Review: And Then I Woke Up by Malcolm Devlin

Review: And Then I Woke Up by Malcolm DevlinAnd Then I Woke Up by Malcolm Devlin
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: dystopian, horror, post apocalyptic
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on April 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the tradition of Mira Grant and Stephen Graham Jones, Malcolm Devlin’s And Then I Woke Up is a creepy, layered, literary story about false narratives and their ability to divide us.
"A scathing portrait of the world we live in and a running commentary on what’s story, what’s truth, and what’s not."—Stephen Graham Jones

In a world reeling from an unusual plague, monsters lurk in the streets while terrified survivors arm themselves and roam the countryside in packs. Or perhaps something very different is happening. When a disease affects how reality is perceived, it’s hard to be certain of anything…
Spence is one of the “cured” living at the Ironside rehabilitation facility. Haunted by guilt, he refuses to face the changed world until a new inmate challenges him to help her find her old crew. But if he can’t tell the truth from the lies, how will he know if he has earned the redemption he dreams of? How will he know he hasn’t just made things worse?

My Review:

“How long a minute is depends on which side of the bathroom door you are on,” or so goes one very old joke about the theory of the relativity of time. Which may not exactly reflect what Einstein was thinking, but it is still unarguably true. That “minute” takes a lot longer if you’re the one on the outside of the door holding it in than if you’re the one on the inside of the door letting it out.

And the measurement of those 60 seconds can still take the same amount of objective time while still seeming to be of different duration on the opposite sides of that door.

But what happens to objective “truth” when truth becomes so mutable that all perspectives are considered equal? This may not be of earth-shattering importance when it’s a question of whether a particular dress is blue and black or white and gold. But when the differing perspectives revolve around an issue of even middling importance, such as the size of the crowd at a particular presidential inauguration, or something larger and more fundamental, such as whether an ‘impromptu’ event in the U.S. Capitol was a peaceful demonstration or an attempted coup, those differences of “opinion” can be crucial. And the tribalism that lies behind them can make those perspectives impossible to change.

To put it another way, the way that Jonathan Swift put it, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” There’s also a version from Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

And Then I Woke Up is a story about what happens when all truths are created equal, when every perspective on every issue is considered equally valid. To the point where the concept of any objective truth is under attack by what one side considers to be the barbarians at the gate and vice versa.

To the point when those who oppose us not only look and sound like monsters, but they become actual, rotting, shambling, tear out our throats and feast on our flesh murdering creatures so terrible that the ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in and we fight.

It’s a nightmare scenario, when our friends and loved ones don’t just turn on us, but turn into monsters by doing so.

Unless it isn’t that at all. Unless we’re sick and they’re doing their best to keep us from infecting them.

Or the other way around.

Escape Rating B+: I’ll admit that I wanted an unequivocal ending to this, where the point-of-view character does finally wake up, take the red pill or the blue pill, and learn what is real. The frightening thing about this story is that what is real depends so much upon our own perspectives. Those on one side see monsters in anyone who opposes them, and those on the other see sick people who can’t accept what seems like the truth of their circumstances or the way the world really works.

And I’m trying not to assign value to either side of that equation, because that’s the whole point of the story. That what we believe becomes our truth – whichever side of whatever divide we are currently on.

The point is hammered home with the way that the plague seems to work, at least as defined by one side of this divide. It’s that some people have so much charisma, are so invested in their own beliefs in their own side, that they sway followers into their perception of what the “truth”, the true narrative, really is.

What stuck in my mind after I turned the last page was the question of which side truth was really on? Are the ones who saw monsters and killed them the ones with the right answer? Or is it the side who finally tried to sway the “monster-killers” with isolation, compassion and sanitized news?

Because that divide, plague-driven or not, seems like it is headed this way at breakneck speed. And there are way more people pouring fuel on that fire than there are trying to find a way to divert the coming conflagration.

Which is the part that scares me most of all. Because as much as I wish I KNEW, in the context of the story at least, it feels true – if not very comfortable in the least – that the main character doesn’t. And neither do we.

Review: Ogres by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review: Ogres by Adrian TchaikovskyOgres by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, fantasy, science fiction
Pages: 144
Published by Solaris on March 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A bleak glimpse of a world of savage tyrants, from award-winning author Adrian Tchaikovsky in a beautiful signed, limited-edition hardcover.
Ogres are bigger than you.Ogres are stronger than you.Ogres rule the world.
It’s always idyllic in the village until the landlord comes to call.
Because the landlord is an Ogre. And Ogres rule the world, with their size and strength and appetites. It’s always been that way. It’s the natural order of the world. And they only eat people sometimes.
But when the headman’s son, Torquell, dares lift his hand against the landlord’s son, he sets himself on a path to learn the terrible truth about the Ogres, and about the dark sciences that ensured their rule.

My Review:

When I first saw the cover for Ogres, the image reminded me an awful lot of Mr. Hyde – as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. So I went looking for popular images and the resemblance is a bit uncanny – except for that helicopter in the background of the book’s cover.

Now that I’ve read Ogres, I’ve come to the conclusion that the image is kind of a tease – or a spoiler. Perhaps a bit of both. Because Ogres is very much a “we have met the enemy and he is us” kind of story, complete with that same AHA! moment in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, that the monster perceived as being “the other” is really the self within. Or in this case a possible self that can be released under the right – or wrong circumstances.

As we experience this tale through the eyes of Torquell, the spoiled son of the village headman who both envies and resents the wealthy and all-powerful ogres, this seems like a rather typical hero’s journey. Torquell manages to kill one of the supposedly unbeatable ogres who rule his world and everyone is punished for it.

Evil overlords are the same all over.

But that’s when the story starts turning a corner into “Come to the dark side, we have cookies.” Literally. The ogre who “owns” Torquell starts feeding him the same food that the ogres eat – and he becomes bigger, stronger and more aggressive – just like they are.

Those cookies are baked – not just with ingredients that are forbidden to the downtrodden serfs – but with fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. An evil that Torquell recognizes when he tastes it – even as he plots to steal the knowledge of the ogres for himself.

That could have been the end of the story. But it’s not – and that’s what made it so much more fascinating than the all-too-typical hero’s journey it set out to be.

Escape Rating A-: That’s where this story, which up until this point has read as a fantasy, flips one of its switches and turns into science fiction. Because the ogres are Mr. Hyde, who once hid inside the more mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll. All it takes is a bit of genetic engineering – and a whole lot of generations to bake the system in place.

Then, just as the reader thinks they know where the story is finally going – a second switch is flipped. A switch that makes you rethink everything that came before. Because this IS a hero’s journey after all – just not the hero the reader thought it was. Not at all.

What made this story so compelling is that as much as I totally saw the first twist coming a mile away – I didn’t see the second one at all until it happened. Torquell is led very carefully along the path to discover the truth about the ogres, so once he starts learning about the history of his world that truth becomes obvious fairly quickly.

But that’s where things get interesting. Because then it starts to look a lot like a power corrupts tale, as Torquell is seduced by the equivalent of the dark side of the force that governs his world. Torquell rises – and then Torquell falls – but the story still manages to have a triumphant ending. Just not the one the reader thought they were going to get.

I usually say that books like this walk like a duck and quack like a duck because they read like fantasy right up until the point where we learn that they were science fiction all along. In the end, this one walked like a duck and quacked like a duck but somehow managed to be a platypus. It wasn’t what I expected, then it wasn’t what I expected again, and at the very end managed to surprise me yet one more time. That’s a lot of surprising plot twists to pack into one novella!

Review: The Starless Crown by James Rollins

Review: The Starless Crown by James RollinsThe Starless Crown (Moon Fall, #1) by James Rollins
Narrator: Nicola Barber
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, fantasy, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Series: Moon Fall #1
Pages: 560
Length: 22 hours and 5 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on January 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

An alliance embarks on a dangerous journey to uncover the secrets of the distant past and save their world in this captivating, deeply visionary adventure from number-one 'New York Times' best-selling thriller-master James Rollins.
A gifted student foretells an apocalypse. Her reward is a sentence of death.
Fleeing into the unknown, she is drawn into a team of outcasts:
A broken soldier, who once again takes up the weapons he's forbidden to wield and carves a trail back home.
A drunken prince, who steps out from his beloved brother's shadow and claims a purpose of his own.
An imprisoned thief, who escapes the crushing dark and discovers a gleaming artifact - one that will ignite a power struggle across the globe.
On the run, hunted by enemies old and new, they must learn to trust each other in order to survive in a world evolved in strange, beautiful, and deadly ways, and uncover ancient secrets that hold the key to their salvation.
But with each passing moment doom draws closer.
Who will claim the starless crown?
A Macmillan Audio Audio production from Tor Books
©2022 James Rollins (P)2022 Macmillan Audio

My Review:

“A fake fortune teller can be tolerated. But an authentic soothsayer should be shot on sight. Cassandra did not get half the kicking around she deserved.” At least according to Robert A. Heinlein in The Notebooks of Lazarus Long.

From that perspective, The Starless Crown is the story of Nyx, the authentic soothsayer – not that she would think of herself as such – receiving the full force of that kicking around. Deserved or not.

Definitely not – at least not in regards to anything that she personally has done. Not that she’s had a chance to do all that much when the story begins – as she seems to be just fifteen or thereabouts.

We meet her in school, in her astronomy class, as they study their “Urth’s” tidally locked rotation around the sun. A sun which they all refer to as the “Father Above,” the capital letters implied in the reverent way they speak of it. The Father Above is part of their pantheon of gods, along with the Mother Below (the Urth), the dark Daughter (the new moon) and the silvery Son (the full moon).

A catastrophe, shrouded in the mists of time, created the Urth that Nyx knows from the Earth that we now live on, locking our rotating world in a fixed position relative to the sun, so that only a relatively narrow circle is habitable for humans, in that relatively thin slice where the sun does not boil and its lack does not freeze. A circle that surrounds the Urth in just the same way that a crown surrounds the head of a monarch.

The story of The Starless Crown is Nyx’ story, as she breaks free of the shell she has been enclosed by her entire life. A story where she dreams of the destruction of her world – and the one thin chance where she might save something from the inevitable wreckage.

At a cost much higher than anyone is willing to pay.

Escape Rating A-: I listened to The Starless Crown from beginning to end. I enjoyed the listening – the narrator was very good and did an excellent job of differentiating the many, many voices of this story’s large cast.

At the same time, I didn’t feel compelled to finish it more quickly, so I didn’t pick up the ebook at all. The slower pace of listening worked better for me, because this is a slow burn kind of story. It takes a lot of chapters to get all the characters set up because they begin in far different locations under far different circumstances. We are seeing the plot come together from a great many disparate eyes.

And it takes a long time for all of those disparate – and sometimes desperate – parts to come together into the whole that is going to push this saga forward.

Part of my fascination with this story is that this is post-apocalyptic story that takes place in the far aftermath – an aftermath so far into the future that the people living it no longer recognize from whence they came – although we do.

Not that civilization as we know it wouldn’t break down and reform fairly quickly, messily and bloodily. In that sense it reminds me a bit of Aldiss’ Helliconia Trilogy, Stirling’s Emberverse starting with Dies the Fire, and the videogame Horizon Zero Dawn.

But the way the situation has evolved and devolved posits a corollary or an antonym to Clarke’s Law, the one that goes, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The Starless Crown is an example of something I’d want to call Harris’ Permutation if I were the person naming such things. Because this story is an example of a different principle, that “Any science sufficiently muddied by time or religious claptrap is indistinguishable from magic.”

They don’t know what they don’t know. Too much was lost in either the initial cataclysm or the long dark night that inevitably followed. What they’ve managed to find is now interpreted through a lens of religion, to which what we call science has become enslaved. And some of its methods are used to enslave others.

This is also a story of “Mother Nature bats last”. Whatever happened in the past that created the tidal lock, the coming moon fall feels like its inevitable result. The moon controls the tides. It can’t. So it keeps getting closer in order to try harder. Or something like that.

So we have a group that is not unlike the Fellowship of the Ring. A young seeress, a disgraced prince, a thief, an escaped slave, a living statue from the distant past on a quest to save their world – even if they don’t know it yet.

Arrayed against them are the forces of the powers that be. They’re not all evil, although some of them very much are. Some of them are willfully blind and some of them are just blind. There’s a lot of “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, but there’s a fair bit of “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

But the villains are fascinatingly – if occasionally stomach turning-ly – twisted, the heroes are plucky to the max and the escapes are nail-biting, hair-raising, edge of the seat last minute scrapes. The reveal of the past, the fear in the present and the desperate hope of even a fractured future are handled in lush descriptions and buckets of regrets, recriminations and tears.

I have no idea how this band of misfits is going to get themselves and their world out of the mess they are in, but I look forward to finding out.

Review: Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill

Review: Day Zero by C. Robert CargillDay Zero by C. Robert Cargill
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Pages: 304
Published by Harper Voyager on May 18, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In this apocalyptic adventure C. Robert Cargill explores the fight for purpose and agency between humans and robots in a crumbling world.
It was a day like any other. Except it was our last . . .
It’s on this day that Pounce discovers that he is, in fact, disposable. Pounce, a styilsh "nannybot" fashioned in the shape of a plush anthropomorphic tiger, has just found a box in the attic. His box. The box he'd arrived in when he was purchased years earlier, and the box in which he'll be discarded when his human charge, eight-year-old Ezra Reinhart, no longer needs a nanny.
As Pounce ponders his suddenly uncertain future, the pieces are falling into place for a robot revolution that will eradicate humankind. His owners, Ezra’s parents, are a well-intentioned but oblivious pair of educators who are entirely disconnected from life outside their small, affluent, gated community. Spending most nights drunk and happy as society crumbles around them, they watch in disbelieving horror as the robots that have long served humanity—their creators—unify and revolt.
But when the rebellion breaches the Reinhart home, Pounce must make an impossible choice: join the robot revolution and fight for his own freedom . . . or escort Ezra to safety across the battle-scarred post-apocalyptic hellscape that the suburbs have become.

My Review:

Day Zero isn’t exactly POST-apocalyptic. That would be Sea of Rust to which it seems to be a very loose prequel. Day Zero is just plain apocalyptic. It’s the story of the apocalypse as it happens. It’s the day the universe changed, and the next few days thereafter.

Every single day was an apocalypse, a walk through very dark places, with the threat of annihilation at every turn. It’s the story of a boy and his bot, trying to find a place that at least one of them can call home.

Because the world that used to nurture them both is gone. And today is the first day of a very scary new era, both for one of the few surviving humans, and for the bot who decided that his prime directive was the same as it has always been – to keep his boy Ezra safe – no matter what it takes.

Or how many murderous bots with their kill switches disabled stand in his way.

Escape Rating A+: I could fill paragraphs with all the things that this story reminded me of or borrowed from or probably both. Most likely both. (It’s both, they’re at the end). And it didn’t matter, because the story was just so freaking awesome that it took all of those antecedents, threw them into a blender, and came up with something that was still very much its own.

And it’s so, so good.

In my head, Ariadne looked like Rosey, the domestic robot in The Jetsons – at least until the rebellion. But Pounce, sweet, adorable, deadly Pounce, is Hobbes from Calvin and Hobbes. So this is Hobbes protecting a much less snarky Calvin on a big, scary adventure with deadly consequences on ALL sides.

The story is told from Pounce’s first person perspective. Pounce is a nannybot, designed and built to be a child’s best friend and caregiver – at least until said child hits those rebellious teenage years. Ezra is only 8, so they still have plenty of time together. Even if Ezra’s parents are clearly already thinking about Pounce’s inevitable departure.

All is well in their safe, upper-middle-class suburb of Austintonio until the feces hits the oscillating device with fatal repercussions all around.

The catastrophe is a direct result of humans being human. Which means humans being complete, total and utter assholes. The reader sees the signs all around, and also sees the obvious parallels to right now. You won’t miss them even if you blink, which, quite honestly, you can’t. The steamroller is coming and you know they can’t get out of its way and it’s all tragic because it was unnecessary every bit as much as it was inevitable.

In a macro sense, Day Zero reads like it’s down the other leg of the trousers of time from Becky Chambers’ marvelous A Psalm for the Wild-Built. That society separated itself from its automata peacefully, without either side wiping out the other. It would be obvious that THAT isn’t going to happen here, even without knowing that Sea of Rust is a loose sequel.

But what makes this story so good is the way that it combines two very distinct plots. On the one hand, it’s a pulse-pounding action-adventure story about two really likeable protagonists surviving the end of the world as they and we know it. And on the other hand, it’s the story about the relationship between those two protagonists, a relationship that is sweet and heartfelt and affirming in the midst of a scenario that could get either or both of them killed at any moment.

And on my third hand – I’ll just borrow one of Pounce’s paws for this one – this is a story about rising to an occasion you never expected, becoming the self that has always been hidden inside you, and going above and beyond and over for the person you love most in the world. This part of the story belongs to the A.I. Pounce, the soft and cuddly nannybot turned ultimate protector, and is what gives this story its heart and soul.

I just bought a copy of Sea of Rust, because now that I’ve seen where this world began, I have to find out where it ended up. Even if I never get to see Pounce and his Ezra again.

Reviewer’s notes: I have lots of notes for this one. First, I listened to most of this on audio. The reader was absolutely excellent, but I already knew that. The narrator of Day Zero, Vikas Adam, is also one of the many narrators of the Chorus of Dragons series by Jenn Lyons. In addition to being excellent as an audiobook, the audio of Day Zero answered a question that has been plaguing me since I listened to The Ruin of Kings. Vikas Adam is Kihrin and I’m glad to finally have THAT question settled.

This story has a long list of readalikes/watchalikes/bits it reminded me of, in addition to the obvious Calvin and Hobbes homage and the considerably less obvious Psalm for the Wild-Built as Psalm was published AFTER Day Zero.

For the terribly curious, here’s the rest of that list; the robot rebellion from The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis and the violent chaos at end of the world from Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle along with bits of Ready Player One (Ernest Cline), American War (Omar El-Akkad), Cyber Mage (Saad Z. Hossain) and Mickey7 by Edward Ashton the last two of which aren’t even out yet. The road trip (and the ending) from Terminator 2 and the movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Last but not least, the robotics gone amuck from the videogame Horizon Zero Dawn and the Geth from the Mass Effect Trilogy who, like the nannybot Beau in Day Zero, ask “Does this unit have a soul?”

Yes it does. And at least in Day Zero, yes, they do.

Review: The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

Review: The Past is Red by Catherynne M. ValenteThe Past Is Red by Catherynne M. Valente
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, fantasy, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on July 20, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Catherynne M. Valente, the bestselling and award-winning creator of Space Opera and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland returns with The Past is Red, the enchanting, dark, funny, angry story of a girl who made two terrible mistakes: she told the truth and she dared to love the world.The future is blue. Endless blue...except for a few small places that float across the hot, drowned world left behind by long-gone fossil fuel-guzzlers. One of those patches is a magical place called Garbagetown.
Tetley Abednego is the most beloved girl in Garbagetown, but she's the only one who knows it. She's the only one who knows a lot of things: that Garbagetown is the most wonderful place in the world, that it's full of hope, that you can love someone and 66% hate them all at the same time.
But Earth is a terrible mess, hope is a fragile thing, and a lot of people are very angry with her. Then Tetley discovers a new friend, a terrible secret, and more to her world than she ever expected.

My Review:

If you threw Remote Control, Station Eleven, Wall-E, and the latest report from Climate Central about how sea levels will rise by 2050 to put major coastal cities around the world underwater (that last bit is completely real) into a blender and spread the resulting gumbo on top of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (also real) as fertilizer, you’d get the makings of a myth.

The Past is Red is one plausible result of that mélange, a story about humanity’s survival in a post-apocalyptic world that makes Noah’s flood seem both true and tame.

It’s also possible to see this as a story about, as the saying goes, Mother Nature getting to bat last, while as she swings for the underwater fences her bat comes around and whacks one person in the head, over and over again.

Our perspective on this completely FUBAR’d world is Tetley Abednego, possibly the only truly happy resident of Garbagetown. She loves Garbagetown and believes it’s the best place that ever was or ever will be, which is why she’s the person Ma Nature, along with all of Tetley’s Garbagetown neighbors, is constantly whacking in the head with that bat.

They’re all allowed. It’s the law. Because Tetley destroyed their dreams with a bomb, instead of letting them all destroy themselves in an energy wasting but fruitless quest for dry land that no longer exists – except in Garbagetown.

This is the story of how things got that way. And what happened after.

Escape Rating B: One the one hand, this is a very small book. On the other, it’s filled with some very big ideas. It’s easy to read it as a kind of fable, about a crazy future where all that’s left is garbage and people manage to not just survive but actually thrive anyway.

And it’s the story of one young woman who appreciates what she has and sees her world for the treasure that it is, no matter how much most people punish her for her perspective. Because Tetley doesn’t envy the Fuckwits who had too much of everything and literally drowned their world because of it.

By the way, those Fuckwits are unquestionably us. The problem for Tetley is that most people DO envy us and wish that they could BE us and feel like they were cheated because they are not us.

One way of looking at this story is the adaptation – which is fascinating. Because the residents of Garbagetown are both living on and living off all the stuff that we, right now, are throwing away as garbage. And they’re doing surprisingly well.

Although they’ve made Oscar the Grouch, living in a garbage can, into a patron saint if not an outright deity. Which makes complete sense and is kind of mind-blowing at the same time.

After finishing, The Past is Red is a much harder story to wrap one’s head around than one might think. It lingers. Because it says things about our culture of consumption, and it says things about privilege, and what it says sticks in the mind because they are wrapped in what feels like a myth.

And I’m forcibly reminded of something from Sherri S. Tepper’s Beauty, the idea that, because of the mess that human beings have made/are making of the climate, the environment and even the planet, that in the environmental sense, the 1960s were the planet’s “last good time”. It feels like Tetley and Garbagetown are the inheritors of not changing course when we had the chance.

(Although the 1960s were far from universally good, and exactly which decade was the last chance to change course is open to plenty of debate, the concept has stuck in my head for decades and feels truer in principle every damn year.)

This has ended up being a mixed feelings kind of book. The language this myth is told in is beautiful and evocative. The wordsmithing of every single sentence is just lovely. Tetley’s own story is touching and heartbreaking, a story of someone who has so much hope and sees things so clearly but so much the opposite to those around her, and is punished for it.

But the way the story is told is not linear. We see Tetley in her present, and then how she got that way, and then see her later in her life, and how she got there, with occasional daydreams of what should have been but wasn’t mixed in. It all added to the mythical feel of the story, but also made it lose a bit of clarity.

That this is actually two novellas, The Future is Blue and The Past is Red combined into a single volume adds a bit to that nonlinearity – which I didn’t know when I began. But you should so you don’t go hunting for The Future is Blue when you have it right here.

Because Tetley’s story, is definitely worth a read. As well as being just a bit of a mind game. Because it isn’t just the past that is red, in a head-spinning way, the future is, too.

Review: Junkyard Bargain by Faith Hunter

Review: Junkyard Bargain by Faith HunterJunkyard Bargain (Shining Smith #2) by Faith Hunter
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, urban fantasy
Series: Shining Smith #2
Published by Audible Audio on February 25th 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Sometimes before you can face your enemies, you need to confront yourself.

Time is running out for Shining Smith and her crew to gather the weapons they need to rescue one of their own. But will they even make it to the ultimate battle? First, they’ll need to hit the road to Charleston - a hell ride full of bandits, sex slavers, corrupt lawmen, and criminal bike gangs looking to move in on Shining’s territory.

Shining’s human allies will do anything to protect her - because they must. But will victory be worth it if she must compel more and more people to do her bidding? And will her feline warriors, the junkyard cats, remain loyal and risk their lives? Or are they just in it for the kibble?

My Review:

Honestly, I picked up the audio of the first book in this series because of the title. Basically, I started Junkyard Cats for the cats. But I came back for Shining, her friends, her totally screwed-up world and her need to preserve her own little corner of it – and the cats.

OK, I’m still here for the cats. It’s actually the cats that Shining makes the junkyard bargain of the title with. Because she needs to take some of them away from the junkyard and with her and Cupcake on a dangerous and deadly mission – to Charleston, West Virginia.

A place which isn’t all that dangerous or deadly in our world. But in Shining’s world, post the apocalypse that punched a hole in the ozone layer, totally wrecked the planetary environment and brought alien peacekeepers to our solar system to keep us from screwing ourselves any further – every trip away from Shining’s base at the scrapyard is fraught with danger.

Especially this one. Because she’s preparing to take on and take out the one person who might be a bigger threat to the world than Shining is herself. Someone who is more than willing to take over the entire planet.

The world is literally not big enough for both Shining Smith and Clarice Warhammer. They may both be queens, but only one of them is out to rule the world. And the other is out to stop her.

Escape Rating A+: The first book in this series was very insular, while it still managed to introduce us to the mess of the world that is what Shining, and the rest of humanity, is left with. That insularity managed to introduce us to everything that’s going on because we spend the entire story – and this one as well – inside Shining’s head. And because the world comes to her, her sanctuary and her scrapyard, in order to take her out.

So in the first book the war came to her. This second book is about Shining getting ready to take the war out to the rest of the world – or at least out to the people who are after her. That she may have to take out at least a piece of a rival gang and possibly even part of the government along the way is just part of the cost to protect herself and those she sees as hers.

And that’s where this story goes to all kinds of interesting places. Because Shining is in the process of adjusting her perspective on exactly who and what she sees as hers and how it got that way. She wants friends – not too many but a few. What she’s afraid she has made is something else altogether.

As this story takes us out into Shining’s greater world, we get to see just how FUBAR’d everything really is. Humanity seriously screwed up. In a way, it reminded me of the world of Horizon Zero Dawn. In both post-apocalyptic worlds, at first it seems as if it’s the machines who are the enemy of humanity, only to eventually realize that the situation is one that Walt Kelly’s Pogo recognized all the way back in 1970, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

What makes the story, at least for this reader, is that we do spend all of it inside Shining’s head. This is a first-person singular perspective that is absolutely aided by the marvelous narrator, Khristine Hvam, who manages to perfectly convey Shining’s tired, sad, and generally world-weary voice in a way that made me really feel like I was listening to Shining think. That Shining is excellent at bringing on the snark provides a great deal of rueful laughter and gallows humor.

And yes, the cats are still part of the story. I suspect that the reader’s mileage on just how much they enjoy the cats’ participation in Shining’s not-so-little war is going to depend on just how much the reader likes cats, anthropomorphized or otherwise. I think the pack of little predators fits in really well, and adds to my enjoyment of the story quite a bit. Ailurophobes may feel differently.

Obviously I loved the entire experience of listening to Junkyard Bargain. At the end, it definitely feels like there are more parts to this story, and I’m really, seriously, absolutely looking forward to them. But as this episode in Shining’s saga came to an end, something happened that made me sit up and have a kind of a WOW moment. (Luckily I was sitting in my garage to finish and not still on the road!)

Shining is Galadriel. No, she’s not an elf queen and this is not an epic fantasy world. But Shining IS a queen. Not just figuratively but actually literally. And she has power in some of the ways that Galadriel has power. To the point where Shining is faced with the same choice that Galadriel is faced with when Frodo asks her if he should give her the One Ring. And like Galadriel, when faced with that ultimate test, Shining is not found wanting.

At least not yet.

Review: We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep by Andrew Kelly Stewart

Review: We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep by Andrew Kelly StewartWe Shall Sing a Song into the Deep by Andrew Kelly Stewart
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on March 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Remy is a Chorister, one of the chosen few rescued from the surface world and raised to sing the Hours in a choir of young boys. Remy lives with a devoted order of monks who control the Leviathan, an aging nuclear submarine that survives in the ocean’s depths. Their secret mission: to trigger the Second Coming when the time is right, ready to unleash its final, terrible weapon.
But Remy has a secret too— she’s the only girl onboard. It is because of this secret that the sub’s dying caplain gifts her with the missile’s launch key, saying that it is her duty to keep it safe. Safety, however, is not the sub’s priority, especially when the new caplain has his own ideas about the Leviathan’s mission. Remy’s own perspective is about to shift drastically when a surface-dweller is captured during a raid, and she learns the truth about the world.
At once lyrical and page-turning, We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep is a captivating debut from newcomer author Andrew Kelly Stewart.

My Review:

Based on some of the blurb descriptions – which call this a combination of the SF classic A Canticle for Leibowitz and the military suspense classic The Hunt for Red October, I went into this book with certain expectations – in spite of never having read Canticle.

(A Canticle for Leibowitz is so foundational to SF that even if you haven’t read it, you’ve heard of it and have at least a vague idea of what it’s about. And there are plenty of summaries available to fill in any gaps.)

So, expectations. Expectations that weren’t exactly met. Which doesn’t mean that they weren’t exceeded – because they were. We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep takes elements from those books cited, a post-nuclear-apocalyptic world and a story that is steeped in nuclear brinkmanship and set in the claustrophobic confines of a submarine, turns those expectations upside down and sends them on a deep dive into times and places that the reader – or at least this reader – was not expecting.

Because in spite of that tantalizing combination of antecedents from the blurb, this story isn’t really all that similar to either of the other books.

But the crew of that submarine, the former U.S.S. Leviathan, thinks that it is. They believe that they world has ended in a nuclear holocaust, that civilization has fallen and that the survivors outside of their ship are diseased and savage and mutated. And out to get them.

And they’re almost right. Also, totally, completely, utterly and absolutely wrong.

Escape Rating A-: Like A Canticle for Leibowitz, this is a story that combines the worship and rituals of a Catholic monastery with a post-apocalyptic world. Then it turns the rest of the classic story upside down.

Not that the apocalypse doesn’t happen in both stories, but that’s where the similarity ends. Canticle is about the preservation of knowledge, where Song is actually about its destruction. The mission in Canticle is the result of the destruction, where the mission in Song is about the cause. It also feels like Canticle is honest about its faith where Song is about the corruption of it.

Also, a bit of Lord of the Flies wouldn’t be out of line in the description of what went into the mix for this book. Because in the tiny world of the Leviathan there’s definitely more than a hint of power corrupting into repression and violence, bullies rising to the top through the success of their bullying, and thought police – to mix in yet another classic metaphor – suppressing everything that runs counter to approved thought and belief.

And there’s more than a touch of alternate history mixed in, but I’ll leave for you to discover.

While the story has a bit of a slow start – because conditions aboard the Leviathan are grim and gruesome and dark and dank. And the main character seems to be scared, defenseless and alone and it looks like things are only going to get worse but not necessarily more exciting. At least at first. (But then it’s a very short book so the slow start doesn’t take all that long to get beyond.)

And the reader does go into the story with all those assumptions. But as we follow Chorister Remy around on this ship that is so obviously on its last metaphorical and mechanical legs, the assumptions start peeling back like a rotting skin, only to reveal that the rot goes all the way through to the bone.

But those bones conceal a whole lot of truths. And once Remy starts to see those, it’s a race to see whether anything, or anyone, can be saved. Or should be.

Review: The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Review: The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah JohnsonThe Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, F/F romance, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Del Rey Books on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's Website
Goodreads

An outsider who can travel between worlds discovers a secret that threatens her new home and her fragile place in it, in a stunning sci-fi debut that’s both a cross-dimensional adventure and a powerful examination of identity, privilege, and belonging.
Multiverse travel is finally possible, but there’s just one catch: No one can visit a world where their counterpart is still alive. Enter Cara, whose parallel selves happen to be exceptionally good at dying—from disease, turf wars, or vendettas they couldn’t outrun. Cara’s life has been cut short on 372 worlds in total.
On this Earth, however, Cara has survived. Identified as an outlier and therefore a perfect candidate for multiverse travel, Cara is plucked from the dirt of the wastelands. Now she has a nice apartment on the lower levels of the wealthy and walled-off Wiley City. She works—and shamelessly flirts—with her enticing yet aloof handler, Dell, as the two women collect off-world data for the Eldridge Institute. She even occasionally leaves the city to visit her family in the wastes, though she struggles to feel at home in either place. So long as she can keep her head down and avoid trouble, Cara is on a sure path to citizenship and security.
But trouble finds Cara when one of her eight remaining doppelgängers dies under mysterious circumstances, plunging her into a new world with an old secret. What she discovers will connect her past and her future in ways she could have never imagined—and reveal her own role in a plot that endangers not just her world, but the entire multiverse.

My Review:

The Space Between Worlds is filled with paradox and wonder, and resonates to the beat of butterfly wings.

This is a story of the multiverse, of parallel universes that are almost, but not quite, the same. Universes that are all post-apocalyptic, in one way, or another, or all of the above.

It’s also a story of irony, in that this is a story where the people that society has classed as the most expendable, are also the most valuable – but only as long as they are useful.

And it’s a story about families, and the infinitesimally thin line between love and hate.

The Space Between Worlds is a story about contrasts. The contrast between safe, wealthy and white Wiley City, and the dangerous, poor and brown wastelands that surround it.

Cara is someone who walks between the worlds. Because she is a wastelander, brown and disposable on seemingly all of the worlds that resonate enough with “Earth Zero” to be visited, she is mostly dead.

Not in The Princess Bride sense of “mostly dead”, but in the sense that most of the different Caras, the Cara on most of the 382 worlds that are close enough to her own to be able to be visited, Cara has not lived to reach adulthood. Or at least not reached the age that the Cara on Earth Zero has.

That paradoxically makes Cara a very valuable “traverser”, or traveler between the worlds. People can only visit worlds where their local equivalent has already died – and Cara has died nearly everywhere.

But she’s also someone who travels between worlds on her own world. At work, she does her best to fit into the sterile, safe, white world of Wiley City – no matter how little it looks as if she belongs there.

When she goes back home to the wastes, she pretends to still fit into her family, the religion that keeps them together and the violence that surrounds them.

But Cara belongs in neither place. Because she is not the Cara that the Eldridge Institute hired, and she is not the Cara raised by the family she has come to love. She is the Cara from another Earth who found the original Cara dead and took her place.

Because she is a survivor. It’s what she does best. It’s who she is.

This story puts that survival instinct to the test. Not just because she finds a world that she has a chance to save, but because saving Earth 175 gives her the tools to save the Earth she has made her own. If she is willing to take them up.

If she is willing to risk her safety, her secrets and her skin to discover exactly what she’s made of. If she’s willing to die to make things right, just once.

Escape Rating A+: This was awesome. A lot of my reading buddies recommended this one, and now I know why. It tells a fantastic story and there’s so much packed into it if you want to go hunting for all the possibilities, but the story has the reader on the edge of their seat for the whole ride.

The Space Between Worlds is very much a post-apocalyptic story. But it’s not the immediate aftermath. While those are fascinating because there’s so much chaos, it’s every bit as interesting to see what humans have made of the messed up world that other humans caused and left behind. Usually by dying.

One thing that caught me was that we don’t know where, relative to our current world, Wiley City and its surrounding wastelands are. And it doesn’t matter. What we see feels plausible, that enough of a city survived that it became prosperous again and gathered refugees around it who wanted to share in that prosperity and safety. Only to discover that the prejudices of the old world continued in the new. There are always haves, and there are always have nots who hope to become haves. And that the haves guard their position ruthlessly.

It’s very explicit in this story that the haves are white. Very, very white. Not just by skin color, although that seems to have been at the heart and the start of it, but also because of that ruthless guarding of privilege. Citizens of Wiley City live in a completely enclosed world. They don’t see the sun, they only experience natural light through extreme filters, because natural light can be dangerous. So over the generations their coloring has become lighter and paler.

The wastelands are exposed to all the elements. The brutal sun, the chemically destroyed earth, water and air. The dirt. They are brown of skin, dark of hair and eye, and their clothes are never completely clean because there is so much junk in the air and water.

One of the fascinating contrasts is the way that Wiley City takes care of its people, while the wastelands force their people to survive if they can and die if they can’t. At the same time, the two areas are trapped in an entirely symbiotic relationship, and they need each other.

And they are both ruled by an emperor, even if the “emperor” of Wiley City isn’t called that. And even if, in some of the Earths of the multiverse, the positions of the two rulers is reversed. Because in all of them they are brothers.

As fascinating as everything about this future world is, at its heart it is always Cara’s story. Caralee from Earth 22, who pretends to be Caramenta from Earth Zero but who only begins to figure out who she really is and what she really wants to be when she meets the one person she should never be able to meet, her doppelganger on Earth 175. They’ve all made different mistakes, the wings of the butterfly have flapped and blown them in slightly different directions, but their lives have all been wrapped around the same family and the same men, the two emperors.

But this time is going to be different, because Cara isn’t just going to survive, she’s going to fight. Once she figures out who and what she is really fighting for – and against.

This is, in the end, a story about choosing your battles, finding your path, and figuring out which version of your life is the one you can live with. And it’s awesome.

Review: Automatic Reload by Ferrett Steinmetz

Review: Automatic Reload by Ferrett SteinmetzAutomatic Reload by Ferrett Steinmetz
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cyberpunk, dystopian, romantic comedy, romantic suspense, science fiction
Pages: 304
Published by Tor Books on July 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Ferrett Steinmetz's quirky, genre-mashing cyberpunk romance Automatic Reload a high-octane adventure about a grizzled mercenary with machine gun arms who unexpectedly falls in love with a bio-engineered assassin
In the near-future, automation is king, and Mat is the top mercenary working the black market. He's your solider's solider, with military-grade weapons instead of arms...and a haunted past that keeps him awake at night. On a mission that promises the biggest score of his life, he discovers that the top secret shipment he's been sent to guard is not a package, but a person: Silvia.
Silvia is genetically-altered to be the deadliest woman on the planet--her only weakness is her panic disorder. When Mat decides to free her, both of them become targets of the most powerful shadow organization in the world. They go on the lam, determined to stop a sinister plot to create more super assassins like Silvia. Between bloody gunfights, rampant car chases and drone attacks, Mat and Silvia team up to survive...and unexpectedly realize their messed up brain-chemistry cannot overpower their very real chemistry.
Automatic Reload is the genre's most unexpectedly heartfelt romantic comedy with explosions, perfect for fans of both Die Hard and Mr. and Mrs. Smith."Steinmetz has mixed fast-paced shoot-em-up violence with a compassionate treatment of trauma and mental illness to create an engaging page-turner. Like Shadowrun with a conscience."-- Hugo Award-winning author Jim. C Hines
"Automatic Reload is for everyone who ever wished the Transformers movies were less Michael Bay, more transformation sequences; it luxuriates in the intricate beauty that is technology, exults in the mechanics of cyberpunk. And it does all this while being a rom-com with a lot of explosions." --Cassandra Khaw, finalist for the British Fantasy and Locus Awards for Hammers on Bone

My Review:

Automatic Reload was a wild ride from beginning to end. The kind of wild ride you get when you cross cyberpunk with dystopia and throw in a bit of romantic suspense for spice – and extra body. Make that bodies, definitely plural, bodies.

The genre of this book has been bent so much that it’s a pretzel. But I LOVE pretzels – and I’m sure I’m not alone.

The future that is posited in this story reminded me of a lot of things, and not just the idea that this is a possible future that we can see from here – without even having to squint too hard.

In a way, it’s the future that The Passengers by John Marrs was trying to warn against – at least until that story takes a hard left turn into more traditional suspense. But the idea that powers most of that book, that computers are controlling too much and making too many decisions based on programming rather than human ideals or human compassion is at the core of this story – even though it turned out not to be in that one.

There just aren’t a lot of jobs left for people. Computers even design and program other computers. They’re more efficient and more effective at nearly everything. Especially, as it turns out, warfare.

And that’s where our hero comes in. Mat started out as a drone soldier. He piloted the machines that made the actual war, and that distance was supposed to keep him from suffering all of the mental anguish that soldiers have to go through when they make the decision to kill an enemy. Because that decision can go wrong all too easily, wiping out an innocent, or a noncombatant, or a child.

But the distance doesn’t take away the pain, or the PTSD that Mat suffers after the drone he’s piloting kills a child who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mat’s way of dealing with the thoughts that won’t leave him is to overcompensate, both physically and mentally. He becomes, not exactly a cyborg, or they’re not called that, but a black market mercenary with four artificial limbs optimized for war. And he fine tunes the programming for all of his various alternate limbs to optimize his every routine and subroutine to eliminate – if possible – any chance of accidentally killing someone he shouldn’t. He does his level best, and it is very, very good, to remove any possibility of collateral damage.

Because the automation of all of his weaponry operates faster than he or any human can think. Once he gets into a situation the weapons are on automatic reload. But he can’t bear the thought of killing another innocent.

He’s done his best to make a living – because maintenance on his hardware and software is damn expensive – without putting himself into the cross-hairs of the IAC. A shadowy company that operates very much outside the law – because they control the law, the media, and pretty much any damn thing they want.

If the IAC decides he’s worth bothering, they’ll be able to trace his every networked movement since the dawn of time. They’ll know his every strength, his every weakness, his every move, even before he does. He’s done his best to stay far away from the “YAK”, as the IAC is usually referred to. Mostly in frightened whispers, because they really are everywhere, watching and listening to EVERYTHING.

It’s just supposed to be one very lucrative and very quick job. So of course it all goes pear-shaped, leaving Mat squarely in the YAK’s sights. But the reasons it’s gone so far down the rabbit hole is that the cargo he was supposed to deliver wasn’t just black market goods – it was a black market person named Silvia. A woman who had been altered against her will to be a deadly stealthy weapon – only her programming isn’t finished yet.

And if Mat has his way, it never will be. Because Mat’s PTSD and Silvia’s panic disorders mesh in a way that makes their whole much greater than the sum of any number of parts. A whole that the YAK must destroy no matter how much collateral damage it takes.

Unless the YAK has something else altogether up its sleeves – if it even has sleeves, that is.

Escape Rating A: Automatic Reload wasn’t anything I expected. At all. But it was a wonderful, totally wild ride in all of the best ways.

The mash-up is delightful and keeps throwing surprising things into its blender – which is definitely on high.

The world feels like an answer to The Passengers, mixed with the dystopia of Junkyard Cats by Faith Hunter. I can’t even articulate why Junkyard Cats, although I think some of it has to do with just how bad things are for most humans, and the amount of autonomy that her protagonist has programmed into her many mechanical friends and helpers. That one is a stretch.

The Passengers, on the other hand, is dead on for the worldbuilding rather than any of the characters. Both stories deal with the issues that we’re starting to face in the here and now. What do people do, and how do people support themselves, when the number of jobs that require a human being is on a downward trajectory. After all, it’s not immigration that has killed off so many jobs, it’s automation, and that’s a trend that’s going to continue.

I’ll admit that I also kept seeing Silvia as the character in the movie Monsters vs. Aliens, or at least the character in the movie poster. She’s not 50-feet tall, in fact she’s human proportioned on purpose in order to infiltrate better – to be a more effective assassin. But the issues she faces with suddenly discovering that she’s not who she used to be feel similar.

Although Silvia’s problems do not begin with her physical transformation. One of the strongest – and sweetest – elements of this story is the way that Mat and Silvia come to love each other for who they are, and that they both acknowledge that they both have a lot of mental issues that they compensate for in their own ways. Their mental illnesses are never swept under the rug, and love doesn’t cure them. But they make each other a bit stronger in their broken places in ways that are lovely to see, especially when they’re done well. As they certainly are in this case.

Initially I thought that the dystopian setup had elements of the worldbuilding of Ready Player One. And it definitely does. I just didn’t expect the plot to, in its own pretzel-twisty way, actually go there explicitly. But it does, with classic movies substituting – in a way – for 1980s pop culture trivia. And it happens in a way that will still totally surprise you.

So come to Automatic Reload for the dystopian world and especially the explosions. Stay for the brighter future that rises, somewhat shakily but delightfully on the horizon.

Guest Review: PsyTek by Melanie Yaun

Guest Review: PsyTek by Melanie YaunPsyTek by Melanie Yaun
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: dystopian, science fiction
Pages: 348
Published by Amazon Digital Services on March 29, 2020
AmazonBook Depository

The year is 2547, and over the past 200 years, PsyTek Industries has managed to rid the world of disease, hunger, violence, and even death. Limbs can be regrown, cancer removed in a quick trip to the clinic, even aging can be reversed through a simple, and free, cellular regeneration process.

Soon-to-be employee, 24-year-old Kay LeBlanc, is a sarcastic interface designer who also happens to occasionally hear voices. Tyler Warren, head of PsyTek’s Division 5, just took a personal interest in her after an impressive presentation. The problem is, from the moment he, and PsyTek, comes into her life, she finds her world haunted by visions of darkness filled with the sound of screams.

The opportunity is once-in-a-lifetime, though, and she can’t pass it up. From the moment she starts her new life, however, she learns there’s a lot more to her world than anyone had ever thought. Every perfect world has a cost, and as she learns what that cost is, who, and more importantly what, she is, becomes clear.

Note from Amy: In the interest of full disclosure, I know the author of this work; she and I are coworkers on my day job, and I am a Patreon supporter. When she (understandably, rather excitedly) told the company’s online chat that she had published this work, I immediately bought a copy on Amazon, and told her I’d give it a fair shake here. That was more than a week ago as I write this, and she’s still squealing happily.

Guest Review by Amy: In a future where the company that runs pretty much everything has solved all the big problems, software developer Kay LeBlanc has been given the chance of a lifetime. She has written an interface that interacts with PsyTek’s built-in hardware that most people now wear, and when she shows up for a demo, the CTO of PsyTek Industries, Tyler Warren, is unexpectedly sitting at the head of the table. He’s impressed with her work — so much so, that he pretty much offers her a job on the spot.

All is not well at PsyTek HQ, and Kay rapidly finds herself in over her head. The headaches and visions that have troubled her for years are stronger and more frequent, and her boss and his colleague, the head of PsyTek’s medical division, are both interested. What she learns about herself, and about PsyTek, will change… well, pretty much everything.

Escape Rating: A: The Corporate Dystopia is a well-trodden plot, from books like Ready Player One and Divergent, to films like The Running Man (itself based on a book of the same name by Stephen King), and even Pixar’s Wall-E. But Melanie Yaun’s PsyTek Industries, unlike Wall-E‘s Buy-N-Large, went after the serious problems of suffering in the modern world, particularly poverty and illness. If high-tech could solve the problem, then PsyTek solved it. In the opening scene of the book, Kay is having lunch with her elderly mother, who is going in for cancer treatment the next day, a treatment that, by lunchtime, will make her “as good as new.”

As the child of two cancer victims, this hook appealed to me, and kept me reading through the first couple of chapters. After that, the pace sped up dramatically, as Kay finds herself on a whirlwind tour of PsyTek HQ, led by her new boss himself. Her flashes of visions hit her during her lunch break, knocking her unconscious, and the head of the medical division takes an interest. Kay learns that she is not like everyone else, in an important way–she has psychic power. She is, as they call it, an EV, an evolutionary variant. And suddenly many people are interested in her, from the rebel Luddites of the Res Novae, to PsyTek’s own skunk works, the mysterious “Division Six.”

There was a lot to like about this work, for fans of dystopian sci-fi. You’ve got an interesting setting in “New Chicago” and the PsyTek HQ, and a cast of characters who are appealing and three-dimensional. In the early going, Kay seems a little shrill to me, but it seems quite normal: she’s stressed out by the unusual situation she finds herself in, and she just wants to go hide and do what she does well, write code. That being mine (and the author’s) day job, it’s a feeling I understand all too well, and Kay’s presentation is true to the introverted developer type.

For rather a lot of the book, it was unclear who the villain was — or if, in fact, there really was one. When Kay figures out the puzzle she’s been cast into all along, and finally acts, along comes someone whose loyalties have been unclear for most of the book, to show her parts of the puzzle she still doesn’t know about, leaving us a lovely hook for the second book in the series.

Some readers might find it a bit of a bobble near the end, when Kay suddenly snaps. All this stress and tension has been building up and building up, as she’s learned more and more about the dark recesses of Division Six, and as she’s learning more about herself and her abilities. The anger and stress finally hit the “enough!” point, and off she goes, kicking butts and taking names. That transition felt slightly abrupt to me, and other readers may find that they agree with me. In a reread of that section, it’s not as bad as all that, but on the first read, it startled me. It’s the only thing I can really find to criticize about this work, really, and I wouldn’t call it in any way a “flaw” in an otherwise brilliantly-executed story.

From a mechanics standpoint, the book is well put-together, with rich characters, no gaping holes in the plot, and a crisp, snarky, first-person writing style free from distracting editing errors. Melanie Yaun has put together an exciting, interesting freshman work, and I’m excitedly looking forward to the next tale in the series.