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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Seven of Infinities by Aliette de Bodard

Review: Seven of Infinities by Aliette de BodardSeven of Infinities by Aliette de Bodard
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction mystery
Series: Universe of Xuya
Pages: 176
Published by Subterranean Press on October 31, 2020
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Vân is a scholar from a poor background, eking out a living in the orbitals of the Scattered Pearls Belt as a tutor to a rich family, while hiding the illegal artificial mem-implant she manufactured as a student.
Sunless Woods is a mindship—and not just any mindship, but a notorious thief and a master of disguise. She’s come to the Belt to retire, but is drawn to Vân’s resolute integrity.
When a mysterious corpse is found in the quarters of Vân’s student, Vân and Sunless Woods find themselves following a trail of greed and murder that will lead them from teahouses and ascetic havens to the wreck of a mindship--and to the devastating secrets they’ve kept from each other.

My Review:

This entry in the Universe of Xuya begins as a murder and a whole bunch of mysteries – not all of which are wrapped around the murder. Although, more are than first appears – which is true for the whole marvelous thing. There’s way more under every single surface than the characters initially believe. Still, it all begins when Student Uyên admits a forceful woman into her rooms, goes to make tea because she’s been taught to be a good hostess, and returns to find that her unidentified guest is dead on the floor.

Uyên may be on the cusp of adulthood, but she definitely needs a MUCH adultier adult to help her figure out this mess, so she calls for her teacher, Vân. Who, fortunately for them both, is in the midst of a discussion with her friend and fellow scholar, the mindship Sunless Woods. And an extremely fortunate happenstance for Vân, Uyên, and very much to her own surprise, Sunless Woods.

Van has secrets she can’t afford to have revealed. Sunless Woods has grown tireder and more BORED than she imagined keeping her own. While Uyên is in danger of being caught in the midst of a militia investigation designed to provide a guilty party for trial whether or not the party is guilty or not. Which Uyên, at the very least, most definitely is not.

Not that THAT little fact has ever stopped such an interrogation. After all, under enough torture, even the innocent will,  sooner or later, confess to something, as Vân knows all too well.

Except that Vân really was guilty of the crime her best friends were executed for. It just wasn’t murder. And they weren’t innocent either. Then again, they also weren’t executed – at least not until the levers of justice finally ground one of them under and deposited the body in her student’s rooms.

Not that Vân knows that, yet. Not that much of what Vân thinks she knows is remotely still true. Not the identity of that first corpse, not the reason her former friends have come hunting, and not an inkling of the true nature of the prize that they seek.

All Vân is certain of is that she and her student are in deep, deep, trouble, so she reluctantly reaches out to her only real friend, the mind ship Sunless Woods. Only to discover that she had even less idea about the secrets that her friend was keeping than even the mind ship had fathomed about her own.

Escape Rating A-: I had heard of the author’s vast, sprawling Universe of Xuya and was always intrigued by its loosely connected galaxy of short stories and novellas, but didn’t get the round tuit to actually pick it up somewhere in its vastness until The Tea Master and the Detective was nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula a few years ago and won the Nebula. That particular entry in the series was a great hook for this reader, as it is a science fiction mystery, a reimagining of Holmes and Watson as mind ships(!) and just a cracking good story all the way around.

So I kept my eye out for more entries in the series that were long enough to warrant separate publication, and therefore had a chance of eARCs. Which is rarer than one might think as most entries in this series are short stories that have been published in pretty much every SFF short fiction publication extant. They’ve not been collected, at least not yet, although I hope that happens.

Which led me, admittedly in a bit of a roundabout way, to Seven of Infinites, which I only remembered to unearth from the virtually towering TBR pile because the eARC of a new book in the Universe of Xuya popped up on NetGalley and I remembered I had this.

It turned out to be the right book at the right time, which is always lovely.

The Universe of Xuya, with its alternate Earth history deep in its background and its sentient population of both humans and mind ships – and possibly other species I haven’t’ met yet, puts together three things I wouldn’t have expected in the same ‘verse.

Which is a bit of a hint, because the leg of the trousers of time that produced the Universe of Xuya seems adjacent to Firefly’s deep background. It’s a history where the U.S. did not emerge as a world superpower and China has a much larger place on the pre-diaspora world’s stage.

As did Mexico, and that combination of cultural influences leads by a slightly more circuitous route to a culture that carries some resonances from Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan in A Memory Called Empire, particular with its lyrical language and long story-filled names and titles and the way it centers and preserves its traditions over everyone else’s through implanted memories. .

But the central question of this universe as a whole is one that is asked often in SF, and is one of the central points of Ann Leckie’s short story Lake of Souls, coming in the collection of the same name next spring.

It’s the question of what, exactly, are ‘people’? Not what are humans, because that’s a relatively easy question – or at least it can be. But what makes a human – or a member of another species, even one from another planet or another origin story – people? Is it sentience? Is it sapience? Does it require physicality? Does it require that physicality in the same way that humans manifest it?

In the Universe of Xuya, mind ships are people. No more and no less, albeit more differently, than humans are. Society, built on big ships and small space stations out in the black of space, is made to contain both, together and separately.

At the heart of Seven of Infinities is a story about the privileges of power to perpetuate itself, the ties that bind teacher and student in true respect and scholarship, the importance of having old and dear friends who will be there for you when you need to bury a body – even if its your own – and the sure and certain knowledge that the heart wants what the heart wants, whether the heart is made of blood and tissue or wires and circuits.

I came for the mystery, stayed for the world and universe building, and fell surprisingly hard for the romance at its heart. I’ll be back the next time I’m looking for heartbreaking, lyrical, captivating SF. Or for Navigational Entanglements next year, whichever comes first.

Review: Chaos Terminal by Mur Lafferty

Review: Chaos Terminal by Mur LaffertyChaos Terminal (The Midsolar Murders, #2) by Mur Lafferty
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction, science fiction mystery
Series: Midsolar Murders #2
Pages: 369
Published by Ace on November 7, 2023
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Mallory Viridian would rather not be an amateur detective, and fled to outer space to avoid it…but when one of the new human arrivals on a space shuttle is murdered, she’s back in the game.
Mallory Viridian would rather not be an amateur detective, thank you very much. But no matter what she does, people persist in dying around her—and only she seems to be able to solve the crime. After fleeing to an alien space station in hopes that the lack of humans would stop the murders, a serial killer had the nerve to follow her to Station Eternity. (Mallory deduced who the true culprit was that time, too.)
Now the law enforcement agent who hounded Mallory on Earth has come to Station Eternity, along with her teenage crush and his sister, Mallory’s best friend from high school. Mallory doesn’t believe in coincidences, and so she’s not at all surprised when someone in the latest shuttle from Earth is murdered. It’s the story of her life, after all.
Only this time she has more than a killer to deal with. Between her fugitive friends, a new threat arising from the Sundry hivemind, and the alarmingly peculiar behavior of the sentient space station they all call home, even Mallory’s deductive abilities are strained. If she can’t find out what’s going on (and fast), a disaster of intergalactic proportions may occur.…

My Review:

The title for this one works both ways. There’s plenty of chaos at this terminal, and much of it is terminal. But that’s not exactly a surprise with Mallory Viridian on the case. Even if part of the chaos at Station Eternity happens BECAUSE Mallory Viridian is on the case.

And entirely too much of the rest of it happens because not ALL of Mallory Viridian is on the case. To the point where Mallory isn’t even aware that there’s a case at all until someone literally drags her to the scene of the crime, and Mallory finally figures out that whatever has gone wrong on Station Eternity has gone wrong with her as well.

It’s not actually a surprise that something has gone wrong AROUND Mallory, or even that something has gone wrong WITH Mallory. Mallory is a chaos magnet of the first order, and both of those things are always happening whenever Mallory is around.

Because people always end up dead in Mallory’s vicinity. Not because she’s some kind of serial killer, but because the kind of chaos that Mallory attracts – and is then both blamed for and stuck with solving, not necessarily in that order – is the chaos that surrounds murder. She doesn’t perpetrate it, she doesn’t cause it, but wherever Mallory is, murder happens.

What Mallory is still adjusting to, and the reason that Mallory isn’t initially aware of the problems that the station is having, are directly related to Mallory’s discovery about herself and all those murders in the first book in the Midsolar Murders series, Station Eternity.

Mallory was bitten by a wasp as a child. But it wasn’t a wasp. Mallory was bitten by an advance scout for the Sundry, an alien insect species that either infiltrated Earth or arose there long before First Contact. The Sundry, as a hivemind and as a species, like gathering data and are attracted to chaos because there’s plenty of data to parse in chaotic conditions.

It’s unfortunate for Mallory that the scout that bit her was from a hivemind that was particularly attracted to the chaos around murder investigations, leading to pretty much everything that happens in Mallory’s life afterwards.

Leading Mallory to the isolation of Station Eternity – as a mere four humans aren’t enough to generate the coincidences that lead to Mallory’s brand of murder chaos.

There are, however, plenty of other species living and working aboard the station, including the chameleon-like Phantasmagore and the rocky Gneiss. And the Sundry, who in their love of chaos and data make a specialty of handling the semi-autonomous functions of spaceships and space stations.

But something is wrong with the Sundry aboard Station Eternity – and it’s wrong with Mallory as well. It’s so wrong that when a whole shipload of humans arrives on the Station, Mallory isn’t panicking about the near-certainty of murder in her vicinity. Not even as the coincidences start piling up. Suddenly there are entirely too many humans aboard Eternity, and too many of them know Mallory entirely too well.

It’s only when the bodies start dropping that Mallory finally figures out that the murders aren’t the only thing going wrong on the station, and that she’ll have to solve those murders without her murder-solving mojo – or get it back.

If she can.

Escape Rating B: One of the things that made the first book in this series, Station Eternity, so damn much fun was its relentless pace. From the moment we meet Mallory, the chaos starts swirling, Mallory starts panicking, and the whole thing is off to the races.

But when we get back to Mallory in Chaos Terminal, Mallory is not feeling herself. At all. She thinks it’s some kind of space flu. Whatever it is, she’s so far from firing on all thrusters she isn’t even aware that a huge chunk of what makes Mallory BE Mallory is totally offline.

The story isn’t told from Mallory’s first person perspective, but she is very much the reader’s perspective on events, which means that Mallory being in a complete fog for the first third of the book means that we are as well.

So it’s a third of the way into the story before Mallory’s fog lifts and the real action kicks into gear. At that point, it’s suddenly, thankfully and blissfully gangbusters, but it’s a LONG slog to get there and I very nearly didn’t.

The story, and the mystery, in Chaos Terminal is wrapped around cleaning up the many, many fascinating loose ends that were left laying on the deck of Eternity after the chaotic, nearly cataclysmic events of that first book – especially Mallory’s own, personal loose ends.

Which means that Chaos Terminal is probably not the best place to start the Midsolar Murders because a LOT of this story was set up in that first book. Howsomever, if you got caught up in Mallory’s bloody, madcap situation then, there’s a lot of fun in seeing most of those loose ends get tied up, quite possibly in a series of Gordian Knots, here in this second outing.

In spite of the science fictional setting – which is utterly fascinating – this SF mystery is pretty much character driven. Meaning that if you like Mallory as a character and enjoy her multi-species Scooby Gang, it will probably work for you. I did like Mallory a LOT in Station Eternity, so I came into Chaos Terminal expecting to love it as well. I think it works a bit less well than that first book because Mallory REALLY isn’t herself for that long beginning, and the less polished and/or less likable characters’ rough edges are very much on display while Mallory is getting her act together.

But I do like Mallory Viridian as a character, and as a human perspective on humanity’s first toehold in this near-future, post-First Contact, wider galactic universe. A universe that is not only not centered on humans, but doesn’t even seem to be centered on humanoids, making it every bit as fascinating a character as Mallory herself.

Which means that I absolutely will be back to see who, or what, ends up dead when Mallory’s next investigation/adventure/crisis appears!

Review: Emergent Properties by Aimee Ogden

Review: Emergent Properties by Aimee OgdenEmergent Properties by Aimee Ogden
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction mystery
Pages: 126
Published by Tordotcom on July 25, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Emergent Properties is the touching adventure of an intrepid A.I. reporter hot on the heels of brewing corporate warfare from Nebula Award-nominated author Aimee Ogden.
A state-of-the-art AI with a talent for asking questions and finding answers, Scorn is nevertheless a parental disappointment. Defying the expectations of zir human mothers, CEOs of the world’s most powerful corporations, Scorn has made a life of zir own as an investigative reporter, crisscrossing the globe in pursuit of the truth, no matter the danger.
In the middle of investigating a story on the moon, Scorn comes back online to discover ze has no memory of the past ten days—and no idea what story ze was even chasing. Letting it go is not an option—not if ze wants to prove zirself. Scorn must retrace zir steps in a harrowing journey to uncover an even more explosive truth than ze could have ever imagined.

My Review:

When we first meet Scorn, ze is pretty much of a mess. A very determined mess, but a mess all the same. Ze has just lost over ten days of memory – along with ALL of zir backups. As ze is an autonomous AI, that shouldn’t even be possible. But as ze is an investigative reporter doing zir best to make zir mark by breaking a sensational story to get zir high-powered, highly intelligent, mega-corporation-owning mothers off zir back about zir’s career choices, it’s a tragedy in the making.

At the same time, in the best tradition of investigative reporters everywhere and everywhen, it’s also a sign that ze is on the right track to that story. Which means that ze is incapable of letting it go. And as a state-of-the-art AI, Scorn is capable of retracing his steps, both digital and physical, to get back what ze lost.

On the moon, which is where Scorn lost it the first time. Which is also the last place zir mothers want zem to go – considering Scorn’s last trip got zir memory wiped.

Emergent Properties is the story of Scorn’s journey back to where ze nearly lost zirself, dodging EMP pulses and drone attacks every step of the way, along the trail of a story that will either make or break zem.

Or both. Definitely both. In ways that Scorn never, ever expected – even though ze very much should have.

Escape Rating A++: I’ve been pushing this book at anyone willing to stand still for it for months. I read this one for a Library Journal review and fell completely in love, and don’t seem to have fallen out in the intervening months. To the point where a reread just now was like catching up with an old friend.

One of the things I loved about Scorn is that ze is pretty much Murderbot’s ‘brother from another mother’, even though neither identifies as or even has a gender. Which doesn’t change how much their snarkitude is in sync even if pointed in different directions.

Notice I didn’t say anything about either of them not having a mother, because Scorn certainly has two – both of whom are giving zem exactly the same kind of grief that mothers the world over give their newly adult children when those children are not living their parents’ dreams for them.

Mother may not always know best, but she always thinks she does, and Scorn is getting that times two. Which ze does zir best to ignore or delay or postpone dealing with, as so many of us do. At least until this time it bites zem in the ass – in multiple senses of the phrase – even if Scorn doesn’t always have an ass, depending on which carapace ze happens to be using at the present.

While Scorn is very much the character that carries the story, the places ze carries that story through are both fascinating and fantastic every step of the way.

A part of this reader wants to say that Scorn comes across as very human, because that’s our default paradigm. But like Murderbot, Scorn isn’t human and doesn’t want to be – no matter how much zir mothers hoped that ze would aspire to such.

And the whole idea that ze still must deal with zir human mothers and their human disappointment in zem is what makes Scorn so easy for human readers to identify with. Ze has mommy issues – and don’t we all?

But zir world is our future, and it feels plausible even as we get sucked into it. Human greed carried out through corporate political shenanigans is running the show. Independence for human colonies and autonomy for sentient, sapient, autonomous AIs are being spun into opposition instead of banding together to help each other. Because the corporations make more profits out of war than they do peace.

Scorn moves through zir world as an AI, not a fixed body in time and space. Ze uses bodies, but is not attached to or possessed by one, and it changes zir perspective in ways that go even beyond what we’ve already seen in John Scalzi’s Lock In, although there are some similarities. Scorn goes well beyond the ‘threeps’ in what ze does and how ze does it. It feels like a next step.

At the same time, Scorn’s emotional landscape is as fraught and confused as any human’s. Ze just processes it differently some of the time, and turns it off some of the time, but it is still recognizable and well within our empathetic parameters.

So I had an absolute blast reading about Scorn’s surprising Emergent Properties, was fascinated with zir world, and hope the author takes us back to zir and it sometime in the future!