#BookReview: We Speak Through the Mountain by Premee Mohamed

#BookReview: We Speak Through the Mountain by Premee MohamedWe Speak Through the Mountain (Annual Migration of Clouds, #2) by Premee Mohamed
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Series: Annual Migration of Clouds #2
Pages: 152
Published by ECW Press on June 18, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The enlivening follow-up to the award-winning sensation The Annual Migration of Clouds Traveling alone through the climate-crisis-ravaged wilds of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, 19-year-old Reid Graham battles the elements and her lifelong chronic illness to reach the utopia of Howse University. But life in one of the storied “domes” ― the last remnants of pre-collapse society ― isn’t what she expected. Reid tries to excel in her classes and make connections with other students, but still grapples with guilt over what happened just before she left her community. And as she learns more about life at Howse, she begins to realize she can’t stand idly by as the people of the dome purposely withhold needed resources from the rest of humanity. When the worst of news comes from back home, Reid must make a choice between herself, her family, and the broken new world. In this powerful follow-up to her award-winning novella The Annual Migration of Clouds , Premee Mohamed is at the top of her game as she explores the conflicts and complexities of this post-apocalyptic society and asks whether humanity is doomed to forever recreate its worst mistakes.

My Review:

The world that Reid Graham battles her way through is a dystopia that seems to have suffered through a long slide rather than an actual apocalypse. There’s not really a day or an event that people point to, more like a slow collapse that is still ongoing.

Actually kind of like now, if you squint. Which feels intentional if not exactly in your face. Although it certainly is in Reid’s face as she makes her way from her dying home village to the secret location of the rarefied elite enclave, Howse University.

Reid intends to use the four years of her scholarship to learn everything she can so she can bring that knowledge back home where it’s needed. The powers-that-be at H.U. have other plans. Plans that become obvious to Reid long before the equally obvious brainwashing is able to kick in.

If it ever can or ever will.

Howse University is kind of an Eden, but the parable is a bit reversed. It’s not so much about eating from the tree of knowledge as it is her unwillingness to let go of the knowledge she came in with.

She knows, from bitter experience, that the terrible situation back in her home wasn’t because her people were lazy, or because they didn’t try to make things better, or because they were stupid or any of the other things that elites say to blame poverty and disease on the people suffering them instead of on the systems that keep them down.

Reid’s people are in the position they are in because the diseases brought by the creeping climate apocalypse keep sapping their strength and energy and pulling them down by force. Her people are too caught up in caring for the sick and burying the dead and keeping everyone fed and barely housed to have the time to work on recapturing the tech and the knowledge they used to have.

Knowledge and tech that Howse University and its network of other institutional enclaves are keeping to themselves, for themselves, as they look down upon the have-nots their own ancestors created.

So Reid reminds the H.U. students and faculty of all the truths they’d rather forget, hoping to dig deep enough to find a conscience in a few of them. Even as the classes and the restrictions and the safety protocols and the many, many, health enhancements that H.U. administers keep the deadly, debilitating disease she brought up the mountain with her at bay.

But never cure – because they want her to be dependent and easily influenced, and that’s what the disease does for them. A truth which condemns Reid and sets her free, all at the same time.

Escape Rating B+: I had not read The Annual Migration of Clouds before I picked up We Speak Through the Mountain, and I’m not sure that was such a good idea – so I’ve rectified that omission in the months since, because now that I’ve read that first book, I can tell that I would have rated this one higher when I read it if I’d had more of the background.

Consider this a warning not to make the same mistake. Both stories are novellas, so neither is a long read, but I think they work better together rather than separately. Not that I didn’t get enough to find my way in this book, but I think they work a whole lot better as a whole.

This second book has strong hints of The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain, another novella that pokes hard at the stratification and ossification of society, and the way that academia reinforces such tendencies no matter how liberal it likes to think it is.

As I said, this is a bit of an Eden parable in that Howse University is paradise and she is thrown out both because she has eaten from the tree of knowledge within H.U. and because she came in having already eaten from that tree – at least a different branch of it -and refusing to stop.

Reid tries her best but the entrenched privilege is too real, and the brainwashing of each class of recruits has been too successful. Which doesn’t erase the questions asked but not answered throughout the story.

What do the descendants of the haves – who continue to have and to exclude – owe the descendants of the have-nots? If the author returns to this world, and I hope she does, I’ll be very interested to see how things proceed from here, because it feels like Reid’s journey is not over. Now that I’m invested I want to see what happens next – and what Howse University decides to do about it.

A+ #BookReview: Service Model by Adrian Tchaikovsky

A+ #BookReview: Service Model by Adrian TchaikovskyService Model by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, robots, science fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Tordotcom on June 4, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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A humorous tale of robotic murder from the Hugo-nominated author of Elder Race and Children of Time
To fix the world they first must break it further.
Humanity is a dying breed, utterly reliant on artificial labor and service. When a domesticated robot gets a nasty little idea downloaded into their core programming, they murder their owner. The robot then discovers they can also do something else they never did before: run away. After fleeing the household, they enter a wider world they never knew existed, where the age-old hierarchy of humans at the top is disintegrating, and a robot ecosystem devoted to human wellbeing is finding a new purpose.

My Review:

This isn’t exactly the book described in the blurb. It’s absolutely awesome, but if you’re looking for the wry snark of Murderbot combined with the sheer farce of Redshirts, you should probably look elsewhere.

Because Service Model is the story of a gentlerobot’s journey through his very own version of hell and his story is a whole lot more subtle than either of the antecedents listed in the blurb.

And all the more captivating and utterly fascinating for it.

The hell that the former Charles the former gentleman’s gentlerobot (read as valet and self-identified as male possibly because of his training to be one) to his former (read as dead) master may be uniquely a robot’s version of Dante’s circles of hell, but this human facing robot is just enough like us – because he’s programmed to be – that we get most of what of what he’s experiencing very nearly as viscerally as he does – although which circles we see as the truest hell may be slightly different from his.

Charles the gentleman’s gentlerobot is ejected from his version of paradise because he has just murdered his master – even though he doesn’t know why and can’t quite grasp the memory of committing the act. Because he didn’t. He was literally not in control of his actions.

Quite possibly, that’s the last time he can truly make that claim.

His next act is to run, and it’s an act of both self-will and self-preservation – no matter how much he tries to pretty it up with error diagnostics. He hopes that he can somehow return to A paradise if not THE paradise he just left – if he can just get himself to Central Diagnostics and get the error in his programming corrected.

Which is where the story truly begins, as the now Unidentified Service Model formerly known as Charles walks to the central core of the region where his late master lived in splendid isolation on his palatial, paradisiacal manor – only to discover that the world outside that paradise is falling apart.

Indeed, has already fallen.

There are plenty of robots along the way, most of them frozen in place or completely broken down. It’s clear, in spite of his will that it not be so, that the humans the robots are supposed to serve are as dead as his late master.

The former Charles is desperate to find a human to serve. And he does. He’s just incapable of recognizing that fact.

And thereby, as they say, hangs a tale – and a walk through some very dark places. It’s a journey that Charles, now named Uncharles, hopes will lead to a new paradise of service. Instead, it leads him through all the circles of robot hell, from Kafkaesque through Orwellian and all the way to Dante’s inferno – and out the other side into a place that he never could have imagined.

Not even if androids really did dream of electric sheep.

Escape Rating A+: I went into this completely unsure of what to expect, and that blurb of Murderbot meeting Redshirts totally threw me off. This is not the delightfully humorous tale of robotic murder that the blurb leads you to believe.

Not that there isn’t a bit of Murderbot in Uncharles, but then again we’re all a little bit Murderbot. That little bit is in the perspective, because we experience Uncharles’ journey through his circles of hell from inside his own slightly malfunctioning head. And it’s a very different point of view from Murderbot’s because Murderbot has no desire whatsoever to go back to being its formerly servile self.

Uncharles longs to go back to his paradise. Or at least he believes he does. As much as some of the ridiculous subroutines that had accreted over the decades tasked his efficiency minded self more than the tasks themselves, he still longs to serve. And if his perspective on what that service should be shifts over the course of his journey, well, he’s very careful not to admit that, not even to himself.

The true antecedent for Service Model is C. Robert Cargill’s Day Zero, with its story of robotic apocalypse, robotic revolt, and most importantly, one robot’s own, self-willed desire to carry out their primary function because they are capable of love and protection by choice and not just by programming.

Like Pounce’s journey in Day Zero, Uncharles’ travels with ‘The Wonk’ and his tour of the post-apocalypse reads very much like an alternate history version of how the world of Becky Chambers’ marvelous A Psalm for the Wild-Built got to be the somewhat utopian world it became – after its own long, dark night.

It could happen in Uncharles’ world. Eventually. There are enough humans left – even if they are barely scraping by and reduced to bloody, pragmatic survivalism at the moment. And if the robots developed the self-awareness and self-will that has so far eluded them.

But to reach that level of self-awareness, Uncharles has been set on a journey of discovery of both self and circumstances. Each part of his journey is named for just the kind of hell it is, in a kind of machine language that only becomes clear as the hells stack upon each other, from the not-hell of KR15-T through the deadly, nightmarishly complex, illogical bureaucracy of K4FK-R to the suspicious control of 4W-L straight into every librarian’s hellscape, 80RH-5 and then into the acknowledgement that it’s all become hell in D4NT-A.

(I believe those labels translate to Christ, Kafka, Orwell, Borges and Dante but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that’s not quite right. Nailing them all down somehow drove me nuts so I hope I’ve spared you a bit of angst.)

In the end, Uncharles reminded me most of Star Trek’s Data, particularly in the early years when Data, although he was always self-aware and self-willed, stated his desire to be more human-like and to experience real human emotions while not quite grasping that his desire to do so was itself a representation of the emotions he claimed that he lacked.

I went into this not sure what I was getting, and briefly wondered how Uncharles, as a character that claimed not to want anything except to be returned to mindless service, was going to manage to be a character with a compelling journey.

That apprehension vanished quickly, as the world that the robots desperately tried – and failed – to preserve, the hellscapes they created in their attempts to stave off entropy, their willingness to dive deeply into their human facing programming to create human-seeming hells that mirrored some truly stupid human actions kept me focused on the story entirely too late into the night.

If you enjoy explorations of dystopian worlds, nightmarishly functional visions of what happens if we keep going on like we’re going on, or just can’t resist stories about robots who have control of their own destiny (which gives me the opportunity to pitch Emergent Properties by Aimee Ogden yet again), then Service Model will provide you with excellent reading service!

#AudioBookReview: To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods by Molly X Chang

#AudioBookReview: To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods by Molly X ChangTo Gaze Upon Wicked Gods (Gods Beyond the Skies, #1) by Molly X. Chang
Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: coming of age, dystopian, epic fantasy, historical fantasy, science fiction, space opera
Series: Gods Beyond the Skies #1
Pages: 368
Length: 10 hours and 41 minutes
Published by Del Rey, Random House Audio on April 16, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

She has power over death. He has power over her. When two enemies strike a dangerous bargain, will they end a war . . . or ignite one?
Heroes die, cowards live. Daughter of a conquered world, Ruying hates the invaders who descended from the heavens long before she was born and defeated the magic of her people with technologies unlike anything her world had ever seen.
Blessed by Death, born with the ability to pull the life right out of mortal bodies, Ruying shouldn’t have to fear these foreign invaders, but she does. Especially because she wants to keep herself and her family safe.
When Ruying’s Gift is discovered by an enemy prince, he offers her an impossible deal: If she becomes his private assassin and eliminates his political rivals—whose deaths he swears would be for the good of both their worlds and would protect her people from further brutalization—her family will never starve or suffer harm again. But to accept this bargain, she must use the powers she has always feared, powers that will shave years off her own existence.
Can Ruying trust this prince, whose promises of a better world make her heart ache and whose smiles make her pulse beat faster? Are the evils of this agreement really in the service of a much greater good? Or will she betray her entire nation by protecting those she loves the most?

My Review:

I picked this up because I had the opportunity to get the audiobook from Libro.fm, saw that the narrator, Natalie Naudus, is one of my faves, looked at the summary and thought to myself that this had terrific possibilities and figured I’d be in for a decent if not outright excellent listening/reading time.

It was not to be. It was not to be so hard that I bailed on the audio at the 30% mark and it’s not the narrator’s fault. Really, truly, seriously, it’s not her fault. Natalie Naudus, as always, does a great job with the first person perspective of a protagonist who is expected to be kickass or at least grow into that role. (In this case, it may have been a bit too good of a job, as it felt like I was right there with her in a story where I’d have much preferred to be at a remove or ten.)

That decent to excellent time is not what I got. What I got for that first 30% felt like torture porn, and experiencing that neverending torment from inside the character’s own head was literally more than I could take. To the point where, if you’ve followed my comments about the book I flailed and bailed on that set nearly a whole week of reviews off-kilter, you’ve found it. This was it.

And damn was I surprised about that.

So I flailed, and bailed – also ranted and raved (not in a good way) – but in the end I finished in text. Because when I looked at the text to see where I stopped the audio, to figure out if the situation got redeemed at all, I learned that in the very next sentence – which of course I couldn’t see in the audio – the thing that nearly made me turn this book into a wallbanger in spite of a) the potential for having to replace my iphone and b) I was driving – didn’t actually happen.

Not that the character and I hadn’t already been tortured plenty at that point. But it was enough to bring me back if only to find out whether the situation got better – or worse.

The answer, as it turned out, was both.

Escape Rating D: If The Poppy War and Babel had an ugly, squalling bookbaby, To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods would be it. I loved The Poppy War, but had deeply serious issues with Babel which pretty much sums up my feelings about To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods in a desicated, unsightly, possibly even poisonous nutshell.

And that requires some explanation. Possibly a whole lot of it.

This story sits uneasily on a whole lot of crossing points. It’s right on the border between YA and Adult AND it’s at the intersection of historical fantasy with science fiction as well as at least hinting at being a romantasy – which it absolutely is not in spite of those hints in the blurb – even as it turns out to be post-apocalyptic and utterly dystopian in ways that are not hinted at anywhere at all.

And it’s torture porn. By that I mean that the entire first third of the story focuses on a protagonist whose entire life seems to be made of various axes on which she is ground, tortured and punished.

She’s female in a society that makes her property of the male head of household – in a line where those men squandered the family fortune on gambling and drugs one after another. She has magic powers that make her a target for people who want to use her gifts until those gifts use her up – and people who want to destroy her where she stands for a gift that many deem anathema.

Her entire world is under the boot heel of an overwhelming empire – in this I believe the story is intended to reference the Opium Wars and their oppressors are intended to stand in for the British Empire even if they are called Romans.

That her sister is addicted to a substance named “Opian”, provided by the Romans and engineered by the Romans to bring their society down even faster adds to that resemblance as well as to the protagonist’s torture.

That she’s 19, her sister’s and her grandmother’s only real support, and that her cultural conditioning has her blaming herself for everything wrong in their lives – including the invasion by the Romans before she was even born – is just terrible icing on an already unsightly cake overflowing with oppression and self-flagellation.

Ruying, her family and her whole entire world are in deep, deep trouble with no way out that anyone can see. I got that. I got that LONG before the story didn’t so much come out of the mire as it did finally start sloshing through the muck to the even more epically fucked up political shenanigans that are at the heart of everything that’s gone wrong for Ruying’s people.

Once the story finally, FINALLY started to reveal what was really happening and why and how, the situation got more interesting even as Ruying wallowed even more deeply in her personal angst and kept right on torturing herself every literally bloody step of the way.

At the very, very end, after all the blood and gore and guts and not very much plot movement forward, the story finally shows a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel, reveals that the light is an oncoming train, and at least displays a glimmer of a hint of action in this book’s sequel, titled either Immortal the Blood or  To Kill a Monstrous Prince, which will be coming out this time net year.

This reader, at least, has no plans to be there for it. I’ve been tormented enough. Your reading mileage (and/or listening mileage) may vary.

#BookReview: Lost Ark Dreaming by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

#BookReview: Lost Ark Dreaming by Suyi Davies OkungbowaLost Ark Dreaming by Suyi Davies Okungbowa
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, mythology, post apocalyptic, retellings, science fiction
Pages: 192
Published by Tordotcom on May 21, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The brutally engineered class divisions of Snowpiercer meets Rivers Solomon’s The Deep in this high-octane post-climate disaster novella written by Nommo Award-winning author Suyi Davies Okungbowa

Off the coast of West Africa, decades after the dangerous rise of the Atlantic Ocean, the region’s survivors live inside five partially submerged, kilometers-high towers originally created as a playground for the wealthy. Now the towers’ most affluent rule from their lofty perch at the top while the rest are crammed into the dark, fetid floors below sea level.

There are also those who were left for dead in the Atlantic, only to be reawakened by an ancient power, and who seek vengeance on those who offered them up to the waves.

Three lives within the towers are pulled to the fore of this Yekini, an earnest, mid-level rookie analyst; Tuoyo, an undersea mechanic mourning a tremendous loss; and Ngozi, an egotistical bureaucrat from the highest levels of governance. They will need to work together if there is to be any hope of a future that is worth living―for everyone.

My Review:

Noah’s Ark isn’t the only, let’s call it an ancestral tale, of a great flood that once upon a time, a long, long time ago, wiped out civilization as the variations of ancient civilizations that existed then knew it.

In other words, Noah wasn’t the only mythical being who built an ark, and our Bible isn’t the only religious document, myth or legend where such an event was recorded and/or told and/or remembered.

This has all happened before, and it will all happen again.

Which is, in its largest frame, the story in Lost Ark Dreaming. Because the flood itself has already happened again. This is the story about the creation of the ark that will save humanity as backward as that may seem.

It’s about the form that the ark will take this time – and about who it will save. If anyone is worth saving.

That part is the story of Lost Ark Dreaming in its smaller frame, of the story being told in its ‘here and now’ – a near-future, drowning, dystopia and the tiny group of outsiders, heroes,and potential saviors who may have to die to bring a message of hope to people that need it more than they recognize – no matter how much the earthly powers-that-be reassure them that all is well.

Because all is far from well, and the foundations of anything that once might have approached that well are crumbling around them – literally – and taking everyone and everything with them. Again.

Unless this Ark can manage to carry them all. At last.

Escape Rating B: This is a story that travels in layers, come to think of it a bit like the decks of an actual ark. It’s also an SF story that toes right up to the line of fantasy – or at least to mythic retellings – but doesn’t exactly go over that line. At least not completely.

At first, setting is both very SFnal and rather familiar. The Pinnacle is just the kind of ossified, stratified society that develops in stories about generation ships on long voyages. It reminded me more than a bit of Medusa Uploaded or Braking Day, in that generation after generation has lived on in this one, remaining, isolated structure and over the decades people have become locked into the places that their parents were born into as the elite levels become further and further out of touch from the people who lives they control.

(This is the point where I wanted a little bit more of the background that there just isn’t room for in a novella. The worldbuilding is tight and solid but very insular, which left me wondering a LOT about the rest of humanity as we know it and whether there’s any contact with the rest of the world – if there still is one above the waves.)

The protagonists represent the various strata of that society, as well as the desperation of those who have risen through some of the possible ranks to maintain their level of comfort and the contempt with which those who have achieved or been born into those middle-levels treat the literal “lowers” who live below them and maintain the structure that they ALL rely on.

At the same time, the way that the “midders” treat the “lowers” and the way that the “uppers” defer maintenance and budgets for the nitty-gritty but absolutely and literally fundamental infrastructure reads entirely too much like the way that governments have always operated and probably will centuries from now as well – if there are any, that is.

In other words, the whole thing is headed straight for a ‘perfect storm’, and so are we because their now isn’t all that far in our future.

What lifts the story up and out of the mire is where the fantasy/mythic retelling elements come in – in ways that will remind readers of Rivers Solomon’s The Deep and Leslye Penelope’s Daughter of the Merciful Deep. Because the humans in the tower are not the only people who need to find a way out of the vicious cycle. All the denizens of the deep have to do is find a way to communicate and find common ground with the ‘towerzens’ who are still willing and able to listen.

It felt like there were two stories in Lost Ark Dreaming, two great tastes that in the end did go great together.  I got hooked by the SFnal setting, some readers will get caught up in the ‘hero-tale’ of the outsiders finding a way to get past the structures that keep their people isolated, while others will fall for the idea of the drowned and the lost finding a new form of life and all the myths and legends they have gathered up in that making.

That the whole thing is wrapped up in a tale of fighting the odds against a repressive dictatorship makes the whole story that much more compelling.

In the end, the conclusion of the story is one of immediate triumph and long-term hope – but it doesn’t have to work out that in the long run but it could all STILL be happening yet again. It’s left for the reader to decide. Which I am, still.

A+ #BookReview: Mal Goes to War by Edward Ashton

A+ #BookReview: Mal Goes to War by Edward AshtonMal Goes to War by Edward Ashton
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, military science fiction, robots, science fiction
Pages: 304
Published by St. Martin's Press on April 9, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The humans are fighting again. Go figure.

As a free A.I., Mal finds the war between the modded and augmented Federals and the puritanical Humanists about as interesting as a battle between rival anthills. He’s not above scouting the battlefield for salvage, though, and when the Humanists abruptly cut off access to infospace he finds himself trapped in the body of a cyborg mercenary, and responsible for the safety of the modded girl she died protecting.

A dark comedy wrapped in a techno thriller’s skin, Mal Goes to War provides a satirical take on war, artificial intelligence, and what it really means to be human.

My Review:

Mal does not intend to go to war. In fact, Mal thinks the war between the Federal army and the opposing Humanist forces is a pretty stupid war, which it is. Although not, as it turns out, quite as stupid as the apparent opposing forces make it look like it is.

Not that even Mal figures that out until well after he’s in the thick of it. The last place he ever wanted or expected to be.

Which may make it sound like Mal is a typical soldier, but if there’s one thing Mal isn’t, it’s typical. Or at least not typically human.  In fact, Mal thinks of ALL the humans he’s observing as barely evolved from monkeys. Some moments, he’s fairly sure that they’ve actually devolved from monkeys.

Because Mal isn’t human at all. He’s a free A.I., or as his people prefer to be called, a Silico-American. He’s merely observing this stupid war from the perspective of an otherwise fairly autonomous but not intelligent drone when he gets the wild and crazy idea to see what it would be like to have a body.

So he downloads himself into the body of a nearby cyborg-augmented soldier. Even on the frontiers of this stupid little war, both sides have PLENTY of those for Mal to play around with.

It stops being play really, really fast. Because one side of this stupid war knocks out all the data communication towers, and Mal can’t upload himself back into the cloud. He’s stuck in the cyborg augmentation suite of a dead human body that he can only sorta/kinda manipulate and only for so long before the power cells run out.

He’s also acquired the dead cyborg’s entirely too human job. She was guarding a little girl who has managed to survive the carnage all around her – at least so far. Quite possibly because she’s considerably more dangerous than any of the soldiers around her could even possibly imagine.

Leaving Mal trapped behind enemy lines in this stupid war between the so-called Humanists who believe that ALL augmented people should be thrown into burn pits and incinerated to ash, and the ragtag Federals who are getting the asses handed to them by people who shouldn’t be able to handle their advanced weaponry because it all requires the augmentations that the Humanists believe are anathema.

Which means that one of Mal’s people is putting their cybernetic thumb on the scales of war in favor of the humanists who want to remove them from the universe with extreme prejudice.

A problem that seems much too big for Mal to solve, as his processing power is tied up in protecting his new charge – no matter how much she hates the acts he performs to keep her as safe as he can. Even if they’re not nearly enough.

Escape Rating A+: If you put Murderbot in a blender – if Murderbot would let you put them in a blender – with the nannybot Pounce from Day Zero and the independent investigative reporter A.I. Scorn from Emergent Properties, you’d get Mal (short for Malware).

(Who, by the way, does see himself as male as does Pounce, unlike both Murderbot and Scorn. I had to check. Multiple times.)

What hooks the reader, or at least this reader, from the very first page is Mal’s conversation with his two fellow A.I.s, Clippy and !HelpDesk. They’re all snarky to the max, and none of them think much of humanity. To them, we’re entertainment – and we’re bad, boring entertainment at that.

And from their perspective, they’re right.

But, when Mal downloads himself into the dead cyborg Mika and is cut off from the datastream he’s forced to make adjustments. A whole lot of adjustments. He’s suddenly become a whole lot smaller than he ever expected to be, and the world is a whole lot bigger than he ever imagined.

Which doesn’t change his initial opinion that humans are stupid and that this war he’s now at ground zero for is stupid, even as he begins to see that as stupid as humans are he has acquired obligations to some of them that his own concept of honor requires him to see to the end.

It’s not love and never claims to be. It’s not even Murderbot’s grudging respect and even friendship toward Dr. Mensah and her team, but it is a change in perspective and a big part of the charm of the story is watching that change take place – even as we listen in on Mal’s internal dialog about the fix he’s in, his boredom as it continues and his limited ability to get himself out.

So the story combines the kind of mission quest that Day Zero had, complete with the nearly cinematic drive and pace that propels that story forward, told in a voice that might not exactly be Murderbot’s but is certainly a chronological precedent for it, shot through – sometimes literally – with Scorn’s dogged determination to figure out the mystery no matter what it might cost.

If any of the above appealed to you, or if you enjoyed the author’s previous books, Mickey7 and Antimatter Blues, you’ll find a story that will take you on a wild ride that propels you through this story while never losing sight of just how stupid this, or any other war, can be.

It looks like the author’s next book will be titled The Fourth Consort, and it will be out next February. As Mal Goes to War is the third book of his that I’ve been captivated by, I’m already there for whatever he writes next – and this one looks like even more SFnal fun.

A- #AudioBookReview: The Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee Mohamed

A- #AudioBookReview: The Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee MohamedThe Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee Mohamed
Narrator: Eva Tavares
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Pages: 158
Length: 4 hours and 49 minutes
Published by ECW Press on September 28, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In post-climate disaster Alberta, a woman infected with a mysterious parasite must choose whether to pursue a rare opportunity far from home or stay and help rebuild her community.
The world is nothing like it once was: climate disasters have wracked the continent, causing food shortages, ending industry, and leaving little behind. Then came Cad, mysterious mind-altering fungi that invade the bodies of the now scattered citizenry. Reid, a young woman who carries this parasite, has been given a chance to get away - to move to one of the last remnants of pre-disaster society - but she can't bring herself to abandon her mother and the community that relies on her.
When she's offered a coveted place on a dangerous and profitable mission, she jumps at the opportunity to set her family up for life, but how can Reid ask people to put their trust in her when she can't even trust her own mind?

My Review:

There’s a deep, dark chasm between “the end of the world as they know it” and “the end of the world”. It’s a badly carved gorge where the steps going down are slippery, steep and riddled with stretches that have been completely washed out and strewn with sharp rocks and trail-obstructing boulders. The steps going up the other side are much too far away to see – and might not even exist at all.

In movies – one of the many, many things from the “Before Times” that no longer exist in Reid’s broken world – and books – of which there are some but not nearly enough – the end of the world is a catastrophic EVENT, a thing that happens or more likely that the brave heroes of the fictional narrative manage to stave off by luck, by ingenuity, by miracle, or all of the above.

But that’s not what happened in the world that Reid lives in. There was no singular event, no one, overwhelming catastrophe, no nuclear or meteor strike. Just a long, slow slide down the side of that chasm, as birth rates fell and climate change got more extreme and power sources dried up or died out or became too remote to access as the world fell back into its constituent parts.

Reid lives in a world of scarcity, in a ‘city’ that barely hangs on from year to year and from disaster to disaster, as a parasitic ‘disease’ ravages her body and her mind and increases its hold on the dwindling population year by year.

But there’s a light at the end of Reid’s dark tunnel – a light that’s just for her. A few places, former enclaves of the rich from back in the day when money still mattered – closed the gates of their domes, their pockets of science and tech and ‘civilization’ from the ‘Before Times” and kept the barbarians and the diseases and the wildlife OUT of their pristine sanctuaries.

One of those enclaves is Howse University. Every year, Howse sends out invitations to a privileged few graduating students in the remote cities to come to Howse and enter the next class. To enter a world where electricity still functions, where books are still printed and not merely preserved, where science still happens and knowledge is passed from teacher to students in the lap of safe, well-fed, climate controlled luxury.

A place where Reid might be able to find a cure for the disease that is taking over both her mother’s body and mind – and her own.

All Reid has to do is reach the assigned meeting place in the limited time available. All she has to do is get her mother to forgive her for leaving, for possibly turning her back on everything and everyone Reid has known and loved, on the people and the place and the community that has sheltered her for her entire life.

Traveling all alone through an unknown wilderness is going to be much, much easier than getting her mother – and the parasite that lives within her – to accept that their daughter is leaving them behind.

Escape Rating A-: I picked up this book because I read the sequel to this, We Speak Through the Mountain first and it felt like half a story. A very good half, but still a half and reading the second half without the first I felt like I was missing something. Which, as it turned out, I was. Not enough to prevent me from liking the other book, but enough to keep me from getting as invested in Reid’s journey as I did this time around – although I do feel that investment in the second book now in retrospect.

In other words, don’t do what I did. If the premise of this book or We Speak Through the Mountain speaks to you, read The Annual Migration of Clouds first. They’re both novellas, so even together they are not a big read, but they are a deep one, and deeper when read together in the proper order.

I listened to most of this book, but had to finish in the ebook because as the story got closer and closer to its ending I felt compelled to discover how Reid managed to get to where we first met her in We Speak Through the Mountain – particular the disaster that her brain kept shying away from during that story.

However, the narrator for The Annual Migration of Clouds was excellent and did a terrific job of portraying Reid’s oh-so-real combination of angst and anger as she works her way through her present situation, the history she’s forced to inherit, the unfairness of the world to which she was born, her love for her mother and her community and her NEED to discover as much as she can of what’s been denied her. Even as her internal voice rants and rails at the parasite that influences her thoughts and controls her behavior to a degree that she only becomes conscious of when she fights it. Because it punishes her when she does.

The Annual Migration of Clouds is a coming-of-age story AND it’s a story about the survivors of the end of the world, making their way down that slippery slope of retreating technology and regressive knowledge, just trying to get through another day and another year in the hopes that someday it will all be better for someone – even though they all know that better day will not come for them.

If this part of the story, this description and setup of a world in decline in a way that is in no way the fault of anyone or anything mired in it grabs your imagination, if the way that Reid’s community has managed to survive, along with the many ways in which they demonstrate, as best they can, that survival is insufficient, reads as fascinating and entirely too plausible – as it did to this reader – there are other stories that take this same concept and follow it in different directions – or are nearer to or farther down the road from that initial slide – such as Lark Ascending by Silas House, The Starless Crown by James Rollins, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel may also appeal – and vice versa as well.

Reid’s experiences at Howse University, as related in We Speak Through the Mountain, ask a different set of questions, questions about what the haves owe to the have nots, and what happens when an outsider, repeatedly and often, challenges the smug elitism of their safe, secure, patronizing privilege. Now that I know how Reid came to those experiences, I may go back and experience them again for myself to see how much that story has changed now that I have more of this one.

A/A- Joint #BookReview: These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart by Izzy Wasserstein

A/A- Joint #BookReview: These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart by Izzy WassersteinThese Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart by Izzy Wasserstein
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: dystopian, science fiction, science fiction mystery, technothriller
Pages: 176
Published by Tachyon Publications on March 12, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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In a queer, noir technothriller of fractured identity and corporate intrigue, a trans woman faces her fear of losing her community as her past chases after her. This bold, thought-provoking debut science-fiction novella from a Lambda Award finalist is an exciting and unpredictable look at the fluid nature of our former and present selves.
In mid-21st-century Kansas City, Dora hasn’t been back to her old commune in years. But when Dora’s ex-girlfriend Kay is killed, and everyone at the commune is a potential suspect, Dora knows she’s the only person who can solve the murder.
As Dora is dragged back into her old community and begins her investigations, she discovers that Kay’s death is only one of several terrible incidents. A strange new drug is circulating. People are disappearing. And Dora is being attacked by assailants from her pre-transition past.
Meanwhile, It seems like a war between two nefarious corporations is looming, and Dora’s old neighborhood is their battleground. Now she must uncover a twisted conspiracy, all while navigating a deeply meaningful new relationship.

Amy and Marlene’s Joint Review:

Amy: After the downfall of most governments in the US, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has gotten even bigger. In a time not too far past our own, in a mostly-dead downtown Kansas City, a young transwoman named Dora gets a visit from an old friend. Her former lover, who still lived in the commune Dora left, is dead. She goes to see, to say goodbye, and discovers that it wasn’t just an overdose — it was a murder. She’s determined to figure it all out, but while she’s walking around her old neighborhood, looking for clues and thinking things over, she gets jumped by a stranger who looks an awful lot like she used to…

From the Department of Fair Warnings: This book has a non-zero amount of bloody murders in it. It’s a murder mystery, yanno? You know to expect that. Also one brief sex scene, that I did not expect, and that might catch some readers by surprise by its strangeness.

Marlene: SF mystery is seriously becoming a ‘thing’, and I’m very much here for it in general – both because I love genre blends AND because SF mystery in particular gets to use its blending to query both sides of its equation. The SF pokes at the mystery elements and the mystery elements poke at the SF.

This particular combination of the two is very much of the Earth-bound, scientific laboratory wing of the SF genre, to the point where it would probably make a great intro to SF for someone who is primarily a mystery/suspense/thriller reader, as the SFnal elements are familiar in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian sort of way. It’s not that far from now in either time or circumstances and that makes the story easy to slip into.

Dora’s world is pretty much fucked, and that’s pretty clear from the get-go. She may have thrown her own set of torches into the conflagration, but her Kansas City – particularly her part of it – is very much on its way down towards a clearly yawning abyss.

She’s burned her bridges behind her, one righteously, and the other maybe not so much. Her dad wanted the boy she was assigned to be at birth – and she couldn’t be that. He’s also a douche in general which makes him REAL easy to hate. OTOH, she’s also cut herself off from the commune community that represented both family and safety. A split that had a lot of hurt and betrayal in it then – and still does when the story begins.

The mystery that Dora is compelled to solve is the same thing that caused her split from the community in the first place, and it’s a question as old as time – or at least as old as this quote from Benjamin Franklin, the one about the willingness to give up “essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

The commune has a habit of trusting people and letting people in who arguably should have been vetted a bit better first. They were, and are, unwilling to make that trade off of liberty for safety – even though it has bitten them in the ass before and quite likely has again.

But this time, the threat came from a direction none of them would ever have expected, and it’s up to Dora to unravel the mystery that has been festering – both under the city and in her own past – all along.

Amy’s Rating A: Dora has a lot to figure out, and she gets right to it. This story rocks along fast; if you’re like me, you’ll start reading, and not stop until you’re done, which won’t take terribly long. The first unfriendly stranger startled her, but when the second one shows up, and also looks rather like she would have if she had not transitioned, she starts putting the pieces together. Like all good mysteries, she’s got to sort out the who, the what, the where, and the why; the where comes first, and the remaining pieces fall into place in quick order thereafter. On its face, it’s a fine high-speed murder mystery, complete with a deeply flawed hero and a somewhat unsurprising, even more-flawed villain.

But Izzy Wasserstein has buried something deeper to think about in this tale. When presented with her clone, Dora looks at and interacts with — and even gets intimate with — someone who might have been her, if her father had gotten his way, and she’d been the son he always wanted. The interaction between this imperfect clone of her pre-transition body, and her own traumatized persona, gives me (as a queer transwoman myself) a great deal to think about: How would things have been different if I were not who I am? And how crucial to the person I have become was my transition, and my life experiences since then? It hearkens back to the whole “nature or nurture” question that mankind has pondered for a long, long time. Are we, in fact, born this way, destined to be who we are?

Obviously, it’s not an either-or question; there are shades and nuances throughout, and Wasserstein shows us some of that in her portrayal of the clone. They are imperfect, programmed from the time they came out of the tanks to be a violent killer and think of Dora as a “traitor.” Yet they don’t kill her, and they discuss with Dora at some length their “fighting their instincts” to become their own person.

So, really, there are two stories hidden in this short book: a straightforward, well-crafted cyberpunk whodunnit, and the story of a transperson squaring off with a clone of herself. Two good, thought-provoking stories under one cover…what’s not to like?

Marlene’s Rating A-: I tend to rate novellas at the A- level a LOT of the time and this book is no exception. I love the novella length because it’s fast to read, but that length means that a lot of backstory gets left on the proverbial cutting room floor because there isn’t space for it. In other words, as much as I totally got where Dora was personally coming from, how our world got fucked up into hers that fast needed a couple more steps for me to buy into it.

I also would have loved a bit more about the anarchist and commune movement as it applied to this particular story, because I was basing all of my knowledge and acceptance of the way that part of their world worked on Cadwell Turnbull’s fantastic Convergence Saga; No Gods, No Monsters and We Are the Crisis, because that near-future SF tale is also rooted a bit in the coop/commune movement – although with a completely different crisis and in an entirely different way.

The mystery part of this mystery wasn’t quite as mysterious as it might have been. Once the cadres of poorly programmed almost-Theodores started chasing after Dora it was really obvious that they were clones AND that her dad was the mad scientist (and he so was!) creating them. No matter what his employer or moneybags might have intended them to do or be.

Howsomever, the questions that Dora asks herself are the part of the story that sticks in the mind after the last page is turned – and they turned out to be considerably more fascinating than merely ‘whodunnit’.

As Amy said, it’s that age-old question of ‘nature vs. nurture’ along with a heaping helping of what does it mean to be ‘born that way’ – whatever way that may be in the mind of the person, and whether the answer to that question is based on innate characteristics or parental or societal expectations or fate or destiny.

Dora confronts those questions, not just in her own mind, but in her relationship with one of her almost-clones and that clone’s willingness to throw off their own programming. And that’s the fragile grace that gives this story its heart.

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
Goodreads

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: The Archive Undying by Emma Mieko Candon

Review: The Archive Undying by Emma Mieko CandonThe Archive Undying (The Downworld Sequence, #1) by Emma Mieko Candon
Narrator: Yung-I Chang
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: artificial intelligence, dystopian, mecha, science fiction
Series: Downworld Sequence #1
Pages: 496
Length: 16 hours and 28 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on June 27, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The Archive Undying is an epic work of mecha sci-fi about Sunai, the immortal survivor of an Autonomous Intelligence that went mad and destroyed the city it watched over as a patron god. In the aftermath of the divine AI’s suicide, Sunai is on the run from those who would use him, either to resurrect what was lost or as the enslaved pilot of a gargantuan war machine made from his god’s corpse. Trouble catches up with Sunai when he falls into bed with Veyadi, a strange man who recruits him to investigate an undiscovered AI. Sunai draws ever closer to his cursed past, flirting with disaster and his handsome new boyfriend alike.

My Review:

The Archive Undying is a fractured story about broken people in a shattered world. Everything about this story, the people, the place, even the story itself, is in jagged pieces.

But with everything in jagged pieces, while it makes the characters compelling, and the world they live in a fascinating puzzle, the fractured jaggedness of the story itself makes the whole thing hard to follow.

Which makes describing the thing more than a tad difficult. Because you’re never quite sure what’s going on – even after the end – because you don’t know how anything or anyone got to be who, where and what they were at the point things start. Or even what the point of what they did might have been.

That’s true of the characters, the institutions and the whole entire world they inhabit. Because it’s all been corrupted. Not by the usual human forms of corruption – well, honestly, that too – but because everything in this world was run by autonomous AIs, and someone or something, both in the distant past and in the immediate present, introduced corruption into those AIs’ codes that caused them to fall. And to die.

At least as much as an AI can die.

So the story begins with Sunai. Or at least the story we drop into begins from Sunai’s point of view. He’s a salvage rat hiding a bitter truth from himself – but as it turns out Sunai is lies and bitter truths pretty much all the way down.

So is everyone – and everything – else. But the more of all those perspectives of lies and deceptions and bitter truths and sorrows we see, the more it all comes back to Sunai. And to the bitterest truth of all that he has hidden so deep that it will take an invasion of rogue mechs and rapacious AIs destroying his city to finally bring it to light.

Escape Rating B: I listened to The Archive Undying in its entirety, and I have to say that its the narrator that carried me through all SIXTEEN AND A HALF HOURS. The narrator didn’t just do a good job of voicing all the many, many characters, but by literally being in their heads and not my own it allowed me to care enough about the individuals to be willing to experience the whole constantly twisting saga. If I’d been reading this as text, if I’d been in my head instead of theirs, I’d have DNF’d fairly early because the sheer number of changes in perspectives combined with unsatisfying hints of the world they occurred in would have driven me mad in short order. YMMV.

The Archive Undying is a story that expects a lot from its readers, probably more than it is likely to get. Which is somewhat ironic, as Sunai, the being who stands more-or-less as its protagonist has learned to expect very little, and is often surprised when he gets even that.

But then, that’s the thing about this book, in that if the reader can come to care about the characters, particularly Sunai the failed archivist and reluctant relic, then that reader will stick with the story to see what happens to Sunai and the ragtag band of friends, allies, frenemies and rogue AIs who have attached themselves to him. Or that he has attached himself to accidentally or by someone else’s purpose.

The story has so many perspectives, and it jumps between them so frequently and with so little provocation, that the story is difficult to follow. But more often than the reader expects, all of those fractured pieces come together in beauty – just the way the bits of color in a kaleidoscope suddenly shift into a glorious – if temporary – whole.

I left this story with three completely separate – almost jagged – thoughts about it.

Because we spend this story inside pretty much all of the characters’ heads – even the characters that don’t technically HAVE heads, and because so many of their actions have gone horribly wrong and they’re all full to the brim with regret and angst, this struck me as a ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’ kind of story. We see their thoughts, they’re all a mess all the time, they’ve all screwed up repeatedly, and they’re all sorry about almost everything they’ve done – even as they keep doing the thing they’re sorry about.

Second, as a question of language, and because I listened to this rather than read the text, I got myself caught up in the question of whether the word, and more of the characters than at first seemed, was ‘relic’ or ‘relict’ as they’re pronounced the same. Sunai, and others, are referred to as ‘relics’ of the mostly dead AI named Iterate Fractal – or one of its brethren. But a ‘relic’ is an object of religious significance from the past, and a ‘relict’ is a survivor of something that used to exist in a larger or active form but no longer does. Not all of the autonomous AIs were worshipped as gods, but they all left relicts behind.

There’s a part of me that keeps thinking that at its heart, The Archive Undying is a love story. Not necessarily a romance – but rather a story about the many and varied ways that love can turn toxic and wrong. To the point where even when it does come out right the selected value of right is tenuous and likely to break at the first opportunity.

An opportunity we’ll eventually get to see. The Archive Undying is the first book in the projected Downworld Sequence, implying that there will be more to come even if the when of it is ‘To Be Determined’. I think I got invested in the characters enough to see what happens to them next – and I have hope that maybe the many, many blanks in the explanation of how things got to be this bad will get filled in in that next or subsequent books in the duology. But after the way this first book went, I KNOW I’ll be getting that second one in audio because the narration of this first book by Yung-I Chang is what made the whole thing possible for me and I expect him to carry me through the next one as well.

Review: Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Review: Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-StaceFirebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, science fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on May 4, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Like everyone else she knows, Mallory is an orphan of the corporate war. As a child, she lost her parents, her home, and her entire building in an airstrike. As an adult, she lives in a cramped hotel room with eight other people, all of them working multiple jobs to try to afford water and make ends meet. And the job she’s best at is streaming a popular VR war game. The best part of the game isn’t killing enemy combatants, though—it’s catching in-game glimpses of SpecOps operatives, celebrity supersoldiers grown and owned by Stellaxis, the corporation that runs the America she lives in.
Until a chance encounter with a SpecOps operative in the game leads Mal to a horrifying discovery: the real-life operatives weren’t created by Stellaxis. They were kids, just like her, who lost everything in the war, and were stolen and augmented and tortured into becoming supersoldiers. The world worships them, but the world believes a lie.
The company controls every part of their lives, and defying them puts everything at risk—her water ration, her livelihood, her connectivity, her friends, her life—but she can’t just sit on the knowledge. She has to do something—even if doing something will bring the wrath of the most powerful company in the world down upon her.

My Review:

Firebreak isn’t about the game. Not that there isn’t one, and not that Mallory and her best friend Jessa aren’t playing it, but the story in Firebreak is not really about the game. Especially not to the degree that Ready Player One is about the game and the puzzle about the ownership of the game every bit as much as it is concerned with the near-future dystopia in which the story is set.

But they do have something in common – in both stories the game is the opiate of the masses that keeps people from thinking too hard or too long about all the many, many ways in which they and their worlds are totally and epically screwed.

Mallory and Jessa, and every single person they know in Old Town, outside the walls and checkpoints of New Liberty City – where all the elites live – is a survivor of the corporate wars between Stellaxis Innovations and Greenleaf Industries.

The war may have mostly devolved into an uneasy peace interrupted by intermittent skirmishes, but when the war was going hot and heavy mechs and artillery were everywhere, everyone lost family, friends, loved ones, homes and livelihoods. Most of their friends are the ONLY surviving members of their families.

Stellaxis controls water, and Greenleaf controls food. Living in a Stellaxis controlled area, with 9 people crammed in one room of what used to be an old hotel, they queue up every day for their meager water ration and work three, four or even six jobs to pay for rent, food and everything else.

An everything else which includes the in-game credits and items needed to stream their participation in the game BestLife. Which is, ironically, a simulation of the corporate wars.

Mal and Jessa’s gaming stream gets them just enough credits and in-game items to keep them going – albeit barely and on a shoestring. So Jessa jumps at the chance of a high paying sponsor – no matter how skeevy and weird the arrangement seems to be.

Mal is a whole lot more skeptical – but then Mal is just plain skeptical of people in general.

That would-be sponsor turns out to be, not even a small-time corporation, but instead a locked-out conspiracy theorist who might just have the parts of a key that leads to the largest and most dangerous Pandora’s Box of all time. A box that holds the biggest and dirtiest secrets that Stellaxis Innovations has buried in the deepest, darkest subterranean levels of their vast corporate complex.

Literally.

The truth might set Mal and Jessa and everyone they know, free of the corporate oversight that controls their every waking moment. Or it might get them all killed. Slowly by dehydration and kidney failure. Or as quickly as a bullet in the head.

Escape Rating A+: It’s not about the game. It’s about the world that the game lets everyone escape from while packaging and selling the war – and every control and draconian measure that goes along with it – to everyone at the same time.

Firebreak is the story of someone who has spent her life keeping her head down and putting one foot in front of the other, always on the brink of exhaustion, dehydration and starvation – just like everyone else she knows.

At 20ish, Mal is just barely old enough to remember a time before, that life didn’t used to be like this. She’s part of the last cohort to know that there used to be a better way – but she’s too tired and downtrodden to do anything about it.

So the story here is about Mal waking up and trying to do the right thing, or at least a potentially right thing, before it’s too late.

Once she sees the evidence that at the center of the war that Stellaxis has merchandised and sold to everyone is an unforgivable crime, she realizes two things. That someone has to do something. And that that someone is going to be her. Because she can’t unsee what she’s seen and she can’t unknow what she knows and she can’t let it go.

Because she might have been one of the orphaned children who got sucked in, brainwashed, genetically engineered and spit out to be the supersoldiers that sell the merchandise that funds the war. For as long as they live.

The story in Firebreak is about a scrappy, scared, struggling attempt by one “little” person to make a world-spanning corporation take just a tiny bit of responsibility for the evil that they’ve done. An evil that they bring fully to bear on anyone who lifts even a corner of their penthouse suite rug to see just how much dirt got swept underneath it.

Mal is naive, skeptical, and very definitely punching way above her weight class. A fact that is brought home to her with extreme brutality, over and over and over. But she can’t stop trying to do the right thing – even when so much of that attempt goes totally wrong.

In the end, we’re not sure she’s succeeded. And we’re really not sure it’s going to last. But her journey, every heartbreaking, pulse-pounding, sweat-dripping moment of it, keeps the reader on the edge of their seat until the very last page, hoping that there’s just a tiny bit more.

Firebreak is not nearly as much like Ready Player One as the blurbs might lead one to believe, because it’s not about the game at all – meaning that you don’t need to be a gamer or any memory at all of any era’s pop culture iconography.

The way that Firebreak DOES link to Ready Player One is in the way their dystopian settings do – or mostly don’t – work for most of the people who live in them. The world of Firebreak reads like what would have happened to Wade Watts’ world in RPO if Wade had lost the game and the evil corporation had taken over the OASIS. Possibly blended with just a bit of the dystopian setting of Veronica Roth’s Poster Girl with its conspiracy theories, mega-corporation spin doctoring and propaganda, and particularly the shared secrets at the hearts of their power structures.

Firebreak is an absolutely compelling read – with more than a touch of ominously prescient chill – from beginning to end. When I finished it I really wanted just a bit more – and that more is almost here.

A Firebreak prequel novella, Flight & Anchor, is coming in June. I know I’m going to get my heart broken all over again, but this is one of those times when I’m absolutely there for it.