Monday, May 27, 2019

Atlas Alone by Emma Newman: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Atlas Alone by Emma Newman

Atlas Alone is the fourth book in Emma Newman’s brilliant Planetfall sci-fi series. So far, each book has been a stand-alone, set in different places with different protagonists. But Atlas Alone leans heavily on the second book, After Atlas, with its world-building and characters.

After Atlas introduced a near-future earth where democracy doesn’t exist anymore and everything is owned by corporations, land, air, and people included. Some people are indentured to corporations, sold for their skills or to human experiments. Everyone is chipped with a personal AI that is both a blessing and a curse. The book ended with the protagonist, Carlos Moreno, an indentured detective conditioned to never leave a puzzle unsolved, securing a place for him and his friend Dee on Atlas 2, a space-ship leaving the earth to a distant planet introduced in the first book, Planetfall. As they leave, they witness something that has a direct impact to this fourth book.

Planetfall by Emma Newman

In Atlas Alone, the point of view protagonist is Dee. She came across as a sulky teenager in After Atlas, but she turned out to be in her early forties. That doesn’t mean much, as people can genetically modify themselves and live for at least a couple of hundred years. Which is good, considering that the journey Atlas 2 is on will take twenty years. Dee is a data analyst who has spent her adult life as a debt slave conditioned in what is called hot-houses to toe the corporate line of whichever business owns her. Her life hasn’t been easy, and she has serious trust and emotional issues.

The book starts six months after the end of After Atlas. Dee and Carl have trouble adjusting to the life on Atlas 2, mostly because of what they witnessed as they left the earth. A chance job offer allows Dee to begin a serious investigation to what happened, who is in charge of Atlas 2 and what is its mission. This she does by becoming a member of an elite gaming community, with the help of a mysterious benefactor that has the ability to override her AI chip. The games turn out to be oddly personal for Dee, as they all have to do with her past and the tragedies that have shaped her. But she is strong and unemotional, and has had decades of practice in locking her past away. The games don’t change who she is, even when her mysterious benefactor tries to probe into her issues with her past—or especially because of it.

After Atlas by Emma Newman

What Dee learns in the games is that the ship is run by fundamentalist Christians who are prepared to kill millions of people and enslave the rest. She becomes convinced that the only way to bring them to justice is to kill them. First she does this within the immersive games, but somehow the deaths happen in real life too. And then it’s time for her to ditch the games and kill the rest of the bad guys in real life.

Planetfall books are brilliantly composed to look like sci-fi mysteries, but each book is actually a journey to the mind and psychopathology of the protagonist. Each time, it’s done so subtly that the reader is convinced to the end that the story will turn out to be fairly conventional. In Atlas Alone, even as the last chapter began, I thought I knew how everything would turn out. I was wrong.

It’s impossible to talk about the stunt the author pulls at the very end without spoiling everything. It might seem like a wrong way to finish the book, but it actually makes the reader re-evaluate the entire story and realise what it’s been about all along. I found it a perfect and just ending for Dee.

It takes great skill to dupe the reader to such extent and still make them appreciate the ending. Here it’s done brilliantly. Nonetheless, I only gave the book four stars. Some of it is for my disappointment that a book set on a space-ship mostly ignores the ship in favour of immersive games that take Dee back to earth. Also, the gaming sections were slightly boring and even knowing their worth in hindsight didn’t change that. But I don’t think the author is done with the series, and I’m absolutely looking forward to reading anything she sets in her Planetfall world.

Monday, May 20, 2019

By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis

Last week, I reviewed the first Signal Airship book, The Guns Above, which I absolutely loved. The second book, By Fire Above, begins right where the first book ends, from the very same scene even. The last battle has left Mistral badly damaged and in need of urgent repairs. But the war has been brutal and spare parts aren’t easily available. There’s no fast return for Mistral and her crew to the war, much to Captain Josette Dupre’s chagrin.

Mistral is sent to the capital of the kingdom for the winter, both for repairs and to rouse the interest of the people for the continuous and distant war. For the first half of the book, the story slows down considerably from the constant action of the first book. The most exciting event is a bad storm, which damages Mistral again and badly injures Bernat. Josette and Bernat end up spending the winter at the King’s court, the latter trying to guide the first through the minefield that is the court politics. His task would be easier, though, if his older brother Roland wasn’t trying to court Josette at the same time. She’s not uninterested, but as she is practically unable to express finer emotions, the courtship is pretty one-sided.

In the end, Josette gets what she wants: an order to go and liberate her home town Durum from the Vin occupation. However, as she manages to aggravate the aristocrats in the process, the price is going out with a barely repaired ship and no proper flying gas. Bernat gets what he wants too, sort of: Roland is left behind, and he has a chance to free Josette’s mother Elise, with whom he has fallen in love, much to Josette’s annoyance.

The second half of the book is constant action, but there are no air battles like in the first book. Instead, Josette and Bernat sneak into Durum to rouse the townspeople to rebel against the occupying force. It’s not easy, as they are no proper soldiers and barely any weapons. Josette, resourceful as ever, devices a plan that works perfectly up until everything goes wrong, starting with Mistral being a no-show as an air support. She and Bernat almost get killed several times during the brutal battle, which, like in the first book, spares no one and is described fairly vividly.

On Mistral, we follow Ensign Kemper from the first book. She’s having trouble with the new first officer left in charge of Mistral in Josette’s absence, because he’s both incompetent and incapable of working with a woman. He takes Mistral on an airship hunt against Josette’s orders, inciting a mutiny on board, which puts Kemper in a difficult position that has no easy solutions. She turned out to be an interesting character and I hope we’ll see more of her in coming books.

All in all, the second book was very different from the first. Whereas the first was all about air battles and technical manoeuvres, the second was more about the characters, their emotions and backstories. Josette especially was put through the wringer with her mother. However, she remained a fairly unemotional character, so it was left to Bernat to express all the emotions we don’t get from Josette. Of the two, the still-foppish aristocrat is by far the more emotional. It’s therefore a bit of a puzzle why he sees himself as a black-hearted monster—and why Josette agrees with him.

The friendship between the two doesn’t really evolve during the book. They’ve reached a point where they understand each other perfectly, faults and all. They continue to work well together, though the book saw Bernat manage some action on his own too, without Josette constantly saving him. They express their understanding of each other’s characters at the end of the book with their customary snark that gave the reader to understand that they know they’ve become each other’s most important persons. I really hope there’s going to be more books, because it would be shame not to follow the pair to new adventures.

The second book was slightly less exciting than the first, hence only four stars—though it could be because it didn’t blow my mind like the first. But while the first half was a bit slow, the second half more than made up for it. The writing style was excellent, sparse and to the point, and kept the story going even when nothing much seemed to happen. I’m truly looking forward to reading more Signal Airship books.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis
Every now and then, a random book recommendation I come across on Twitter turns out to be a gem. Last week, I was made aware of The Guns Above, Signal Airship 1, by Robyn Bennis. I liked the sparse description, read the sample chapters, and when they ended, absolutely had to know more. So I purchased the book and continued reading. And pretty much read it as fast as I could.

The Guns Above is steampunk fantasy set in imaginary Garnia, a country in a constant state of war with its neighbours. The reasons are never made clear; it’s just something that has always been done. It’s a pre or pseudo-industrialised world where steam powers factories and airships, but everything else mostly resembles 19th century Europe, down to its hierarchies.

Military is the only place where women get to show their worth, and that only because the country is running out of men to enlist. It’s still not easy for them, and they’ve been given proper commanding positions only a few years previously. Except on airships.

The book begins with the aftermath of a battle. Josette Dupre wakes up among dead bodies with no proper recollection of how the battle has gone, but she’s soon told she was the hero of it, who single-handedly turned the tides for Garnia. As a reward—though reluctantly and only because of the pressure from the newspapers—she’s given an airship of her own to command, an experimental new model, Mistral. She knows it’s just to get rid of her, but she takes it anyway. She’s accompanied on the maiden voyage by Lord Bernat, the nephew of the most important general, who’s been sent there to spy on her and to make her look bad, to discredit her in the press.

Despite the premise, the book is a fairly straightforward military fantasy. The maiden voyage turns into a series of battles, as Mistral and its crew encounter the enemy where they shouldn’t be. The battles are vividly and brutally described, and lengthy, but never boring, even if I couldn’t always keep up with the terminology. And everything ends in one final battle where Mistral gets to show what it’s really made of.

Underneath all the warfare, there is a story of two people, Josette and Bernat. It’s not terribly heavy on emotions. We never learn much about their pasts or motivations, like why she’s in the army or why she hates her mother, or what Bernat’s been doing with his life before being tricked into the army, apart from gambling. But the snippets we get are enough to give us a notion of who they are.

Their relationship carries the book. It’s not a love story, and it’s not even a proper friendship. But the encounters between the two, often subtle, and the bantering, made me really like the two and hope they would become friends after all. Bernat tries his best to fulfil his mission, but having been thrown into all those battles, he grows as a person and begins to admire Josette instead. For her part, Josette doesn’t really change as a character. Her journey is more external, growing into her role as the first woman captain of an airship. She’s tough and unyielding to begin with and those characteristics are only strengthened during the book. But in the end, they sort of come to realise that they work well together. And I found it so compelling, I immediately purchased the next book too.

Monday, May 06, 2019

The True Queen by Zen Cho: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The True Queen by Zen Cho

The True Queen is the second book in Cho’s charming Sorcerer Royal series that began with the Sorcerer to the Crown. It’s a fantasy set in Regency England, though the only clear reference to the period is the war with Napoleon. Magicians are integral part of that war, but magic has been dwindling because the Queen of Fairies has closed the border to her dominion where it stems from. Practicing magic is only allowed to men, the background against which the author reflects the customs and mores of the period. The first book ended with a woman seizing the highest post available for magicians, and becoming Sorceress Royal.

The second book is set a couple of years later, and starts with a completely different premise. It might seem like an odd choice after a successful first book, but it works perfectly well. Two girls wake up on a beach somewhere in Southeast Asia—likely Malaysia, as that’s where the author is from—with no memory of who they are other than their names, Muna and Sakti. Sakti has magic, Muna has not. Their attempt to solve the mystery of who they are leads to England and the Sorceress Royal, but during their trip through the fairyland, Sakti disappears, leaving Muna no choice but to try to solve the mystery alone.

This is Muna’s book. There are many other point of view characters as well, but it’s her story that matters. On her arrival to England, she is mistaken for the sister with magic, and treated accordingly. As the society only frowns at English women using magic, she doesn’t have to hide her skills unlike the women at Sorceress Royal’s new academy. However, as Muna has no magic, she’s forced to fake her way through the society. She forges her way into fairyland too, to save her sister. But somewhere along the way, she begins to suspect that things aren’t what they seem with her and Sakti. The revelations aren’t as huge for the reader though, as they’ve been made pretty obvious from the beginning.

The second book doesn’t deal as much with the unfairness of the English society to women as the first did. It concentrates on the women at The Lady Maria Wythe Academy for the Instruction of Females in Practical Thaumaturgy, and their friendships. Prunilla, the Sorceress Royal, is a side character, and instead the focus is on Henrietta, her best friend. She forms a friendship with Muna, which on her part warms to romantic love towards the end. It’s hinted at earlier in the story, but it’s never made a clear mention of, and Muna’s fate in the story is such, that Henrietta’s love goes unrequited. The second book, therefore, doesn’t have a similar charming romance as the first with Zachary and Prunilla as main characters. I missed it a little, but the book was full without it too.

The charm of the book isn’t in romance. It’s in the language that’s straight from Jane Austen by way of Georgette Heyer. Many have tried to emulate the style, but few have succeeded. Here, it happens effortlessly and beautifully. There’s nothing stuffy about it, and there are no anachronisms or jarring wrong tones marring the delightful language. The narrative tends towards omniscient, so even though there are dedicated point of view chapters, the narrator often shifts to another character during the chapters. But even that works fairly well.

In a book this good, there aren’t many flaws. My only negative note concerns Muna and how well she settled into English society. She’s been a servant in a paradise island, but nothing about the English society strikes her as odd. She doesn’t associate with the servants but assumes her role as a guest easily, she doesn’t comment on other things than the cold weather, and she takes to wearing English dresses easily. Not even the corset gets a mention. But it’s a minor detail and doesn’t take anything from my enjoyment of the book. I’m definitely looking forward to reading the next book in the series.

City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab

I also read City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab, one of my favourite authors. This is a smaller book aimed at middle grade readers about Cassidy who can see ghosts. She travels to Edinburgh with her family and ghost friend Jacob, and discovers that an old town has much more ghosts than her small town. And not all of them are benign.

The book started a bit slowly and I’m not sure it can keep the interest of a pre-teen reader well. Even I struggled to continue. But once the story gets properly under way, there’s action to the end. It was well written and spooky enough for an easily-scared adult. There’s a TV series being prepared based on the book, where the character has been changed to a university student; a pity really, as there are no good paranormal series for younger audience.

The other books I tried to read this month were both misses, though I was slow to admit it. It took Cho’s book with its excellence in storytelling to make me realise that the books really weren’t any good. They’ll end up in the not finished pile, never to be spoken again.