Version Control is going to be tough to review as I have never felt so conflicted about a book. There were some scenes in Part I that were pure genius. But once I delved into Part II I was forced to reevaluate my first impressions of this book.
Imagine walking into some art gallery and coming across a piece of art that just blows your mind. Later on, when you walk past it again, you actually stop and read the artist’s statement, which consists in the usual meaningless art-speak. And you look back to that work and think “this is so fucking pretentious”. That’s how I feel about Version Control which is all flash and no substance.
Once I finally slogged my way through this 500+ page book I felt cheated. It had so much potential and Dexter Palmer clearly had some great ideas…sadly these were lost in the midst of inconsistent world-building, poor characterisation (the female characters are atrocious), and a surprisingly uninspiring storyline (I mean, how could you manage to make travelling be boring?).
Palmer took every opportunity to satirise every single one of his characters, in what basically amounted to satire for the sake of satire, which, if you ask me, fell flat as it had nothing smart to say. I’m not sure at what point exactly I became aware of it but Palmer clearly loves taking the piss out of millennials. And he does it in a way that brought to mind those segments on Ellen where she makes fun of millennials because they don’t know how to use a typewriter or a rotary phone (quality humor, not).
At first the dialogue in this novel rang true to life. There were tense or awkward pauses, character misunderstanding someone else’s choice of words, conversations could lead to nothing or suddenly escalate into arguments. But then I couldn’t help but to notice how frequently characters would just have these very long monologues in which they ranted about everything and nothing. Which, yeah, some people do go on (I am doing so right now), or end up having longwinded and heated rants…but every-single character? And that’s when I realised that the characters in this novels were like the characters in a film by Woody Allen (they all speak like Woody Allen regardless of their age/gender/personality). And that kind of killed any enjoyment I had left for this book.
The rant-y to of my review reflects the many rants that are in this book.
Even if the premise for Version Control reminded me of What If, a novel I didn’t particularly care for, I was intrigued by it. The story is set in the near-future (more on that later) and follows five main characters: we have Rebecca Wright, a recovering alcoholic who is now in her late thirties and works “part-time as a customer service representative for Lovability, the online dating service where, eleven years ago, she’d actually met the man who was now her husband”; Philip, said husband, who is a brilliant scientist devoted to his work on the ‘causality violation device’ (which, in a running gag, and much to the scientists’ annoyance, gets called ‘time machine’); there is Rebecca’s BFF from college, Kate, who is a superficial bimbo (more on that later); Carson, a scientist who works under Philip and is on-and-off again dating Kate; and Alicia, “the only female post-doc in Philip’s lab” who is Not Like Other Women. There are some minor recurring characters, most of whom we get to see only in certain environments (like the two security men working in the lab) so that we never really learn about them.
Rebecca and Philip have lost their son, but they don’t speak of him or how he died. Philip spends most of his time working or talking about the ‘causality violation device’ (CVD) while Rebecca mopes a lot around the house thinking of how much she wants to drink. I was expecting this to be a story that blurred the line between reality and fantasy, one that would make you question whether the ‘strange’ sensation felt by Rebecca was a sign of her spiraling mental health or something of a more fantastical nature. But this wasn’t that kind of novel. And, as I previously mentioned, at first I didn’t mind. The story was more intent on creating some realistically awkward or fraught encounters between the various characters. Rebecca’s marriage is in trouble and her relationship with Philip isn’t great. She doesn’t get particularly along with Alicia while Philip gets into a heated argument with Rebecca’s dad (who is a Unitarian minister). Kate’s derisive comments about ribs and watermelons force Carson, who is black, to question whether she’s racist. Carson is also getting pretty pissed off at one of the security guards, who keeps calling him Carlton (“acting white”). No one gets along with anyone, and the story is very much about that. Palmer seems to delight in putting his characters in the most uncomfortable situations possible. Philip’s work is repeatedly made fun by the media and one snooty potential investor, Rebecca’s knows very little about anything so is frequently made to appear dumb, Kate acts like the Basic White Chick, and Alicia is openly rude to others, especially other women (but it’s okay, cause she’s driven and Not Like Other Girls). Now and again Palmer remembers to mention that some people feel that there is something ‘wrong’ with their reality, but this is a minor thread in a story that is much more concerned with ridiculing its characters and with giving really detailed descriptions or explanations about minor aspects of this ‘near future’. The main ingredients of Palmer’s story are 1) useless millenials 2) women who don’t care or don’t have what it takes to have a career 3) unfunny caricatures.
He had a lot to say on a myriad of other topics, but this often came about when two characters were having a discussion or argument about this (sexism, racism, conflict between religion and science). He dedicates many passages to modern dating, seeming to lose himself in his own ‘hilarious’ vision of the future of dating (which isn’t as original as he seems to be suggesting: “the whole idea of meeting someone in a physical place, to talk to them in real time, was so twentieth century”) or in unnecessarily long digressions about automated ‘autonomous cars’ or of how in schools kids no longer need to interact with teachers but they get taught via tablet (and Palmer spends a chapter on the “Daily Pre-School-Day Diagnostic” kids have to complete each morning).
We are only given a flashback into Rebecac’s life, and rather than reading about her childhood or learning more of her relationship with her parents, we read of a period in her twenties which she aptly describes as ‘Blackout Season’. We never get why she chose to study English or what future she envisioned after her completing degree, what we get instead are scenes featuring Rebecca and her college ‘friends’, all of whom are jobless or doing temporary or part-time jobs they don’t care for, and they spend their time going to bars and clubs, getting drunk and loud, flirting and sleeping with guys that are ‘no good’. After a few years one of them meets the ‘right’ kind of man and soon the girls disband their friendship group (because if a woman is ‘seriously’ dating someone she can’t keep her friends, duh). Rebecca has a few mishaps on online dating sites, meets Philip, and the two get married even if they have nothing in common or no chemistry. Their son dies, and things start going a bit sour between the two of them. And of course, eventually, the CVD does play a role in the story.
As I said, or wrote, Palmer mostly writes scenes in which his characters have awkward encounters and exchanges with each other. And, while I initially liked this aspect of his narrative as I am a fan of hysterical realism, by the halfway mark I was no longer impressed by them, in fact, they struck me as forced and unfunny. Sometimes I like reading scenes that verge on the surreal (I’m very basic, I like Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers) but there were moments in Version Control that were just jarring and poorly written (I’m talking about that scene with Alicia and the magazine…it wasn’t funny, it didn’t make sense, it was out-of-character, the tone was just off).
The second half was very much a rehash of similar scenarios and exchanges, and the ‘wrongness’ felt by Rebecca never amounted to anything substantial. I was expecting a twist at some point or some reveal a la Black Mirror but nada. The story remains concerned with exploring boring and tired dynamics between characters that were little other than dull caricatures.
What was the point in the story? An excuse for Palmer to write about ‘what ifs’ or detail minor aspects of everyday life in a future America ? Did this story require 500+ pages?
Time travelling is picked up now again, but for all Philip’s & co talk about the CVD, they spent far too little time talking concretely about what would happen if their machine were to work. Instead they use a lot of scientific language that seemed more intent on confusing non-sciencey readers.
Maybe I could have overlooked plot-holes and never-ending diversions if Palmer’s narrative had offered us some character interiority, but this third pov remains never delves into character motivations. Giving us a glimpse into Rebecca’s mind would have made her into a far less one-dimensional and incomprehensible character (it was frustrating not knowing why she acted the way she did).
As stories about time travel go, Version Control offers nothing new.
Palmer’s near future is really unconvincing. He refers to things that in ten and twenty years will be outdated, he sticks to this running gag of the president interrupting people’s TV viewing or phone calls but we don’t know when he was elected, what kind of president he is, what America’s political landscape looks like. And Palmer seems wholly disinterred in anything remotely non-America (as in we have more or less no clue on what is going on in the rest of the world).
The story takes place in ten or possibly even twenty years and yet his future feels very ‘2010’. Yes, he imagines what shopping for clothes will be like, but what he envisions has already kind of been predicted (having one’s body scanned and being given an item of clothing that will fit you without needing to step in a fitting room). But what about other things? Rebecca is an alcoholic, will the future be able to provide more effective and long-term treatments ? What about cancer? Climate change? Wait, how come Palmer totally skims over climate change?
Palmer’s future offers nothing new. Futurama was far more innovative that this. And I couldn’t help but to notice that in this future one of the security guards who works at the lab was worried that he had to teach his daughter what same-sex love was….which, how likely is that? Unsurprisingly Palmer’s future struck me as very straight and gender normative.
Although Palmer has no qualms about using scientific language at length, I think he glosses over his CVD machine (which is funny considering how often this machine gets mentioned) as he’s more worried with detailing all the ways in which advancements in technology will strip erode any remaining notions of privacy (but millennials being dumb aren’t concerned by that).
It’s kind of ironic that although Palmer writes about sexism (by having Alicia point out how hard it is to be treated like her other male colleagues rather than an ‘oddity’) his portrayal of female characters is kind of questionable (and in poor taste).
Rebecca: she’s our main character and is defined by three things. 1) she’s Philip’s wife 2) she was mother 3) she’s an alcoholic. While Philip is allowed to have a personality (not a nice one but still) and goals, Rebecca is made into this pathetic cliché of a woman, who isn’t intelligent or empathetic, she’s isn’t a great mother nor a great daughter not even a great wife or friend. She has 0 drive and 0 interests outside of alcohol and Philip. She doesn’t confront Katy when she notices that she’s being racist, even when Katy later on asks her whether she thought that she’d said anything offensive, she’s jealous of Alicia because women can’t like other women, she doesn’t care for her job (cause married women don’t really want to work and would rather be housewives who spend their time shopping, drinking wine, and trying to stay a size S. Which..yep, Palmer has given us some great representation here.
I didn’t care for Rebecca. We never know why she does the shit she does, she has no concrete history other than her ‘Blackout Season’ and her feelings for Philip just were largely MIA from the page.
Katy: she’s awful. She’s dumb and superficial, is a crappy friend and person, spouts racist shit and is obsessed by the fact that she’s dating a black guy. Why waste any time on her? I really got the feeling that Palmer wanted to show how insincere female friendships were (especially if one of these friends has blonde hair). Katy is just as passionless as Rebecca. She has no interest outside of men, gossip, and alcohol.
Alicia: she’s the kind of character that some (I said some not all) male authors believe to be ’empowering’. She loves what she does, she’s smart, straight-talking, tough. She takes no shit from anyone and most men in this novel are attracter to her. Women, on the other hand, hate her because they are clearly ‘intimidated’ by her. Rather than making Alicia into a likeable or sympathetic character Palmer decides to make her into a truly awful bitch who behaves appallingly and doesn’t understand why other women are not like her. She’s also reduced to who she sleeps with, rather than being allowed to be a character in her own right.
Philip and Carson: these two were stereotypes of the scientific guy who doesn’t understand social etiquette. Philip spoke in this really donnish way that just never rang true (and I happen to know quite a few pedantic men). But the things Philip talks about where just…really? And why did he have to be so socially inept ? Just because you are a scientistic doesn’t mean that you could never speak of something without using scientific jargon.
Other characters: caricatures. They had a static role, perhaps played a part in a running joke or something.
Maybe it’s my fault for expecting a story with more speculative elements but dio mio! The whole dynamic between Rebecca and her genius scientist husband was so cliched and boring. And Palmer’s future would have been passable if it had been rendered in more detail or if it hadn’t been so intent on making fun of millennials. And 500 pages of this? I get it women who are not like Alicia (who of course posses traditionally ‘male’ personality traits) are bimbos who are incapable of forming meaningful relationships or saying meaningful things or having interests outside of men, diets, and gossip. Ah ah. So funny.
Version Control is going to be tough to review as I have never felt so conflicted about a book. There were some scenes in Part I that were pure genius. But once I delved into Part II I was forced to reevaluate my first impressions of this book.
It’s a yikes from me.
Did the world really need The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes?
I think not.
Full of unnecessary exposition and weighed down by self-indulgent fanservice, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a train-wreck of a novel. The story lacks rhyme or reason, things happen only to advance the plot (regardless of whether they make sense because what is even logic?), there are no stakes (Coriolanus having to eat cabbage soup and not being able to pay taxes are hardly sources of tension), the characters are ridiculous and one-dimensional, frequently the writing veers into the ludicrous, and the author doesn’t trust her readers to reach obvious conclusions by themselves.
Having recently re-read the Hunger Games trilogy, I was reminded of how good a writer Collins is.
One of the strengths in THG series lies in Katniss’ first person narration which brings immediacy and urgency to her story. In THG Collins’ exploration of the ethics of violence and the conflict between survival and sacrifice struck me as being both nuanced and intelligent. There was also a certain ambiguity that allowed, nay encouraged, readers freedom of interpretation.
Which begs the question…Collins, what happened?
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes may be the prequel to THG trilogy, but it’s an altogether different beast. Which would have been fine by me if it had been ‘different but good’. What we have instead here are simplified discussions about human nature (are we inherently bad? Do our circumstances shape who we are ? Are we responsible for what we do in order to survive?), an unconvincing story that is dragged-out for 500+ pages and is populated by goofy characters.
The novel strives for depth, yet its attempts to address the nature/nurture question and other moral quandaries result in a clumsy and overt parable that is leagues from being a satisfying or insightful philosophical inquiry into human nature. An example of this would when Dr. Gaul assigns Coriolanus Snow and other mentors homework along the lines of: “Write me an essay on everything attractive about war.”
What follows is a predictable and cringe-y scene in which they express their different opinions (shocking I know). Was that the only way to include a discussion on the ‘positives’ of war? It seemed a desperate, and rather pathetic, attempt to throw into the story some ‘serious’ material. Just because the characters who are talking about these things have ancient-Roman-sounding names that doesn’t make their conversations any more meaningful or thought-provoking.
Not only does the character of Dr. Gaul exist to tick the ‘mad scientist’ box (I will get to her in due time) but she’s also there so she can explicitly ask characters ‘challenging’ questions regarding their moral and political tenets. So subversive and illuminating is she that she says things such as: “Who are human beings? Because who we are determines the type of governing we need” and “What happened in the arena? That’s humanity undressed. The tributes. And you, too. How quickly civilization disappears.”
We also have characters like Sejanus Plinth who although District-born has spent the last few years in the Capital, and he comes out with: “You’ve no right to starve people, to punish them for no reason. No right to take away their life and freedom.”. Did this guy just suddenly realised what kind of world he lives in? After years of Hunger Games he’s like ‘nah, that’s wrong. Humans should be free.’ (as if he doesn’t know that his words will have consequences?).
Away with Plato. Move aside Nietzsche. Sontag? Get out of here. There is a new philosopher in town.
Corny philosophising aside, the writing was weighed down by obvious statements which made the characters seem rather simplistic. Worst still we have cheesy gems such as “you’re mine and I’m yours. It’s written in the stars”, “although he didn’t believe in it, he tried to channel her telepathically. Let me help, Lucy Gray”, “The cabbage began to boil, filling the kitchen with the smell of poverty. ”
What in the world? I’m supposed to take this seriously?
The third person narration didn’t do the novel any favours. Most of Coriolanus’ thoughts and feelings aren’t articulated so that his character is given no new depths. Collins’ shies away from portraying him as a truly morally corrupt yet self-delusional person, making him into a not very convincing ‘he’s not that bad’ kind of guy. He’s an orphan who is tired of eating cabbage soup and not having money. Boo-hoo. His personality is just so tepid…he’s sort of ambitious, sort of a liar, a ‘sort of’ kind of person. Look, I wasn’t expecting the next Ripley or Humbert Humbert but Coriolanus is such a non-entity. While the narrative makes it seem as if he’s this cunning and charming guy, Coriolanus’ no Machiavelli. His elitist views are exaggeratedly rendered, so much so that they make him into a caricature of the contemptuous heir. Even those scenes in his family apartment or the ones where he’s with Tigris or Lucy Gray did not make Coriolanus any more believable or sympathetic. His ‘arc’ as such was merely motivated by his desire for wealth. As the descendant of a powerful yet crumbling Aristocratic family he believes he’s entitled to more than just cabbage soup for dinner. And of course, he hates Sejanus because ‘new money’.
From the first chapters characters are classifies as either good or bad. Throughout the course of 500+ pages they don’t change. Their thin personalities remain fixed.
Because of this the cast of characters is entirely forgettable. Although their names may appear on a page, their personalities remain largely non-existent. Coriolanus’ fellow students and mentors….did they even possess an individuality ? With the exception of holier than holier-than-thou Sejanus, these ill-defined Academy kids soon morphed with one another. What they say or do matters very little. They are mere accessories to Coriolanus’ story (we get it, although they have been indoctrinated to believe that the Districts are scum, they are not entirely entirely desensitised to violence or cruelty).
Lucy Gray was just so ridiculous. She seems one of the few random characters to have a normal name, and yet there was something comical about the way a ‘distressed’ Coriolanus would shout out her name. While the narrative did seem now and again aware that she was treated as an object, the way she’s depicted seems to corroborate this. She just didn’t convince me as an actual human being. At times she seemed a twelve year old Marie Sue, at times she seemed to have walked off the stage of a musical, and yet we are meant to find her intriguing?
The adult characters are unintentionally funny. From the ‘deranged’ Dr. Gaul (who speaks only in cliches and is not at all intimidating) to Dean Highbottom (whose surname merely brought to mind Neville Longbottom) who for some reason I don’t care enough about doesn’t like Coriolanus. These two, similarly to the other characters, do not leave their assigned roles (in this case ‘the mad scientist’ and ‘the bitter guy who for reasons holds a grudge against the protagonist’).
The characters in this novel are clownish. They have wannabe-Roman names, they speak in clichés and come out with uninspired maxims.
The world-building relies on readers having read THG. Which is weird given that this is not a sequel.
Panem is a dictatorship because reasons.
The novel also has a weak sense of place. The Capitol is barely delineated. The Academy is a building, Coriolanus lives in an apartment, and the Hunger Games take place in an arena. The architecture of these places is obviously irrelevant. Who even cares about descriptions of the characters and their environment? (I do).
Minor spoilers ahead
One of the first things that did not seem very rational was that the Capitol assigned the tributes to eighteen-year olds. Sure, the childhoods of these Academy students were marred by the war, but in comparison to the tributes, they’ve led a fairly privileged existence. But however rich their education may be, they still lack experience. They have little insight into the entertainment industry and just because they’ve discussed war strategies doesn’t mean that they could give any useful battle tactics. One thing is theory, the other one is practice. Yet, we are supposed to believe that the powers that be
decided that this particular group of students will mentor the tributes for the upcoming Hunger Games. The reason for this ‘mentorship’ is to make the Hunger Games more popular, garner some extra views or I don’t know. To me this seems an ill-conceived plan.
Anyway, let’s go along with it: mentor=more entertaining Hunger Games. Okay, so why am I meant to believe that the same people who are working extra hard to make the Hunger Games more interesting would let the tributes starve for a few days in a zoo cage? So they can collapse and die as soon as they enter the arena? Why even bother with the mentors then?! It was quite clear that the only reason why the tributes end up in a zoo cage is to remind us readers that to the ‘civilised’ citizens of the Capitol, District people are less than ‘animals’.
There were so many scenes like this. They did not make sense but they are theatrical. Characters are attacked, killed, and or tortured for effect. For all she writes about violence and human nature, Collins’ will often sacrifice believability for exaggeration. The whole thing with Dr. Gaul and her snakes was laughable. She’s such a crudely drawn figure that it was impossible to feel intimidated by her actions. The violence in this novel seems closer to that of splatter film.
The Hunger Games themselves are not only boring but they are described in a yawn-inducing way. The games section reminded of how in THG films they occasionally showed the game makers watching Katniss to make up for the fact that in the book we had Katniss’ narration to fill the moments of ‘quiet’. There was something so impersonal about these Hunger Games that I really did not care to see the way they would unfold (we know who is going to win anyway).
Shockingly enough, I struggled to finish this novel and ended up skimming a few pages in the final section. I’m baffled. What is this mess? What was it trying to achieve? It adds nothing to the THG. Coriolanus is not nuanced nor is he believable. If anything he seems a very different shade of evil to that of President Snow. We still don’t know much about the war. We get it, the Capitol suffered at the hands of the ‘rebels’. Collins’ tries to make this particular Hunger Games more significant by making characters come up with ideas that will be implemented in the following Hunger Games (like the sponsors or whatnot). For some reason Collins’ has to ‘foreshadow’ later events or can’t help but to reference mockingjays (“the show’s not over until the mockingjay sings”) and ‘the hanging tree’ song. What was the point in Tigris? She had a small cameo in the …why try to make her ‘important’? Especially since her role in this prequel in pretty irrelevant.
With so many pages did we really need to have passages in which earlier conversations reappear in italics? Why not trust that your readers will be able to remember what Coriolanus is referring to?
Last but not least: I am so done with the ‘muttations’. They were the weakest aspect of THG trilogy and to dedicate so much page time to them is just…
Moral of the story: approach prequels with caution.
My rating: ★✰✰✰✰ 1 star
Starsight takes this series in an unexpected direction. This instalment is perhaps even more action-driven than Skyward: from the opening chapters to its explosive finale, Starsight is full of spectacular fight scenes.
Whereas Skyward had a narrower scope, Starsight presents us with a far more complex story in which the stakes are higher then ever. Brandon Sanderson’s intricate world-building is populated by many interesting, and richly rendered, alien species. Sanderson’s aliens very much reminded me of Becky Chambers’ ones in Wayfarers, or even Mass Effect, in that we are given a lot of information regarding the way the look, behave, express themselves, reproduce themselves, communicate with others, their role in their society.
Spensa is as hot-tempered as ever, and once again finds herself getting into trouble thanks to her ‘act first, think later’ attitude. While in Skyward Spensa struggled with notions of ‘cowardice’, in this volume she doesn’t really have a lot of spare time to herself. She’s still unsure of her cytonic powers and of what they make her.
In many ways this is a military soap-opera. Spensa finds herself engaged in numerous battles.
This being a novel by Sanderson, there is quite a lot of humour. M-Bot is as hilarious as ever.
While I recognise that Skyward‘s plot was much more ‘simple’, part of me preferred that. At times Starsight was repetitive and confusing. Also, I just missed a lot of the characters from Skyward.
All in all this was an interesting sequel and I look forward to discovering where Sanderson takes this series next.
My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars
I more or less inhaled this book.
“You get to choose who you are. Legacy, memories of the past, can serve us well. But we cannot let them define us. When heritage becomes a box instead of an inspiration, it has gone too far.”
This is easily my favourite book by Brandon Sanderson. A few years ago I read and was deeply impressed by his epic-fantasy novel Elantris…so I can sort of understand why some die-hard Sanderson fans might not find Skyward to be as intricate or as profound as his adult fiction.
Personally, however, I found Skyward to be a pure blast.
Within the first few chapters I fell unabashedly in love with this novel. This is undoubtedly thanks to Spensa Nightshade, also known as Spin. Her first-person narration is completely unreserved and utterly entertaining.
Growing up as the daughter of “the coward”, Spensa is desperate to prove herself. The planet in which she was born and raised is constantly under attack from the Krell. To survive humans have built communities underground. Pilots, who are considered to be the elite of this new society, train and live on a base on the ground surface of this planet where they try to defend themselves, and the rest of humanity, from the Krell’s attacks.
To become a pilot is no small feat. Many are killed or leave before their training is complete.
Spensa however is keen to fly and kill some Krell. Her reputation however makes her a persona non grata at the base so not only she has to catch up to the teammates who were raised by pilots, and have been training since they were born, but as the daughter of “the coward” she also has to put up with many other disadvantages. Time and again she struggles between wanting to prove to others and to herself that she is no coward and surviving. In a community which glorifies self-sacrifice and violence it isn’t easy to reconcile oneself with notions of courageousness and cowardice.
Spensa was an extremely likeable character. Her propensity for dramatic and grisly declarations (such as: “When you are broken and mourning your fall from grace, I will consume your shadow in my own, and laugh at your misery”) might make her seem somewhat ridiculous but we soon realise that being constantly seen and treated in the light of her father’s actions has made her this way.
She was funny, brave, and surprisingly vulnerable. Sanderson does a great job with her character arc. Spensa soon realises that to be a pilot is not all about being brave.
The dynamics she has with the rest of her team are compelling and entertaining as I found all of the characters to be just as nuanced as Spensa. Sanderson reveals some of the fears and desires that have shaped or are shaping who they are and what they want. There are no good or bad people and being a hero is not all that’s cracked up to be. Some characters retain a sense of mystery, which makes them all the more intriguing.
The action is more or less non-stop. It vaguely reminded of certain mecha anime (except we have ships instead of giant robots). The fight scenes, which were intense and adrenaline-fuelled, kept me on the edge of my seat.
The world-building and society imagined by Sanderson are interesting and richly detailed. He keeps quite a few card close to his chest, so that readers, alongside Spensa, are always left wanting to know more about the Krell and the circumstances that landed a human ship on this planet.
Perhaps my favourite thing about this book was the relationship Spensa has with a certain M-Bot. Their conversations were a pure delight to read. I was also pleasantly surprised by the sort of friendship she forms with a certain Jerkface.
The only thing I would have liked to have been different is a certain revelation towards the end. Part of me wishes it could have been more showing and less telling. Still, that was a very minor thing in an otherwise faultless novel.
I loved this novel and I have already bought a copy of Starsight as I can’t wait to be reunited with Spensa&co !
My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars (rounded up)
Now this is how you write a great short story.
There is a reason why many, me included, regard N.K. Jemisin as one of the best speculative fiction writers out there it’s because of stories such as this one.
One of her greatest strengths is her ability to use innovative writing perspectives in such a compelling way. In Emergency Skin she once again masterfully utilises the second person point of view.
The narrative never lets us see through the eyes of the explorer himself and we follow the progress of him mission thanks to the running commentary of his ‘ancestors’ that thanks to some advanced form of technology are able to give him directions and orders. They refer to him as ‘you’, answer to his questions and or comments, and attempt to command his every action. Time and again they remind him that the successful completion of his mission will result in his earning his skin. Because yes, the explorer comes from a society that considers skin a privilege that only a few should have.
Things do not go as planned as the explorer, much to his ancestors chagrin, discovers that the planet Earth isn’t the rusty shell he was it would be.
The vivid narrative and intriguing storyline immediately grabbed my attention. Although speculative in nature there many aspects that make this short story quite topical. Jemisin manages to comment on the behaviour of a certain group of people without turning her story into a didactic one. Her organic storytelling allows her to work within her story a discussion and interrogation regarding our world’s current state of affair…and in some ways one could see this story as a cautionary tale of sorts as it presents us with some of the worst aspects of our society. There are plenty of clever and thoughtful arguments within Emergency Skin which is why I would be happy to read this again.
This is yet another example of Jemisin’s rich imagination.
I listened to the audiobook edition narrated by Jason Isaacs, actor best known for portraying the imperious Lucius Malfoy….and maybe that’s why his voice perfectly lends itself to that of the ancestors. What a terrific narrator!
My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars
Salvation Day is yet another book whose good idea/premise is hampered by its poor execution. As the title suggest, much of this novel takes place in one day…this timeline alone makes for a rather restrictive narrative. The story and its characters too are hindered by the fact that most of the events narrated by our respective protagonist take place on the same day. Because of this the scope of this book is quite limited and what had the potential to be an interesting world is narrowed down, so much so that we never truly get the bigger picture of this speculative future.
The range of emotions shows by the various characters is also limited by this one-day setting. They feel different variations of panic and fear, which soon grew tiresome and never allowed for us to see these characters as something other than panicked and not in control of their circumstances.
The story also takes its time to define its setting, that is of providing a solid world-building. Although I am certainly not a fan of ‘info-dumps’, this novel would have benefited from a clearer depiction of its universe as well as the dynamics between this future society.
Overall I found that this book didn’t know what it wanted to be. A story of a rebellion or of a cult or a story in the vein of Event Horizon with dynamics a la Panic Room.
The two narrators blended with one another, which didn’t really make them all that believable as they technically grew up in very differentiating environments and should not share the same vocabulary and or way of thinking.
Perhaps those who haven’t read much speculative fiction might be able to enjoy this more than I did.
My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars
Yet another example of great concept, poor execution.
A Memory Called Empire is an ambitious first instalment. Sadly, the interesting topics and discussions approached by the novel were diminished by an unclear world-building and by a monotone storyline.
“Three Seagrass gave Mahit a look which clearly expressed, despite the fundamental cultural differences in habitual facial expression, a chagrined admiration of her nerve.”
The main focus of the story is language. The protagonist is Mahit Dzmare, Lsel Station’s new ambassador, who is sent to the capital of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire. Mahit tries to navigate her new position and surroundings but struggles to reconcile herself with a culture that poses a threat to her own one (the people from Lsel Station—Stationers—are considered ‘barbarians’). Things are complicated by the mysterious death of her predecessor and by the conflict that seems to brewing beneath the surface of this supposedly civil and powerful city.
“So perfectly imperial, to have messages made of light and encrypted with poetry, and require a physical object for propriety’s sake.”
The world Martine has created has potential. Sadly, I was never drawn into the story or its characters.
The political intrigue was barely there. There were a lot of repetitive conservations which came across as a ‘lithe’ banter, not very amusing or clever. Characters attributed a lot of value and significance to things that had little to no importance in the overall storyline.
The Teixcalaanli language had some interesting components. Teixcalaanlitzlim have different mannerism and expressions to that of the Stationers (they smile with their ‘eyes’ rather than their teeth) but theses weren’t as well explored as some of the ‘technical’ aspects of the Teixcalaanli language. Martine does however render the nuances that words and a language can have:
“I am terrified of you, your Excellency, she said, using the word for ‘terror’, which, in poetry, could also mean ‘awed’. The sort of adjective that was applied to atrocities or divine miracles. Or emperors, which Mahit assumed were in many ways both at once.”
One of the reasons why I didn’t connect with the character is that they have terrible names. I guess I couldn’t believe in characters who were described in one or two lines and, worse still, they had depersonalising names: Three Seagrass, Twelve Azalea, Six Helicopter, Two Lemon, Three Sumac….the list goes on and one. This combination of a number+word created a lot of confusion. Which wasn’t helped by the general lack of individuality shown by these characters.I understand that this uniformity is in some way a part of the Teixcalaanli culture but at times they seemed excessively similar to one another. A lot of the characters were meant to be clever and cunning but came across as anything but.
Mahit herself lacks history. Her character seems to exist only from the moment she has become the new ambassador. The dynamics between her and her imago (the memory of the now deceased ambassador) made her slightly more appealing…but her imago was MIA for a lot of her narrative…so that didn’t really improve her as a character.
The characters move from one interior to the next often showing very little autonomy or initiative. Scenes that should have had some emotional impact felt flat and impersonal.
The muddled world building gave the impression that the Teixcalaanli Empire has been existing for a short amount of time. It was all too colourless for my taste.
Overall, this was a very generic sci-fi. It borrowed a lot from existing empires and offered very little innovation. Still, it was far from terrible, and if you can look past a poorly constructed universe (which focuses on a rather bland society), you might be able to appreciate this.
I really enjoyed Bone Music, its action oriented plot made for thrilling read. Both Charlotte and Luke showed some actual character growth, and I came to like them both.
Sadly, Blood Echo is merely an echo of its predecessor. The beginning of this novel was promising enough, but it turns out that Charlotte’s hunt for a ‘serial killer’ was merely an appetiser and not the full course meal. The action-packed start leads to a long-winded back and forth between various characters.
This book consists in characters bickering and/or arguing with one another about the most inane things. I get that ‘tension run high’ when you are leading, or part of, a secret operation that could revolutionise the world as we know it but why waste precious time rehearsing the same arguments?! Cole, Charlotte, and Luke (as well as a lot of the side characters) will have these stupid ‘power struggles’ where one character feels the need to assert his or her authority over another character. There will be character A who says something along the lines of “you don’t want to mess with me” and character B will give a stupid reply like “is that a threat? ”
I wouldn’t have minded as much if these arguments made 1) sense 2) advanced the plot 3) revealed something about a character. But they don’t! They just came across as ‘pissing contests’ and they make up the MAJORITY of this forking narrative. What happened to the actual story?Is there a story? N-O! We just have characters questioning each other about every other sentence they say making each ‘conversation’ almost never-ending, they almost seem to parrot one another.
I grew tired of how stupid the characters were and Cole, who happens to have a bigger role in this book, was such a disappointment. I was hoping that his having the ‘limelight’ would show what sort of personality/history/character he has but no such luck. Towards the end he recounts a traumatic event in such a ‘I’m such a hard-core guy now‘ way that made what could have been a potentially emotional/distressing scene as flat as a pancake.
Charlotte and Luke seem to regress, becoming more immature by the sentence.
Overall, not only was this was a huge let down but it also made me dislike the characters and world I’d previously loved in Bone Music.
Although I’m no longer an avid reader of YA books The Fever King sounded really good so I had rather high hopes for this one.
At first The Fever King reminded me of some of some of my favourite YA. It has a not-so-far-in-the-future setting similar to the one in Proxy and Control and to start with the magic and witchings reminded me of Half Bad and Burn Mark. Sadly, The Fever King is a rather formulaic dystopia. The characters, the ideas, the plot, everything was so predictable and needlessly frustrating.
➜The writing was okay for the most part but there were a lot of purply phrases which stood out (for the wrong reasons).
WHAT in the world is going on with Noam’s stomach
-“Tar oozed through Noam’s stomach”
-“a warm beat of familiarity took root in the pit of Noam’s stomach”
-“twinge in his stomach that felt suspiciously like embarrassment”
-“Noam’s stomach twisted a little tighter”
-“the pit of Noam’s stomach shriveled”
-“his stomach was full of hot tar”
-“his stomach was a mess of buzzing insects”
-“an uneasy wave pitched in Noam’s stomach”
-“[his] stomach swollen with something rotten”
-“he felt like he’d swallowed grease, oil sloshing around in the pit of his stomach”
Noam’s stomach is mentioned more than 30 times! Also what is this—“Noam’s blood felt sharp“—supposed to mean?!
➜The plot is the usual YA: protagonist looses parents, gains some powers, becomes part of an organisation, things are not as they seem, etc etc. The story felt rushed which didn’t help the characters or their setting.
➜Noam Álvaro becomes adjusted way too quickly to his new life as a witching under Level IV.
➜Level IV…what is going on here? The way this division operates is far too woolly for my liking.
➜The conflict between Atlantia and Carolinia wasn’t very clear cut. The world building was just poorly executed. The world seemed reduced to two opposing forces (or better yet, two opposing people) and we never get a clear impression of Noam’s world. The story is set in the future but it could have easily be se in an ‘alternative present’.
➜While this book tackled a lot of relevant and or difficult topics (there are the Atlantian refugees, the treatment witchlings face, genocide, abuse, and the list goes on) it does it in a somewhat superficial way.
➜80% of the story consists in Noam and or other characters saying variations of: “you have no idea what you are talking about”, “you don’t know nothing about nothing”, “you don’t know what I’ve been through”, “you are so privileged”. It sort of got old. Fast.
➜Initially, I liked the way in which magic works. Witchlings need to learn physics, maths, and so forth in order to be able to use their powers. Then as the story progresses magic no longer has such a pivotal role.
➜The story tried to be dark and gritty but was mostly cheesy. Just because your characters wear very tight trousers and go partying that doesn’t make them “edgy”.
➜The love ‘subplot’ was also too rushed and difficult to believe.
Overall, I felt that this book tried hard to be a more dark YA that tackles current social issues in a sort of futuristic alternative world. The narrative attempts a certain ‘damaged+rebellious youth’ aesthetic which didn’t really work for me but might as well work for younger readers. In some ways the story and its characters would have been better suited if they had been in a comic or a manga rather than a novel.
Review of A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
It’s taken me awhile to pick this up. I tried reading it more than a year ago but ended up returning the book to the library so I thought that the audiobook version would be more easy to get into.
Chambers has created a very charming universe. There were time where I felt really enchanted by her story….however, I think that The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was a much more engaging novel, one that offered a more defined storyline and a more complex cast of characters.
A Closed and Common Orbit follows an Sidra – formerly known as Lovelace the AI of the Wayfarer – who has to adjust to a new human looking “body”. Thanks to a reboot Sidra is no longer Lovelace, and struggles to understand why her previous installation would ever want to inhabit a body that is so constrictive. Piper, a friendly engineer, is one of the few people who know that Sidra is not human. She attempts to help Sidra adjust to her new form but she doesn’t really appear that much in Sidra’s narrative. Sidra makes friends with Tak, a gender-shifting Aeluon, who is also a tattoo artist. And….nothing much happens.
The novel also focuses on Piper’s unusual past. The dual timeline creates a parallel between Sidra and Jane (aka Piper). Jane’s story is perhaps a bit more eventful, her growing awareness and her relationship with an AI called Owl were more fleshed out, however, her narrative uses a stylistic choice that could be a bit annoying: the writing reflects Jane’s vocabulary which isn’t very vast. Her chapters overuse “real” a lot: “real good” “real bad” “real weird” and so on and so forth…which is a pity.
By the end both Sidra and Jane have a slightly better understanding of themselves and their place in the universe…but their journeys felt somewhat flat. I also felt that the relationship between Sidra and Piper wasn’t at all there. Each narrative focused on one relationship: it was either Sidra and Tak or Jane and Owl. That made the whole story feel rather one sided, underdeveloped. There are few interactions between Sidra and Piper and I don’t understand why that is. The novel doesn’t really go out of its way to depict different types of relationships and each chapter left me wanting more….more did not come.
It was still an enjoyable read but it all felt very….easy? Where was the conflict? I expected everyone to hold hands and sing kumbaya…
Chamber still makes a few interesting observations and the universe she has created remains interesting but not enough to make up for her plot and characters.