Insurgent by Veronica Roth
Insurgent by Veronica Roth is the second in the Divergent trilogy. I have to admit that somewhere between pre-ordering it and it actually being released (in May), I became somewhat jaded about the worldbuilding in Divergent, the first book. That’s why I put off reading Insurgent for so long.
The background from Divergent is that humanity collectively decided it was sick of conflict and split itself up into factions based on which characteristic they thought was most to blame for conflict. Those blaming cowardice formed the Dauntless factions, those blaming selfishness joined Abnegation, those blaming war joined Amity, those blaming lies joined Candour, and those blaming ignorance joined Erudite. At sixteen, in this world, kids have to choose their lifelong faction: either the one they were born into or one for which they have a greater aptitude/affinity for. Those who have an aptitude for multiple factions are called Divergent (hence the title of the first book) and are generally feared and persecuted. The origin of the factions baffled me in book one, especially after the excitement of reading the action had worn off.
The main character, Tris, is Divergent. In Insurgent, she and her fellows are left running for their lives thanks to the events at the end of book 1. As far as dystopian YA goes, the conflict which signals the overthrowing of the society isn’t instigated by the main characters or their allies, but by the bad guys, breaking formula slightly. Of course Tris and friends do end up playing a key role or there wouldn’t be as much story.
Tris’s emotional journey in Insurgent involved a lot of turbulence. Her sense of self-preservation isn’t especially high and this becomes even more important in Insurgent. I think Roth does a good job showing that Tris has multiple aptitudes but her characterisation of the other characters, particularly the non-divergent ones, felt a bit simplistic. In showing how they had one and only one faction aptitude, there were some instances where they felt oversimplified: from the Erudite who only did “logical” things to the Dauntless who were literally incapable of thinking things through, even when prompted to.
MINOR SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH
My biggest peeve — which shouldn’t come as a surprise to those of you who know me — was the vilification of intellectualism (by the main characters, not by the narrative overall, which is some salvation). Although there were some consequences for the gun-ho destruction of information and facilities (“no, I can’t fix that injury because you burnt down the hospital”), and part of Tris’s mission involved retrieving a particular piece of information before it was destroyed. However, I didn’t really feel that made up for it since the focus was on specific information not being censored, rather than general knowledge being useful. There’s enough general societal distrust of intelligence that books which fuel it even a little bit bother me. (As does the evil scientist trope, but for slightly different reasons.)
Anyway, Insurgent was full of action and kept me interested all the way through. I found Tris a bit annoying at times but that was mostly because I didn’t empathise with her lack of self-preservation. I have to admit I was disappointed with the big reveal at the end because, not only did I guess what it was early on, but my guessed back-story for it turned out to be more complicated than Roth’s. I had hoped it would strengthen the plausibility of the worldbuilding much more than it did. Roth’s writing is strong and much as I might not have agreed with them, I did find Tris’s emotions and choices plausible. I will definitely be reading the sequel, however I don’t think I’ll be pre-ordering this time.
4 / 5 stars
And All The Stars by Andrea K Höst
And All the Stars is the first novel I’ve read by Andrea K Höst, self-published Australian author. I usually only self-published books by authors previously known to me — there are so many books out there, one has to filter somehow. However, Höst caught my eye because I remembered her being the first self-published author to be shortlisted for an Aurealis Award (last year, for the 2010 award). The shortlisting is a pretty good indication that her writing doesn’t suck. Add that to science fiction element and I was sold. My copy of And All the Stars was provided by the author through Netgalley.
The novel opens with an apocalyptic alien invasion. Spires, piercing the ground, appear in many large cities around the world, including Sydney where our protagonist, Madeline, lives. Madeline survives the impact of the spire piercing the train station she was just leaving only to be infected by the mysterious alien dust the spires belched out. The dust gives her, and those others who survive the infection, blue (or green) patches of skin and some super powers. Then the invasion begins in earnest.
When I first read the blurb I wondered whether it might bear some resemblance to The Orphans Trilogy by Sean Williams and Shane Dix because of the spires, but it didn’t even a little bit. If anything it was more like Tomorrow When the War Began but with aliens and Sydney instead of foreigners and a small country town. Particularly with the teenagers versus the invaders theme.
Madeline starts off coping with the invasion alone, but that doesn’t last long. She soon meets Noi, an apprentice chef, and they quickly team up with some boys from a boarding school who’d had the presence of mind to get organised after people got sick and started dying from the dust.
There is a lot to like about And All the Stars. The writing is strong and tight, the characters are delightfully varied, including a diversity of cultures and sexualities representative of modern Australia. I particularly liked the part where Höst took into account that many boarding school kids would be rich international students since the rich local students don’t need to board. It has a realistic (read: slightly embarrassing) first-time sex scene, something which is often avoided in YA or over-idealised if it isn’t. Although the science fictional element surrounding the aliens is on the soft side (their powers might as well be magic, although fields and electricity are mentioned), the methodology of the characters in working out how all the new stuff works is rigorously scientific.
The aliens were alien. Not little green men, but something more strange and other. Their actions were mysterious at first but, by the end when their motivations were known, they weren’t so baffling as to be completely incomprehensible.
The setting — modern Sydney — also reflects real modern technology. A bunch of people die when the aliens come, but the survivors tweet information to each other and use youtube to share videos of useful things. Some TV news services keep going and the electricity stays on. Just because an apocalypse is in progress, doesn’t mean that society collapses immediately. It takes time for our infrastructure to run out of resources or break down. It was nice to see aliens not arbitrarily disable everything for flimsy reasons.
I was concerned while I was reading that this would be the first book in a trilogy or series but it was entirely self contained. Which was a relief not because I wanted it to be over, but because I’m sick of stories needlessly drawn out into trilogies.
And All the Stars was a solidly good YA book. I recommend it to science fiction readers as well as fans of YA. I’ll definitely some of the author’s other books to my mental TBR pile.
5 / 5 stars
Coyote by Rhonda Roberts
Coyote by Rhonda Roberts is the third book in her Timestalker series. However, as with the earlier books it stands alone as a complete story and contains minimal spoilers for the earlier books (pretty much just back-story and love interests, I think). If you’re interested, you can read my review of Hoodwink, the previous book, here.
Kannon Dupree is a private investigator with access to a time portal. She specialises in very cold cases. In Coyote she goes back to the wild west to investigate a massacre on behalf of the survivor/hero’s descendent. More specifically, she’s charged with finding the hero’s diary as proof of what really happened. Of course, nothing is as simple as it seems or there wouldn’t be much of a story.
I enjoyed this novel a lot and had fun reading it. Although the historical events and the places at the centre of the story in the Wild West are made up (other than the obviously real cities of San Francisco and Santa Fe), Roberts has obviously done her research. She includes a lot of interesting historical facts and details many of which were new to me, someone who hasn’t read or seen many westerns.
I really like Kannon as a character. She kicks arse, although there is less of that in Coyote than in the earlier books, and her character development progresses nicely in Coyote. I wasn’t a big fan of her love interest though, carried over from Hoodwink. He kept trying to protect and rescue Kannon, two things she is rarely in need of. It was frustrating for her and I completely empathised with her. Honestly, I was rooting for them to break up. Although, I should point out, not because he’s a poorly written or boring character, more because his actions were annoying to both me and Kannon (except she also has feelings for him).
I am very much looking forward to reading the next book in this series. Each book has stood more or less alone and each has introduced a new weird thing (of the fantasy-ish variety) happening in relation to the past. So far they seem unrelated to each other but I’m wondering if at some point it’ll come together. Or perhaps it will just be a series of strange events that follow Kannon around and which make the Timestalker series difficult to categorise as fantasy (techy time travel) or science fiction (weird stuff).
I highly recommend this series if you enjoy strong (in both connotations of the phrase) heroines and varied story lines. Coyote doesn’t disappoint.
4.5 / 5 stars
Courting Trouble by Jenny Schwartz
Courting Trouble is the second Aussie steampunk novella in Jenny Schwartz’s Bustlepunk chronicles. I reviewed the first book, Wanted: One Scoundrel at the start of the year. A copy of this novella was provided for review from the publisher, which was nice because it meant I got to read it a bit sooner. You should be able to buy it from Carina Press from the day this review goes live, October 1.
Although Courting Trouble is definitely a sequel to Wanted: One Scoundrel, I think it will also stand alone fairly well. None of the plot, beyond the fact that the two main characters met in book 1, depends on earlier plot points.
Esme is a suffragette in
Perth the Swan River colony, 1895. Book 1 introduced her love interest, the Californian Jed, who is still courting her now. Or trying to work out how to court a suffragette without making her angry. Their interactions amused me, especially Jed’s attempts at courting. He’s not very good at doing so at the start without reducing Esme to a damsel in distress and I completely shared Esme’s anger at some of his antics.
Part of Schwartz’s alternate universe is the introduction of Bombaytown in the Swan River colony. Much like Chinatown, but Indian, it plays a central role in Courting Trouble when Gupta, the teenager Jed saved in book 1, comes to Jed and Esme for help. Of course, this leads to the central dastardly plot and direction of action. In the end, the bad guy seemed to me to be as much a victim of colonialism/the British Raj as of his own crazies, something I didn’t think was quite addressed as much as it could’ve been.
All in all, Courting Trouble was a great fun read and I was a bit disappointed when it was over so soon. I certainly wouldn’t object to reading a novel-length story set in the same world. From Wanted: One Scoundrel to Courting Trouble, I feel Schwartz’s writing has improved, becoming tighter. The steampunk elements which originally drew me to the series are still crucial to the plot, though perhaps less prominent (or less silly?) than in Wanted.
I definitely recommend Courting Trouble to anyone who’s read and liked Wanted: One Scoundrel or to anyone interested steampunk, particularly those looking for a different setting. (Also, if anyone knows of any other Australian-flavoured steampunk books, please let me know; I’d love to read them.)
4.5 / 5 stars
Blackout by Mira Grant
This review contains spoilers for the ending of Deadline. If you haven’t read the first two books, I suggest reading the review for Feed and then reading the book yourself. The series is definitely worth reading.
vN by Madeline Ashby
vN is Madeline Ashby’s début novel, recently released by Angry Robot Books. A copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher via Netgalley for review purposes.
vN is set in a near future world where humanoid robots exist and have become complex enough that in some respects they are difficult to distinguish from humans. They are also able to reproduce autonomously, given sufficient food, hence the designator vN — von Neumann machine.
The back story of vN is quite interesting. They weren’t created as some sort of science or engineering experiment, but by a church that expected the rapture. The idea was, when all the good people transcended, the people left on (hell on) Earth would need someone to look after them. Enter vN. For this reason, vN were built with a fail-safe that causes them pain or malfunction if they witness a human being suffering or in pain, particularly in a violent way.
This ideas explored as a result of this are fascinating. vN have some semblance of free will, except for where interaction with humans is involved. They find themselves drawn to wanting to make humans happy, even if the humans treat them badly, the vN just can’t help themselves. Also, fair warning, some people want to have vN around for less than wholesome reasons. Paedophilia, while not central to the story, comes up a couple of times in passing.
The story is told from Amy’s point of view, a vN, and in my opinion Ashby had no trouble conveying Amy’s humanity even while she was dealing with vN aspects of her nature. Amy’s mother, the vN she looks identical to, decided to marry (albeit not legally) a human man. The opening prologue is told from Amy’s dad’s point of view while Amy is still about five years old and the size of a human five-year-old (vN grow according to how much they’re fed until they reach adulthood, then the extra food goes towards iterating a child). Amy’s kindergarten graduation ceremony is interrupted by her psychotic grandmother attacking her mother. In defence of her mother, Amy eats her grandmother and ends up with her as a partition in her memory banks (talking to her and telling her to kill people).
In the course of events, Amy finds herself on the run from the authorities and teams up with another vN, Javier. Amy, who was coddled by her loving parents, finds herself suddenly a grown up (eating her grandmother gave her a growth spurt) and forced to deal with the harsh realities of the world. The story follows her and Javier’s misadventures as they attempt to stay alive and free.
I found vN to be an interesting and fresh take on robots. Although on the surface the fail-safe might sound similar to Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, the way it’s explored and the consequences we’re shown are quite different and significantly grittier than anything Asimov ever wrote. I definitely recommend this read for science fiction fans. I would also recommend it to most fantasy fans as it’s fairly low on technobabble and it’s character-driven as well as idea-driven. And anyway, the robots are advanced enough that they’re practically magic.
4 / 5 stars
Hal Junior: The Missing Case by Simon Haynes
Hal Junior: The Missing Case by Simon Haynes is the second of his Hal Junior books, although they stand alone and reading order isn’t important. The Hal Junior series is itself a spin-off of Haynes Hal Spacejock novels for adults.
Hal Junior is a kid growing up on a space station who is particularly adept at getting himself into trouble and causing havoc. In The Missing Case, he is given the important task of entertaining and looking after a VIP visitor’s son Alex. Except that it turns out Alex isn’t the VIP’s son, but his daughter, much to Hal’s dismay. Alex is also entrusted with looking after her father’s very important (and titular) briefcase. Shenanigans ensue.
Since I started reading the Hal Junior books, I’ve been very curious as to how they fit into the larger Hal Spacejock universe. Initially I thought Hal Junior was going to be about Spacejock’s childhood, but this is obviously not the case once you start reading. There was a hint at the end of The Missing Case which suggests that maybe we’ll find out more soon, hopefully in Hal Junior 3 (which I think isn’t that far off).
The Missing Case is a quick fun read and good for a few laughs. I would also recommend it to kids (I believe the US category is called “middle-grade”, but in Australia I’ve only seen it called “for younger readers”) who enjoy space adventures or reading about general mischief-making.
4 / 5 stars
The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
The Long Earth is a collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did. My favourite Pratchett books are hands down some of the Discworld novels. My experience with an armful of Baxter books is that he tends to over write this science and tends to reuse similar characters. So I wasn’t sure what to expect. Mainly I was hoping for Pratchetty characters and an interesting story.
That’s pretty much what I got, but better. The whole novel flowed well so there was never any obvious breaks between writers (as one would hope) and front cover notwithstanding, the overall feel seemed more Pratchetty to me. I read in an interview somewhere that the idea of the Long Earth — a series of parallel worlds which followed different biological and cosmic evolutionary tracks to the world we know — was Pratchett’s idea from way back, but he didn’t feel he could do justice to it by himself. Perhaps this is why it feels like a Pratchetty world, although some of the ideas (of odd things encountered) seemed Baxtery.
The story follows a few characters with varying degrees of depth. There is Joshua, a natural stepper (between worlds) who was there, so to speak, on the day when the children of the world downloaded instructions to build their own stepping devices and suddenly disappeared. He is the most central character and, later on, we follow him and a Tibetan reincarnated as a computer across millions of Earths.
We also see many cameos of other characters, some only once, some reappearing several times. All of them play crucial parts in the unfolding of the Long Earth. I mention this because one of the characters on the blurb isn’t a very prominent character, so I thought it odd that he was included. I suspect it would have been a difficult book to write a blurb for.
Overall, The Long Earth is more philosophical than plot-driven, although there are some save-the-day type moments. That said, there was never a dull moment and a lot of the ideas explored were fascinating and, in my opinion, dwelt upon for just the right amount of time. The end, when it came was a little bit sudden but upon reflection I’ve decided I like it. They leave it open so that there could be more books (I don’t expect any, but the back cover of my copy says it’s the first book in an exciting new collaboration… so I don’t know. I’d read it, but I’m more keen for as many Discworld books as possible) but nothing is left hanging, except for, y’know,
the fate of all the worlds exactly what happens next.
I would recommend The Long Earth to anyone who enjoys science fiction or fantasy that is thoughtful, character-driven (especially if you count the Long Earth as a character) and immensely interesting.
4.5 / 5 stars
The Radiant Seas by Catherine Asaro
The Radiant Seas by Catherine Asaro is the second book I’ve read in the Skolian Empire saga (which actually has three empires in it with the two main ones having different names so it gets confusing but that’s the term I’m going to stick with). The other book that I’ve read was Primary Inversion which, chronologically, immediately precedes The Radiant Seas. For this review to make sense, I’m going to have to include a spoiler for the end of Primary Inversion, but I’ll put in a warning when I get to that.
Asaro’s universe contains three interstellar empires:
- The Skolians whose ruling family are powerful telepaths and who can communicate instantaneously through a telepathic web that three of the imperial family hold in place with their minds (and to do so they have to be the most powerful type of telepaths, a condition that involves recessive genes and can’t be genetically engineered.
- The Eubians who are ruled by the irredeemably evil (and genetically specific) class of Aristos. Evil because they literally gain transcendent pleasure from being in proximity to the suffering of telepaths. Their mission in life is generally to acquire as many telepathic slaves as they can, the more powerful the better (and, incidentally, they don’t see anyone else as fully human, especially the telepaths but including ordinary humans).
- And then there’s the Earth and Allied Worlds who try to stay out of the never ending conflicts between the other two empires and don’t entirely believe how horrible the Eubians are with their slavery and torture.
The main characters are mostly Skolian and the antagonists are all Eubian although they’re not all as automatically evil as it might seem (but most are) and do have proper motivations for what they do, always an important trait in bad guys. The story in The Radiant Seas picks up exactly where Primary Inversion left off and spans many (17ish) years.
Before I get to the spoilers, a few words on the science because I can’t review an SF book without commenting on that. Asaro’s science, real and made up, is pretty good and (most importantly ;-p ) didn’t annoy me. It was a good mix between made up stuff (the telepathy) told from a scientific point of view and fairly hard semi-plausible science like the propulsion systems. Asaro actually has a PhD in
physical chemistry theoretical atomic and molecular physics so much of the quantum and relativity stuff is plausible. She even published a paper about the theory behind her faster than light travel system. In short, nothing to complain about here.
And to be able to talk about the plot, I have to mention a spoiler for the end of Primary Inversion…
SPOILER WARNING FOR PRIMARY INVERSION
WARNING OF SPOILERS
YOU HAVE BEEN SPOILER-WARNED FOR PRIMARY INVERSION (NOT RADIANT SEAS)
At the end of Primary Inversion, Soz, next in line to be the Imperator (Skolian), and Jabriol II, heir to the Imperial throne (Eubian), fall in love when Soz discovers Jabriol isn’t in fact an Aristo but part of a secret genetic experiment to breed telepathy into the imperial line. Rather than feeding on telepaths, he is the most powerful type of telepath himself (as is Soz). Since peace between their empires is inherently impossible while there are still Aristos running around, they ran off to a deserted planet together. The Radiant Seas picks up when they’re busy making copious babies while their families mourn them, then get on with waging war against each other.
Because the story spans so many years, it really felt like the first half was setting up the events of the second half. There were some action scenes in the first half and the story definitely progressed, but there were moments when it felt like it was dragging. In the second half, Soz and Jabriol (and their kids) rejoin civilisation and their respective empires, the story really picks up. Soz trying to rescue Jabriol was much more exciting than them making babies while their families fought.
Aside from the few boring bits (which weren’t enough to ruin anything, in my opinion), I quite enjoyed this novel. I mostly liked Soz because she kicks arse but I did find the whole running away from imperial duties thing a bit selfish. However, it was also nice to see an alternative narrative where duty isn’t held up as the most important thing and the character chooses family. (I still think they should’ve hung around to fix things up more first…)
Overall, I would recommend this book to people who enjoy science fiction with epic world-spanning empires, lots of political intrigue and long range plots. I definitely suggest reading Primary Inversion before The Radiant Seas, however, since a lot of world building and, more importantly, plot set up, takes place in the earlier book.
4 / 5 stars