book review: the stars are legion

The reason I went back to Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha stories a while back was ’cause I was getting antsy waiting for our library to get copies of her new space opera novel The Stars are Legion. Now I have read it and it was just as gooey and intricate as I’d hoped.

Legion is a group of biological worldships surrounding an artifical sun. There are many layers to these worldships and ruling dynasties for each one. Zan is a soldier who begins the novel being put back together after an attack on a neighbouring world. She has no memory, but a strong attraction to Jayd who tells her that everything is tense but fine. Even the half-memory Zan has of murdering a baby is part of the plan, apparently.

And hoo boy are there plans in this story. Because Zan has no memory she’s piecing together what it’s all about along with the reader (in among the spray-on space-suits and fighter attack runs mounted on spacefaring slugbeasts). After a few chapters we also start following Jayd, who’s working on some crazy manipulative scheme against the ruler of their own worldship. She tells Zan she’s in on the plan but Zan doesn’t remember it and might fuck it all up. Other people have guesses about the plans but they’re keeping Zan in the dark to use her as a weapon (’cause Zan is a brutally effective soldier).

Then as the schemes are unfolding, boom boom boom Zan is killed (in a sudden but inevitable betrayal) and her body is recycled. Spoiler alert: Zan isn’t actually dead and then begins the quest up from the centre of the world back to the surface where all the political machinations we’re just getting used to are happening. This is where I really loved the book because it takes the simple set-up and then shows how big a world is and how surface-based civil wars are kind of just the equivalent of White House cabinet shuffles to get ignored by the people who don’t live that life. It takes it a bit more towards a fantasy-novel quest narrative as Zan comes closer to reclaiming her memories, but by the end we do get back to the worldships hurtling through space, don’t worry.

I tried to explain this book while I was in the middle of it and it was difficult; I got immersed in the details of womb-swapping and blood-drinking bonding rituals and cephalopod guns and not knowing exactly where it was going made it hard to see the big picture. Once you’re done though, it works really well, and what appeared to be chaotic was merely complex.

If you like big scifi stories and can handle technology being mostly biological (which does make for a lot of mucous throughout) I heartily recommend The Stars are Legion.

book review: half lives

When I received an ARC of Sara Grant’s YA post-apocalypse story Half Lives I was kind of interested but figured it wouldn’t be anything too special. That was about right.

There are two storylines to the book. In the contemporary timeline Isis is fleeing a global terrorist attack to a mountain in Nevada where her parents think she’ll be safe. She picks up three other teens on her way and then they shut themselves into the mountain. The other timeline is some indeterminate time in the future where a tribe of young people live on a mountain following the Just Sayings and living their cultish little lives, terrified of the terrorist beasties that are waiting for them out in Vega if they leave the mountain.

I liked the contemporary storyline well enough, though there were a lot of logistical things like spatial arrangements that were vague and suffered for it. There was a crossing the highway bit in Nevada where they were dodging speeding cars and then there were infected people in gridlock that just never made sense to me. I re-read the section to see if I’d missed something but it remained missing to my eyes after the reread. The romance and whatever was all pretty par for the course in a YA novel.

The future timeline was much worse. The big problem for me was the present tense narration and varying third-person points of view. Everything there felt so disjointed compared to Isis’ first-person past-tense narration. The climactic scenes were filled with anti-climax and it was always a little tough to figure out what had just happened (though since there’s nothing really surprising to the plot you can just assume that what you would have guessed ahead of time is what did occur).

So yeah. I didn’t really like Half Lives. There were some good bits, but overall it would be fairly low on my books to recommend, unless someone was specifically looking for generation spanning YA stories, or shifting language YA stories, or nuclear waste YA stories.

book review: the knife of never letting go

In our YA Services class last week, Eric brought up Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go as a YA dystopia that’s much better than The Hunger Games. I borrowed it after class and wasn’t disappointed.

Todd is a month away from his 13th birthday, which is the time in Prentisstown you become a man. The thing is that in Prentisstown there are no women, and he’s the last boy left. Oh and also everyone can read everyone else’s thoughts all the time (it’s called Noise), including animals (Todd’s dog says “Todd!” a lot and “Poo!” – but is still less boring than the sheep who just say “Sheep!”). And Prentisstown is the last outpost left on the planet after the Spackles – the alien inhabitants from before the colonists arrived – caused all of this terribleness with their bioweapons.

But then Todd finds something in the woods whose thoughts he can’t hear, and he learns how misled he’s been.

Ness’ worldbuilding is excellent. There are so many things that make you go “How does that make sense?” but through careful revelations of what Todd didn’t know because he’s still a kid when the book starts that makes the horror of Prentisstown (and of the world in whole) much more gripping. Todd and Viola (the strange thing he found in the woods whose thoughts he couldn’t hear is a girl) engage in this huge voyage and the stakes feel really high. Also, I loved that he doesn’t love his dog from the beginning.

My only complaint is that the ending is so cliffhangery to make you want to read the next book, it’s a little offputting. I mean, I borrowed the next book, but manipulation into reading a trilogy kind of bugs me.

Other than that this is a great read, especially about the effects that violence has on people. No violent act in this book is just a tossaway thing, which I love.

book review: god’s war

God’s War by Kameron Hurley wasn’t what I expected. I got the ebook for free to participate in io9’s book club (tomorrow), and had expected something sort of technothrillery with clumsy allegories about Islam and the terrorism and such. It was not that. It was fucking excellent.

The world in God’s War was colonized thousands of years ago. It’s lots of harsh desert and there are a few different nations, though you get the impression they’re all pretty small. Instead of running on fossil fuels and electricity most stuff is biological. Bugs are very important. Some people can control their pheromones to influence different bugs, so they use them as use them as communication devices, as weapons, drugs, self-repairing vehicle components, loads of stuff. This in itself is probably reason enough to read the book, just for the technology in use. There’s all sorts of cool biotech and people get new limbs and organs and just generally get rebuilt from scratch all the time if they can afford it/someone has an interest in them.

Another thing I love about the book is that Hurley doesn’t infodump anything on you. You piece shit together. This might be annoying if you like things to be settled in your mind quickly. I mean, here’s the very beginning of the book:

Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.

Drunk, but no longer bleeding, she pushed into a smoky cantina just after dark and ordered a pinch of morphine and a whiskey chaser. She bet all of her money on a boxer named Jaks, and lost it two rounds later when Jaks hit the floor like an antique harem girl.

Nyx lost every coin, a wad of opium, and the wine she’d gotten from the butchers as a bonus for her womb. But she did get Jaks into bed, and—loser or not—in the desert after dark, that was something.

The butchers, the price of that womb and the amount it was worth to be able to be blown through in an evening are all things that never get explicitly spelled out, but as the book progresses you build up your picture of what it all means. It’s really well done.

Also well done? The gender politics in the book. It’s not clear in that bit above, but Jaks is a woman. In one of the countries women go around bareheaded, give birth only in breeding compounds and generally treat men as fragile delicate stupid flowers (because every male of draft age gets called up to the war and if they come back they’re disfigured and damaged from all the terrible biological weapons being used). There’s a lot of sex (mostly with other women, though fucking men is to some women’s taste) and they’re seen as godless, though they follow the same book as the other nation. In the country they’re fighting the mullahs are in charge and women are all chadored up to become one of many wives to a man who isn’t fighting the war, and there are calls to prayer that people pay attention to. Still their young men who’re sent out to the front though. In the book we see both of these nations through the eyes of an insider and an outsider and they’re well-drawn.

But the story is also pretty badass. The main character, Nyx, is a bounty-hunter whose job is to bring back the heads of deserters. Stuff happens. Aliens (ie humans not from this world) get involved. There’s lots of death, religion and cussing. The two things I liked most about the story were that the first part takes place 6 years before the main plot. Hurley could have put it in as flashback or something and done the classic writing advice thing of “starting as late as possible” but she didn’t. I feel it works a lot better this way because as a reader you have a sense of history with the characters, that they didn’t just spring into being to undertake this one mission. The other thing I loved about the plot is the noirish aspect of nobody in the team being the best there is in their field, just the best Nyx could afford. They’re all mediocre, not supremely talented, weak schmucks. Badass, sure, but there is no Neo or Yoda or whoever here. Just a bunch of working stiffs who are outmatched, not just who say they feel outmatched and then proceed to be super-amazing.

So. I’m now a Kameron Hurley fan. If you’ve read the Marid Audran books by George Alec Effinger, you’d probably really like this.