followed.

Shadow speaking is but one of the many transformations and strange, new powers brought into this world after the ‘peace bombs’ were dropped and the oncoming nuclear catastrophe was transformed into something survivable for the human population.

A survival that seems to be more contingent on the adaptability of not just the humans of Earth, but also the sentient populations of ALL the worlds that have become interconnected after Earth’s ‘Great Change’ caused a ‘Great Merge’ of several formerly separated worlds.

The story in Shadow Speaker very much represented Eiji’s perspective on the world, as Eiji’s first impulse is always to talk, and to listen. An impulse that combines her youthful belief that people CAN be better if given the opportunity, and is likely a result of her talent for speaking with not just the shadows of the dead, but directly into the minds of other people and animals.

Her talent is to see others’ points of view and to project her own. She’s young enough to believe that if there is understanding, there can be peace.

Like Thunder is not Eiji’s story, and it shouldn’t be. Instead, it’s a kind of mirror image. Just as Eiji’s talent leads her to foster peace and understanding, her friend Dikéogu’s talent is violent. Dikéogu is a stormbringer, someone who brings all of the violence of nature and all of the violence visited upon him in his scarred past to every encounter with his friends, with his enemies, and with his world.

And within himself.

The world through which we follow Dikéogu in this concluding volume of the Desert Magician’s Duology is the direct result of Eiji’s peacemaking in her book. Because, unfortunately for the world but fortunate for the reader enthralled with their story, Eiji didn’t really make peace because peace is not what most of the people present for the so-called ‘peace conference’ had any desire for whatsoever.

And have been maneuvering in the background to ensure that the only peace that results in the end is the peace of the grave. Someone is going to have to die. Too many people already have. It’s only a question of whether Dikéogu and Eiji’s feared and reviled powers will save the world – or end it.

Escape Rating A-: As much as I loved Shadow Speaker, I came into this second book with some doubts and quibbles – all of which were marvelously dashed to the ground at the very beginning of Dikéogu’s story.

Eiji and Dikéogu were both very young when their adventure began, but by the time they met they had both already seen enough hardship and disaster to fill a whole lifetime for someone else. But Eiji was just a touch older than Dikéogu, and the differences between her fourteen and his thirteen mattered a lot in terms of maturity.

In other words, Eiji was definitely on the cusp of adulthood in her book, making adult decisions with huge, literally world-shaking consequences, while Dikéogu frequently came off as a whiny little shit, an impression not helped AT ALL by the higher pitched voice used by the narrator for his character.

Dikéogu had PLENTY of reasons for his hatreds and his fears – but that doesn’t mean that they were much more enjoyable to listen to than they were to experience. Less traumatic, certainly, but awful in an entirely different way.

But Like Thunder takes place AFTER the events of Shadow Speaker. (This is also a hint that neither book stands on its own) Whiny thirteen becomes traumatized fifteen with more experience, a bit more closure for some of the worst parts, a bit more distance from terrible betrayals – and his voice drops. (This last bit, of course, doesn’t matter if you’re reading the text and hearing your own voice in your head, but matters a lot in audio.)

Dikéogu’s life experience, particularly after he was sold into slavery by his own uncle at the age of twelve, have taught him that the world is pain and strife and that he has to defend himself at all times and that people will believe ANYTHING if it allows them to stay comfortable and maintain their illusions and their prejudices.

He learned that last bit from his parents, Felecia and Chika Obidimkpa, the power couple of THE West African multimedia empire. They betrayed him into slavery, they betrayed him by pretending he was dead, they betray him every single time they broadcast a program filled with ridiculous nostalgia for a past that never was and disallows and disavows Dikéogu’s existence as a stormbringer, a ‘Changed One’ with powers granted by the ‘Great Change’ they hate so much.

It’s no surprise that his parents are in league with his enemies.

What is a surprise, especially to Dikéogu, is how much of his story, how much of his trauma and how many of his tragedies, are directly traceable to that first betrayal AND his inability to deal with its consequences to himself and the magic he carries.

So, very much on the one hand, Like Thunder is a save the world quest with a surprising twist at its end. A twist at least partly manufactured, and certainly cackled over, by the Desert Magician. And absolutely on the other hand, it’s a story about a young man learning to live with the person he has become – and very nearly failing the test. ALL the tests.

Whichever way you look at it, it is compelling and captivating from the first page – or from the opening words – until the very last line of the Desert Magician congratulating themself on a tale well told and a heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful message delivered.

Review: The Lost Cause by Cory Doctorow

Review: The Lost Cause by Cory DoctorowThe Lost Cause by Cory Doctorow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: climate fiction, dystopian, science fiction
Pages: 368
Published by Tor Books on November 14, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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It’s thirty years from now. We’re making progress, mitigating climate change, slowly but surely. But what about all the angry old people who can’t let go?

For young Americans a generation from now, climate change isn't controversial. It's just an overwhelming fact of life. And so are the great efforts to contain and mitigate it. Entire cities are being moved inland from the rising seas. Vast clean-energy projects are springing up everywhere. Disaster relief, the mitigation of floods and superstorms, has become a skill for which tens of millions of people are trained every year. The effort is global. It employs everyone who wants to work. Even when national politics oscillates back to right-wing leaders, the momentum is too great; these vast programs cannot be stopped in their tracks.

But there are still those Americans, mostly elderly, who cling to their red baseball caps, their grievances, their huge vehicles, their anger. To their "alternative" news sources that reassure them that their resentment is right and pure and that "climate change" is just a giant scam.

And they're your grandfather, your uncle, your great-aunt. And they're not going anywhere. And they’re armed to the teeth.

The Lost Cause What do we do about people who cling to the belief that their own children are the enemy? When, in fact, they're often the elders that we love?

My Review:

The younger generation has ALWAYS been going to the dogs. Graffiti found by Napoleon’s soldiers, stating EXACTLY that point, that “This younger generation is going to the dogs!” was written in hieroglyphs and was determined to have been etched on that wall in 800 BCE. There’s a similar quote from Socrates that merely goes back to sometime between 470 and 399 BCE. If we ever discover a stone carving or the equivalent left by the Neanderthals, they probably thought it too. Just as we do today.

And as we undoubtedly will thirty years from now, or thereabouts. But the generational fight we’re in the midst of right now isn’t just that – although it is certainly also about that.

It’s also about the same neverending, utterly frustrating argument that 18-year-old Brooks Palazzo has been having with his grandfather – and witnessing his grandfather and his old cronies have with the country and the world around him – for his entire life.

Because Dick Palazzo and his friends are members of the local Maga Club, wearing faded red hats and spouting the exact same neo-Nazi conspiracy-tinged quasi-conservative rhetoric that the original Magas did back in the day – which just so happens to be our day.

But in Brooks’ Palazzo’s 2050s, climate change and progressive policies have come 30 years down the road they’re already on. Universal Basic Income is part of the Green New Deal the Magas hate so much, but the climate change they’ve denied until it’s too late to fix has created a new class of refugee in American citizens, born and bred, whose homes and entire cities have either burned up in uncontainable wildcat fires, become Superfund sites because those same fires exploded something toxic that should never have been buried in the first place, or simply got washed away by the rising oceans being fed by runaway global warming.

Young Brooks Palazzo and his young and idealistic friends are all set to welcome a caravan of internal refugees to the hometown they know and love, Burbank, California. They know they have the resources, they know they have the room, they know they have the skills to pull Burbank into the future and bring all their friends and all the friends they’ll make in the future along for the hard work as well as the ride.

But his Gramps’ old buddies, all those old Magas, have a plan to stop that future before it happens. Because they are dead certain that the ship is sinking, and that Burbank doesn’t have enough resources to support the people it already has, let alone the ones that are coming.

They’ll do anything they can to stop the future and the Green New Deal in its tracks. No matter what it takes. And no matter who or what they have to kill. Democracy, the rule of law, innocent children, their neighbors who don’t believe as they do. Themselves even, because martyrs are a great recruiting tool.

And haven’t we seen it all before?

Escape Rating B: In spite of everything I’ve said above, this isn’t actually a dark book. But it’s easy to get caught up in its implications and see a long dark night coming that may make the historical Dark Ages look like a shining beacon of light – if only because the human species wasn’t in danger of extinction at the time.

And there I am, going dark again.

Let me try and wrench this back to the lighter side of this story – which is very much present. The story is told from the perspective of Brooks and his friends as they do their damndest to push forward towards a future. On every page, and in spite of every setback, they still have hope and they’re still working towards it.

They have a vision for a better Burbank, a better country, and even a better world, by taking the lessons they’re learning in this crisis and applying them to the next. They may very well be “fighting the long defeat” to paraphrase Tolkien, but they are there for that long haul and have hopes that it will be made – even if they aren’t the ones to make it.

Because that’s not the point of the struggle but a struggle it most definitely is. They do get down, and some of them bail and all of them want to at different points but they keep living and keep trying.

I found this a compelling read. I groaned when Brooks and Company lost a fight, and grinned when they overcame one of the many, many obstacles in their way. They may be fighting the long defeat but they are glorious in that fight. But part of the premise of the story is that neither side truly wants to let the world burn, they just have diametrically opposed beliefs about the way to prevent that burning or if preventing that burning is even possible. And I’m not sure I still believe that, although I wish I did.

Review: Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor

Review: Shadow Speaker by Nnedi OkoraforShadow Speaker (The Desert Magician's Duology, #1) by Nnedi Okorafor
Narrator: Délé Ogundiran
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: African Futurism, climate fiction, fantasy, science fiction
Series: Desert Magician's Duology #1
Pages: 336
Length: 10 hrs 28 mins
Published by DAW, Tantor Audio on September 26, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Niger, West Africa, 2074
It is an era of tainted technology and mysterious mysticism. A great change has happened all over the planet, and the laws of physics aren’t what they used to be.
Within all this, I introduce you to Ejii Ugabe, a child of the worst type of politician. Back when she was nine years old, she was there as her father met his end. Don’t waste your tears on him: this girl’s father would throw anyone under a bus to gain power. He was a cruel, cruel man, but even so, Ejii did not rejoice at his departure from the world. Children are still learning that some people don’t deserve their love.
Now 15 years old and manifesting the abilities given to her by the strange Earth, Ejii decides to go after the killer of her father. Is it for revenge or something else? You will have to find out by reading this book.
I am the Desert Magician, and this is a novel I have conjured for you, so I’m certainly not going to just tell you here.

My Review:

Peace bombs. A phrase that only makes sense in the context of the future history of the world that leads to this story, as told by the chaotic trickster the Desert Magician about the coming of age of the titular Shadow Speaker, Ejii Ugabe, and her friend, the rainmaker Dikéogu Obidimkpa. It’s their story, but the Desert Magician is the one bringing it to us. Also messing with them and it at the same time.

The Desert Magician is not exactly a reliable narrator – but then trickster avatars seldom are. After all, the story is more fun for them if they get to mess with the protagonists a bit. More than a bit. As much as they want.

As Ejii describes the world in which she grew up, the Earth as it exists after the ‘Great Change’ brought about by those Peace Bombs, it’s not hard to think that the event was as much of a eucatastrophe as it was the regular kind. A whole lot of things seem to be better. More chaotic, but better. Certainly the climate has improved, even if entire forests sometimes spring up overnight, while the technology imported from other, more advanced worlds has made living with the remaining extremes considerably easier.

None of which means that humans are any better at all. Whatsoever. Because humans are gonna human. But it does mean that there are more possibilities, both in the sense of seemingly magical powers and animals, and in the sense of more opportunities for more people to rise above their circumstances – even if some people are still determined to fall into the traps laid by theirs.

Which leads the Desert Magician to Ejii’s story, and leads Ejii to Jaa, the great general who swept into Ejii’s village of Kwàmfà and struck off her father’s head with her sword, setting Jaa and Ejii on a collision course that will either save the world – or end it.

Shadow speaking, the ability to hear the voices of the spirits, is one of the many gifts that have arisen after the Great Change. Ejii is the shadow speaker of the title, and at fifteen is just coming into her power. A power that is telling her to follow Jaa to a great meeting of the leaders of the worlds that have merged into one interconnected system as a result of the change.

Jaa is going to the meeting to start a war in the hopes of preventing worse to come. Ejii has been tasked with finding a way to make peace. Neither task is going to be easy – and only one of them is right. The question is, which one?

Escape Rating A-: This version of Shadow Speaker is an expanded edition of one of the author’s out-of-print early novels. The original version of which, also titled Shadow Speaker, was a winner or finalist for several genre awards in the year it was published, as a young adult novel. Which it still both is and isn’t.

It is, on the one hand, aimed at a young adult audience because its protagonists are themselves in that age range, being merely fifteen when the story begins. As a consequence of their age, both Ejii and Dikéogu clearly still have a lot of growing up ahead of them in spite of the life-changing and even world-altering experiences that have led them to undertake this journey.

At the same time, Ejii at least is very much on the cusp of adulthood, and this is a journey that forces her to make adult decisions about, with no sense of hyperbole whatsoever, the state of the world. Howsomever, a good chunk of what she brings to those decisions has the flavor of the naivete of youth, particularly in the sense that the world SHOULD be fair, people SHOULD do the right thing, and that if only people would communicate honestly a peaceful solution SHOULD be within reach.

It’s not that she doesn’t know the world and the people in it are often stupid, self-centered, greedy and downright mean, it’s that she hasn’t yet been jaded enough by her experiences to truly believe that there can’t be a better way. Even though her personal experiences thus far in her life have seldom shown it to her.

Dikéogu is not nearly as mature as Ejii is. He whines a LOT. Not that his complaints aren’t justified, but it’s so very clear that he still has a lot of growing up to do and that expresses itself in a kind of ‘pity poor me’ whining that gets hard to take – particularly in audio as he’s voiced in a higher pitch to distinguish his speech from Ejii’s. Which works very well indeed as characterization while driving me personally nuts as I find high-pitched voices jarring. (I recognize this is a ‘me’ thing and may not be a ‘you’ thing, but if it is also a ‘you’ thing, you have been warned.)

While the Desert Magician is presenting this story, he’s not an omnipresent presenter. We see the story through Ejii’s perspective except at the very beginning and end. She is the person we follow, although the story is not told from inside her head. Rather, the story unfolds around her and her actions, and we only see what she sees and know what she knows and get as confused as she does at what she doesn’t.

Which means that while the narrator, Délé Ogundiran, does an excellent job of standing in as Ejii’s voice, that may not be true for the second book in the duology, which will be Dikéogu’s story. Hopefully by the point in Dikéogu’s life when that story takes place, his voice will have dropped.

As much as Ejii comes of age and into her power through her riveting adventures in Shadow Speaker, her world and all the worlds that have become interconnected as a result of the ‘Great Merge’ that was part and parcel of Earth’s ‘Great Change’ also have a great deal of maturing to do – or at least negotiations towards that goal – as this first story ends. Whether the merged worlds will survive that change or destroy each other is part of the subsequent story in this duology that I’m really looking forward to seeing. Or hopefully hearing.

Dikéogu’s story may have started here but his true coming-of-age-and-into-power story, Like Thunder, is coming just after Thanksgiving. And I’ll be very grateful to read it – or hopefully have it read to me like Shadow Speaker – over the holidays.

Review: The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older

Review: The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka OlderThe Mimicking of Known Successes (Investigations of Mossa & Pleiti, #1) by Malka Older
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: climate fiction, mystery, science fiction, space opera, steampunk
Series: Investigations of Mossa & Pleiti #1
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on March 7, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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The Mimicking of Known Successes presents a cozy Holmesian murder mystery and sapphic romance, set on Jupiter, by Malka Older, author of the critically-acclaimed Centenal Cycle.
On a remote, gas-wreathed outpost of a human colony on Jupiter, a man goes missing. The enigmatic Investigator Mossa follows his trail to Valdegeld, home to the colony’s erudite university—and Mossa’s former girlfriend, a scholar of Earth’s pre-collapse ecosystems.
Pleiti has dedicated her research and her career to aiding the larger effort towards a possible return to Earth. When Mossa unexpectedly arrives and requests Pleiti’s assistance in her latest investigation, the two of them embark on a twisting path in which the future of life on Earth is at stake—and, perhaps, their futures, together.

My Review:

The Mimicking of Known Successes throws steampunk, mystery, climate fiction and planetary colonization into a blender with a soupcon of dark academia, a scintilla of romance and just a pinch of Sherlock Holmes pastiche to create a delightful story that leans hard on its central mystery and the push-pull relationship of its puzzle-solving protagonists.

It’s also a wonderful antidote to the recent spate of darkly corrupt academia. Or at least provides a much needed light at the end of some recent deeply dark tunnels in that genre. (I’m looking at Babel and both The Atlas Six and yesterday’s book, The Atlas Paradox.)

That light is in the characters, Investigator Mossa and her once and likely future lover, Scholar Pleiti. Neither of whom can resist a mystery. Or, as before and now again, each other.

The mystery begins, not with a dead body as such stories usually do, but with a missing one. It’s assumed that Scholar Bolien Trewl jumped, or was pushed off the platform at the last station on the end of the line around the gas giant moon these refugees from Earth have settled upon.

There is literally nothing else to do at that station except wait for the next train back inward, visit the four buildings on the platform, or drop off into the gas-wreathed planet below. The missing scholar isn’t still around, he didn’t board the next inbound train, so that leaves suicide or murder by plummet.

But that conclusion doesn’t make sense to Inspector Mossa. The pieces don’t add up. But those same pieces definitely lead her into temptation. The missing man was a Scholar at Valdegeld University, as is Mossa’s former flame Pleiti. Who might be of assistance in this investigation. Or the coincidence may just be an excuse to find out if the flame still burns.

As it turns out, more than a bit of both. And the game is most definitely afoot.

Escape Rating A+: This was a re-read for me. I reviewed The Mimicking of Known Successes last year for Library Journal, but I loved it so much that I kept referring to it in other reviews that I couldn’t resist giving a much longer review here.

So here we are.

At first, it was the setting that grabbed me. Mossa’s trip to that very remote station gives the reader a terrific introduction into the way this world both works and doesn’t, along with a taste of the marvelously steampunk-y nature of the whole thing.

Trains, the trains are so delightfully retro, while the planetary location is anything but. It’s not exactly a surprise that in this future view of the solar system, Earth is a painful and pined for reminder that humanity totally screwed the pooch of their home planet. Humanity is in exile, and seems caught between those who have settled down to make the most of their new home and those who are working towards a return.

That the divide reflects the town vs. gown contention that marks many college towns is just an added fillip to the whole. It’s the University that is devoted to a return, even as they spawn committees and arguments and delays and endless studies focused on the optimal way to go about it.

A process that the victim seems to have been at the heart of. As is Pleiti.

While the setting is fascinating and new, the details of academia that resemble the reader’s present provide a grounding (so to speak) a point of reference and congruence, and a whole lot of dry wit, particularly from Pleiti’s insider perspective.

As the story is told from Pleiti’s first-person perspective, we’re inside her head as she observes just how much her own profession obfuscates the important things and sweats the small stuff all the damn time.

Which lets the reader understand why Pleiti has let herself be drawn into Mossa’s investigation. It’s not just the rekindling of an old flame, it’s the need to work on something that has concrete and immediate effects that can’t be reduced to a footnote.

Even though Mossa and Pleiti nearly are reduced, not so much to a footnote as to a smear of grease on a cracked launchpad as the conspiracy and the mystery reach their explosive conclusion.

I initially picked this one up for its SF mystery blend, a combination that is having a marvelous moment right now. (If you want more of this combo, I highly recommend Station Eternity by Mur Lafferty, The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal and Drunk on All Your Strange New Words by Eddie Robson along with John Scalzi’s Lock In.)

What grabbed me and kept me sucked in, TWICE, was the introduction to this quirky colony and its Sherlock and Watson investigative duo as they pursued the mystery to its surprising end. What kept me smiling and even chuckling all along the way were Pleiti’s wry observations of the familiar world of academe wrapped inside an utterly fascinating but not nearly so familiar setting.

When I first read The Mimicking of Known Successes last fall, it seemed to be a standalone book and I was a bit sad about that because I loved the characters and their world and the way they work together in it. So I was really pleased to discover that Mossa and Pleiti will return in February, 2024 in The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles. I’m looking forward to finding out what that title will mean for their relationship and their necessary investigations.

Review: The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Naylor

Review: The Mountain in the Sea by Ray NaylorThe Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler
Narrator: Eunice Wong
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, climate fiction
Pages: 464
Length: 11 hours and 5 minutes
Published by MCD on October 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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Humankind discovers intelligent life in an octopus species with its own language and culture, and sets off a high-stakes global competition to dominate the future.
Rumors begin to spread of a species of hyperintelligent, dangerous octopus that may have developed its own language and culture. Marine biologist Dr. Ha Nguyen, who has spent her life researching cephalopod intelligence, will do anything for the chance to study them.
The transnational tech corporation DIANIMA has sealed the remote Con Dao Archipelago, where the octopuses were discovered, off from the world. Dr. Nguyen joins DIANIMA’s team on the islands: a battle-scarred security agent and the world’s first android.
The octopuses hold the key to unprecedented breakthroughs in extrahuman intelligence. The stakes are high: there are vast fortunes to be made by whoever can take advantage of the octopuses’ advancements, and as Dr. Nguyen struggles to communicate with the newly discovered species, forces larger than DIANIMA close in to seize the octopuses for themselves.
But no one has yet asked the octopuses what they think. And what they might do about it.
A near-future thriller about the nature of consciousness, Ray Nayler’s The Mountain in the Sea is a dazzling literary debut and a mind-blowing dive into the treasure and wreckage of humankind’s legacy.

My Review:

This turned out to be an utterly lovely book. It is very much in the vein of the science fiction of ideas and making them come to life and it just completely sucked me in as though one of the octopuses had just wrapped me in its tentacles and pulled. Hard.

I loved this one a lot more than I expected, which means I’ll probably squee a bit. You have been warned.

It’s clear from the beginning that this takes place on a near-future Earth. The setting isn’t quite dystopian, and it isn’t quite not either. Whether it seems dystopian or not at any given point in the story depends on which of the three point of view characters the story is following at that moment.

Eiko’s perspective is definitely dystopian. He was kidnapped from the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and is a slave on an automated fishing trawler, hunting the world’s depleted oceans for any source of protein that can still be processed into food. His story is tragic and his situation is bleak and getting bleaker by the minute.

Whether Rustem’s situation is dystopian or not depends on whether one thinks that the mostly terrible and generally criminal clients he works with are representative of the way his world works or whether he’s bottom-fishing because he’s an infamous black-hat hacker who conducts assassinations by AI proxy. His current clients do seem to be worse than most, but they’ve given him a more complex and intriguing puzzle than average – and threatened his life if he doesn’t deliver.

If one wonders how those two characters intersect – and this reader certainly did – the glue that holds this story together is the perspective of Marine biologist Dr. Ha Nguyen, who has been whisked away to the remote Con Dao Archipelago by a transnational tech company to fulfill the dream of her life’s work.

In the waters off Con Dau, DIANIMA Corporation has discovered a pod of octopuses that might, just possibly, have achieved not just a similar level of intelligence to humans, but have also independently developed the skills that vaulted humans to the top of the food chain. DIANIMA has brought Dr. Ha Nguyen to Con Dau because she quite literally wrote the book on the possibility of intelligent, communicating life developing in the world’s oceans.

If she determines that the pod of octopuses is just a pod of ordinary octopuses – who are plenty intelligent but have no way to pass it on – well, probably not much happens to her and there wouldn’t have been much of a book, either.

But if she finds enough evidence that the octopuses off Con Dau can do what we do, if they have developed language that conveys abstract concepts and have methods of speaking and especially writing that language, then they may hold the key to humans learning to communicate with other species. Or it may be possible to weaponize their abilities through threats, intimidation and superior firepower – assuming that humans actually have superior firepower.

Or they could be a threat. If humans threaten them, they will likely become a threat regardless. So the human sharks and vultures are gathering around Con Dau, whether to protect, to save – or to kill.

Escape Rating A+: If Remarkably Bright Creatures and Three Miles Down had a book baby, it would be The Mountain in the Sea. Which is a fairly strange thought because as much as I loved both those books, they really shouldn’t have any relationship to each other.

But here they do. And it’s surprising and awesome.

As I said at the top, this book is an example, a stellar example in fact, of science fiction of ideas. This is a near-future world, there are no spaceships or extraterrestrials here. It could be said to be a climatological disaster, but if so it’s one that we can see from here.

The heart of that mountain in the sea is the idea of just how damn difficult communication is. It’s an issue that doesn’t get nearly enough play in space opera type SF, and it should. Other species who don’t share our frames of reference probably don’t communicate the way we do – at all.

So what this story does, and does well, is to convey just the smallest sliver of how difficult it will be to find common ground with a species that doesn’t communicate the way we do, doesn’t have the same species imperatives, doesn’t move through its world the way we do, doesn’t use any body language we recognize. There’s not going to be the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone. It’s Dr. Ha Nguyen’s job to create one from scratch, while never being certain that her interpretation is anywhere near the correct target – let alone hitting a ‘bull’s eye’. If her base assumptions are off base, everything that follows after will be gibberish – with potentially catastrophic consequences.

That the author manages to make what could have been a fairly dry story about communication difficulties into a compelling story of relationships between people, octopuses and artificial intelligences turned the whole thing into an utter delight with a surprising ending that mixed more sweet than I expected into a situation that could have turned out so very bitter. That the story managed to bring those three extremely disparate and seemingly disconnected perspectives into a connected whole that brought the whole story full circle made for delicious icing on top of a very yummy story-cake.

I listened to The Mountain in the Sea, and the reader did an excellent job to the point where I found myself hunting for things to occupy my hands so I could listen longer to the story. Much of Dr. Ha Nguyen’s side of the story is a dialog between her written work and that of DIANIMA’s creator, Dr. Arnkatla Mínervudóttir-Chan. The reader did a particularly good job of distinguishing these two strong, intelligent women’s writings from their personal perspectives and their frequently contentious dialog once they finally do meet in person.

In short, a wonderful performance of an excellent book. I’m looking forward to finding more work by this author. Considering that this is his debut novel, I have high hopes for his next book. And if it’s read by the same reader, that will make it even more of a treat!

Review: Cyber Mage by Saad Z. Hossain

Review: Cyber Mage by Saad Z. HossainCyber Mage by Saad Hossain
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: climate fiction, cyberpunk, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Pages: 288
Published by The Unnamed Press on December 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
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Welcome to Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2089. A city notorious for its extreme population density has found an unexpected way to not just survive a global climate apocalypse, but thrive: pump enough biological nanotech into the neighborhood and all of the bodies together form a self-sustaining, and even temperate, microclimate. Of course, this means that millions of humans have to stay put in order to maintain a livable temperature, and people are getting restless. All of the nanotech has also led to some surprises: certain people no longer need food or water while others can live without functioning organs.
So the mercenary Djibrel has to carry a machete wherever he goes. Only a swift beheading can ensure the job gets done anymore. Djibrel navigates the crowded streets, humans teeming with genetic mutations, looking for answers about what happened to the Djinn, a magical super race of genies who seem to have disappeared, or merged, with humans for survival. What Djibrel doesn't know is that his every move is being tracked by the infamous Cyber Mage—better known to his parents as Murzak, a privileged snarky teenager who regularly works for a Russian crime syndicate with a band of elite hackers, like his best friend ReGi, who resides in North Africa's FEZ (Free Economic Zone). Respected and feared online, Murzak is about to embark on one of his biggest challenges: attending high school IRL. But when he discovers a brand new type of AI, operating on a dark web from the abandoned Kingdom of Bahrain that he thought was just an urban myth, Murzak and Djibrel will have to face the unimaginable in an already inconceivable world.
In this laugh-out-loud-funny and totally original new novel, Saad Z. Hossain continues his signature genre mashup of SF and fantasy, challenging and subverting everything previously imagined about our future and climate change. A scathing critique of corporate greed, Hossain shows us how to think beyond the naïve ideas of preening moguls like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.

My Review:

I wanted to read this book because I absolutely loved The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday and hoped there would be more like that. Which, as it turns out, there are – and more than I originally thought. Which is definitely good news!

In fact, having read Gurkha, this and Kundo Wakes Up (to be reviewed closer to its March pub. date), after looking at the blurbs for the author’s other work, I’m starting to think that they are all set in the same dystopian, post-apocalyptic future. And what a fascinating world it is.

This is a future where the world has descended into dystopia as a result of an ecological rather than an economic catastrophe. This particular view of this future is also a bit of a twist on Ready Player One – but it’s a twist where Wade Watts is one of the privileged few instead of the disadvantaged many, pursuing a quest fueled by artificial intelligence and unearned privilege instead of desperation. In a world where the Virtuality is run on greed instead of nostalgia.

And this is also a coming of age story, because the Cyber Mage who is both admired and feared as one of the greatest hackers ever in the Virtuality is a spoiled, overprivileged, lovesick teenage boy who has decided to leave his ergonomically designed and engineered chair in his parents’ apartment in order to chase after the girl of his dreams. The girl he’s been cyberstalking like, well, a lovesick teenage boy.

He’s going to enroll himself in high school – even though he’s a genius who has already passed all the classes – in order to meet his dreamgirl in person and impress her. Even if he honestly doesn’t know what to do after that.

It turns out that what he’s going to do after that is defend the entire school from an invasion. And grow up.

Escape Rating A: There are a couple of things about this story, and the other books I’ve read by this author, that have absolutely made me fall in love with his work. One is the extremely high snark quotient. It seems like most of his characters are possessed of a very smart mouth. In Cyber Mage, the only ones who don’t are the parents of Murzak, the Cyber Mage himself. I’m not entirely sure that their refusal to acknowledge so many of his ultimatums isn’t actually a form of passive-aggressive snark.

The other thing, and the bigger one over the course of this story and his other work so far, are the constant and continuing reversals of both expectation and fortune.

Murzak himself is a prime example. He is, probably, as smart as he thinks he is. But it’s all book-smart. His ability to apply all those smarts to real life is a bit lacking. Putting it another way, he’s simply naïve, not a surprise as he’s still of an age to attend high school. Fitting in is another matter entirely. But he doesn’t have the knowledge of the way the world – and the people in it – really work to keep his mouth from writing checks that the rest of him can’t really cash because he doesn’t yet understand what he’s working towards. He only thinks he does.

If Murzak were an adult with his attitude, he’d be insufferable. As a teenager, he’s a bit of an accident and an attitude waiting to happen. That he’s lying all around – to himself, to his fellow students, to the extremely dangerous people who employ him – that accident is definitely barreling towards him at breakneck speed.

So a huge part of this story is him stepping up to the plate, getting involved in how the world really works, and discovering that adulting is no fun at all but that it’s a job that has to be done. And that he’s the best man to do at least some of it.

But the other part of this story that runs counter to expectations – at least unless one has read some of the author’s previous work – is the way that the effects of the ecological disaster have been handled.

A lot of post-apocalyptic stories show desolate, deadly landscapes where the remaining human population ekes out a marginal existence on a world that is killing them, whether slowly or quickly.

This post-apocalypse, utilizing a still heavily populated Southeast Asian setting, turns the large population into a climate-recovery asset, implanted with nanobots that monitor their every move and inject life-giving climate repair and pollution cleanup with every breath. All controlled by huge, advanced artificial intelligences which keep the cities mostly balanced while still privileging the wealthy and keeping the majority of the population on a universal basic income that keeps them alive, disaffected, and bored. Which doesn’t matter, as long as their nanobots help clean the air and keep them entertained enough to go on living.

But the balance is so complex that the A.I.s are the ones really running everything. And they have minds of their own. Literally. Which puts an entirely new player on the board who has more oversight and control than even the most paranoid doomsayers ever imagined.

And in the midst of all this technology, there really are djinn, and they really do have an agenda of their own. An agenda – and agents to carry it out – that neither the privileged humans or the pampering A.I.s ever put into their calculations of who – or what – is truly in control.