Recursion

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Blake Crouch has several other books out, but I have only read one other by him which was Dark Matter. I really enjoyed Dark Matter, but looking back I remember being lukewarm about its ending. Without spoiling the novel, I felt that Crouch had an excellent plot idea for Dark Matter, but it was very complicated and became too big to wrap up satisfyingly. However, it was a really fun read. When I learned about Recursion‘s plot, I worried that I would feel similarly, and I did.

In Recursion, Helena Smith has committed her life to developing the technology to record and save people’s memories in an attempt to help those with degenerative brain diseases, like Alzheimer’s, regain their memories and live a fulfilled life. Another timeline follows Barry Sutton as he investigates a suicide. The suicide victim is said to have had FMS, or False Memory Syndrome. False Memory Syndrome has been popping up all over the country, and it usually involves people suddenly remembering that they have another life that is different from the reality they are currently living. This can lead to the victim having an identity crisis which often results in suicide. Helena and Barry come together to figure out the cause of FMS and to figure out what is real and what isn’t.

Like Dark Matter, Recursion‘s plot is difficult to summarize because it is complex, and I didn’t find the characters to be nearly as engaging as the plot. The main characters, Helena and Barry, are quite well written, but within the supporting cast I have already forgotten most of their names. Perhaps it is because there are multiple timelines with different events in each, but I had a little trouble being connected to most of the characters. There was also a romance in the novel that I didn’t feel strongly about. Overall, the characters were okay to good, but I think that the plot and themes are where this novel excels.

Any book that plays with time and alternate realities can become messy, but I felt like Recursion was written clearly and was easy enough to follow, especially if you pay attention to the dates provided in the book. I was excited to keep reading because there was a feeling of urgency throughout the story, and there were plenty of twists that kept me guessing. Although I could see where the plot was going at some points, other events were a complete surprise to me. I found the latter half of the novel slightly repetitive because there was a section in which the characters kept reliving a part of life over and over, but those scenes did serve a purpose. And, as I hinted to at the start of the review, the ending was a little disappointing. I felt like it made me sense and wrapped up a bit better than Dark Matter, but I definitely questioned how the author could reign in such a wild plot when I was almost finished with the book. And although I didn’t connect as much to the characters themselves, I enjoyed the book’s themes. It is quite introspective. I teared up a little at the end just because there is so much focus on time, past decisions, and reliving one’s life that it made me a bit sad and nostalgic for my own past. This book made me think a lot– both about the complex plot and to reflect on my own life.

I think I enjoyed Recursion just a bit more than Dark Matter, but they are both great reads. Crouch has a knack for writing exciting, fast-paced novels that also inspire the reader to think more deeply about certain topics. I gave Recursion almost four stars and would recommend it widely. However, if you are sensitive to the topics of suicide and death, it could be troubling to read.

Knight in Paper Armor

Rating: 4 out of 5.

***Thank you to the author, Nicholas Conley, for providing me a copy of his novel in exchange for an honest review.***

Holy reading slump, Batman! March was a rough month for me. I’m finishing up a graduate certificate program, trying to learn some more marketable skills to change careers, and ultimately getting rejection after rejection from companies I have applied to. I’ve been busy, yes, but when I do have time to sit down and read, I don’t really want to because I do so much reading all day at work, which has made me even more sad. I can always tell when my depression is spiking because I tend to not read at all. But! That certainly wasn’t this book’s fault. In fact, I would say that this book started to pull me out of my reading slump because I was very motivated to keep turning the page once I got into it.


This book takes place in a dystopian future of the 2030’s in which the U.S. has split into 179 different states. Propaganda and conspiracy theories have made for a very unstable political climate, and one company, Thorne Century Inc., runs many aspects of the country, making everything from cars to pharmaceuticals. Billy Jakobek and his family have struggled with his strange psychic powers and visions since he was a baby. Billy can sense others’ feelings by being near them, and when he touches other people, even stranger things happen. When a representative from Thorne Century Inc. knocks on his family’s door one day, Billy’s life takes a drastic turn. After being taken into custody, Billy is moved to the industrial city of Heaven’s Hole so that he can experience a “normal” teenage life while still being under the company’s thumb. While Billy begins to make friends, and even experiences a budding romance, he also finds out that the company’s plans for him and his powers extend far beyond what he or anyone else could imagine.

Billy Jakobek is Jewish, and since the author is also Jewish, this can be considered an “own voices” novel. And I have to say, I am so glad to see a novel, especially a speculative novel, from a Jewish author with a Jewish main character. I’ve only read one other novel from an author with a Jewish family history that wasn’t a historical fiction dealing with the Holocaust (which was The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin). I’m definitely not knocking Holocaust novels, but it is just so nice to see something different being published. That isn’t to say that the Holocaust isn’t mentioned in Knight in Paper Armor, because it is still a major part of Billy’s family history, but there are so many other issues and dimensions to both the story’s plot and Billy’s characterization. The novel as a whole approaches a plethora of tough topics and current events, like the rise of Nazism in the U.S., immigration and discrimination against immigrants, predatory capitalism, workers’ rights, media manipulation, and it even mentions effects of climate change, to name a few. Despite the characters being older teens, there are a lot of other tough topics and possibly triggering scenes. There’s violence, anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, death and serious injury, abuse/explorations of immigrant workers and children, planned terrorism, and probably other things I’m forgetting!


First up, the characters. I liked our two main characters, Billy and Natalia, quite a bit. Billy struggled a lot with his inner emotions and guilt, but it was easy to tell that he had a very good heart. Natalia Gonzales was a very headstrong Latina, and although I didn’t always agree with her actions, I thought that they fit her impulsive and passionate nature. I also thought that both Billy and Natalia’s cultures were well incorporated into the novel. The author mentions in the acknowledgements that he had cultural sensitivity beta readers critique his representation of Natalia and her family, so that has probably helped the novel be more faithful in how Natalia’s undocumented family issues and Mexican roots are presented. At times the teenaged dialogue felt a little off, but it’s often hard to get that right as an adult writer.

There were also several very diverse side characters, which made sense because Heaven’s Hole was said to be a town with many immigrants who worked at the factory. The villain was very evil, and though there was a backstory about this character, I think why they were so very evil could have been fleshed out a bit more. My favorite side characters were Billy and Natalia’s grandmothers, because I love some strong-willed, outspoken grannies! One aspect of the main characters that I didn’t like was how quickly Billy and Natalia’s romance happened. On one hand, it makes sense that Billy felt an attraction so quickly because of his psychic powers, but Natalia seemed more attracted to Billy than he was to her at the start. Something happens shortly after they meet that brings them very close together, but I just prefer more of a slow burn. One thing I will say is that the author had no mercy for his characters. No one had plot armor, and no one came out completely unscathed, which was actually quite refreshing, if heartbreaking, to see.


Regarding the plot, I enjoyed it overall. The story surprised me a few times too. The experimentation and kids with powers reminded me a bit of Stephen King’s The Institute or even Firestarter as well as a bit of Stranger Things the TV show, which was what made me want to review this novel in the first place. There was definitely a similar vibe, but I don’t think I’d classify the story as horror– dark sci-fi might fit. Parts of the narrative take place in an “other world” that has some very surreal imagery. Some of it appears to be inspired by the dybbuk of Jewish folklore as well as imagery based on Nazi concentration camps. I wish that Billy’s powers and some of the surreal scenes were described in more detail. I had a little trouble picturing some scenes, but I also just really enjoy lengthy, flowery descriptions. (I know that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.) I also think that there is some suspension of realism needed for how Billy’s powers were going to be used since that wasn’t explained in detail, but hey, it is a speculative novel. It just depends on how much of a realistic explanation you need for this kind of thing.

My main issue with the plot was the pacing. There was a lot of action, and sometimes it felt like the characters didn’t have enough time to process the losses or emotional strain that they experienced. They had to bounce back fairly quickly because there was always something else going wrong that they had to respond to. This is addressed to some extent because the chapters are written in limited third-person perspective, with individual chapters from the view of one character, but there could have been more exploration of the characters in regard to what they experienced because, as I said, there’s a lot of stuff that just goes horribly for everyone. I quite liked the book’s ending though. There is a good payoff at the end and some light at the end of the dark tunnel the characters went through.


I would give Knight in Paper Armor 3.75 stars if I’m being very specific. However, I’m rounding up to 4 on many platforms because I think that the book does a lot of things right. I definitely think it deserves more attention than it has been getting, and I look forward to seeing what else this author comes up with in the future because this was certainly a unique reading experience from a cultural perspective you don’t see much of in sci-fi/fantasy.

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month

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It is Black History Month, but how long ’til Black Future Month? N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy is one of my favorite fantasy series of all time. I’ve been slowly making my way through her other books and series, and I’ve honestly liked or loved everything, so I decided to pick up her new-ish short story collection. I really wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was very pleasantly surprised with so many great stories that feel familiar but are at the same time completely outside of the box.

Many of the stories deal with very old but very important themes, like love, family, loss, loneliness, etc. But I’ve never read stories that look at these themes from such different and unique perspectives. If I had to say one central theme that permeates all of the stories to some extent, I might go with the word survival. There are stories about hurricanes destroying towns and dragons helping out, a story based on her Broken Earth series where the land itself is shattered and unstable, stories about making sacrifices for the greater good, survival of alien species and other planets, and even a story about humans dying out completely (from the perspective of Death no less)!

Obviously, you could also comb through it and discuss the social, political, and environmental themes and how they relate to being African American or just any person of color. As I said, a lot of these stories contain things we can all relate to, but seeing it all through a lens of primarily characters of color was eye-opening to me on a social, political, and historical level, and it changed how I view sci-fi and fantasy by authors of color. Things have gotten a bit better in recent years, but it is still a struggle for authors of color to even get published, let alone become famous enough to tell the stories they want to tell (see Jemisin’s introduction to the collection in which she explains feeling like she had to write standard Western fantasy to get her foot in the publishing door).

Getting back to the collection, I did not fall in love with every single story, but the majority of them were very entertaining and have kept me thinking about them long after I turned the last page. If you’ve read the collection, my favorite stories were probably “Red Dirt Witch,” “The Effluent Engine,” “Walking Awake,” “On the Banks of the River Lex,” and of course the stories based on her other fantasy series, “Stone Hunger” and “The Narcomancer.” Many of her characters are fully rounded and memorable, and many of her plots were engaging and inspiring. The collection has moments of humor, sadness, justice being served, and a whole lot of heart. I’ve read several short story collections, but this one stands out to me. It is rare for me to give short story collections five stars (I feel as if I have to love every single story to give the whole collections a 5), but many of the individual stories in here blew me away, so I would give How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? a well-deserved 4.5 star rating on my blog, but I had to round up to 5 stars on Goodreads because it was that good.

A Touch Of Death

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A thousand years in the future, humanity has emerged from hiding beneath the Earth to avoid destruction and is slowly rebuilding. Advanced technology and strong laws have given the residents of Cutta a relatively safe and happy life, and although not everyone is satisfied with this life, dissenters are severely punished. Nate Anteros, despite his parents being in the King’s good graces, is one such dissenter. Catherine Taenia, who is to marry Nate’s brother Thom, has lived a quiet and sheltered life in the capital of Cutta. After Nate’s release from prison, he seeks out Catherine and Thom, which upends all three of their lives as they discover secrets about the home they thought they knew and the world they now live in.

This book surprised me with several positive and interesting aspects. To begin with, the world building has a lot of potential. As I read along, many, many questions popped into my head. What exactly happened to Earth? How did people and animals live beneath the ground for so much time? How are the animals, plants, etc. that stayed above ground changed? Are there still people living underground somewhere? The basic concept of the world is very interesting, and I wanted to know everything about the planet as well as how society functions now.

Mutants are a threat and a curiosity to the current society. It appears that not all humans remained safe underground; some stayed above and became mutated. The mutants used to be human, and their presence and relationship to humanity is a major plot point. The characters spend a good amount of time traveling in this book, so we see a few different people and places, but I definitely wanted to know more about all of them. Different cities appeared to have different people, religions, and cultures, but since the book is quite short, we only get a small taste of some of them. This is a series, so I imagine the world is fleshed out much more in subsequent novels.

One thing I disliked was some of the pacing. For example, I really enjoyed the novel’s exciting and dramatic opening, but the pace slowed down a lot for a while afterwards without enough urgency to drive it forward. At other points a character might leave the scene and although part of a day passes, the character returns within the same page. At times scenes feel too abrupt, and at other times the pace slows down a bit too much.

I liked the author’s writing style. It wasn’t overly flowery, but it also wasn’t dry to read. I do wish that there was a bit more descriptive language, but I’m someone who really likes description. I also just wanted a bit more world building in general. I wouldn’t say that the novel is dialogue-heavy, but there is quite a bit. If you dislike the characters, you might not enjoy their banter, but I thought it was fine and even humorous at times.

I gave A Touch of Death 3.5 stars, but since Goodreads still won’t add half stars, I settled for rounding up to 4 stars there. This is a good start to an interesting sci-fi, romance, dystopian series that I think deserves a little more attention!

 

Thank you to the author who kindly provided me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Series Review: The Southern Reach Trilogy

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Earlier this year I reviewed Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer, the first book in The Southern Reach Trilogy. Personally, I loved it, and since then I have seen the movie, which is also worth a watch. The first book is an atmospheric, environmental-horror, stream of consciousness ride. I’m sure that many people read the first book and wondered how the rest of the series played out, or maybe you haven’t started the first book yet and wonder if you’d like to dive into this series. So, this week I will do a little something different and discuss the series as a whole. I hope to answer two main questions to help those on the fence about starting or continuing this series.

Are the next two books worth it? Is the series good or satisfying overall? Yes and yes, but the books are certainly not for everyone. If you like hard sci-fi with precise science and properly explained conclusions, beware. If you like atmospheric novels, unexplained mysteries, bread crumb hints, drawing your own conclusions, and have an abstract appreciation for nature and science, the book might be perfect for you. I will also warn that all three books in the series are very different.

Book 1, Annihilation, is focused on one character and has a thriller-like claustrophobia to it. It has a rather open ending, but it could be happily read as a standalone novel. However, if you are still curious about Area X, the sequel, Authority, does yield a few answers. Again, the focus is on one main character (different from Annihilation‘s protagonist), but instead of taking place in Area X, most of the novel unfolds at The Southern Reach, the laboratory that is studying Area X. There are a lot of “behind the scenes” discoveries about Area X in Authority, but by the end, there are more new questions raised than answers given. As someone who really enjoyed being in Area X, I had a hard time getting through Authority as it felt a bit dull in comparison to Annihilation. Although, oddly, Authority has some humorous moments in an otherwise serious series.

Book 3, Acceptance, rounds out the series well. Multiple characters are followed in the last novel, and we see some old faces from previous books. There are many flashback chapters, but they do a good job of answering how Area X became what it is today, even if it does not explain why. That really sums up the third book: the why doesn’t matter and the how barely does. As I said, don’t expect to have the ending tied up nicely with a bow on top, but the author gives just enough clues throughout the series for careful readers to cobble together an opinion. After finishing the series I had a lot of fun browsing the web for theories concerning the series and its ending. If that doesn’t sound fun to you, again, the series might not be your cup of tea, and that’s completely fine!

As for the writing and characterization, I thought both were strong. Some of the descriptions of Area X are beautiful and yet horror-inducing. The scenes in the lab are oppressive, unsettling, and bleak. Vandermeer’s writing deftly conveys the tone and atmosphere of the novel. I also enjoyed how he got into each character’s head. Their actions make sense and feel realistic. Even when I questioned a character’s decision, it would later be revealed why they did something, and then it would all make sense. At this point I’m just singing praises for the series, but I genuinely think at least the first book is worth a read just for the experience.

I rated Annihilation 4/5 stars, Authority 3/5, and Acceptance 4/5. As a whole, I rated the series 4/5. It was a fun, unique, and thought-provoking series. I enjoyed the overall plot and all of the little details along the way. The scope of the series impressed me, and Jeff Vandermeer is definitely a new favorite author.

Borne

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Do you ever find a new author, read and like a book or two they wrote, then all of the sudden realize that you found a new favorite author? Well, that’s what is going on with me. I’ve read and reviewed two other books from Jeff VanderMeer, Wonderbook and Annihilation. I really liked them both, and he might be the author to finally get me into the sci-fi genre. But enough about me. Onward to the review!

Rachel survives by scavenging in her ruined, half-abandoned city. The whys and hows of the city’s destruction is a bit of a mystery, but the city’s fate is closely tied to The Company’s. The Company’s experiments and disregard for humanity as well as the natural world are at least partially to blame for the city’s downfall. In fact, The Company’s biggest and most terrible experiment now lords of the city in the shape of a giant, violent, flying bear named Mord. On one of Rachel’s scavenging trips she finds a strange plant-like creature. She takes it home, not knowing exactly what it is. Rachel’s partner, Wick, disapproves of the strange creature, but Rachel cannot bring herself to give it up. Things become even more complicated when what she thought was a plant becomes a sentient being.

Is this one of those Bizarro fiction things? I mean there’s a giant, flying bear terrorizing a city, after all. No, skeptical reader! Don’t let the flying bear distract you! This book has a lot of heart and serious themes, actually. If you read Annihilation, or the entire Southern Reach Trilogy, you might be skeptical of that statement too, as I have seen many readers complain about Annihilation and its sequels lacking in character depth clarity of plot. Yes, Annihilation is a bit odd, and it does not fully explain everything. Borne’s plot is much more focused, and I was more attached to the main characters. Was everything perfectly explained? No. For example, if you want to know why the bear flies, well, he’s been experimented on, and that’s really all the book tells you. If details like that bother you, you might not like it. The science isn’t super scientific. This isn’t The Martian.

As I mentioned, the characters in Borne are more refined and easier to connect to than those in Annihilation. However, like Annihilation, Borne is written in first person from the perspective of a female character. VanderMeer writes from a female perspective well. Rachel is intelligent, strong-willed, caring, and resourceful, but she also has flaws and makes mistakes. Wick, her partner, is also a good character, but he was more difficult to connect to because of his murky past and because we are reading from Rachel’s perspective. And of course, I have to mention Borne himself. I don’t want to give too much away, but it is hard not to love this non-human character because he is so human.

As for the plot, I liked it, but it felt a little less experimental than VanderMeer’s trilogy, which might be better for some readers. As I said, the plot is much more clear-cut in Borne. The plot takes some predictable turns, but it was still a very unique and engrossing read. The ending wraps things up very well, but I found myself wishing that a few more events, characters, and creatures were explained in depth. This isn’t to say that there are huge plot holes. I just wanted to know more about the world and what happened to the city. The world building feels very vast. The city feels both desolate and feral, but the wider world is mentioned here and there, giving a sense that maybe there’s many other stories to tell.

One last thing I want to mention is why I, specifically, liked this novel. Your mileage may vary. As someone who has always enjoyed fiction and non-fiction that deals with the environment and nature, VanderMeer’s work just clicks with me. His descriptions of plants and animals and how humans connect with and exploit the natural world is just great. He examines so many themes of environmentalism, society, and humanity in a sci-fi novel with a flying bear in it. That impresses me! There’s a lot of emotional and intellectual depth in Rachel’s musings too. This is the first sci-fi novel that I have read that felt literary.

I debated on rating Borne 4 or 5 stars, but ultimately went with 4. It was a great read, but I expected the main story arch to be slightly less predictable, and well, I just wanted more from the book. I’m a harsh judge though, and even as I write this I am considering raising my rating…

 

The Vine That Ate the South

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Have you ever had the most awful week? There must be a big, black rain cloud over my and my family member’s heads right now. So, when in doubt, read something really wacky. I have talked about my local indie publisher, Two Dollar Radio, on here before. They publish some really off-the-wall sci-fi/fantasy as well as some hard hitting family dramas and political novels. Basically, they publish a mixed bag of really unique authors and their work. Nobody is paying me to sing their praises; I just genuinely like the company and what they put out. Enter The Vine That Ate the South, one of those off-the-wall sci-fi novels I mentioned.

As the title suggests, there is a vine that is eating the southern United States (there really is too– look up the kudzu vine). Specifically, the novel takes place somewhere in western Kentucky. Our unnamed protagonist sets out to find the rumored heart of the vine, also known as “The Deadening.” Since the protagonist is a bit unsure of how to proceed by himself, he enlists the help of Carver Canute, a rather strange local with a thick southern accent and a pig-greased pompadour who has been to The Deadening before. Together, the narrator/protagonist and Carver venture through the Kentucky wilderness, finding everything from vampires to albino panthers to some just plain crazy hillbillies.

I have read some bizarre books before, but in my opinion, all of the craziness must have a point or else it will not be as enjoyable to me. Is there a point then? Kind of. There’s an adventure with a destination, but along the way Wilkes throws many Southern U.S. folktales and philosophical passages our way. If you aren’t familiar with the folktales, you might be confused. Even if you are familiar with them (or are happy to go along for the ride if you don’t), you might wonder what the point of encountering some of them are because the encounters do not always directly or obviously connect to the overall plot/journey. I enjoyed the nods to references I knew, but I also questioned the point of some encounters in the whole scope of the novel. Maybe there wasn’t a point sometimes, at least compared to a more traditional adventure story plot, but it could have been the author simply wanting to have fun and push some of the folklore of the south into the hands of readers unfamiliar with it. As someone from a state that is also considered very rural, agricultural, backward, and a bit hillbilly, I can appreciate wanting to share the things unique to my area with a wider audience.

Writing-wise, I enjoyed the book. The author is good at describing the weird and wild scenes. There are also some really beautiful lines that talk about nature and more philosophical topics. The novel is in first-person perspective, and the narrator has a very casual, conversational tone. I have to commend the writer’s ability to translate the local dialect into the text. As someone who has lived in Kentucky, I can say that I know a few people who sound just like Carver Canute. The characters are also well written. Carver is weird but entertaining, has great lines, and is very memorable. The narrator never shares his name, but he references his past here and there throughout the novel. You can get a good sense of the kind of person he is without needing a name. I could relate to him a bit because of these references, so I found that even as a female reader, it was easy to insert myself into the book.

The final verdict is four out five stars from me. It was a wild, fun ride that gave me equal amounts escapism and stuff to think about it. I would recommend this to anyone who has a taste for bizarre science fiction, folklore, or fans of Jeff Vandermeer’s work. Vandermeer actually has praise for this novel on its cover, so I think it will hit the mark for his fans who are in the mood for something more indie in style.

 

Annihilation

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These past two weeks I have been in Hong Kong. I actually read a lot during the flight there and back (14-16 hrs per flight), but I had no time to review anything because I was still working and adhering to deadlines with a 12 hour time difference to take into consideration. Excuses, excuses, but this has been one tough spring for me. But this is a book blog, so let’s move onto the books!

After reading Jeff Vandermeer’s creative writing guide for sci-fi and fantasy, Wonderbook, I was feeling guilty for not reading his actual novels. How can you take someone’s writing advice when you don’t even know if you like their own work? I don’t know, and admittedly that was not the right order to do things… but I can say I have read his work now, and yes, I liked it.

Annihilation is the first book in Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. This first volume is very short at just shy of 200 pages, but it packs quite a punch. In the novel we follow “the biologist” as she and her colleagues explore a place called Area X. The Southern Reach is the entity that puts these expeditions together with volunteers from various fields. Previous groups have died or experienced changes in themselves. The biologist is on expedition number twelve with three other women: the anthropologist, the psychologist, and the surveyor. Together the four women enter Area X, knowing that they may never return– or at least not as who they once were.

I would call this novel a sci-fi thriller. The happenings of the novel have some basis in science, but it gets a little weird at times. There are some good suspenseful parts, and there are some survival/mystery elements that can easily hook readers. This is a novel that you have to be OK with being confused or lost. For much of the novel we see strange animals, plants, and places with few concrete explanations. The characters become unreliable at times because they are never quite sure if they can trust their senses. Despite the characters lacking actual names, I did not feel emotionally disconnected from them. The biologist is the narrator, and we get many scenes of her remembering her past. Plus, you’re in her head the whole time. However, I can see how any or all of these factors might leave the reader feeling lost, and the ending gives few answers. It is something to aware of, but if you like open-ended novels, this is such a quick and engrossing read that it does not hurt to try!

I gave Annihilation four out of five stars. It was quick, fun, suspenseful, and wonderfully weird. I wish that there had been a bit more direction and clarification in the ending especially, but I enjoyed what I read here and am looking forward to seeing what books two and three have to offer.

 

Binti

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Apparently this is the year of sci-fi for me. It isn’t a genre I often reach for because I simply like other genres more. I’ve never been that interested in books about space travel and advanced technology. Give me swords and sorcery any day, but at least I am aware of the fact I should branch out!

Binti has been accepted into the most prestigious school in the galaxy, Oomza University. But Binti is Himba, and her people simply do not leave Earth. Binti sneaks away in the night to leave for her new school because she knows her family will disapprove. As she travels through the stars to her new life, her ship is attacked by the Meduse, an alien race with a long history of war with some humans on Earth.

Binti tells her story in first-person perspective, so it is very easy to get to know her. She is a headstrong, brave, intelligent, and resourceful girl who takes her fate into her own hands. She clearly loves her family and has pride in her people’s traditions. As Binti travels to her new school, she sees humans from different cultures. Her ways are strange to the majority, so she faces some “curiosity” from other people which is really just discrimination. The themes of ignorance breeding hate and listening/learning leading to understanding of differences are touched on a few times even in this short (~100 page) first novella of the series. The other major theme is fitting in and finding yourself in a very different world from what you know, which is actually very easy to relate to for any young person going off to college– across the galaxy or across the country.

It is hard to not recommend such a quick and compelling read. I enjoyed this first novella in the series, but I am unsure if I will continue it soon. I listened to this as an audiobook instead of reading a hard copy, and I would say that the audiobook was a good experience. I prefer reading the hard copy of fantasy/sci-fi books that contain author-created words so that I can see how the words are spelled instead of only hearing them, but I had no trouble with that issue in this audiobook because there were so few unfamiliar words. I gave Binti three or three and a half stars out of five. I am intrigued by the novella and the author’s writing and creativity, so I may continue the series or read more from the author in the future.

 

Invisible Planets

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I know the subtitle of this blog is “spoiler free reviews (almost) every Saturday,” but just know that every time I have to skip a week… I feel guilty about it. Despite the delayed post, I actually read this book quickly when I had time to read it. Invisible Planets is exactly as the subtitle says: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation. I am still new to science fiction, so maybe my opinion doesn’t mean much, but if you’re also a “newbie” to the genre, I hope my perspective helps. Settle in though. This will be a long one.

I chose this collection because I have enjoyed Ken Liu’s past work, and I believed that he would translate and put together an interesting collection of work from various authors. I was not wrong. There are a variety of writing styles, settings, and themes between the stories. Seven authors (most are also newer voices in the genre) are featured in the collection, and each author has 1-3 short stories. I found myself easily gravitating toward some authors and confused by others, but there should be a little something in here for anyone.

If you’re unfamiliar with fiction in translation or have some reservations about understanding any cultural/political nuances in Chinese sci-fi, this is actually a great collection to start with. In the introduction of the collection, Ken Liu explains that he has selected short fiction that he thinks Anglophone readers will appreciate. Still, he urges Anglophone readers to try not to view the stories through a “lens of Western dreams and hopes and fairy tales about Chinese politics […] Chinese writers are saying something about the globe, about all humanity, not just China, and trying to understand their work through this perspective is, I think, the far more rewarding approach.” And, if you want a little extra information about Chinese science fiction, the anthology includes three essays at the back of the book on the subject. As I said, this is a great place to start for Chinese sci-fi. It just feels “dummy proof” for an English reader.

I find it difficult to review any anthology collection in a broad way because there are so many different authors and stories, so I will briefly discuss the authors, my impression of their styles, and a little bit about their stories that appear in the collection.

Chen Qiufan: “The Year of the Rat,” “The Fish of Lijiang,” and “The Flower of Shazui”

Chen Qiufan’s stories may not have been my favorites, but they certainly made me think. Ken Liu described his work as “melding a global, post-cyberpunk sensibility with China’s traditions  and complex historical legacy.” I found some of his stories disturbingly real. For example, in “The Year of the Rat,” the protagonist is at war with genetically engineered rats with human-like characteristics. The near-humanness of the rats was contrasted against humanity’s and society’s often barbaric side, so it made me uncomfortable in a thoughtful way. Chen Qiufan’s stories feel smart; there’s a lot to unpack and examine in each one, but you can still enjoy them without doing much deep reading.

Xia Jia: “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight,” “Tongtong’s Summer,” and “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse”

Xia Jia’s work was what drew me into this anthology. According to Liu, she describes her own style as “porridge SF,” apparently meaning that she considers herself a mixture of “hard” and “soft” sci-fi. I was drawn to Xia Jia’s work because of her lyrical and descriptive writing style. “Tongtong’s Summer” was a heartfelt tale about an injured grandfather and the summer that he had to stay with his granddaughter and her parents. Grandfather and granddaughter initially have a hard time getting along, but their relationship blossoms into something very sweet. “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse” was another of my overall favorites in the collection. It felt like a fairy tale about the passage of time and the how memories can transcend time. I found her stories to be hauntingly beautiful, and I would very happily read more from her if I could.

Ma Boyong: “The City of Silence”

“The City of Silence” was the only story by Ma Boyong in the collection, but it felt like a full length novel. (Or, because of the ending, it could also be a prologue to a great sci-fi novel…) The story focuses on a protagonist who lives in a society with very strict censorship. It is so strict that there is a list of “Healthy Words” everyone must use in their writing and speech, but every day the list of acceptable words grows smaller and smaller. The story discusses the relationship between humans, language, and freedom of expression, but it also goes deeper than that. The characters and how they live in the cracks of this increasingly silent society are extremely interesting. It showcases humanity’s adaptability as well as our limits of what we can endure.

Hao Jingfang: “Invisible Planets” and “Folding Beijing”

Both of Hao Jingfang’s stories were a bit surreal. “Invisible Planets” is structured as if the narrator is talking to another person and telling them about different planets and their inhabitants. The “meaning” of the story is hidden between the planet descriptions and the conversation between the narrator and listener. “Folding Beijing” takes place in a Beijing that can fold itself away at certain times of the day, flip completely over, and unfold itself for another set of residents on the other side. A man in a low class part of the city attempts to illegally travel between the Beijings to deliver a message for pay. Both stories were beautifully written and very creative in both their themes and world building.

Tang Fei: “Call Girl”

“Call Girl” is about a young call girl, but she isn’t really that kind of call girl. I think. She does something with dreams… maybe? I was a little confused by this one, but it was pleasant to read. The point likely flew over my head.

Cheng Jingbo: “Grave of the Fireflies”

“Grave of the Fireflies” felt like a fairy tale. Despite the first person narration, I felt distanced from the characters because of the history-book tone. It was a love story on a planetary, thousand-year scale. The writing was very descriptive with often surreal metaphors. The story felt familiar because it read like an Arthurian tale but with an Eastern flair and some technological/scientific influences making it wholly unique.

Liu Cixin: “The Circle” and “Taking Care of God”

Liu Cixin’s stories were some of my favorites. They have interesting plots with deeper underlying themes. “The Circle” takes place during the reign of the first emperor and involves mathematics, betrayal, and history. It was a very entertaining and smart story. “Taking Care of God” is also very intelligently crafted. Many elderly human looking beings visit Earth, all claiming to be God and requesting food and shelter from humans. Is it a critique on how society treats the elderly? Is there some religious debate in there? There’s certainly some analysis of humanity in it. No matter what meaning you draw from the story, it is humorous, introspective, and sad.