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Starsight by Brandon Sanderson — book review

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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

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Skyward by Brandon Sanderson — book review

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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.

Final verdict:
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)

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A Memory Called Empire : Book Review

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A Memory Called Empire
by Arkady Martine      ★★★✰✰ 3 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.

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A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

Review of A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

★★★✰✰ 3.5 of 5 stars

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.
51L6eLkiIDLA 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.30653753
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.

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Luna & Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald

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A review by The Guardian of Luna perfectly captures the novel’s content by calling it a ‘cut-throat soap opera in space’ in which ‘Mafia-style mining families’ clash with one another. 

Ian McDonald’s has written a vicious and intense story populated by an array of brutally fierce families that compete against each other to exploit lunar resources. 

Luna focuses on the Corta family, originally from Brazil, who are ruled by a dying matriarch Adriana Corta. Adriana is forced to choose one of her children as new head of the family: eldest Rafa who is both charming and volatile; Luca, the cunning second son; Ariel, the only daughter, who is a lawyer in the moon’s court; Carlinhos, who works directly on the family’s mining operations and Wagner, the youngest and family outcast. While initially the large cast of characters is rather overwhelming, as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that each and every single character serves a purpose. 

McDonald throws the reader into his complex – and often brutal – ‘world’. He does not resort to any overt world-building preferring to offer explanations only if needed within the context of the scene. Which would usually result in a convulse and confusing setting. Except it doesn’t. McDonald is able to push these ‘formalities’ aside: we immediately see his world for what it is. As a review on Tor remarks Luna’s setting ‘so brilliantly built and deftly embellished that buying into it isn’t ever an issue’.

And similarly to its inhabitants, it is a rather bloodthirsty place. It is made clear by the very first chapter that life on the moon is not easy: a person has to pay for every single breath they take. Add to that McDonald’s decision to have no criminal law but only contracts law, which makes every aspect of the moon’s inhabitants lives negotiable, makes for a very intriguing setting.

The Corta family – which purposely pays tribute to the Corleone’s from The Godfather – is made by mostly blunt and authoritative people: family disputes and jealousies are interspersed throughout the story. Each has a personal agenda and yet – from the very beginning – we know that they consider ‘family’ to be their number one priority. 

It is perhaps largely because of having such strong personalities that makes Luna’s characters so endearing. Wherever they are being proud, melodramatic or charming, they are undoubtedly passionate people, which is why it is so easy to like and root for them.

These morally questionable characters are as vivid as their background. Spectacular fighting scenes, steamy love affairs and a lot of backstabbing made Luna a pageturner. 

Luna is an incredible visual novel. The story and its characters, even the writing itself, are – in more ways than one – incredibly graphic. As once again The Guardian accurately notes that Luna is ‘as gripping as it is colourful, and as colourful as it is nasty’. 

The direct prose, the razor-sharp dialogue, the edge-of-the-seat plot combine together into an exceptionally rich and unique experience.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

WOLF MOON

In 4 entire pages a character talks about cakes. Just about cakes.
Bonkers? Yes.
Did I love every moment of it? Absolutely 100% y-e-s.

A great follow up – and hopefully not an epilogue – to Luna: New Moon. It includes a huge cast of characters and it feels even more action-packed than its predecessor. ‘Stuff’ just keeps happening to all of the characters. Betrayals, scheming, blood feuds: Wolf Blood has it all.
McDonald toys around with the society he has created, playing with their moral codes and ideologies. He makes a lot of interesting point which give this novel a lot of hidden depth. He writes of violence, sex, power and freedom.
In Wolf Moon, war endangers all of the characters. Basically: nobody is safe. McDonald keeps us turning pages in order to see wherever our favourites make it out alive. I especially loved Robson, who amongst his deadly ambitious family, was just plain adorable.
With non-stop action, sharp dialogues and graphic scenes, Wolf Moon is a tour de force.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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