Wednesday 4 March 2020

BOOK REVIEWS: Blackfish City, by Sam J Miller; The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal; Selia's Promise, by Christina McMullen; Junction, by Daniel M Bensen; The Greatest Ghost and Horror Stories Ever Written; The Day The World Came To Town, by Jim DeFede; Hell's Children, by TS Weaver

Time for a new round of reviews! I've been quiet on the blog lately - for which there have been reasons - but time to get into things again. And I'm starting off with rounding up some books that didn't get reviews posted from last year. First up, a multi-award nominee...

Blackfish City, by Sam J Miller

Blackfish City is a novel that's bristling with cool. It's set in a floating city in the Arctic after a climate disaster has done for much of the rest of the world. It's a city divided up into sections, separating the poor off from the super-wealthy and all the while a strange disease called the breaks is ravaging parts of the population. Seen through the eyes of several characters, a resistance to the city's structure starts to grow - and then into that mix appears a lesbian grandmother riding an orca she's psychically bonded to. 
So far, so whoa - and if it was just to be judged on the ideas bursting within its pages then Blackfish City would absolutely be a winner for me. Unfortunately, it loses its way in the telling. The lead characters largely drift along with the plot - with only one character truly driving to get at the heart of one particular mystery. Heck, even one love interest shows up by literally falling through the ceiling on their future one-night stand.
Throw in a bunch of lengthy infodumps about the history of the city - which are interesting for the worldbuilding but which kill any pace in the book - and it just ends up being ok. 
There's a great setting here - and while there aren't sequels, the author has a number of other stories in the same setting - and it's splendid to see some great representation of different genders and sexualities, but as a story itself, it falls a little short. It probably takes about 40% of the book for the storyline to come to shape, and a lot of the characters aren't really very different in their voice, which makes it all a bit flat. 
A book I wished I'd enjoyed more. 

AI Rating: 2/5

Blackfish City is available on Amazon

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

First things first, do not, I repeat do not read this while flying on a plane. I'm not getting particularly far into spoiler territory but my goodness, a number of things crash in this and it's not terribly comforting when one is in the air at the time. 
Second thing, this is a slice of genius. 
No, seriously, you absolutely should read this novel. It's an alternative history where a great big meteor wipes out much of the east coast of the United States. In 1952. This is another era for science and it accelerates humanity's need for a space programme from an interest to an urgency. 
If you loved Hidden Figures, then this plunges us into an alternate world where those women mathematicians behind the space programme are the difference between humanity surviving or going the way of the dinosaurs. 
In the aftermath of the meteor strike, Earth faces a climate crisis that might only be met by sneding a colony to space. Next stop, the moon. Maybe our last stop. 
It's brilliantly written, and cries out to be adapted for the screen (I'd say mini series would suit best, but hey, we'll take the Lady Astronaut however we can get it). It's also delightful to see such a mature, well-formed relationship between husband and wife at the heart of the story where each supports the other, come what may. 
If I was being picky, I wish we'd seen a bit more of the consequences of the changing climate and a bit more exploration of the racial tensions of the time as the novel progressed, but the science of the rocketry is engaging, the mathematics sparkling and the outcome very satisfying. It's deserved the many awards it has won in the past year. 
Just, y'know, don't pack it for your flight. 

AI Rating: 5/5

The Calculating Stars is available on Amazon

Selia's Promise: A Short Story, by Christina McMullen

Let's talk about the end of the world. After all, that's what's coming in this short piece by Christina McMullen. Humanity builds a hyper-intelligent supercomputer, Selia, to make the world a better place. However, the first thing it does is warn the world that the end is coming. An asteroid is on an unavoidable collision course. This is the way the world ends. 
How does humanity react? With wisdom, gravitas and a renewed sense of purpose? What do you think? As the end nears, panic breaks out, religious fervor breaks out, and worse, worse and worse. 
But just wait, read on and wait. It's worth it. 

AI Rating: 4/5

Selia's Promise is available on Amazon

Junction, by Daniel M Bensen

Junction is the debut novel from Daniel Bensen - and it's a riproaring delight. Japanese nature expert Daisuke Matsumori gets an unexpected call - a portal has opened to another world, and the powers-that-be want him on an exploration team venturing off into the planet beyond. 
It turns out that world beyond is a patchwork quilt of strange biospheres, with more and more portals branching off to yet more worlds. As his party move through strange new ecosystems, they face a struggle for survival from both the new world around them and the political tensions tearing apart their own expedition. Which will prove deadlier? It's an even bet. Worse, someone in the group might just be a murderer. 
This is great fun as a story, reminding me of the likes of Harry Harrison's Deathworld books. It's a real adventure of a story, all with a fine sprinkling of biological sciences in there. I wasn't terribly convinced by some of the romance elements, but hey, what's an adventure without an occasional smooch? The language is fun and playful, and the whole thing is just... well, wild. And that very much hit my sci-fi spot. 

AI Rating: 5/5

Junction is available on Amazon

The Greatest Ghost and Horror Stories Ever Written, Volume 2

When will I learn? This is one of those annoying repackages of collections of stories where a bunch of out-of-copyright stories are thrown together. The big names entice - Lovecraft, Bierce, Blackwood, MR James, Le Fanu, etc - but really it's a bunch of lesser stories. 
Interesting as a bargain or to fill out gaps you might have in your reading of some of these writers, but not terribly well put together. Greatest ever written? Many of these aren't even the greatest written by these authors. Very much could do better. 

AI Rating: 2/5

The Greatest Ghost and Horror Stories Ever Written is available on Amazon

The Day The World Came To Town, by Jim DeFede

When 9/11 happened, America faced a dilemma. In the moments after planes hit the Twin Towers, a huge number of other planes were still in the air. What to do with them? How could air controllers get them down safely? What happened to all those people in the sky? 
This book details one of the more remarkable side stories of the day. The tiny community of Gander, Newfoundland, had an airstrip, and welcomed 38 international flights to land there. The passengers were stranded - and the people of Gander took them into their homes - and to their hearts. 
DeFede returns to the scene to explore the connections that were formed in those days, when people were making do with put-up cots and sleeping on sofas, all in the wake of a tragedy that shook the world. 
It's a sweet story - though perhaps it doesn't scratch the surface as much as I'd hoped. That said, it's uplifting and shows the humanity of people in the face of inhuman times. 

AI Rating: 4/5

The Day The World Came To Town is available on Amazon

Hell's Children, by TS Weaver

This is the second book in the System War series from TS Weaver - and picks up right from where the first book leaves off, with the colonists of Pluto struggling to survive in the face of an alien attack that has its sights set next on Earth. 
Cracking military sci-fi, this throws a new character in the mix - a scout who comes equipped with the coolest damn addition to a space military story in quite some time: a space doggo. A trained companion dog compete with its own space suit. I mean, how can you not love that? 
It's a mature book, with violence and swearing, but not gratuitously so. Indeed, the tale itself is quite tender at times as it deals with the battle, and the losses, the colonists have to come to terms with. The alien forces are daunting, sometimes seemingly irresistible, and yet the colonists persist. 
The setting is also in development as a roleplaying game - for those inspired to pick up their space lasers by the end. 

AI Rating: 4/5

Hell's Children is available on Amazon

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