Review: Radicalized by Cory Doctorow

Review: Radicalized by Cory DoctorowRadicalized by Cory Doctorow
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: science fiction, short stories
Pages: 304
Published by Tor Books on March 19, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From New York Times bestselling author Cory Doctorow, Radicalized is four urgent SF novellas of America's present and future within one book

Told through one of the most on-pulse genre voices of our generation, Radicalized is a timely novel comprised of four SF novellas connected by social, technological, and economic visions of today and what America could be in the near, near future. Unauthorized Bread is a tale of immigration, the toxicity of economic and technological stratification, and the young and downtrodden fighting against all odds to survive and prosper.

In Model Minority, a Superman-like figure attempts to rectifiy the corruption of the police forces he long erroneously thought protected the defenseless...only to find his efforts adversely affecting their victims.

Radicalized is a story of a darkweb-enforced violent uprising against insurance companies told from the perspective of a man desperate to secure funding for an experimental drug that could cure his wife's terminal cancer.

The fourth story, Masque of the Red Death, harkens back to Doctorow's Walkaway, taking on issues of survivalism versus community.

My Review:

This is my first Cory Doctorow, and probably won’t be my last. I’ve seen his columns in Locus, where he predicts the future -sorta/kinda – but hadn’t read any of his books. When this popped up on my radar, it seemed like the time.

The advantage of collections is that the individual entries are generally shorter. I could always bail if it didn’t work for me. That didn’t happen – although I occasionally wanted to stop out of sheer terror.

The disadvantage of collections is that they are sometimes uneven. That didn’t happen here either. What did happen is that the stories get darker as they go. The first one isn’t exactly light-hearted, but does end with a glimmer of hope.

And that glimmer is the last light we see. The stories, and the futures that they posit, get progressively darker from there.

What this is is a collection of very-near-future dystopias. This is a future so close that we can see it from here. It seems to be mining a similar vein as If This Goes On, the recent collection edited by Cat Rambo – although these stories feel closer. A bit too close.

Unauthorized Bread is the first story in Radicalized, and it’s the one that ends in that glimmer of hope I mentioned. Not that there isn’t plenty of darkness in the middle. This story is about a lot of things, particularly the way that immigrants and others at the lower end of the socioeconomic lottery are marginalized and demonized. That message seemed fairly overt.

The less overt message, but still very much present, is the message about just how different “choice” looks from the perspective of people who have the societal privilege of being able to always choose between good, better and best, as opposed to those who are squeezed into the position of being forced to choose between terrible, awful and least bad.

But the plot is also a slightly terrifying extension of digital rights management – frequently a horror story all by itself – from the world of music, video and software to the world of appliances. We’ve seen the start of this, when Keurig introduced DRM into its line of coffee makers, allowing them to restrict use of the device that you own to pods that they authorize. Think about that, scale it up, and then shake in fear – and caffeine withdrawal.

The Model Minority is where the chill really sets in in this collection. But in the end, it ultimately felt sad. The future is posits is frightening, and all too plausible – even, perhaps likely. But this is one where I really felt for the character, and he ends up in a very sad place by the end. And so should we all.

The protagonist of this piece is a superhero who is meant to be Superman without ever naming him such. (DC would probably object – with lawyers). But he’s an alien whose current mundane identity is named Clark and whose girlfriend is a reporter named Lois. And he has a rich friend named Bruce who also has a secret identity. You connect the dots.

The story here is what happens when our hero is confronted with blatant racism. He witnesses a bunch of white cops pull a black man out of his own car and beat him nearly to death while putting on a show for their body cameras. Superhero steps into save the man being beaten, and attempts to get him proper medical treatment and a fair trial.

And it all goes pear-shaped, as we all expect it to. The system is designed to protect the cops and demonize the innocent black motorist. The media gins up, the way it does, to make it seem like the arrest and brutal beating are all the fault of the victim – because he’s black. The more our hero tries to help the man, the more trouble he causes, not only for the original victim, but also for himself.

Because when he threatens that fragile white majority with evidence of their own racism, they turn on him rather than look inside themselves. As they do. As we do.

The title story in this collection is a story about the weaponization of what is now the quiet desperation of families who are about to lose or have lost a beloved family member. Not because their condition is untreatable, but because their health insurance company refuses to pay for treatment.

Combine that with a big “what if?” What if those quietly desperate people treated health insurance company executives and employees exactly the same way that abortion providers are “treated” by the so-called right-to-life movement – with doxxing and harassment and terrorist attacks. This is purely my interpretation of the story, but it feels right. And ends up making the story about whether the ends justify the means – a contemplation that is itself frightening.

Last but not least, The Masque of the Red Death. On the surface, it’s the story of a prepper’s dream that turns into a prepper’s nightmare. A whole bunch of smug one-percenters are so certain that they’ve figured out how to survive the coming collapse of civilization – and that they will emerge from their hidden sanctuary fat and happy and ready to be back on top of the new civilization that they are just certain will be exactly like the old one, and that they’ll rule it.

Discovering that they have planned for everything except for their own humanity – and their hubris – takes this tale from chills to downright horror in quick steps. This is one of those cases where the road to hell is paved with bad and thoughtless intentions that the thinkers believe are good – at least for them.

Thinking about it, however, it strikes me that this story also ends in a glimmer of hope – just not for its initial protagonists.

Escape Rating A+: Science fiction in general, and this author in this collection in particular, is at its thought-provoking best when it comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. These stories do much more of the latter than the former, and are all intensely well-done in ways that will make the reader think – and squirm.

Review: The Chaos Function by Jack Skillingstead

Review: The Chaos Function by Jack SkillingsteadThe Chaos Function by Jack Skillingstead
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: science fiction, thriller, time travel
Pages: 304
Published by John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on March 19, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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For readers of the best‑selling novels Sleeping Giants and Dark Matter, an intense, high‑stakes thriller with a science‑fiction twist that asks: If technology enabled you to save the life of someone you love, would you do so even if it might doom millions?   Olivia Nikitas, a hardened journalist whose specialty is war zones, has been reporting from the front lines of the civil war in Aleppo, Syria. When Brian, an aid worker she reluctantly fell in love with, dies while following her into danger, she’ll do anything to bring him back. In a makeshift death chamber beneath an ancient, sacred site, a strange technology is revealed to Olivia: the power to remake the future by changing the past.    Following her heart and not her head, Olivia brings Brian back, accidentally shifting the world to the brink of nuclear and biological disaster. Now she must stay steps ahead of the guardians of this technology, who will kill her to reclaim it, in order to save not just herself and her love, but the whole world.

My Review:

There’s a quote from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam that goes,

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

This is a story about what happens when someone has the power to lure that Moving Finger back to cancel more than half a line – but does not – as no human does – have the wisdom to determine whether that cancellation was, or was not, the right thing to do.

This book was simply a wow.

Of course, it’s also just a bit more complicated than that. Also just saying it’s a wow isn’t really an informative review – although it certainly is succinct.

At first, this seems like a near-future dystopian novel, until it isn’t. And then it is again. And then it isn’t.

Still confused? I think it’s intentional – at least on the part of the story.

Olivia is an investigative journalist chasing a story in Aleppo, Syria, just a little more than a decade from now. Her world doesn’t feel much different from ours in time, only in place. The seemingly permanent, perpetual civil war/uprising/revolution/counterinsurgency/whatever that she is covering is worlds away from the comfortable life that still very much exists back in the US.

But Olivia makes her living covering what she calls the “Disaster”. A disaster that could be anywhere, and often is – just not back home. Also a disaster that seems to be a direct consequence of actions taken in our present, as the Syrian conflict that she is covering is the war to overthrow Assad, which has its roots in our now.

She’s attempting to cover violations of the current, tentative peace agreement when she, her guide and her aid worker-lover get caught in the crossfire – and the world changes.

And changes again. And again. And it’s all Olivia’s fault… Really, it is.

Brian is killed in that crossfire, and Olivia finds herself in the basement of the building she was trying to investigate, his blood still on her hands, when she finds an old man who has been tortured taking his last breaths. Something jumps from his corpse to her living body, and burrows itself into her brain.

When she makes a wish that Brian hadn’t died – he isn’t dead. But the world has changed, and not for the better.

That’s the point where things get very, very hairy. And then they get worse.

Since it’s all Olivia’s fault, it’s up to her to fix it if she can. Because the needs of the many really do outweigh the needs of the few or of the one – even if that one is someone she loves.

Escape Rating A+: This is still a wow.

I believe that the reason this is such a wow is that there are multiple ways to look at the story, all of them equally valid – as they should be. This is, after all, a story about the butterfly effect – for a butterfly with extremely large wings.

From the very beginning, I saw multiple connections to this story. Something about the atmosphere in war-torn Aleppo recalled for me the atmosphere of The Children of Men by P.D. James. The stories aren’t actually alike, but the worlds felt similar.

Once Olivia discovers her ability to change the future, the way that it worked was extremely similar to Ia’s ability in the military SF series Theirs Not to Reason Why. Like Ia, Olivia is trying to find the best of all possible outcomes, no matter how slim a chance it is, and make it happen. The difference is that Ia knows how to use her power, and Olivia most definitely does not.

But it’s the different, and all equally awful, portraits of the way that the world goes mad that push the story forward at breakneck speed. Each of Olivia’s attempts to save Brian results in greater and greater disasters. A weaponized smallpox epidemic. Nuclear powers, blaming each other, fingers on too many triggers, wiping out each other’s major cities and food producing regions. And it gets worse from there.

(I haven’t seen the world go so far past hell in a handbasket so fast since the early books in S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse)

The source of Olivia’s new-found power throws in a cult of conspiracy theorists as well as a chase around the world. The ability to control the future is a power that has been closely guarded – and extremely contested – for centuries. And no one’s vision of “better” remotely resembles anyone else’s.

But there’s a reason why I started with Omar Khayyam and ended with Spock. Because the story in The Chaos Function is also, writ large and with even more deadly consequences, the story of the classic Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever. And the ending is just as necessary, and just as heartbreaking.

Guest Review: Orb by Gary Tarulli

Guest Review: Orb by Gary TarulliOrb by Gary Tarulli
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 322
Published by Gary Tarulli on November 16, 2011
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
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Three months outbound from Earth and the starship Desio approaches its planetary destination, her crew eager to commence a mission of scientific discovery. Kyle Lorenzo, however, has a personal reason for being on board--an inner conflict that will ultimately propel him to explore not only of the furthest reaches of an enigmatic ocean world but the nebulous recesses of his inner psyche.

During the long and isolating interstellar journey a physical relationship develops between Kyle and the ship's physician, Kelly Takara. That part is easy. Understanding the reasons for avoiding the emotional commitment desired by Kelly is harder. So, too, is trying to penetrate the mind of Larry Melhaus, the mission's brilliant and reclusive physicist - a failure to communicate made exponentially more troublesome when the scientist's disturbing behavior begins to threaten the crew.

While Kyle struggles to comprehend himself and Melhaus, the ship's crew, led by their strong-willed commander, Bruce Thompson, attempt to fathom a planet where none of the precepts of science seem to apply. A world where every preconceived notion of what constitutes life must be re-examined and challenged.

Two journeys: One inward, one outward.Culminating at the same destination.

Guest Review by Amy:

Interstellar exploration is hard, even if you have a wormhole to make the trip shorter. They only pick the best of the best, but the first crew that went to the planet labeled “231-P5” … had problems. The stress of the trip, being alone with only each other for months on end, the situation they found themselves in, no one’s entirely sure. This crew is carefully hand-picked: five scientists, one…wait, what? A writer? And a poodle?

Months out there in space, and our intrepid wordsmith has fallen for the ship’s doctor, one Kelly Takara, but Kyle Lorenzo is sort of afraid of commitment. Things are tense, and only get more so as the expedition’s physicist, Dr. Larry Melhaus, starts acting even more strange than usual.

Escape Rating: B+. The first chapter or two of this book didn’t quite grab me the first time I picked it up about a year ago. I chalked it up to the mood I was in at the time, and threw it back on my TBR heap for later consideration. When I decided to give it another whirl last week, I discovered that the problem with the book wasn’t me. Well, not exactly.

I’m reminded of the first time I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. While visually stunning, there is an awful lot of the early part of the film that, to me as a then-very-young person, just didn’t serve the plot in a meaningful way. That’s the problem I had with the first couple of chapters of Orb. Author Gary Tarulli gets us deeply into the head of a literary-minded person, and it reminded me rather a lot of the existential maunderings I had to read in freshman lit classes in the late 1980s: slightly less-exciting than cold oatmeal with no butter.

Let me say right now that that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Existentialist fiction, if I may paint it with that deliberately-broad term, isn’t by definition bad, despite what I just said about my poor freshman lit teacher’s choices. I just didn’t expect it to come at me in a book labeled “Science Fiction.” And far be it from me to dish on a self-published author–as self-published first works go, this one isn’t bad, really–it just took me a while to catch on to what Tarulli was trying to give us. I’m a slow learner, sometimes.

When our crew arrives, early-ish in the book, at the water world that they are there to explore, the sci-fi story starts to emerge, and it’s a good one. The intelligence that populates the planet is so wildly different from ours that our crew struggles with first-contact matters in unexpected ways, and watching Dr. Melhaus’ slow-motion implosion gives us a nice dose of tension, if not quite a villain. Kyle’s internal dialogue over his relationship with Kelly Takara is fairly-understandable, and watching him progress into that relationship is a sweet counterpoint to the precarious situation the crew is in.

“Not quite a villain,” I just said–there’s really no villain, as such, in this story. Our cast of characters spends the whole book discovering a place and flavor of life that is incomprehensibly different from ours, and spends even more time discovering … themselves. This is a book that, if you can digest it, will make you think about things rather a lot. It did me. This book is not escapist fiction, not like lots of other reviews I’ve brought you here at Reading Reality; it’s a thinker’s book. Read it with that in mind, and I’m sure you’ll get something out of it, as I have.

Review: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month by N.K. Jemisin

Review: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month by N.K. JemisinHow Long 'til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Orbit on November 27, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In these stories, Jemisin sharply examines modern society, infusing magic into the mundane, and drawing deft parallels in the fantasy realms of her imagination. Dragons and hateful spirits haunt the flooded city of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow south must figure out how to save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story “The City Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.

My Review:

Have you ever taken a good, hard look at which groups get special “days” or “months” and which ones don’t? There’s no such thing as “WASP month” to celebrate White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants, because they are considered the so-called “norm” even though they are increasingly not the majority even in the U.S. Especially when you take out the FEMALE WASPs, because Women’s History Month is its own thing, along with holidays and/or months that celebrate non-Anglo origins, non-Christian religions, and, particularly relevant to this book (and this month) non-White people.

It’s a damn good question, isn’t it? Just how long will it be until everyone is celebrated all the damn time, and we don’t need to call out non-male (also non-straight and non-cis) people? How long will it be until Black Future Month?

As the author points out, there has been very little science fiction that includes non-white characters or posits a future as seen from the perspective of people of color. Also relatively few from a female perspective, or a non-cis, non-het perspective, or, again, any perspective other than male WASPs.

I’m not going to include treatments of religion in the future because that’s all over the map in its own way. My favorite treatment of Earth religions in the future is the Babylon 5 episode The Parliament of Dreams. And I really am digressing this time.

I recognize that I’m talking around the book, rather than about the book. I’m trying not to just SQUEE and it’s hard.

On my one hand, the collection is absolutely awesome from beginning to end. I loved every story, and that’s extremely rare for me in a short story collection.

On my other hand, all of the stories in this collection have been previously published. So anyone who follows this author has probably read some if not all of them. But for those looking at this author for the first time after her record-setting accomplishment of winning the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row (for three books in a trilogy at that), this is a great (and accessible) place to start.

Personally speaking, I loved her Hundred Thousand Kingdoms but bounced hard off The Fifth Season – twice. After reading this collection, I’ll try it again – probably in audio this time.

Escape Rating A+: This is a marvelous collection of this author’s short works, providing a set of wonderfully readable stories, introducing new readers to a terrific, award-winning author (these two things are unfortunately not always synonymous), providing a perspective on the development of said author, a bit of dialog with the history of the genre, and, last but definitely not least, making any reader of SF wonder why the historical perspective of the genre (ironic, I know) has been so narrow-visioned.

A great read from beginning to end!

Review: The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

Review: The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de BodardThe Tea Master and the Detective (The Universe of Xuya) by Aliette de Bodard
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Series: Universe of Zuya
Pages: 96
Published by Subterranean Press on March 31, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Welcome to the Scattered Pearls Belt, a collection of ring habitats and orbitals ruled by exiled human scholars and powerful families, and held together by living mindships who carry people and freight between the stars. In this fluid society, human and mindship avatars mingle in corridors and in function rooms, and physical and virtual realities overlap, the appareance of environments easily modified and adapted to interlocutors or current mood.

A transport ship discharged from military service after a traumatic injury, The Shadow's Child now ekes out a precarious living as a brewer of mind-altering drugs for the comfort of space-travellers. Meanwhile, abrasive and eccentric scholar Long Chau wants to find a corpse for a scientific study. When Long Chau walks into her office, The Shadow's Child expects an unpleasant but easy assignment. When the corpse turns out to have been murdered, Long Chau feels compelled to investigate, dragging The Shadow's Child with her.

As they dig deep into the victim's past, The Shadow's Child realises that the investigation points to Long Chau's own murky past--and, ultimately, to the dark and unbearable void that lies between the stars...

My Review:

The Nebula Awards shortlist came out this week. I was reminded to take a look at it by someone on the Library Journal Committee that picked the best SF and Fantasy for 2018 for their annual wrap-up because four of our picks are on the Nebula shortlist, as well as a couple of titles that ALMOST made it.

Looking at the list, I noticed a book that I picked up a while ago, as it was recommended in the context of being an “out of this world” Sherlock Holmes pastiche. It has been said that every generation reinvents Sherlock Holmes for themselves, and The Tea Master and the Detective definitely qualifies as one of the more inventive futuristic reinventions, right up there with Sara Holmes and Janet Watson of A Study in Honor.

In The Tea Master and the Detective, we have a tale set in this author’s loosely connected Universe of Xuya series. It’s an alternate history universe where China discovered America before Christopher Columbus. That discovery altered the history of the world, as such a momentous change would. China turned outward instead of inward, and seems to have become the dominant power on Earth before humanity reached the stars.

An influence that is still felt at the time of this story, probably taking place somewhere in the alternate 22nd century – if not later. (The series is made up of short stories and novellas, and they have been scattered in publication throughout every magazine currently publishing SF and Fantasy. I wish they were all collected somewhere because I’d like to read them ALL!)

As I have not yet read the series, I came into this story with no previous knowledge – and I absolutely loved it. While the entire history of the universe isn’t explained – and it shouldn’t be – this little gem still feels complete. I just want to know more. (I always want to know more.)

The detective, in this case the mysterious Long Chau, claims to be writing a thesis on the decomposition of bodies in the deep places of space. Places that seem to be both theoretical and real, although a bit more of each of those elements than might be presupposed at first glance.

The thing about the deep places is that they are both real and unreal, and the unreality of those places affects the human mind – to its detriment. Humans usually travel those deep places safely within the bounds of a ship controlled by a “shipmind”. A ship that is self-aware.

What makes this story so interesting is that the “Watson” to Long Chau’s “Holmes” is a damaged shipmind named The Shadow’s Child who is psychologically unable to travel the deep places – so she makes her living brewing teas that help humans survive the unreality of the places she no longer feels able to go.

Long Chau goes to the fringes of the deep places to find a dead body. But what she’s really looking for is a lost soul. Her own. That she also finds the soul of the scarred shipmind forges a unlikely partnership.

One I hope to see again.

Escape Rating A: This is lovely. It combines two ideas that really shouldn’t have much to do with each other, but work together anyway – much as the two protagonists really shouldn’t have much to do with each other.

Shipminds are people. And this society has places for them and recognizes them as people. The Shadow’s Child has to deal with many of the things that anyone else does, including meddling family members and paying the rent. She will also remind readers of Anne McCaffrey’s classic stories of the brainship Helga, The Ship Who Sang.

The Shadow’s Child is the Watson to Long Chau’s Holmes. The pastiche part of this story is fairly subtle – if you’re not interested, it’s not there. If you are interested, the way that Long Chau refers to herself as a “consulting detective”, her endless deductions of what people, including shipminds, are thinking, feeling and doing as well as her constant use of drugs to stimulate her mind are there to remind readers of some of Sherlock Holmes’ habits, both the more and the less savory of them.

The case that they ultimately find themselves on is an investigation that no one wants solved – and it nearly gets them both killed. But along the way they learn to respect if not necessarily trust each other, and we get to explore a fascinating universe that has plenty of stories in it that are worth telling.

I look forward to ferreting out more of this series as soon as possible!

Review: Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik

Review: Polaris Rising by Jessie MihalikPolaris Rising (Consortium Rebellion, #1) by Jessie Mihalik
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, space opera
Series: Consortium Rebellion #1
Pages: 448
Published by Harper Voyager on February 5, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A space princess on the run and a notorious outlaw soldier become unlikely allies in this imaginative, sexy space opera adventure—the first in an exciting science fiction trilogy.

In the far distant future, the universe is officially ruled by the Royal Consortium, but the High Councillors, the heads of the three High Houses, wield the true power. As the fifth of six children, Ada von Hasenberg has no authority; her only value to her High House is as a pawn in a political marriage. When her father arranges for her to wed a noble from House Rockhurst, a man she neither wants nor loves, Ada seizes control of her own destiny. The spirited princess flees before the betrothal ceremony and disappears among the stars.

Ada eluded her father’s forces for two years, but now her luck has run out. To ensure she cannot escape again, the fiery princess is thrown into a prison cell with Marcus Loch. Known as the Devil of Fornax Zero, Loch is rumored to have killed his entire chain of command during the Fornax Rebellion, and the Consortium wants his head.

When the ship returning them to Earth is attacked by a battle cruiser from rival House Rockhurst, Ada realizes that if her jilted fiancé captures her, she’ll become a political prisoner and a liability to her House. Her only hope is to strike a deal with the dangerous fugitive: a fortune if he helps her escape.

But when you make a deal with an irresistibly attractive Devil, you may lose more than you bargained for . . .

My Review:

If you love science fiction romance, this one is for you. Polaris Rising is one of those “chocolate in my peanut butter vs. peanut butter in my chocolate books. It’s marketed as just science fiction, because that’s where the money is – and the SFnal worldbuilding is definitely part of what makes this story work. But if you like more than a bit of rocket fuel in your romance, you’ll love Polaris Rising.

This is space opera of the merchant empire as opposed to military empire type. The High Houses that control everything in the ‘verse are great mercantile powers. Admittedly they do also have plenty of ships of the line, but the source of their power seems to be economic. In fact, the system they have set up (to benefit themselves of course) is designed to keep them at each other’s throats in the figurative but while fending off the literal sense.

At least usually not the literal sense with knives or guns at each other’s throats. Admittedly the line is occasionally as thin as the blade of a stiletto.

We begin the story with our heroine, Ada von Hasenberg, fifth child of that High House, being shoved into a cell. Ada, like many “princesses” before her, ran away from home to escape a political marriage. Her father finally put the bounty on her living head up high enough that mercenaries made it their business to hunt her down.

They’ve finally caught up with her. But they’ve also caught another high-value prisoner, Marcus Loch, known as the Devil of Fornax Zero. He’s a soldier who killed his entire squadron as well as his commanders and the military wants to put him on trial for his crimes – or at least make sure he pays for them with his own life.

These two shouldn’t have anything to do with each other, but the mercenary ship that holds them both is just a bit short on jail cells. They get thrown in together, and in the finest tradition of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” cook up an escape plan that gets pushed into high gear when her erstwhile fiance arrives to keep her from being returned to her family.

Ada doesn’t think she’s worth nearly this much fuss – but lots of people suddenly seem to. When she finally gets the chance to figure out why, she knows exactly why she’s suddenly in so many crosshairs.

There’s only one person she can trust at her back – if he doesn’t double cross her somewhere along the way.

Escape Rating B: The elements of this story have been used before in both SF and SFR, if not necessarily combined together in quite this way.

There’s something about the tone of the book, and the shifting alliances between the various merchant empires, that reminds me of Vatta’s War series by Elizabeth Moon. (Start with Trading in Danger).

The difference between Polaris Rising and Vatta’s War is that in the Vatta’s War series the romance that eventually occurs is a secondary or even tertiary part of the plot. In Polaris Rising the romance between the “princess” and the “criminal”, is very close to center stage. To the point where a reader who wants nothing to do with “icky mushy stuff” may be turned off by this book – which would be a pity because the SFnal elements are very well done.

On that other hand, anyone who loved Amanda Bouchet’s recent foray into SFR, Nightchaser, is going to lick Polaris Rising up with a spoon. The two books hit many of the same plot beats, and both stories have that “perils of Pauline”, “out of the frying pan into the fire” type of careening adventure plot.

And they both feature family betrayals.

I’ll admit that while I enjoyed Polaris Rising, I didn’t find it quite as compelling as either of the readalikes that I’ve mentioned. Some of that may be a bit of pique. I understand why the decision was made to market this as SF instead of SFR, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still annoy me a bit.

Also, while this story has lots of elements that I’ve loved in other stories, they are also elements that I’ve read in other stories. Neither Ada nor Marcus are what they initially appear to be. The reveal of Marcus’ story felt a bit anticlimactic – I knew what he was long before he told Ada. While the whole is put together in quite the interesting fashion, it just didn’t feel fresh or new to this reader. YMMV.

One thing that I did like was the way that the romance developed. It wasn’t slow, but then the circumstances don’t allow for that. But it also wasn’t insta-love. Insta-lust, yes, but that’s way more believable.

In the end, I found myself wanting to know more about the House system and how it works – and doesn’t. There’s something niggling at me that there are a few too many contradictions involved but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

I’m certainly more than intrigued enough to stick around for book two in the series, Aurora Blazing. Ada (and Marcus) kicked over one hell of an anthill on their way out of the central systems. Ada’s sister Bianca looks like she’ll be in the thick of the mess they left behind in the next story!

Review: Medusa Uploaded by Emily Devenport

Review: Medusa Uploaded by Emily DevenportMedusa Uploaded (The Medusa Cycle, #1) by Emily Devenport
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Medusa Cycle #1
Pages: 317
Published by Tor Books on May 1, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The Executives control Oichi’s senses, her voice, her life. Until the day they kill her.

An executive clan gives the order to shoot Oichi out of an airlock on suspicion of being an insurgent. A sentient AI, a Medusa unit, rescues Oichi and begins to teach her the truth—the Executives are not who they think they are. Oichi, officially dead and now bonded to the Medusa unit, sees a chance to make a better life for everyone on board.

As she sets things right one assassination at a time, Oichi becomes the very insurgent the Executives feared, and in the process uncovers the shocking truth behind the generation starship that is their home.

My Review:

If The Forever Watch by David Ramirez, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein and The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells got together in a line marriage of the kind that Heinlein posited on Moon, the child they produced would be Medusa Uploaded.

A child that will absolutely stun you in speechless gibbering as well as afflict you with a terribly terrific case of book hangover.

This is also one of those stories where you reach the end, and, just like the main character, discover that none of the things that you thought you knew at the beginning are remotely as they appeared to be. Hence the being stunned.

I started out thinking of The Forever Watch because both take place on generation ships. In both stories, the population of the ship has left homeworld, which may or may not be Earth, in search of a new planet.

But whatever dreams of utopia the builders had at the beginning, those dreams have been long subverted by the time the story opens.

Our point of view character in Medusa Uploaded is Oichi Angelis, and she sees herself as a Worm. In fact, she sees almost all of the population of the Olympia as Worms. Most people are, like Oichi, members of the Servant class who are programmed by the Executives not merely to serve their every whim but also to see and hear only what the Executives allow them to.

Oichi has broken her programming. Much like Murderbot, she has illicit caches of forbidden entertainment stored in her brain, and that subversive data is how she keeps herself sane – at least until one scared and spoiled Executive arranges for Oichi’s execution. Because anyone in the Executive class can. Because victimizing someone else lets them feel less like a victim themselves.

But when Oichi is literally shoved out an airlock, she is saved. Not by a deux ex machina, but by an actual machine – and that’s when her journey really begins.

Because Oichi, with the help of Medusa, sets out to enact a revolution. She pushes people around like pawns in order to bring about a rebellion where the Executive class can be overthrown and the Worms can finally have an equal voice on the ship. It’s not just that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but that Oichi becomes the one who decides which are which.

Along the way, Oichi becomes an even more efficient killing machine than Murderbot ever was.

Oichi thinks she is running her own deadly show – only to discover that she’s been part of someone else’s game all along.

Escape Rating A+: First, I need to send a HUGE thank you to the person who recommended both The Last Sun and Medusa Uploaded, because both books have been absolutely stellar.

Above, I cited three books that Medusa Uploaded really, really reminded me of. The Forever Watch feels fairly obvious, as both are stories about generation ships in mid-journey, where one of the functionaries/passengers discovers that things have gone really, really wrong – and makes the mistake of trying to fix those things. These are also both stories where most of the assumptions that the protagonists make, and that we as readers follow along with, turn out not to be true – with catastrophic results.

Murderbot may feel like a strange choice, or like I’m just trying to get on the Murderbot bandwagon – not that Murderbot wouldn’t be utterly appalled that it even has a bandwagon. But at the very beginning of both stories we have a first-person protagonist who is aware that they are supposed to be programmed into certain behaviors and that they have subverted their programming. They both spend much of the story pretending to be what everyone around them believes they are while secretly exploring a database of forbidden entertainment. Entertainment which just adds to the subversive nature of their performance.

And last but definitely not least, the SF classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. (Which is still quite readable!) Both Moon and Medusa are stories where the downtrodden masses are forced to remain downtrodden due to structural inequities built into the systems that keep them virtually enslaved. And in both stories they rise up anyway, using the technology that is supposed to keep them under the thumb of the ruling class. Both stories also feature machines-as-people who integrate with the revolutionaries. (The scene at the end of Moon where Manny discovers that Mike is dead still makes me cry.)

Back to the list I began earlier…

Second, I confess that Medusa Uploaded is one of the few times where I’ve been so completely into a book that I experienced the approach/avoidance conflict of desperately wanting to know how it ended while simultaneously not wanting to finish and be forced to step out of this world.

I’m really glad that there’s a second book in the cycle (Medusa in the Graveyard), and extra happy that I already have the eARC. This is one that just isn’t going to wait!

Review: Death Shall Come by Simon R. Green

Review: Death Shall Come by Simon R. GreenDeath Shall Come by Simon R. Green
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: mystery, science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Ishmael Jones #4
Pages: 185
Published by Severn House Publishers on September 1, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Ishmael Jones is faced with a dead body and a missing mummy in this highly entertaining, genre-blending mystery.

Death shall come on swift wings to whoever desecrates this tomb ...

Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny have been summoned to remote Cardavan House, home of the world's largest private collection of Ancient Egyptian artefacts, for the unveiling of George Cardavan's latest acquisition: a bone fide Egyptian mummy.

When a bloodstained body is discovered beside the empty sarcophagus, Ishmael is dismissive of the theory that the mummy's curse is to blame. Instead he sets out to uncover the human killer responsible. But how can Ishmael explain the strange, shuffling footsteps that creep along the corridors? Who is playing games with them ... and why?

My Review:

One of the overall themes that runs through the Ishmael Jones series is misdirection. The villain(s) at least so far, use myths, legends and primal fears to direct their potential victims (and sometimes Ishmael) away from themselves and towards pretty much anything else.

Sort of like the way I am currently misdirecting the kitten from all the interesting things on top of my desk that she can break by putting her battery-operated toy on the floor and hoping it distracts her from knocking my tea over and chewing my phone.

By the way, it’s not working on the cat. And it usually doesn’t work on Ishmael Jones, either.

In previous books in this series, the creepy misdirection has either been ghosts (The Dark Side of the Road and Dead Man Walking) or family monsters like the Hound of the Baskervilles (Very Important Corpses).

Having explored two branches of horror that Ishmael absolutely does not believe in, the phantom of misdirection is Death Shall Come isn’t a phantom – it’s a mummy!

Penny Belcourt, Ishmael’s human partner, loves mummy stories. Actually, so does Ishmael, but he prefers the Karloff classics and she liked the Brendan Fraser romantics. Both recognize that reanimated corpses do not walk among us – not even among the looted and stolen collection of Egyptian artifacts at Cardavan House.

Which does not mean that someone isn’t perfectly willing to exploit the fear of that possibility for their own evil ends. The question, as always, is who is the monster among them. What kind of monster are they?

And can Ishmael and Penny stop them before it’s too late?

Escape Rating B+: I pick up this series whenever I feel that my snark-o-meter needs filling – because this author’s work is always snarktastic to the max.

Ishmael Jones is one of the Men in Black. He’s also one of the aliens that the Men in Black usually monitor, but in this particular case, the organization that he works for – oh so cryptically named “The Organization” – does not know, at least as far as Ishmael knows, that he is not exactly from around here.

What they do know is that he has secrets to keep – and so do they. So when his boss asks him to come to the remote family pile and pretend to be an Egyptologist, Ishmael goes along with the game. His Colonel will “owe him one” and Ishmael knows that someday he’ll need to collect.

The setup is very reminiscent of an English country house mystery, as are all of the books in the series so far. But this isn’t cozy, it’s way more like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Ishmael can’t prevent all of the deaths, but he can try to keep the numbers from reducing to that “none”.

Sometimes he’s more successful than others.

Part of the fun of the series is the way that the standard horror tropes get turned on their heads. Ishmael does not believe in the supernatural – but that doesn’t mean that the people he is attempting to protect don’t. They get spooked pretty easily, and he usually spends a fair bit of time trying to keep them together for their own good – and he usually fails. He also usually has something snarky to say about it.

Early in the series, I said that Ishmael reminds me of Captain Jack Harkness in the Doctor Who and Torchwood series(es) . And that’s still true. Both in the sense of their immortality and in the sense that they both have holes in their memories, and that sometimes things that no one wants to meet jump out at them from one of those holes.

In the end, that’s what flips this series from mystery/horror to science fiction. Mummies don’t walk, but strange, weird and dangerous things do fall out of the sky. Ishmael should know – after all, he’s one of them.

Read this series with the lights on, and not right before bedtime. I made the mistake of reading this right before I went to sleep, and it gave me really, really weird dreams. But not scary enough to scare me off from coming back Into the Thinnest of Air the next time my snark-o-meter needs a re-charge.

Review: Blood and Betrayal by Lindsay Buroker

Review: Blood and Betrayal by Lindsay BurokerBlood and Betrayal (The Emperor's Edge, #5) by Lindsay Buroker
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, steampunk
Series: Emperor's Edge #5
Pages: 374
Published by Lindsay Buroker on December 3, 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The last thing Maldynado Montichelu—former aristocrat and current ladies' man—ever wanted was to be left in charge. After all, the team just blew up a train, crashed a dirigible, and kidnapped the emperor. It's kind of an important time.

But, with Amaranthe captured by the nefarious Forge coalition, and Sicarius off to find her, the team is lacking in leaders. Also, Sicarius has made it clear that Maldynado’s life may be forfeit should anything happen to the emperor while he’s gone.

To make matters worse, Forge’s cutthroats are after Sespian, and the young emperor believes Maldynado's loyalties are suspect. As if it’s his fault that his older brother is working with the coalition to usurp the throne. If Maldynado can’t figure out how to earn the emperor’s trust quickly, Sespian will go off to confront their powerful enemies on his own.

Meanwhile, Amaranthe must find a way to escape from the coalition’s newest ally, Master Interrogator Pike, a man who plans to pull all of the secrets from her head, one way or another…

Blood and Betrayal is the fifth novel in The Emperor’s Edge series.

My Review:

Welcome to this week’s second entry in the “long time no see” series. Otherwise known as the “ how big a fool I was to stop reading this” series.

Back in 2013 I started the Emperor’s Edge series by Lindsay Buroker, and fell headlong into her blend of fantasy, steampunk and SF. I also fell in love with her endlessly snarky five-man band of characters – even though the band eventually encompassed more than five characters, male or otherwise.

For a series that is set in a fantasy world that has elements of both steampunk and “pure” SF, the group dynamics of Amaranth Lokdon’s crew have the feel of the best sword-and-sorcery, you know the type where the hero and his sidekick slice and snark their way through a world that seems to be out to get them at every turn.

Amaranthe’s gang certainly is paranoid, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t out to get them. As is certainly shown in this fifth entry in the series, Blood and Betrayal. And yes, there’s plenty of both within the pages of this thrill-a-minute story.

When last we left our heroes, five years ago and at the end of Conspiracy, Amaranthe had just been thrown out of the dirigible the gang had commandeered. In mid-flight. Of course.

As Blood and Betrayal opens, the gang is kind of in the same position that Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are in at the opening of The Two Towers – minus the death of Boromir (or his equivalent).

The remaining members of Amaranthe’s merry band of tricksters all want to find her and rescue her. But they are already in the middle of a mission to pretend to kidnap the young Emperor Sespian and uncover the plot to overthrow him – along with figuring out all of the other plans being hatched by the dangerous and mysterious group calling themselves Forge.

Sicarius, Amaranthe’s second-in-command, pet assassin and possible future lover, finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. He desperately needs to rescue Amaranthe. He equally desperately needs to keep the young Emperor safe – because unbeknownst to everyone except himself and Amaranthe, Emperor Sespian is his son.

And someone needs to lead the remaining members of the crew – because it’s dubious whether they’re remotely capable of leading themselves anywhere except into yet another disaster. But in order to save Amaranthe he’ll have to trust them anyway – with not just their own continued existence, but with the life of the son he doesn’t dare acknowledge.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire, out of the torture chamber and into a subterranean sub rosa meeting to overthrow the empire. With deadly alien machines chasing them every step of the way.

It’s all in a day’s work – at least until the ocean crashes in.

Escape Rating A: It’s been 5 years since I read the previous book in this series, but as soon as I started this one (admittedly after re-reading my reviews of the previous four) I fell right back into this world and was just as caught up in the interpersonal dynamics of this terrifically odd assortment of people as I was back then.

Not that I’m planning to wait another five years to read the next books in the series. I was reminded of just how much I loved this gang and now that I’m back I can’t wait to keep going. I will say that now that I’m listening to books more again I really wish that the next books had been recorded (the first five have been) so that I could listen while I drive and workout. The level of snarkitude of these folks would make this a perfect series to distract me on the treadmill.

The heart of this series is the character of Amaranthe Lokdon herself. As one of the members of her crew puts it, Amaranthe is the glue that holds the group together. None of them would have ever had much to do with one another, but over the course of the series they have run into her and gotten themselves stuck both to her and to each other.

This particular entry in the series has the challenge of keeping Amaranthe’s “glue” front and center while she herself is a tortured captive elsewhere and Sicarius is tracking her captors so that he can rescue her – if he can get there in time.

With Amaranthe and Sicarius out of the immediate picture, the perspective on the remaining gang’s part of the story shifts to Maldynado the disowned nobleman whose family just might be behind the conspiracy to overthrow the empire. Not that Maldynado knows anything about what they’re doing – they disowned him years ago.

With his reputation as a fop – a reputation he encourages at every turn – Maldynado finds it difficult to take charge of anything. His actions in this story give him a surprising chance to step out from Amaranthe’s comfortable shadow to stand in the light for a change – a position from which he generally gets shot at. A not uncommon scenario for everyone in Amaranthe’s orbit!

This is a story that takes its turns into dark places – and into the backgrounds of more of its characters in ways that explore what brought them to these circumstances. At the same time, it’s a roller coaster ride of a story that never lets up until the train – in this case the steamroller – pulls into a sharp breaking stop at the end of the ride.

But the fun’s not over yet. There’s more to come in Forged in Blood. There’s no way I’m waiting five more years to see what happens next!

Review: A Study in Honor by Claire O’Dell

Review: A Study in Honor by Claire O’DellA Study in Honor (The Janet Watson Chronicles #1) by Claire O'Dell, Beth Bernobich
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, mystery, science fiction
Series: Janet Watson Chronicles #1
Pages: 304
Published by Harper Voyager on July 31, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Dr. Janet Watson knows firsthand the horrifying cost of a divided nation. While treating broken soldiers on the battlefields of the New Civil War, a sniper’s bullet shattered her arm and ended her career. Honorably discharged and struggling with the semi-functional mechanical arm that replaced the limb she lost, she returns to the nation’s capital, a bleak, edgy city in the throes of a fraught presidential election. Homeless and jobless, Watson is uncertain of the future when she meets another black and queer woman, Sara Holmes, a mysterious yet playfully challenging covert agent who offers the doctor a place to stay.

Watson’s readjustment to civilian life is complicated by the infuriating antics of her strange new roommate. But the tensions between them dissolve when Watson discovers that soldiers from the New Civil War have begun dying one by one—and that the deaths may be the tip of something far more dangerous, involving the pharmaceutical industry and even the looming election. Joining forces, Watson and Holmes embark on a thrilling investigation to solve the mystery—and secure justice for these fallen soldiers.

My Review:

This was a wow. Even better, it was a wow in ways that I wasn’t expecting, so excellent all the way around.

Admittedly, I bounced off A Study in Honor the first time I started it. I was expecting a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, which it sorta/kinda is, but that’s not really apparent at the beginning. At the beginning, we’re following Dr. Janet Watson as she gets the shaft from the VA after losing her arm in combat.

Dr. Watson is a surgeon, and to go back to that job in civilian life, she needs two good hands. And the combat-damaged prosthetic that was supposed to be a temporary fix, well, it isn’t even good enough for much in civilian life – it certainly isn’t good enough for surgery.

But the war isn’t going well, is extremely unpopular, and the VA is sucking hind tit in the federal budget. Some things never change.

Other things do.

This war, unlike the perpetual war in Afghanistan that injured both the original Dr. John Watson and his 21st century incarnation in Sherlock, is a civil war. In what has become the not-so-United States.

The very frightening thing about this war is that it is so close we can see it from here. And entirely possible for all that. It’s a variation on the civil war in the darkly awesome book American War by Omar El Akkad, where the “reactionary” forces of the Old South have picked up the guns they are always afraid are going to be taken away from them and started a shooting war with what they see as the liberal-leftist North and Left-Coast West.

Unlike in American War, in this version, the so-called “Conservative” forces seem to be winning, if not all of the battles, at least the battle for hearts and minds in the North. It’s as though they made Robert E. Lee’s strategy work – just keep going long enough for the North to get too tired to fight.

This is also a scary close near future in that in 2016 Trump did get elected. Then after his administration overthrew as many of the civil rights of minorities as they could possibly manage, got replaced by the backlash of a progressive female Democratic president. After spending part of her first term turning back as much of the damage as possible, the folks who want their idealized 1950s back began the war in Oklahoma.

But this isn’t quite a dystopia, although it’s certainly getting there. Back home in Washington DC, away from the fronts in the states surrounding Oklahoma, the world seems to be going on as normal.

Unless you’re a wounded veteran trying to get the benefits you’re entitled to out of a VA that only cares about its bottom line.

Just as in the original stories, and in most of the remixes and pastiches, Watson is living off her military pension and needs a job. Holmes, in this case Sara Holmes, wants a roommate for the apartment she needs but claims to not be able to quite afford without said roommate.

But this Holmes is not what she seems. She’s every bit as brilliant (and enigmatic) as her original, but unlike the original Sherlock Holmes, Sara Holmes is not an independent agent.

As Janet Watson eventually discovers.

Escape Rating A-: I’ve written a lot about the setup of this story, because a lot of this book is setup. While this world unfortunately feels like a logical extension of current events, it is not current events and needs to get us fixed firmly into its vision of the future.

Which does not mean it isn’t a vision of the future that doesn’t include a whole lot of the present. Unfortunately for our protagonists, the parts of the present that carry over are quite frequently the worst bits. I said this isn’t a dystopia, but a better description would be that it isn’t a dystopia yet.

Those roots in the contemporary present form a good part of the terrible case that Janet unearths and that Sara helps her resolve. Part of what makes this book an A- rather than a A is that the case was fairly obvious. All too plausible, but also all too easy to figure out from the very first clue.

What makes this story, this version of Holmes and Watson, so fascinating are the characters of the two women. Instead of two white men in Victorian England (or 21st century England, for that matter), the Holmes and Watson in A Study in Honor are two black women at a time and place where the hope for true equality that shone during the Obama era has receded into the past and is dying under the lash of “conservative” dog-whistles that are pitched so any human can hear.

Which also means that in addition to the many indignities visited upon Janet Watson because she’s a wounded veteran, even more are heaped upon her because she’s black and because she dared to aspire to a profession that some people still believe should have been reserved for whites. And where the lesbianism of both of the protagonists just adds yet another layer of potential for prejudice.

A Study in Honor is a dark and gritty portrait of a world going to hell in a handcart, as seen from the perspective of someone who has visited that hell, and sometimes seems to have only left it in body but not in spirit. And investigates a mystery that plows right into the hell of that war and the dark heart of the people and governments that are waging it.

Watson and Holmes’ adventures continue in The Hound of Justice. I can’t wait.

Reviewer’s Note: Claire O’Dell is a pseudonym for author Beth Bernobich.