Tankborn by Karen SandlerShaheen recommended it, and I’m glad I finally got around to it.
Part of the blurb (last paragraph omitted because spoilers — why do publishers do that?):
Best friends Kayla and Mishalla know they will be separated for their Assignments. They are GENs, Genetically Engineered Non-humans, and in their strict caste system, GENs are at the bottom rung of society. GENs are gestated in a tank and sent to work as slaves as soon as they reach age fifteen.
When Kayla is Assigned to care for Zul Manel, the patriarch of a trueborn family, she finds secrets and surprises; not least of which is her unexpected friendship with Zul’s great-grandson. Meanwhile, the children that Mishalla is Assigned to care for are being stolen in the middle of the night.
The most prominent aspect of Tankborn is the rigid class structure that segregates the society. Natural-born humans are ranked from the rich, land-owning high-status trueborns down to the servant class low-borns. Beneath them all are the GENs — genetically engineered people with small amounts of animal DNA included in their make-up giving them extra talents and making them less than human. As one might expect with the main characters being GENs, a lot of the social commentary revolves around non-GENs being varying degrees of horrible to the GEN main characters. However, there’s definitely more to it than that.
For a start, the GENs have a different religion to trueborns. The trueborns follow a religion that is implicitly vaguely Christian (or at least monotheistic and involving worshipping a similar god), while the GEN religion involves worshipping the Infinite, who whispered to the prophets how to create GENs and whose plan for GENs involves servitude. It’s a case of using religion to control the masses, hardly a new idea, but not one that I think I’ve come across in YA. It was done well, even as it unravelled, and Sandler didn’t pull any punches.
She knew it was the Infinite’s will, that a GEN’s trial of servitude was the only way back to His hands.The GEN religion is very much based around keeping GENs in their place. A further example:
But liberation for GENs on Loka [their planet] would violate the Infinite’s laws. It would only be right for GENs to taste true freedom in the palm of the Infinite’s hand.And so forth.
As with any dystopia, we see the fabric of the society start to unravel, partially at the hands of our main characters. Despite this being the first book in a trilogy, I was pleased to see that it’s story was self-contained, hooks for the sequel notwithstanding, as I was half expecting the main action not to be resolved. Since book one merely described the first step in the (standard YA dystopian trend of) dismantling of society, I look forward to reading how it all progresses.
I had only two small peeves with Tankborn. The first is that both the romantic couples liked each other a little too suddenly and their relationships became serious a bit more quickly than I would have expected. I can see why it fit with the plot that way, but it did make me go “Hrm.”
The other thing is the technology. Tankborn is set on a colonised planet with the GENs being invented (for lack of a better word) some time after the colony had been established. (Incidentally, I hope we learn more about the colonisation process in the future books. I am deeply curious and would be disappointed if some form of Conspiracy didn’t surround colonisation.) So it’s a future where interstellar space travel has been perfected. But the technology they were using on the planet — aside from the GENs who had fancy artificial neural networks — consisted mainly of readers similar to iPads and smartphone-style wrist watches. Which isn’t exactly bad per se, but that’s kind of he level of technology we’re at now. It struck me as a bit unimaginative. On the other hand, the Author’s Note did mention that the story originated as a screenplay in the mid-80s, which could account for it.
All in all, Tankborn was a good read. I highly recommend it to fans of dystopias as well as fans of general science fiction. Although it’s marketed as YA, I see no reason for readers of all ages not to enjoy it.
4.5 / 5 stars
First published: 2011, Tu Books
Series: Tankborn, book 1 (of 3?)
Format read: ebook on iPad
Source: US iTunes store (ebook not available outside of US, paper book only available as an import, as far as I can tell)
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Zenn Scarlett by Christian Schoonexoveterinarian — a vet for alien animals (although they do treat Earthly animals too).
Part of the blurb (which, in my opinion, is a bit too long and too detailed but could be worse):
Zenn Scarlett is a bright, determined, occasionally a-little-too-smart-for-her-own-good 17-year-old girl training hard to become an exoveterinarian. That means she’s specializing in the treatment of exotic alien life forms, mostly large and generally dangerous. Her novice year of training at the Ciscan Cloister Exovet Clinic on Mars will find her working with alien patients from whalehounds the size of a hay barn to a baby Kiran Sunkiller, a colossal floating creature that will grow up to carry a whole sky-city on its back.
Zenn lives in a sort of veterinary abbey with her uncle, a nun and a small number of other workers. I wasn’t entirely clear why there was a religious order dedicated to caring for alien life forms, but I hope we’ll learn more about that in the sequel. Most of the other characters, namely the townspeople, where the abbey was set apart from the town, were very irritating. In a good way, from a writing point of view, but in a very “need a good slap in the face for being a bunch of red neck xenophobic hicks” way. A lot of the tension in the novel arose from the townies being afraid of aliens and barely tolerating the abbey’s continuing presence, even when the vets were actively helping them with their own pets and livestock.
In some ways, I felt the story didn’t tackle the issues of xenophobia and tolerance deeply enough. For a start, it wasn’t until a good way into the story that we learnt why there were so many hicks on Mars — it was used as a transportation colony — a point which rather baffled me up until then. To some extent, it boiled down a bit too much to “good guys nice to animals” vs “bad guys hate the good guys” although it did get more complex towards the end.
A lot of things about Zenn Scarlett improved towards the end. I felt the writing grew more readable as we went along, particularly since there were so many flashbacks near the start. I was also gratified that there wasn’t a very long gap between my guessing a plot point and it being revealed in the text. The last quarter or so was full of excitement, albeit the very end, after the main climax, culminated in a very frustrating cliff hanger, however. Frustrating because I could see it coming when there weren’t nearly enough pages to resolve new events. I want to read the sequel cliff hanger or not, but there’s something slightly soul-crushing about the looming inevitability of not having a proper resolution at the end. (I think I prefer the kind of cliff hangers that sneak up on you… or softer ones with less in the balance.)
I feel like I need to comment on the science in Zenn Scarlett, since that’s my thing. I can’t say much about the biology because that’s not my area, but as the blurb suggests, almost all the animals involved were quite giant. If they were on Earth I’d be questioning the biophysical plausibility, but with Mars’s lower gravity, there’s more chance of them being OK. There was one slightly creative physics moment that had be heckling the page, but in the scheme of things, it could have been much worse (it could also have been better justified…).
All in all, Zenn Scarlett was a fun read. I recommend it to fans of YA science fiction. I want to say it’s good for fans of something a little different, but I have to admit there were aspects which reminded me a little of Avatar (the James Cameron movie), more thematically than literally. I’m not sure I’ve read any YA on a similar theme, however. Anyway, fans of aliens and alien creatures in their SF will also enjoy this book, I think. I look forward to reading the sequel.
4 / 5 stars
First published: (early) May 2013, Strange Chemistry (Angry Robot)
Series: Yes. Book 1 of 2?
Format read: eARC on my iThings
Source: the publisher via NetGalley
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Caszandra by Andrea K HöstStray and Lab Rat One — before reading the rest of this review (and ideally, reading the first two books themselves too). The series is about Cass, a Sydney girl, who accidentally falls through a tear in reality onto another planet, meets psychic space ninjas, and discovers that she has some powers of her own.
Caszandra picks up where Lab Rat One left off. Which is good because there was a bit of a relationshippy cliffhanger at the end of the previous book. Cass’s relationship with Ruuel (now called Kaoren, his first name) progresses quite quickly in terms of seriousness, which made me a bit wary at first, but which turned out for the best in terms of story telling, I’ve decided. Another related aspect, which I don’t want to be explicit about because spoilers, also made me a little uncomfortable, bu ultimately I think that was more due to my own dissimilarity to Cass as a person than anything else.
Caszandra continues the overarching plot well established in the earlier books: learning about Cass’s power, fighting monsters and trying to learn about Muina’s past. Muina being the planet Cass was first transported to and which had remained inaccessible to the alien people for a thousand years until she came along. This book ups the danger levels and the stakes. The Setari (psychic space ninjas) and Cass were always trying to protect people but in the lead up to the conclusion, the urgency for definitive world-saving becomes extreme. And, unsurprisingly, Cass continues to almost die in new and exciting ways.
The climax might have lost a smidge of tension due to the diary nature of the narrative — we knew Cass survived because she told us about it all being over before regaling us with the tale. However it was still all very dramatic and didn’t loose any world-saving oomph. The end was satisfying in tying everything up nicely and I think other fans of the series will approve. (And for readers that want more, there’s always the Gratuitous Epilogue, which I admit to skimming and reading the last chapter of.)
I don’t recommend reading Caszandra without reading Stray and Lab Rat One fist. However, I can’t imagine why readers who enjoyed the first two wouldn’t go on to the final volume. I enjoyed this series a lot and I will definitely be reading more of Höst’s books in the future.
4.5 / 5 stars
First published: 2011, self-published
Series: Touchstone, book 3 of three
Format read: ebook on my iThings
Source: Purchased from Smashwords
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge
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The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord
A proud and reserved alien society finds its homeland destroyed in an unprovoked act of aggression, and the survivors have no choice but to reach out to the indigenous humanoids of their adopted world, to whom they are distantly related. They wish to preserve their cherished way of life but come to discover that in order to preserve their culture, they may have to change it forever.Which makes it sound like there’s more action and adventure than there really is. It’s a slow burn type of plot. Told mostly from the point of view of Delarua, a civil servant on Cygnus Beta, the planet some of the refugee Sadiri come to settle on. There are occasional third-person interludes told from the point of view of Dllenahkh, one of the Sadiri, but really it is Delarua’s story. It’s told in a somewhat conversational style, with Delarua speaking to the reader at times.
Now a man and a woman from these two clashing societies must work together to save this vanishing race—and end up uncovering ancient mysteries with far-reaching ramifications. As their mission hangs in the balance, this unlikely team—one cool and cerebral, the other fiery and impulsive—just may find in each other their own destinies … and a force that transcends all.
The Sadiri came to Cygnus Beta to, among other things, repopulate their race, preferably by preserving as much of their genetic make-up as possible. Delarua’s tasked with accompanying them as they visit various settlements around Cygnus Beta to collect genetic information and negotiate the possibility of establishing partnerships. If it wasn’t for the compelling characters, I would have found it a bit boring since plot-wise there’s not much to it. But the characters were very compelling and I found myself laughing out loud at some of their interactions and staying up till three AM to finish reading (mercifully on a Friday night, so it could’ve been worse).
The Sadiri are very reserved as a people, abhorring outward expressions of emotion, which leads to them referring to things as “appropriate” a lot and often forcing Delarua and others to guess what they really mean. There is a wide variety of Sadiri in the story which allowed us to see a scope of reserved personalities rather than just one character bearing the brunt of stereotyping. A non-Sadiri character that’s worth mentioning is Lian, one of the team’s security detail and Delarua’s friend. Lian has chosen to live without a gender and so is never referred to by a gendered pronoun. The couple of times other characters might have learnt Lian’s biological gender, they don’t say, respecting Lian’s privacy. The way Lord handled one of the characters having a crush on Lian and the latter’s complete lack of interest in romance was well done. We never find out Lian’s “real” gender because we are not supposed to and it is not part of the story. Bravo.
When exciting and dramatic things did happen to the characters, they were mostly not dwelt upon very much after the fact. The exciting moment passed and they moved on with their mission. This is the aspect that I disliked most. It’s not that there weren’t any ramifications to various events, but I would have liked to see a bit more made of them, a bit more highlighting of pieces of adventure, I suppose. As is, it read like Delarua was downplaying each bit of excitement, which is entirely in character but made for less exciting (and seemingly slower) reading. A little bit more action would not have hurt.
I liked that the slow pace and grand scope of their travels accurately reflected how big a planet really is. I kept wanting to picture all the towns/settlements they visited as being in one country and then wondering how there was room for so many of them, but I had to keep reminding myself that it was actually an entire planet they were travelling around. I think it’s easy to reduce grand scales (planet-wide governments, multi-planet civilisations) to easily digestible chunks of terms we are more familiar with dealing with, and I commend Lord for avoiding this.
The Best of All Possible Worlds explores a lot of interesting issues. The most obvious is how an ethnic group can retain their identity when their homeland is destroyed — along with a larger percentage of their women (because the men were more likely to be off-world when the disaster happened) — and they are forced to live with and interbreed with other people who don’t necessarily share key characteristics that define them. It also explores, through the team’s visits to various settlements, how time and isolation can lead to the same culture developing along very different paths.
There is also some interesting hard science fictional world-building (as opposed to the social science fictional world-building I’ve already discussed) which came in glimpses until maybe three-quarters of the way through. I found it fascinating and I liked its understated inclusion. Without spoilers, it was the sort of thing another writer
As I said at the start, The Best of All Possible Worlds is quite different to anything else I’ve read. To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer springs to mind as somewhat similar in style but also very different in story and theme and issues. I’d say if you’re interested in a thoughtful exploration of the issues I’ve mentioned above, definitely give The Best of All Possible Worlds a go. If you’re looking for something a bit different from your speculative fiction I also recommend it. If you’re craving action and adventure, then probably give it a miss. I’m definitely interested in reading Lord’s earlier and future novels.
4 / 5 stars
First published: February 2013, Del Rey (Random House) in the US (and Quercus Pan Macmillan Australia with a different cover)
Series: Don’t think so.
Format read: eARC on my iThing
Source: the (US) publisher via NetGalley
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