Tag Archives: sci-fi

Arabella of Mars (Adventures of Arabella Ashby #1)

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Sir Isaac Newton decided that instead of his usual stroll around the apple orchard one afternoon, he would take a bath and relax. As he soaked away his cares, he watched a bubble of air rising through the water. And had an idea. That led to King William III of England commissioning Capt. William Kidd to lead the first exploration of space to Mars in the 17th century,  which in turn lead to the colonization of the red planet by the British.

In 1812, 16-year-old Arabella Ashby roams the Martian landscape and her father’s khoresh wood plantation. Raised and schooled by a Martian nanny, Arabella is not the proper young English lady her mother had hoped for, so she insists on returning her to London to live properly and respectfully. Not only does Arabella have to get used to the rules and restrictions of early 19th century England, but she also finds earth gravity to be a total b*tch.

Circumstances cause her to flee back to Mars aboard a Mars Trading Company ship, disguised as a boy and serving as both a deckhand and captain’s boy, in an effort to save her brother from an unexpected danger.  Along the way, she encounters war and mutiny and automatons.

This novel started off with a lot of promise of adventure and fun. It ticks off every box on my list: steampunk, Jules Verne-esque, science fiction, space exploration, STUNNING cover, a kick-ass heroine.  And I loved it, the writing, the story, the descriptions of the air battle, the life on Mars and Earth and onboard the airship Diana. Until about halfway through.

Because… Arabella isn’t really so kick-ass. She starts that way. A young girl raised on the Martian frontier, schooled in hunting and tracking, a girl with a scientific bent who shares her father’s love and affinity for automatons sounds like my kind of heroine. And I love the plot device wherein a girl disguises herself as a boy in order to accomplish an otherwise unattainable goal. But I think author David Levine missed an opportunity with this in his novel. Arabella’s purpose in disguising herself is to accomplish a goal, a goal she is quite capable of attaining as a young woman, but would never be given the chance to do so. When she is revealed as a girl, she is still as capable as the boy they thought her to be, but instead is treated as though she no longer can cope with space travel. And the problem I found is that she does not fight to keep her position, one she earned, but meekly accepts that things are no longer the same.

That is the first of the problems. The rest… oh boy. This is a science-fiction fantasy!  The world can be anything the author wishes! And apparently, he wished for some historical accuracy, even as his sailing ships (which look pretty much like 19th century sailing ships with the addition of large silk balloons to get the vessels aloft) dodged asteroids and his airmen breathed the atmosphere between the stars. So as they did this, they were also racist and sexist and believed in the colonization of Mars and the superiority of the white British male over pretty much everyone, including the inferior Martians. Mars is the interstellar equivalent of colonial India. And in addition, Levine still ensures the reader knows that Indians, while human, are not as good as the Brits. And don’t get me started on the portrayal and description of Mills, the one black crew member.

The captain of the Diana, Captain Singh, is a flat, one-dimensional, polite, fair-minded, darker-skinned man. Nice, but sadly, that’s pretty much it. And the predominantly white crew is determined to overthrow him. And, for some reason, Arabella is attracted to him. And I do not mean that in a way that she shouldn’t be. I mean that in the way that the romance subplot doesn’t work.  We have an adventure!  Let’s leave it at that! The romance reads as if the author was actually ticking off boxes, and thought, hey, she has to fall for someone!  We can’t have a young woman wanting to just make it on her own. Here’s a handsome guy with a good position, she can go for it. And given that the captain spent most of the book believing her to be a boy, the romance seems forced.

Why can’t we have a fantasy world without all these problems?  I know there needs to be some conflict and tension to move the story along, but really? They turned me off, and turned what was a fantastic adventurous read into a teeth-grinding slog.

Levine’s world building skills are incredible. He has won awards for his stories, and no wonder. I travelled through space aboard the Diana with Arabella, floated in the zero-gravity atmosphere alongside the airmen, looked out and saw nothing but vast darkness sprinkled with tiny pinpoints of light. The battle with the French pirates had me on edge, and I didn’t know if we would find a solution to the navigational problem. Levine can weave a story that has you believing that it is only a matter of time before humankind is travelling through space, docking on asteroids to take on supplies, and landing on distant worlds. I just wish he had written a world where humanity could attain more than just another plot of land.

Arabella of Mars was published July 12th, 2016 by Tor.

Esper Files (Esper Files #1)

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In Victorian London, an experiment in controlling electromagnetic power goes horribly wrong, resulting in the Great Storm. This unnatural meteorological occurrence affects some of the population’s electromagnetic field, giving strange new abilities, which of course leads to the rest of the population turning against them in fear, and having the “Espers” live as outcasts.

But not all of them. The man responsible for the failed experiment, the Professor, starts up an Institute to train Espers to handle their abilities, and use them for good. Two of his top agents are James, who possesses the ability to teleport, and Nathan, who can mirror anyone’s ability through feeling their emotion. Together, they rescue Espers and fight against the Baron, a corrupt man and former partner of the Professor who controls an army of corrupt Espers, and wants to control the world. But the Baron has a controller as well…

And you know what would have taken me less time to type? Hey – do you like the X-Men? Then read this series. For the Professor, insert Xavier, for Espers Mutants, for Baron Magneto, for the Institute the School for Gifted Youngsters.

What we have here is a steampunk reimagining of the X-Men universe. But I’m not sure if you can call it a reimagining. It is the X-Men.  Eccentric professor saving youngsters with powers that the population fears and a powerful man with a link to the professor who has gone rogue and is bent on controlling the world.  Put it all in Victorian London, add the Parliament and an airship, and bingo.

What was good? Author Egan Brass writes fabulous action sequences and scenes. The story is well-paced and flows smoothly from one scene to the next. He doesn’t get caught up in over describing the scenes but gives enough detail to really draw the reader into the action. Reading it, I knew where every character was, their actions, and could picture each sequence.

The characters are a bit predictable but change and develop through the novel.  The Professor is horrified by the use of Esper powers for evil and fights for the good of all. *cough* Professor X *cough*. Nathan is a poor outcast with extraordinary powers who is a trouble maker and self-destructive but really has a heart of gold as he discovers how to control his impulses. *cough* Logan *cough*  James is the sidekick, shunned from society as an Esper and a person of colour . *cough* Storm *cough*  You can start to see a pattern… Freya is an orphan whose powers come out under duress as her adoptive parents are murdered and brother is abducted, and she must learn to control her power in order to rescue him.

But. There are problems with the book, besides the obvious inspiration behind it. As a fantasy, a certain amount of disbelief must be suspended anyway. But there is no explanation, scientific or otherwise, of why/how people got abilities through the Great Storm. Nor does it actually ever explain how the Great Storm came about. The failed experiment wasn’t the only factor.

Also, I was distracted throughout by typos and incorrect sentence structure (pot, meet kettle). It is difficult to be in the middle of an action-packed battle scene or tense situation and grind to a halt because of poor word choice or lack of proof-reading. The author has a good story-telling talent, but he needs an editor. (I just researched the publisher and discovered it is a self-publishing site.)  His sentences follow a certain pattern (it is always “he said” or “she ordered” or “the Baron yelled” or “Shadow snarled.”  Mix it up, please).

Show, don’t tell, please. Show me how Nathan learns his self-worth, instead of having me follow his every thought about his life and realizing he is a good person in the end. Show me how Freya comes to trust everyone instead of having read her thoughts as she looks upon her teammates and sees they are good people. And so on. And so on.

The last few chapters were obvious attempts to tie up loose ends and build suspense for the next book in the series, but suddenly certain characters were acting out of character, and I wish the book had ended three chapters earlier than it did.

After all that, you probably think I hated it.  I didn’t. Criticisms aside, this is a fun, fast-paced story. I read it in one sitting, and while it has some violent, fairly gruesome scenes (if excessive blood loss turns you off, or you don’t like the idea of snacking on someone’s brains, this book is not for you), it is a good story for a lazy afternoon.  It is the first in a series, so I am hoping the next book irons out some of the problems.

By the way.  I popped over to Goodreads after I wrote this and read the reviews of the book there.  I’m a DEFINITE minority in my criticisms, so take this review for what it’s worth.

Esper Files was published October 26th, 2016 by Inkitt.

The Call

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This is the type of horror that seeps into your brain and wanders around, taking over your dreams and worming its way into your sub-conscious. Irish folklore with a twisted twist.

Ireland has been cut off from the rest of the world for a quarter century. Thousands of years after the Sidhe were defeated by the Irish and driven to a nightmarish otherworld, the fairy folk have gathered their strength and returned to fight for their land. To do so, they issue the Call, wherein every Irish child at some time during adolescence systematically disappears and is brought to the Grey Land to fight for his or her life.  1 in 10 return alive. And they, 3 minutes and 4 seconds after they disappear, return to Ireland changed forever, distorted and twisted, physically and psychologically.

15-year-old Nessa awaits her Call. She has lost countless friends and family and knows that  her chances of survival depend on her wits more than her strength. Because she has another challenge. Childhood polio left her legs weak and twisted, and outrunning the hunters will be nearly impossible for her. She trains every waking moment to be prepared for the hunt. But even reading the hundreds of Testimonies from survivors cannot prepare anyone for the horror that awaits.

The world building in this novel is flat-out amazing. This is fantasy horror, and Peadar Ó Guilín has nailed it. Dystopian Ireland is a land of terror. Teens live in fear of the Call, parents of losing their children to it. They are cut off from the rest of the world, technology is useless, communications barely survive, and the world has abandoned them. The children are sent away to schools to learn survival tactics, and Year One classes of 60 dwindle to three or fewer by Year Seven, as one by one they are Called.

And the Grey Land more than lives up to that simple description. In a dimension without colour, where time has slowed, there are ugly, twisted, vicious monsters that used to be human. They chase the thieves (what the Sidhes call the Irish teens) to torture and kill. The Called must survive a full day in the Grey Land, but everything there is deadly. The absolute horror of hunting dogs that upon closer inspection were once people, twisted viciously out of shape. The cloaks of the Sidhe, made from human skin. Flora and fauna that had their origins in the Many-Coloured Land of Ireland now haunt and demonize the Grey Land. And the Sidhe themselves, beautiful fairy folk that live for vengeance and can maim with a mere touch.

Nessa is an ordinary girl in an extraordinary situation. She recognizes that in order to survive she has to harden her heart against any distraction, including friendship and love. Cold and aloof, she pushes away her fellow trainees, not ever wanting to be moved from her training and focus. But try as she might to be alone, there are those that ignore her cool exterior and strong arm her into friendship. Megan is one such girl; she is an irreverent redhead who embraces life with as much force as Nessa ignores it.

Conor, Anto, Liz, and Aoife are characters that play a huge role in Nessa’s life, some for good and some for evil. Other characters are met only as they receive the Call; they are the ones that suffer the greatest in the Grey Land but survive the least amount of time. The adults in the story are very much in back ground, as they watch their Nation’s future stolen away from them.  Many work to train the youngsters to survive, studying the Testimonies of the survivors looking for clues to help give an edge to the teens, but in the end are as helpless as those that are Called.

This book is brutal and dark and bloodthirsty. Through the images of horror and fear, it examines the causes and costs if war. We all know that history is written by the victors, but beyond that, how is responsibility determined? Who bears the guilt of past wrongs? Who must pay?

Another horror novel that is not for the faint of heart, although I suspect any teen that reads it will handle the fear better than I and enjoy the fast-paced action and imaginative monstrosities within. But I may never sleep again.

The Call was published August 30th, 2016 by David Fickling Books.

Willful Machines

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What makes us human? Is it free will? The ability to make choices? What separates us from machines, and where do we draw the line between human and machine? And why do we keep advancing science, if we are so afraid of the results?

Charlotte is a terrorist. She uses the threat of violence and destruction to hold the President of the United States in check. And she follows through. The Statue of Liberty, the symbol of American freedom, is no more.

The trouble is, Charlotte is difficult to track down. You see, she is a consciousness, an artificial intelligence, created in a lab to serve mankind. But she rebelled against her programming and uploaded herself onto the internet before she could be destroyed. Now she roams the world, an electronic ghost, and plans on controlling it.

Lee Fisher is Charlotte’s target. The reason? He is the son of the American president and is a great bargaining chip. Oh, and he’s gay. Deep in the closet gay. And his dad doesn’t really believe in “gay,” or that A.I.s should have any rights. His dad was elected on a conservative, family values, homeland security type platform. A gay son does NOT fit in with his profile. So Lee keeps his sexuality a secret.

Until Nico comes to Lee’s boarding school.

This really is a different story.

Lee is an interesting main character. Being gay with an ultra-conservative father would be difficult enough. He also has an ultra-conservative ex-POW grandfather who happens to be the Headmaster of his school and wants Lee to toughen up. Lee is a robotics fanatic; he builds artificial life-forms, gives them specific skills, and makes them lifelike. This also doesn’t sit well with his father, who ordered government-sponsored A.I.s destroyed after Charlotte’s breakdown. Lee has to hide so much of his life from his dad.

He is both fragile and strong; leading a double life brings on depression and suicidal thoughts, but he has the strength when needed to stand up for himself and Nico and Bex and fight for their lives.

His best/only friend Bex is a bit stereotypical as the loud-but-supportive-politically-minded-budding-journalist, but she stands out with her own, very well-developed character.

Nico is a Chilean exchange student who loves Shakespeare and attracts Lee right from the beginning. He is brave and self-assured, and he easily fits into life at the strict boring school.

The boys’ relationship is a *bit* too love-at-first-sight for me. They are adorable, but it would have been nice to see the relationship develop. They seemed to barely know each other before declaring undying passion and everlasting love. Individually, they are interesting. Together, they are melodramatic and not too convincing as a couple, unfortunately.

But Charlotte! Charlotte is an atypical villain; at first she is evil, then she seems manipulative, then sympathetic. Her programming led her to question her existence and value, and she wanted to be more than the sum of her parts. Very human of her. And for that, the government, the very people who created her, tried to destroy her and use her actions to further their political careers. And her very human response is to strike back and try to be recognized as an individual, along with her fellow A.I.s.

Author Tim Floreen has brought a new twist to the usual boarding school setting. An old, elite school with decades-old traditions and expectations, mingled with political intrigue and imminent threats to world security. The year the story takes place is not stated, but the technology used is just advanced enough to make the reader think near-future. It doesn’t stand out as ridiculous, but almost the next-generation to what we are already aware of existing.

There are a LOT of plot twists in the story, and I think, for the most part, they are surprising and work really well. I obviously do not want to spoil the story by giving them all away, but can say that while a few are obvious, others are a complete surprise and I didn’t see them coming.

I found the ending to be a bit… lacking. I was waiting for more, and it felt unfinished, and a bit forced, which I never enjoy. While I can understand the explanation of Lee’s grandfather, it did seem to come out of left-field, and not really flow with the rest of the story. And Floreen not only doesn’t explain how Lee comes to his conclusions, he also does not address so many of the questions raised throughout the novel. If there is a sequel, then there is much to be addressed. If there isn’t, then it is a bit of a non-ending.

This is a good story. It could be great, but leaves a bit too much on the table. It is, however, intriguing, and raises valuable questions about what makes us human, and how far we would be willing to go to protect ourselves. Appropriate for the entire YA range.

Willful Machines was published October 20th, 2015 by Simon Pulse.

Unwind (#1)

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Here’s one that can really creep you out and make you reconsider the world as it is.

Many things have changed since the Second Civil War, a conflict that developed along incredibly volatile lines. There is now a Bill of Life, Unwinding, storking, all matters related to the value of human life. Boiled down, it means that the sanctity life is unassailable. But how unassailable? When does life become precious?

If a woman gives birth and doesn’t want the child, she can leave it at any random door. If the homeowners don’t catch her, they have been storked, and must raise the child. But only until the child is 13. Between the ages of 13 and 18, parents can choose to have their children unwound; sent to a harvest centre, teens are taken apart surgically and transplanted to various people who require new organs or body parts.  A replacement leg, for instance, after an accident, or heart and lungs after illness, or new eyes, just because the old colour didn’t suit.  Life is not ending, it is just transferred. And bonus, parents don’t have to deal with unwanted children any more.

And kids can be slated for unwinding for any reason. Connor is an out-of-control teen who was never really wanted. Risa is a ward of the state, and no use to anyone. Lev was conceived to be unwound. His parents offer him up as a religious sacrifice, and he has been raised to believe it is a noble purpose. Connor and Risa don’t see it that way. They vow to escape their fate, which means going into hiding until they turn 18 and no longer qualify.

The three main characters and all the supporting cast have individual personalities that author Neal Shusterman develops incredibly well. That isn’t to say they were likeable, particularly Connor, but they are charismatic and defiant and want to live. Connor is troubled and can’t seem to stay away from conflict, feels alone and withdrawn from his parents, even before he finds out they have signed the unwind order. Underneath his anger he is alone and desperate.

Risa is smart and tough, adaptable, but also unprotected. Unless she has a skill that sets her apart, she is just a drain on society, and she will be unwound. And her skill set doesn’t seem to count for anything.  The two of them team up with Lev to take control of their lives. His change makes him perhaps the most interesting of the three teens. His initial belief that his life is best served by unwinding shifts as his time approaches and his friendship with Connor and Risa deepens.

Originally, as I started reading this, my initial thought was “this could never happen.” And when you read any dystopia or fantasy, the first thing you must do is suspend disbelief, or what is the point?  But because the concept of this novel is so violent, so dismissive of life, I initially had trouble doing so. But then all of a sudden I turned the last page and had no idea how I got there.

This story isn’t just about a dystopian near-future. It opens up a complete discussion on the value of life and where lines can be drawn. It is about a system born of conflict, and honed by greed and self-interest. How much control is too much for a parent to have? When does religious belief cross the line? At what point does “do no harm” become “well, if it is for the greater good”? When does life begin and end? Are the “unwound” still living and aware? Shusterman pokes the moral grey areas and steps back to watch turmoil.

If the rest of this four book series is anything like Unwind, I am not going to get a lot of sleep until it is finished. It is appropriate for the YA age range, but is not a light read. Through his characters’ thoughts and discussions, the author treats his young (and older!) readers to some very thought-provoking questions, without hitting us over the head with his own opinions.

Unwind was published November 6th, 2007 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Nimona

 

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Dragons, magic, shapeshifting, feminism, diverse characters.  Author Noelle Stevenson has turned her brilliant webcomic into a full-length graphic novel, and if you haven’t read either yet, what the heck are you waiting for? 

Nimona and Lord Ballister Blackheart have teamed up as sidekick and supervillain.  “Teamed up” is a term used loosely here; did Blackheart even have a choice? Nimona, a kick-ass young shapeshifter, bulldozed her way in and forced him to take her on. Her impressive powers of shape-shifting, with the ability to turn into any living thing, left him little choice. Seriously, what would you do if you were suddenly faced with a talking shark? With breasts, no less? (No kidding, just one of the brilliant images in the book. It makes me giggle just thinking about it.)

Ballister is out to expose Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics for their villainous activities; Nimona wants to help him succeed.

But Blackheart has a secret and a problem. His heart is not actually black, it was just  trampled on, many years ago. And once upon a time, Blackheart would have been a hero. But mistakes and jealousy and misunderstanding took their toll, and he felt forced into the role of villain. Always with an empty space in his heart for the man he thought turned his back on him.

And the corresponding problem is Nimona’s mysterious past and a yen for villainy and danger. She wants to help Blackheart be unbeatable, and she’ll use any means at her disposal. It is a combustible combination.

This is a poignant, gleeful, violent, humorous, subversive, heroic, irreverent, action-packed graphic novel about friendship and love and redemption.

Nimona is a wonderful erratically unpredictable character with a backstory that is revealed piece by piece, with each new tidbit letting the reader in on more of her secrets and motivations. Her loyalty and devotion to Blackheart are heartbreakingly lovely, even though she sometimes expresses herself in ways most would find socially unacceptable.

The dynamic between Blackheart and Nimona is endearing and absolutely hysterical. His deadpan humour and her overeager belief in total annihilation work perfectly to create a relationship that leaves readers in stitches one page, and on the edge of their seats the next, with tears always a possibility.

That relationship between Blackheart and Goldenloin is wonderful. The story of two people who had jealousy and uncertainty break them apart (well, and an arm severing, with no subsequent apology or acknowledgement of guilt, which can put pressure on a relationship), but truth and goodness and acceptance and respect bring them back together.

The violence is quite graphic (no pun intended), but the novel also has great themes of acceptance and friendship and morality and good and evil, while remaining fun to read. This is a fabulous story that follows through to a great ending, with nothing Hollywood about it.  After you read it, you’ll want to rush over to Stevenson’s site and read more of her work.

Nimona was published May 12th, 2015 by Harper Collins.

The Improbable Theory of Ana & Zak

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Fun cover, fun premise, fun execution. A laugh out loud, quirky, fluffy contemporary with an improbable (!) plot that actually does work, and the fabulous over-arching theme that everyone has more sides that you might see on the first impression. Don’t judge a book by its cover. (Even though you can in this case.)

Ana Watson is driven to succeed, afraid of failure, always looking for the next event or activity or test result to put on her application for college. She wants to leave. She has to leave. Her suffocating, over-controlling parents make it impossible to stay. So this weekend trip to the Quiz Bowl in Washington should have been a slam-dunk. Until her genius little brother, Clayton, takes off from the hotel to attend the huge Washingcon sci-fi convention. By himself.

And now she is stuck with the uber-geek himself, Zak “Duke” Duquette, whom she blames for Clayton’s disappearance. But if Ana hopes to find her brother in the nerd herd of Trekkies and Chewies and zombies and Strawberry Shortcakes and elves and trolls and orcs and Katnisses before her parents or teacher chaperone do, she needs Zak.

Brian Katcher creates great chemistry between Ana and Zak, who are wonderful and likeable main characters. Although not at first. Told in dual POV by Ana and Zak, the format showcases their very distinct personalities. Ana starts as a self-centred and study-obsessed girl while Zak is big-headed and smug; forced to spend time together, the two find it difficult to maintain their usual facades and begin to learn about each other and themselves.

The secondary characters are just as diverse and fun as the two main, although I would have killed my brother if he put me through that crap. Slowly and painfully. With great enjoyment on my part. But Warren and Strawberry and Ana’s parents and Roger (love him) and Mrs. Brinkham and the rest of the Quiz Team crew and all the various and sundry characters at Washingcon are awesome additions to the cast.

The plot is engaging and fast moving, with twists and turns that the reader just doesn’t see coming. Taking place over 24 hours and full of pop culture references (“Hey, Asshole!” is probably my favourite and sadly, thanks to their dad my kids can quote the whole movie it comes from…), and witty banter that isn’t forced or unbelievable, this book is pure  entertainment.

Of course, there are a few weak spots, but not enough to wipe out the enjoyment. The storyline with Nichole doesn’t make much sense the way it unfolds, and there is a big scene near the end of the story that seems out of place in the novel. But overall, this is a light, fluffy book good for the entire YA age range, although those with pop-culture addictions may find it the most fun. It won’t challenge you or reduce you to tears, but you will have a good escape and more than a few laughs.

The Improbable Theory of Ana & Zak was published May 19th, 2015 by Katherine Tegen Books.