#BookReview: Unexploded Remnants by Elaine Gallagher

#BookReview: Unexploded Remnants by Elaine GallagherUnexploded Remnants by Elaine Gallagher
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: artificial intelligence, science fiction
Pages: 111
Published by Tordotcom on June 25, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

An A.I. wages war on a future it doesn't understand.

Alice is the last human. Street-smart and bad-ass.

After discovering what appears to be an A.I. personality in an antique data core, Alice undertakes to find its home somewhere in the stargate network, or lay him to rest. Her find is the control unit of a powerful ancient weapon system.

But releasing the ghost of a raging warrior for whom the war is still under way is as much of a mistake as the stories tell, and Alice finds herself faced with an impossible choice against an unstoppable foe.

My Review:

Alice is the last human in the galaxy. As far as she’s concerned, she’s definitely in Wonderland – even when it seems like the whole, entire ‘verse is out to get her.

There are two stories packed into Unexploded Remnants, and that’s a lot of packing for a novella. First, there’s Alice’s whole backstory – which must be huge and fascinating but we only get glimpses which are not NEARLY enough.

She’s literally the last of her kind and the reason she got to be that and what happened after and how she’s coped with her singularity in the big wide galaxy at large has to have been a huge story of awakening and culture shock – and I wish that was the story we had. Or I wish we’d get it someday.

Or both. Definitely both.

Instead, we get hints and dribbles, because the story we actually have is an entirely different big story. Alice is kind of an intergalactic treasure hunter. An archeologist of lost civilizations and an explorer of lost cultures – much like her own.

That she freelances for ‘The Archive’ in this vocation/avocation reminded this reader quite a lot of Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library series. So if you loved that you might have a hook to this.

So Alice is a bit of a bazaar and flea market aficionado who has more than enough knowledge to get more than occasionally lucky. Or unlucky, as the case might be. And certainly is here.

She barters for a trinket that looks a lot like a 20th century Earth lava lamp – although it’s certainly not that. It might have a system inside its dirty and unprepossessing carapace that she might be able to tease out and communicate with. It should be worth something – if only to the Archive.

It turns out to be a whole lot more than Alice bargained for – both literally and figuratively. As soon as she closes the deal, it seems like a whole, entire platoon of dishonorable warmongers close in on her position in an attempt to steal whatever it is out of her grasp. A platoon that doesn’t seem to care in the least about collateral damage to the marketplace, the crowd of shoppers, or Alice herself.

So she runs. And as she runs from planet to planet through a vast network of transportation gates, she has the opportunity to make friends with the system inside the ‘lava lamp’, an entity she names ‘Gunn’. The question is whether Gunn is a soldier or just a weapon. Her pursuers believe he’s merely a weapon. Alice is convinced that he’s more.

But whichever he is, the war he was made for or recruited into is over – and has been for 10,000 years. His people – and their bitter enemy – committed mutual genocide. And her pursuers seem all too eager to employ Gunn’s expertise in their own bitter conflict without thought or care about how his ended.

Escape Rating B: The reason that I picked this up – and its biggest drawback – are the same. It’s short. Unexploded Remnants is a novella. In fact, it’s the author’s debut novella. It’s supposed to be short. But the story it contains is too big for the length of the format. Or there should have been two of them. One for Alice’s backstory – which sounds absolutely fascinating if more than a bit heartbreaking. And then a second novella for this ‘adventure’ which gives readers a tantalizing glimpse of the universe that saved her and made her whole, while telling a story about the price of peace and the cost of war.

As I was reading, the SFnal elements struck a lot of familiar chords. I mentioned the Invisible Library series earlier, because that is certainly part of this story.  Irene’s job in the Invisible Library series, is to acquire cultural artifacts and knowledge for the Library, while the Library’s purpose for those artifacts is to use the knowledge gained to preserve the balance between order and chaos for all the worlds it touches.

Howsomever, not only is Alice’s job very similar to Irene’s, but Alice’s Archive does the same job as Irene’s Library, using the knowledge it has gained from the artifacts and databases it has collected to preserve the balance between order and chaos, specifically by keeping the galaxy on the knife edge between outright war and an occasionally aggressive peace.

While the vastness of the galaxy – along with its system of interstellar gate travel – recalled Stargate, Babylon 5 and especially Mass Effect, there was a feel to this story that gave me a lot of the same vibes as This Is How You Lose the Time War, except that in this instance that war has already been lost and Gunn is the only survivor. I also had rather mixed feelings about Time War, so the analogy works on that level as well, although a LOT more people adored Time War than seem to have Unexploded Remnants – at least so far – so your reading mileage may vary.

Personally, I found Alice’s rapid exploration of her adopted universe fascinating if a bit of a tease. I enjoyed her sprinkling of 20th and 21st century pop culture references – which seemed to serve her as both a reminder of where she came from and a personal code that defied automated translators without seeming deliberately clandestine.

Howsomever, as much as I liked the way the story ended, that ‘Gunn’ was treated as an old soldier instead of as merely a weapon – and as much as I agreed with the overt political message – that message was very overt to the point where it breaks the fourth wall even though I believe the theories posited are more plausible than anyone likes to think about.

In the end, some mixed feelings. I loved the universe, I liked Alice, the chases were riveting, but the message was a bit heavy-handed and the whole thing should have been longer or this should have been a duology.

But this is a DEBUT novella, and it packed in a lot of good stuff – if just a bit stuffed. I’m looking forward to seeing what the author comes up with next.

A+ #BookReview: Service Model by Adrian Tchaikovsky

A+ #BookReview: Service Model by Adrian TchaikovskyService Model by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, robots, science fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Tordotcom on June 4, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A humorous tale of robotic murder from the Hugo-nominated author of Elder Race and Children of Time
To fix the world they first must break it further.
Humanity is a dying breed, utterly reliant on artificial labor and service. When a domesticated robot gets a nasty little idea downloaded into their core programming, they murder their owner. The robot then discovers they can also do something else they never did before: run away. After fleeing the household, they enter a wider world they never knew existed, where the age-old hierarchy of humans at the top is disintegrating, and a robot ecosystem devoted to human wellbeing is finding a new purpose.

My Review:

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

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

And all the more captivating and utterly fascinating for it.

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed, has already fallen.

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

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

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

Not even if androids really did dream of electric sheep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A- #BookReview: The Fireborne Blade by Charlotte Bond

A- #BookReview: The Fireborne Blade by Charlotte BondThe Fireborne Blade (The Fireborne Blade, #1) by Charlotte Bond
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dragons, fantasy
Series: Fireborne Blade #1
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on May 28, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Kill the dragon. Find the blade. Reclaim her honor.
It’s that, or end up like countless knights before her, as a puddle of gore and molten armor.
Maddileh is a knight. There aren’t many women in her line of work, and it often feels like the sneering and contempt from her peers is harder to stomach than the actual dragon slaying. But she’s a knight, and made of sterner stuff.
A minor infraction forces her to redeem her honor in the most dramatic way possible, she must retrieve the fabled Fireborne Blade from its keeper, legendary dragon the White Lady, or die trying. If history tells us anything, it's that “die trying” is where to wager your coin.
Maddileh’s tale contains a rich history of dragons, ill-fated knights, scheming squires, and sapphic love, with deceptions and double-crosses that will keep you guessing right up to its dramatic conclusion. Ultimately, The Fireborne Blade is about the roles we refuse to accept, and of the place we make for ourselves in the world.

My Review:

The story of The Fireborne Blade initially appears to be a more traditional, or perhaps I should say scholarly, account of dragons and the slaying thereof by knights who generally think too much of their own prowess – after all, they are reporting on their own exploits and they slew a dragon!

But then even more scholarly, and slightly SFnal or at least technomagical aspects come to the fore. Because the knights have recorded those exploits, and the mage council gets to watch those recordings and critique the process – which ends in the knight’s death more often then the knights would care to admit.

Then the story shifts, not to reports of dragon-slayings past, but into the middle of what one disgraced knight is hoping will be a dragon-slaying present. With, hopefully for the knight, the acquisition of the titular Fireborne Blade, the redemption of her disgrace and the consequent reinstatement of her good standing.

So we follow along with that disgraced knight, Maddileh, as she wends her way through the dark and dangerous caverns that lead to the dragon’s lair, along with her mysteriously magical and not at all trusty squire, while in the background we learn how Maddileh ended up in her present predicament and why it is unlikely to achieve the result she desires.

Because in contests between knights and dragons, all those stories about previous dragon hunts show us – and should have shown her – that the odds ALWAYS favor the dragon. Which does not prevent the knight from doing their damndest to stack the deck in their favor.

Unless someone else has beaten them to it.

Escape Rating A-: Initially, this seemed like a rather traditional knight vs. dragon story, with one of two inevitable endings. Either the knight dies or the dragon does. Or occasionally both in a blaze of mutual glory. So there’s three inevitable endings.

But I knew it couldn’t be nearly that simple – and it wasn’t, and not just because the knight in this particular story was female. That may not be the way these stories used to always work, but it has been done before, and done well if not nearly often enough, for the past 40 years at least. (Tamora Pierce’s epic Song of the Lioness quartet began in 1983. For a more recent example, take a look at Spear by Nicola Griffith.)

Those weren’t the only stories it felt like this was calling back to, as the detached, pseudo-scientific nature of the critiques of previous knight’s performances and the cataloging thereof gave me hints of the Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan although I’m not sure that’s completely accurate. Still, it felt that way.

As we get the history of dragon hunting in this world, we get to understand that it’s even more dangerous than our own legends tell it, because it’s not just fire that the knights have to worry about. In fact, fire is pretty much the last thing they have to worry about, if it all, because for the dragon to breathe fire on them they have to get relatively up close and personal. Most don’t make it nearly that far.

Instead of being a story about killing or being killed by a dragon, this is a story about forging your own path against seemingly impossible odds, over and over and over again, no matter how much that deck is stacked against you. And has been, over and over and over.

And in the process of telling its story about the knight and the dragon, it asks some surprising questions about change vs stability and striking that balance, and makes that discussion personal in ways that change every single thing we thought we knew going in.

Which made for a completely fruit-basket-upset of an astonishing ending.

One final note, and a bit of a digression. If you remember the plot of the video game Final Fantasy X fondly, or at all, although the ending is very different, from a certain slightly twisted perspective Maddileh is Auron and the evil hierarch who turns out to be the villain of the piece is Maester Mika with all the same questions and a not all that different set of answers.

Which is really messing with my head a bit, because I was expecting that The Fireborne Blade was a standalone. It’s not. The second book in The Fireborne Blade series, The Bloodless Princes, will be coming in October – and I’m really, really curious to see how this manages to continue.

#BookReview: Lost Ark Dreaming by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

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

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

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A- #BookReview: The Brides of High Hill by Nghi Vo

A- #BookReview: The Brides of High Hill by Nghi VoThe Brides of High Hill (The Singing Hills Cycle, #5) by Nghi Vo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Singing Hills Cycle #5
Pages: 128
Published by Tordotcom on May 7, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The Hugo Award-Winning Series returns with its newest standalone entry: a gothic mystery involving a crumbling estate, a mysterious bride, and an extremely murderous teapot.
The Cleric Chih accompanies a beautiful young bride to her wedding to an aging lord at a crumbling estate situated at the crossroads of dead empires. But they’re forgetting things they ought to remember, and the lord’s mad young son wanders the grounds at night like a hanged ghost.
The Singing Hills Cycle has been shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Award, the Locus Award, the Ignyte Award, and has won the Hugo Award and the Crawford Award.

My Review:

When we first catch up with Cleric Chih as they are accompanying bride-to-be Pham Nhung and her family on their trip to make the final negotiations for Pham Nhung’s marriage to the older and much wealthier Lord Guo, the reader has the sense that they remember when Chih met Nhung at the gates of the Singing Hills Abbey back in the previous book, Mammoths at the Gates.

Just as Chih has been lulled into participating in this journey that seems so familiar, so are we.

Because the journey IS familiar, even if Chih can’t seem to recall precisely how they got there or, more importantly, why his friend and companion, the neixin Almost Brilliant, is not with them on this journey. Although, considering the events of Mammoths at the Gates, it’s not too difficult for the reader, or Chih, to understand why the situation back home might have been a bit too fraught for Almost Brilliant to leave.

But the story does seem familiar, only because it is. A young woman whose noble family is a bit down on their luck has been sold to a wealthy older man in order to restore the family’s status. She has no choice in the matter, her parents have little, and Lord Guo has it all.

However, when the Lord’s oldest son, mad and confused and drugged to his eyeballs, under heavy guard and seemingly out of his mind, interrupts the initial ceremonies it raises more than a few uncomfortable questions, which kickstarts Cleric Chih’s need to learn all the stories about the lavish old estate that Lord Guo reigns over with an iron hand – and the familiar story begins to unravel.

Spectacularly. Explosively. Into a story about revenge served, not ice cold, but in a gout of hot blood spraying out from under gnashing teeth and long, sharp claws.

Escape Rating A-: From the very first book in the Singing Hills Cycle, the marvelous The Empress of Salt and Fortune, Cleric Chih has moved from being outside the story, merely its chronicler, to being at the story’s center in Mammoths at the Gates.

This time around, Chih is as mesmerized as the reader by the story, as they are trapped within its web just as we ourselves are.

Which means that we have a sense at the beginning that Chih isn’t acting quite like themselves, and Chih has the same feeling. Also they desperately miss their friend Almost Brilliant, and so do we. We all collectively need the clear-sighted neixin to help us – and I’m including Chih in that ‘us’ – figure out what’s going on.

Of course, that’s why Almost Brilliant isn’t there. Or so it seems. Just as so many things in this story seem to be one thing but aren’t – quite.

So this is a story about illusions and lies. Nothing and no one is exactly who or what they are first presented to be. At first, it seems that what began as that rather traditional story of a girl being sold by her parents to a cruel older man is the story and we’re prepared to watch it be broken in some almost traditional way – either by Pham Nhung running away with Lord Guo’s son, who we know isn’t the madman his father’s frightened household says that he is – or with her death, whether by her own hand or Lord Guo’s.

In other words, we expect the illusion to break, but what we don’t expect, what Cleric Chih doesn’t expect, is the way that it breaks – and how thoroughly.

At the very beginning of The Brides of High Hill, Cleric Chih is remembering his late mentor, Cleric Thien, and an occasion where Thien told Chih that “Everything starts with a story,” and a very young and not yet cleric Chih asks, “But what does that mean?”

In the case of The Brides of High Hill, the story starts with a journey that looks like it might end in a romance but instead ends with something that looks like a bloody, twisted version of Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth, and is all the more surprising for that twist in its – and our – tails at the end.

Leaving this reader with bated breath waiting for the next story in the Singing Hills Cycle, even though it has neither a title nor a projected date of publication, because this series is just that good – and I’m just that hooked on it.

#BookReview: The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain by Sofia Samatar

#BookReview: The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain by Sofia SamatarThe Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain by Sofia Samatar
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, space opera, dark academia
Pages: 128
Published by Tordotcom on April 16, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Celebrated author Sofia Samatar presents a mystical, revolutionary space adventure for the exhausted dreamer in this brilliant science fiction novella tackling the carceral state and violence embedded in the ivory tower while embodying the legacy of Ursula K. Le Guin.
"Can the University be a place of both training and transformation?"
The boy was raised as one of the Chained, condemned to toil in the bowels of a mining ship out amongst the stars.
His whole world changes―literally―when he is yanked "upstairs" to meet the woman he will come to call “professor.” The boy is no longer one of the Chained, she tells him, and he has been gifted an opportunity to be educated at the ship’s university alongside the elite.
The woman has spent her career striving for acceptance and validation from her colleagues in the hopes of reaching a brighter future, only to fall short at every turn.
Together, the boy and the woman will learn from each other to grasp the design of the chains designed to fetter them both, and are the key to breaking free. They will embark on a transformation―and redesign the entire world.

My Review:

This didn’t go any of the places I expected it to go. But the places it went and the themes it explored turned out to be much bigger than I expected – even though they conducted that exploration in the narrowest of spaces.

The space-faring fleet on which both the Hold and the University exist is part of a vast armada of interstellar leeches. This is not a generation ship, although generations of humans have certainly been born and died on its journey.

Instead, this is a human colony designed and engineered to roam the black, much as Quarians were in Mass Effect, but without their tragic, albeit self-inflicted, backstory.

Rather, the human population of this fleet represents humanity in all its dubious glory, greedy and rapacious by design, striving and hopeful in only a part of its execution. The stultifying caste system of Braking Day, Medusa Uploaded and even Battlestar Galactica, as highlighted in the first season episode “Bastille Day” (It took me forever to locate exactly which episode had this plot point but I just couldn’t get the reference out of my head) is on full and disgusting display, particularly in the context of the University.

Not that academia doesn’t do plenty of caste stratification of its very own, and not that it can’t be both blood thirsty and bloody minded – particularly in its small-minded, impractical politics. If an exploration of that appeals and you enjoy SF mysteries, Malka Older’s Mossa and Plieti series, The Mimicking of Known Successes and The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles plumbs those depths in all their ugliness while figuring out just whodunnit in a brave new/old world, while Premee Mohamed’s forthcoming We Speak Through the Mountain is a similarly searing indictment of the way that Academe rewrites its own history to obscure its pervasive condescension.

Howsomever, as is clear from the above citations, several parts of this story have been done before – and well – if not quite in this combination.

The place I wasn’t expecting it to go was into the metaphysical, quasi-religious depths of Andrew Kelly Stewart’s We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep, which is where The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain gets both its heart and its quite literal depth.

Because the story here, in the end, is both about learning that even people who believe they are free can be conditioned – or fooled – into forgetting that they are just as chained as the obviously and literally named ‘Chained’ people that they are taught to look down upon.

And that it is only by banding together, not through violence but through perception and mindfulness and just plain finding common cause – that they can all be free.

Escape Rating B: This is a story that, at first, seems a bit disjointed. And it does have a sort of metaphysical aspect that seems foreign to its SF story – also at least at first. At the same time, as much as the obvious abuses of the Hold system resemble the contemporary carceral state, the sheer bloody-minded small-minded nastiness of academia sticks in the craw even more harshly – if only because it makes the hypocrisy of the whole, entire system that much more obvious.

This isn’t a comfortable book. It’s beautifully written, compulsively lyrical, and manages to both hit its points over the head with a hammer AND obscure any catharsis in its ending at the same time. I’m not remotely sure how I feel about the whole thing, but I’m sure I’ll be thinking about the spoken and unspoken messages it left implanted in my brain.

#BookReview: The Butcher of the Forest by Premee Mohamed

#BookReview: The Butcher of the Forest by Premee MohamedThe Butcher of the Forest by Premee Mohamed
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, fantasy, horror
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on February 27, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A world-weary woman races against the clock to rescue the children of a wrathful tyrant from a dangerous, otherworldly forest.
At the northern edge of a land ruled by a monstrous, foreign tyrant lies the wild forest known as the Elmever. The villagers know better than to let their children go near—once someone goes in, they never come back out.
No one knows the strange and terrifying traps of the Elmever better than Veris Thorn, the only person to ever rescue a child from the forest many years ago. When the Tyrant’s two young children go missing, Veris is commanded to enter the forest once more and bring them home safe. If Veris fails, the Tyrant will kill her; if she remains in the forest for longer than a day, she will be trapped forevermore.
So Veris will travel deep into the Elmever to face traps, riddles, and monsters at the behest of another monster. One misstep will cost everything.

My Review:

There’s no actual butcher in this forest, but it doesn’t need one. The forest is enough of a butcher all on its own. And the thing it’s already butchered, more than anything or anyone else, is Veris Thorn’s heart.

But that’s not where we start this story. We start the story in a place that seems all too typical of epic fantasy of the myth telling and retelling school. Because there’s a forest surrounding Veris’ village. A forest that none of the locals ever enter, day or night, because people who go into the forest do not come out again. Ever.

Except for Veris. Once upon a time, she went in after a child. And brought both herself and the child out again. Not safely, not easily, and ultimately not anything remotely like a happy ending. But still, once upon that time, Veris went in and came back out again.

The Tyrant who seems to have swallowed so much of Veris’ world, has Veris’ dragged out of her bed at dawn and brought before him still in her nightclothes. She doesn’t know why, she doesn’t know what she could have possibly done. All she knows is that she has no choice.

Because the Tyrant will kill her remaining family and burn the village they live in to the ground if she does not obey whatever he will demand of her. It’s who he is, it’s what he does, and it’s how he’s conquered the world.

But the Tyrant is also a father. A father whose children have gone missing into that terrible forest, because they are just at that age when children think they are more grownup than they are and want adventures more than they want to obey. Even to obey a terrifying Tyrant like their father.

It’s up to Veris, a middle-aged woman with one singular experience of surviving the forest, a few tools and bits of old and cobbled-together legends, and a desperate desire to save her family and her village from being burnt to a crisp to enter the forest one more time. And to come back out again with two children, safe and sound. Before a nightfall that she won’t even be able to see from inside the dense woods.

It’s an impossible quest, but it’s the only hope she has for her people. But to the Forest she’s the one that got away – and it will only let her back in this time so it can keep her – or something else she holds dear.

Escape Rating B: At first, the forest sounded a LOT like the forests in Middle Earth where some of the trees’ hearts have turned dark. The way that Veris describes the forest near her village is very like Merry’s descriptions of The Old Forest around the Shire.

So I was prepared for that kind of quest – which wasn’t at all what I got. Which is generally a good thing.

I was also confused because there is no ‘Butcher’ IN the forest, and it’s dubious whether any of the characters, at least so far, are the ‘Butcher’ OF the forest. Not that the Tyrant doesn’t butcher everything in his rapacious path, and won’t make an attempt at butchering the entire forest if it doesn’t give him back his children. Or at least his heir.

After all, situations like this one are just what the ‘spare’ is born for.

But the story isn’t quite any of the things I was expecting. In spite of – or perhaps because of the Tyrant’s oppression at the beginning and it’s promise overshadowing the whole journey every time Veris stumbles.

As much as all the admonitions about not eating or drinking in the Forest and not bargaining with the fey creatures who dwell there, this story is about a journey and not a destination. It’s a journey into, not the dark heart of the forest or even the dark heart of the Tyrant although both certainly exist. It’s about Veris’ journey to her own dark heart, with the two children as both goad and conscience, reminding her of her own deepest losses while forcing her to recognize that they are not responsible for the sins of their own father against hers, and are much too young to have yet committed sins of their own.

A lesson that is every bit as hard for Veris to bear as all the other lessons that the Forest intends to teach her – whether she wants to learn those lessons or not.

What kept niggling at me through my read of The Butcher of the Forest was that it reminded me, strongly and often, of something else that was not Middle Earth. And that, as it turns out, is the Sooz duology in Peter S. Beagle’s The Way Home, set in the world of The Last Unicorn.

But Veris is not Sooz. Veris is Molly Grue in the first book in Sooz’ story. Molly Grue is the mentor character who rescues Sooz on Sooz’ first quest and trains her to take her second quest alone. A quest very much like the one that young Eleanor is barely on the threshold of when The Butcher of the Forest shudders to a heartbreaking halt.

Because once upon a time, the Forest kept Veris’ only child – and Veris went into the Forest to get her back. Now, the Forest has held onto Eleanor’s only brother, and she is determined to repeat Veris’ journey. Whether she will also repeat Veris’ mistakes along the way is a tale that is hopefully yet to be told.

A+ #BookReview: The Truth of the Aleke by Moses Ose Utomi

A+ #BookReview: The Truth of the Aleke by Moses Ose UtomiThe Truth of the Aleke (Forever Desert, #2) by Moses Ose Utomi
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Forever Desert #2
Pages: 112
Published by Tordotcom on March 5, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Moses Ose Utomi returns to his Forever Desert series with The Truth of the Aleke, continuing his epic fable about truth, falsehood, and the shackles of history.
The Aleke is cruel. The Aleke is clever. The Aleke is coming. 500 years after the events of The Lies of the Ajungo, the City of Truth stands as is the last remaining free city of the Forever Desert. A bastion of freedom and peace, the city has successfully weathered the near-constant attacks from the Cult of Tutu, who have besieged it for three centuries, attempting to destroy its warriors and subjugate its people.
17-year-old Osi is a Junior Peacekeeper in the City. When the mysterious leader of the Cult, known only as the Aleke, commits a massacre in the capitol and steals the sacred God's Eyes, Osi steps forward to valiantly defend his home. For his bravery he is tasked with a tremendous responsibility—destroy the Cult of Tutu, bring back the God's Eyes, and discover the truth of the Aleke.

The Forever Desert series
The Lies of the AjungoThe Truth of the Aleke
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

My Review:

Returning to the Forever Desert long after the events of The Lies of the Ajungo, it seems as if the pendulum of history has swung, the way that such pendulums often do.

Once upon a time, and we know this from that first story, the Ajungo had subjugated all the other cities of the Forever Desert through a mixture of lies and trickery, intimidation and fear. At least until young Tutu exposed the terrible truth at the heart of, not just the Ajungo, but of all the leaders of all the cities who had colluded in that lie in order to maintain their absolute power over their own peoples with the all too able assistance of the Ajungo.

As this story begins, it seems as if that tide has reversed, that the former capital of the Ajungo, who now refer to themselves as Truthseekers and call their city ‘The City of Truth’, have themselves become the oppressed, while the people they once subjugated, the people of the Forever Desert, have banded together into an alliance of aggression against them led by the Aleke.

It is a way that history runs, that the downtrodden rise up against their oppressors but become oppressors in their turn. So we think we understand the situation in the City of Truth when the Aleke come to conquer it, and we feel for young Osi as he becomes the face of his city’s resistance against a terrible enemy.

But just as young Tutu discovered in The Lies of the Ajungo, the truths of both his City of Truth AND The Truth of the Aleke are not what he had been taught as a child. Or what he came to believe as a young man. Or even what he thought was true when he became an ambassador between the two.

Tutu died for his truth. The question at the heart of The Truth of the Aleke is whether or not Osi will be able to live both for and with his.

Escape Rating A+: Read The Lies of the Ajungo first. It’s a short and absolutely marvelous story of a quest that turns into a myth, and it’s absolutely necessary to read it in order for this equally terrific and fantastic (in multiple senses of the word) second book to reach the depth it needs to in order to get the full effect of the whole thing – at least the whole thing so far.

(I’ll be waiting right here when you’ve finished. It won’t take long because the book is short AND I hope you’ll want to race through it as much as I did.)

The Truth of the Aleke is a story that exists on multiple levels in ways that have resonance, both in the story itself and in the now when I’m reading it (It’s mid-October, 2023 so take a look at what was going on in the world at this point in time if the date doesn’t ring any bells and you’ll see what I mean) It’s likely to have just as much resonance in the now when you’re reading this review as that situation has been baked in for even more centuries than the conflict in the Forever Desert and is unfortunately just as amenable to being peacefully resolved – meaning not very much at all.

At first, it seems as if Osi’s journey parallels Tutu’s, and it does to an extent. Both young men – and they are very young and naive when their stories begin – have grown up in a certain place and have been taught to believe certain things and believe that those things are true because that’s the only way they know.

But power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and everybody lies. That the truth Osi has been taught is not in any way an objective truth is not a surprise to the reader, but the way that he discovers his new truth is a painful stripping away of innocence that we still feel for.

What pushes The Truth of the Aleke beyond The Lies of the Ajungo is that the truths that Osi has to learn are covered in so many layers of lies  that the lies and the truths are really the Great Wyrm Ouroboros swallowing its own tail and never end. It’s truths and lies in endless repetition all the way down.

The more layers that Osi discovers, or has thrust upon him – and he admits to himself that he often doesn’t recognize the truth until AFTER it’s bitten him in the ass – the more painful his journey becomes, both figuratively and literally. It’s only at the end that he begins to see, not wisdom but pragmatism. Unless there’s another layer yet to be revealed.

And there probably is.

Some stories are about the journey, and some are about the destination. The Truth of the Aleke has to be about the journey – and it is – because the destination is not yet. If possibly ever. It’s clear from the conclusion – not an ending – of The Truth of the Aleke that the author is not finished with the Forever Desert and that there is at least one more story yet to be told and I’m so very thrilled that the author is already writing it.

A- #BookReview: Feed Them Silence by Lee Mandelo

A- #BookReview: Feed Them Silence by Lee MandeloFeed Them Silence by Lee Mandelo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: climate fiction, science fiction
Pages: 105
Published by Tordotcom on March 14, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Lee Mandelo dives into the minds of wolves in Feed Them Silence, a novella of the near future.What does it mean to "be-in-kind" with a nonhuman animal? Or in Dr. Sean Kell-Luddon’s case, to be in-kind with one of the last remaining wild wolves? Using a neurological interface to translate her animal subject’s perception through her own mind, Sean intends to chase both her scientific curiosity and her secret, lifelong desire to experience the intimacy and freedom of wolfishness. To see the world through animal eyes; smell the forest, thick with olfactory messages; even taste the blood and viscera of a fresh kill. And, above all, to feel the belonging of the pack.
Sean’s tireless research gives her a chance to fulfill that dream, but pursuing it has a terrible cost. Her obsession with work endangers her fraying relationship with her wife. Her research methods threaten her mind and body. And the attention of her VC funders could destroy her subject, the beautiful wild wolf whose mental world she’s invading.

My Review:

Considering that it’s recommended that doctors not treat themselves or their loved ones because they lose their objectivity, while lawyers are told that any who represent themselves have a fool for a client, then what should be said about scientific researchers who go into their supposedly objective study fully intending to use themselves as one of their subjects? There was that strange case regarding Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde…

Not that Dr. Sean Kell-Luddon actually becomes a monster – or even turns into the wolf her experiment intentionally bonds her with. And not that, occasionally, her wife doesn’t think that Sean’s being more than a bit of a monster to her.

When Sean manages to tear herself away from her research to be physically, intellectually and emotionally present in their marriage. The one that’s falling apart around her. Just as it turns out, she is.

The year is 2031, and between climate change, coastal erosion and habitat encroachment, species are going extinct at an alarming rate. To the point where, for entirely too many species, it’s a tide that can no longer be turned – merely documented.

That’s particularly true for the charismatic megafauna, not just the really big animals like elephants and lions, but species much, much closer to home, like the gray wolves of Minnesota and neighboring states. Today.

Sean and her research team have submitted a controversial proposal to enmesh the brain of a member of one of the few surviving wolf packs in Minnesota with the brain of one of the scientists on her team. From Sean’s honest perspective, the one that she does her damndest never to display to her academic colleagues, this entire project is a dressed-up, scientific gobbledygook-filled last chance for her to live out one of her childhood dreams – to run with the wolves – before its too late.

For the wolves, that is. And, quite possibly, for Sean herself.

However, just as her research was proposed with ulterior motives on Sean’s part, the cutting-edge technology company that has chosen to fund it AND to provide the equipment that will make it possible, has a hidden agenda of their own.

An agenda that puts both Sean, and her wolf, in crosshairs that neither of them knew existed.

Escape Rating A-: I admit it, I had a bail and flail this week because yesterday’s book just wasn’t working and I didn’t get out early enough. But that cloud absolutely had a silver lining, because I bounced straight into this book and it was terrific.

To the point that I’m wondering what took me so long, but I’m quite happy to have gotten here in the end – even if this is a far from happy story. Which is exactly the way it should be, because species extinction is tragic, the fate of the wolves and other wildlife species is awful and Sean’s marriage isn’t doing well either.

But that’s what happens when one partner eats, sleeps and breathes their work to the point of obsession. Sean is entirely too realistic in that regard – as is the fate of the wolves and the corporate greed that condemns Sean’s one and only chance at fulfilling her lifelong dream.

Feed Them Silence had me hooked from the first time Sean interfaced with her wolf, Kate, through a machine that was intended to give her an inside track on the wolf’s thoughts and feelings, even if it unintentionally did quite a bit more on both sides.

The process of becoming one with her wolf sounded exactly like the process portrayed in the Assassin’s Creed game series that allows someone to live through the day to day memories of one of their ancestors at a pivotal point in history. But the result, that Sean sees and experiences Kate’s world through Kate’s eyes and mind and heart and memory, felt even more like the mammoth experiment in the awesome – and awesomely bittersweet – The Tusks of Extinction by Ray Nayler. That the experiments in the two books are markedly different in design and purpose doesn’t stop them from being more in dialog with each other than expected – because the experiments have become necessary for the same set of all-too-real reasons of climate change, habitat shrinkage, and humans so greedy they are willing to ignore the laws designed to protect the animals they are hunting for sport.

So the entry points for this story literally pulled me in, as I adored The Tusks of Extinction and the Assassin’s Creed series makes GREAT television – meaning that I get to watch the action while someone else plays.

But what really made this story work for me was how plausibly its science fiction encompassed so very much of the real world. Not just the present and predictable future of species elimination, but also the grind of academia, the damage that one partner’s obsessive hyper-focus on work can do to ANY relationship, the way that the entire world feels like that mythical frog in the pan of heating water – and then the complete immersion and identification of Sean’s identity with that of her wolf.

We see it all happening and are with her as she can’t help herself and we understand exactly why – even as the rest of her world falls apart. And it’s awesome and captivating and heartbreaking every step of the way.

Especially because even though the exact story isn’t happening right now – it really is.

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
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

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.