The Space between Worlds
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette Australia, at no cost. It’s due out on August 11; RRP $32.99 (trade paperback).
This is a debut novel – which doesn’t mean Johnson has never written a novel before, of course, just that this is the first one to be published. And it’s pretty great.
It is unclear to me exactly when this is set; some time in the future, but not unimaginably so. It’s also unclear where this is set – I just assume it’s meant to be America because as an Australian, I assume most novels are set in America unless they’re evidently in the UK somewhere. (Realising the setting is Australia, or somewhere other than the US or UK, is often a very surprising moment, unless I’ve gone in knowing the story is deliberately set in, say, Nigeria.)
Anyway. Both the when and the where are basically irrelevant to the story, because the most important where is that most of the action is on Earth Zero. This is a world where not only have parallel universes been discovered to be real, but someone has discovered how a person can travel between them.
These sorts of stories have happened before (says the fan of Fringe) but the particularly clever thing that Johnson does is the caveat that you can only survive traveling to a world where your dop (doppelgänger) is dead.
Barring unfortunate accidents, you know who makes the most valuable traversers, therefore? who are the people able to access the most worlds? It’s the people whose survival to adulthood is unlikely. For wealth, ethnic, gender, location, and other systemic reasons. Those who grow up in areas with a lot of violence. Those from families or suburbs or countries with widespread violence. Those who, in the general course of a capitalist world, are seen to have little real value.
This is a brilliant twist, and I love it. And I also love that Johnson doesn’t present this as meaning that those people suddenly get great lives. Instead, the protagonist – Cara – is always aware of the fact that she could be replaced by robots when that tech works; that the people who were born in the nice town, as opposed to where she grew up (very much not-the-nice town), look down on her or fear her. Her existence is precarious despite her value to the company.
So partly the narrative is about Cara and her navigation of the two worlds – the rich and the poor, in brutal essence – that she straddles. It’s also, of course, about literally moving between worlds, and seeing how different choices have led to different outcomes – on a societal level or an individual one. Unsurprisingly Cara ends up being more involved in one of these other worlds than is appropriate by company standards, and that has knock-on effects for that world as well as her own, which is the bulk of the story.
The novel has little interest in explaining how moving between the worlds works; the science and technology are irrelevant to the story. Instead, Johnson is interested in the people: what secrets are kept and why; how relationships work; why certain decisions are made, and how they change human interactions. I enjoyed this focus a lot.
One aspect didn’t quite work for me; there’s an undercurrent of science v religion, especially in the way that Cara talks about the experience of moving between worlds – as a goddess allowing her to do so. I didn’t feel like this really fit the rest of the story. However, this does not detract from the rest of the story; it just felt undeveloped, like there could have been a bit more discussion of the possible mysticism of moving between worlds; it’s just not there as much as I think I expected.
Overall, this was a very enjoyable book, and I hope that Johnson is able to write many more in a similar vein.
The first book was Revenger.
The second book was Shadow Captain.
This is the third book.
I really like Alastair Reynolds’ work. I own all of his novels (except the Dr Who), and most of his chapbooks and collections. I have re-read several of them, and I get excited about new books.
Um. I was bored by this book.
Like, I skimmed through paragraphs of description in the last third or so.
When I got to the end, I just felt a bit… numb. How had it come to this? How could I possibly not have loved this book?
Let me suggest some reasons:
- The book is too long. Maybe 1/3 too long. There are long, boring descriptions that add nothing to the sense of place or experience. There’s lots of time where nothing happens – and sometimes that can be fine; I will read Legolas and Aragon and Gimli running across Rohan endlessly – but these periods of waiting were… boring.
- The climax didn’t feel like it fit the book itself, or the trilogy overall. Actually I started feeling like this in the second book where all of a sudden we weren’t just off to save someone, but there was something weird going on with the whole civilisation – but that wasn’t something that was even foreshadowed earlier so it came as quite a surprise. And then this book is theoretically all about finding out the answers to those civilisation-wide issues, but there’s a whole lot of waaaaaiting… and then BAM here are (most of) the answers you were waiting for. Which were themselves a bit weird and didn’t feel like they fit the world-building to that point.
- Fura and Adrana, the sisters at the heart of the story: I didn’t really care. Maybe if I had re-read the first two books before getting into this one, I would have been more concerned with their welfare and fates. As it was, neither of them were particularly appealing as characters, and I didn’t feel very compelled to cheer for them.
- The writing style. It was already a bit grating in the first book, and it really wasn’t working for me by this stage. The trilogy is basically like Hornblower in space; the space ships use (light)sails to get around, and there are pirates and privateers and loot and boarding parties and such. The language reflects that idea of 18th-century nautical-ness, especially in conversation. And it got old.
So there we go. I haven’t always adored every Reynolds; the Poseidon’s Children books weren’t my favourite, but I still enjoyed them. Hopefully this book is a blip – maybe a case of the editor not editing as thoroughly as previously? Who knows. I will still be buying the new Reynolds, whenever that comes out; I’ll just be a bit more cautious in my enthusiasm, I suspect.
This book was sent to me at no cost by the publisher, Hachette. The trade paperback (which is lovely) is out now; smaller paperback in September.
I mean. HELLO. New Alastair Reynolds! I was so happy to get this to review. So hi, if you don’t know me I’m a massive fangirl, keep that in mind as you read I guess?
This is the sequel to Revenger, from about three years ago. You probably want to read that before reading this because it sets up the sister relationship that’s at the heart of the story, between Adrana and Arafura (now Fura), as well as the horror in which Bosa Sennen is held throughout the… well, world is the wrong word, but you know what I mean. The area in which the book is set. And that’s the other thing that the first book sets up: that these books are set many, many thousands of years in our future, and they live in the Congregation – which is our solar system having been dismantled and the stuff of the planets used to construct an uncounted number of smaller worlds. Also, civilisation has not been continuous throughout that time; humanity has swelled and fallen over that time, inhabiting more or fewer world, having more or less connections between the worlds, and with technology progressing or lapsing. Which is what allows for the many ships who travel between the worlds to visit the now-uninhabited ones and find ‘treasures’ which may or may not work for them, dating back to previous civilisations.
I guess it’s like modern Britons or Libyans trying to make the Roman aqueducts work.
Anyway, if you haven’t read Revenger I highly recommend it – clearly – as a space opera with deep roots in nautical adventures (including in the language, it’s all coves and sails and broadsides), starring a defiant young woman having mad adventures.
Spoilers for Revenger below this…
A Winter’s Promise
This book was sent to me by the Australian publisher, Text Publishing, at no cost. It’s out now; $22.99 for the paperback.
I’m torn. I really am. I read this in a Sunday, because it’s fairly well paced and most of the writing is quite lovely (which means kudos to Hildegarde Serle for the translation – there are a few clunky bits but I’m not sure whether that’s the translation or the translation, if you know what I mean). I really like the idea of the world – broken somehow, humans surviving on ‘arks’ that appear to floating (??) above the remnant of the Earth. And humans mostly have some sort of mind-powers, and there are ‘family spirits’ who appear to be the original settlers of these arks? or something, that’s not explored yet. (I haven’t read many reviews but I haven’t seen anyone compare it to NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth series yet – the books themselves are very different but there’s something of a parallel in what seems to have happened to the original Earth). I liked the main character, Ophelia – I’ve seen some dissing of her, and I get where most people are coming from, but I mostly enjoyed her and her flaws: her clumsiness has a cause, rather than being meant to be just an adorable trait, and she largely bears up under the weight of being pushed around by everyone. Yes, she’s often passive, but I sympathise with that in the context – she’s terrified, mostly alone, and kept ignorant. (There’s a similarity between her and Jupiter, from Jupiter Ascending.) Those things are others’ fault, not hers, and she does try some things to improve her situation. Also, she keeps regretfully thinking that she just doesn’t love her (arranged) fiancé, and I’m madly hoping she’ll be accepted as asexual and aromantic. There are some interesting other women in the book, but I can’t figure out how I feel about them mostly being various sorts of horrible, mostly revolving around being selfish.
So there are definitely good bits. But.
I do not agree with Elle, saying that this belongs on the same shelf as Harry Potter.
Firstly, pretty much everyone seems to have milky white skin. Not everyone’s skin tone is mentioned, so maaaaybe we’re meant to be that there’s not-white people? But that’s a pretty big stretch. And we’ve only been to two different arks so maaaaaybe there’s racial segregation? But that would also be problematic and it hasn’t been mentioned in this book and… yeh. It is disappointing to read this in a book today.
Then there’s the intended audience. This is being talked about as a YA but there’s a character who frankly declares his intention of seducing and ‘deflowering’ Ophelia because of being Thorn’s fiancé and… that’s not really called out. Sure, talk about sex in the book, and portray it as problematic even, but – that’s an adult man, a lot older than Ophelia, planning her seduction because that’s all he does with women. And that, friends, is gross.
On which topic: there is no romance in this book. Anyone who tells you otherwise read something quite different from what I did. I assume people are reading one of the characters as being a bit Mr Darcy, but… no.
I can’t help but wonder whether the people who are raving about this being something new, and unique, have read very much YA. The world is definitely lovely and intriguing but it’s not unique. The plot is a coming-of-age story – which I adore, but um is not unique. And so on. I’m not cautioning against reading this (unless the bit about the older man planning to seduce the young woman creeps you out which I would totally understand), but neither am I going to be seeking out the sequel.
The Girl with the Dragon Heart
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. I believe it comes out in Australia at the start of September; RRP $14.99.
I heard about this book from Tansy, who adored it, so when I got to a chance to review it I was pretty stoked. But a thing I did not realise: this is a sequel! When I read the first chapter or so I wasn’t sure whether Burgis was doing something quite ambitious for this middle grade/ YA book (the protagonist is 13: I don’t know how to classify books for younger readers) – that is, leaping right into the story and then adding a bit of background information. Then I found out that before this is The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, and it made a bit more sense. That said, I think that the narrators are different in the two books, and obviously I haven’t read the first but I still managed to read and love this book… so it does stand by itself.
Silke is 13 and determined to write her own story of her life, with herself as heroine not victim. She and her brother have been on their own since their parents were captured or killed as the family were fleeing their homeland some years ago. Most recently, Silke has been making herself useful to the chocolate makers at The Chocolate Heart, who have employed her best friend who is usually in human form but is actually a dragon (it’s complicated). She’s waitressing, and telling stories both orally and via broadsheet. But then she gets a job from the crown princess when the neighbouring fairy royalty, who have been living underground for a century, suddenly come for a visit. Silke has the chance to prove herself but of course things won’t go as smoothly as one might hope…
There’s a lot to like here. The action moves quickly, but there’s still lovely moments of character development. And the characters are great: mostly girls and women, with genuine diversity of character. The crown princess might be well loved, but/and she’s also a ruthless politician when necessary. The younger princess feels overshadowed; the chocolate apprentice is true to her dragon heritage; the adult women are sometimes compassionate, sometimes impatient, sometimes ignorant. The male characters are also diverse – Silke’s older brother is, basically, an older brother; sometimes the men are greedy, sometimes loving. Silke herself is basically creating herself as she goes along, which is probably her most intriguing characteristic: after early trauma she is determined not to have her life written for her. And so she puts on an act – which is sometimes a good thing, and sometimes not, and that’s acknowledged by the text.
As for the action: it’s clear from early on that the arrival of the fairies isn’t going to be the wondrous thing that the population might hope. It takes some unexpected turns, much like Silke learning the ins and outs of the servants’ passageways within the castle. The fairies have a bit less development than some other characters, but it does all work well as a narrative.
I really enjoyed this and look forward to giving it to the younger readers in my life.
The Buried Ark
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Pan Macmillan Australia, at no cost. It’s out now.
This is the sequel to The Silent Invasion, which I’ve previously reviewed. It was excellent, which is why I was excited about getting this to review, and it lived up to expectations – in terms of suspense and character, anyway. I had no idea, and no expectations, about where the plot would go; as it turned out, I wouldn’t have been able to predict it even if I’d tried.
If you haven’t read The Silent Invasion, you should go off and do that. All you need to know is that it’s set in a very familiar Australia, except that spores from Somewhere Else have been infecting and affecting regions of the globe – starting in the tropics and moving to the temperate zones. Flora and fauna are being Changed, and so are humans. In response, in Australia, there are no-go zones and suspicions of people who might be affected. The central character, Callie, is trying to look after her little sister Gracie, who has somehow been infected. The book ends on an epic cliffhanger, hence my excitement about getting this book to resolve it. You really don’t want to read this without reading the first book; but it’s only around 250 pages, and it’s YA so it’s super fast-paced, and it’s definitely worthwhile.
Spoilers for those who’ve read The Silent Invasion
So, that cliffhanger! I’d forgotten exactly what had happened, at the end, so I re-read the last chapter before starting this sequel – which was an excellent idea because the first page is basically the next second after the last page of the first. Which I quite like, except it does make me curious about why they are separate books. I guess 500 pages are harder to sell to a YA market? Anyway: briefly things seem like they might be okay for Callie, even though she’s lost Gracie and Matt, but – as I’m sure you kinda expect – things do not eventuate into a happy garden of joy. Whatasurprise. Callie ends up heading back out of the Zone, which then becomes a ‘from frying pan into fire’ scenario. And then… well, it’s a little spoiler, but it’s a frying pan to fire to slowly boiling pot of water scenario: you know, where you don’t realise initially that things aren’t great until the water starts really heating up around you? Yeh. That. Callie meets new people, learns of new ways of trying to deal with the Change, briefly feels like life may actually go ok. Poor Callie.
There are more women in this novel than I remember from the first, but that may just be my memory; certainly Callie was moving relatively quickly, so she met a lot of people but they haven’t all stuck in my mind. She doesn’t meet that many of her own age, but that makes sense in the context of where she is. There’s one person that really sticks with me, because of his name: Dr Omelas. If you know Ursula Le Guin’s work, that may give you a slight idea about the sort of thing he’s involved with… if you have no idea what I’m referring to, don’t worry, it won’t affect your enjoyment of the story!
If you enjoyed The Silent Invasion, you definitely want to keep reading the trilogy. Go grab this! Support Australian authors!
The Silent Invasion
I think this is the first James Bradley book I’ve read, which is… a thing. If this is an indication of his calibre, I shall rectify that.
This is a near-future Australia. The entire world has been affected by alien spores that Change animals, plants and people – not everyone, but many of those who come into contact. And the spores seem to particularly like it hot and humid, so there’s been an exodus of people from the tropical parts of the world. Of course, this hasn’t been particularly well received by the temperate parts of the world. There are walls. And camps. And suspicion of foreigners.
All sounding a bit familiar, isn’t it.
The heart of the book is Callie, an adolescent whose father Changed some years ago and whose young sister is now exhibiting symptoms – because even in temperate Adelaide, you’re not safe from the spores. Rather than allow Gracie to be taken to Quarantine, Callie decides to run away with her to the Zone: the part of Australia that’s been sectioned off by a mighty Wall, to the north of which the Change runs riot. Cue adventure and desperation and bravery and hardship.
What is perhaps most intriguing about this book is the prologue. I mean, I really enjoyed the book, and Callie is a gutsy character, and I liked the depiction of Australia. But the prologue? It makes it clear that this desperate adventure across southern Australia is only the beginning of what will confront Callie across the trilogy. Because in the opening paragraph, she mentions “this alien beach,” and being “under a sky so full of stars that even the night shines”. There is something much weirder going on than just another version of the Triffids, or a slow invasion story. And while I enjoyed the look-after-the-sister story, I am really intrigued by what’s going to happen to Callie to lead her to this alien planet.
Bring on the next book.
This is the sequel to the brilliant Illuminae. Intriguingly, though, it could definitely be read as a stand-alone book. There’s an entirely new set of main characters, and while the events do flow on from the initial ones they’re taking place in a completely different part of space. What little background knowledge might be useful is provided as part of the briefing documents.
Note: if you didn’t enjoy Illuminae (and I understand the style isn’t for everyone), don’t come to this one.
Like Illuminae, the novel is composed of ‘found’ documents, here presented as part of trial. Those documents are things like IM-chat transcripts; descriptions of video surveillance, complete with occasional snarky comments from the tech doing the description; logs of emails, and other communications; and a few other bits and pieces. It means that the narrative isn’t entirely linear, and this works really nicely – the story of what has happened, and what the characters are like, comes out slowly and… I guess organically. There’s a few bits where people are described in reports or get talked about, but in general we learn about them through their words and actions.
The setting for the main narrative is a space station, guarding a worm hole that has gates to several different systems. Something terrible happens, and things must be done by unlikely heroes. Exactly the depth of the Terrible Things and how they might be resolved are the focus of the story. There’s crawling through air vents and unlikely alliances, hacking both computer and physical, general death and destruction and mayhem, betrayals and banter. And it all happens over a really short space of time so that it feels quite desperate and breathless; when I had to put it down 50 pages from the end to go out for dinner (I’d read the rest of it that day), I was horrified at leaving everyone hanging.
This is an immensely fun book. I can imagine it working on reluctant readers – or those who think they only like graphic novels – once they got over the thickness of it, that is, since it’s a very graphic piece of work: each page is designed to look like what it’s meant to be, whether that’s a chat transcript or legal documents. Or excerpts from an adolescent girl’s diary. Each ‘chapter’ feels short and punchy because none of the documents are very long. It’s a clever pacing trick.
A very entertaining and enjoyable book. I am excited for the next instalment.
Nowhere Near You
This novel was sent to me by the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It’s out in March (RRP $15.99 paperback/ $11.99 ebook).
The following contains SPOILERS for Because You’ll Never Meet Me – which you should totally just go read if you’re into slightly angsty YA epistolary novels.
At the end of Because Ollie mother has died and he and his doctor are setting out on a road trip to meet other ‘freaks’… while Ollie wears what is basically a hazmat suit, where he is the hazard. Moritz has confronted his anger and the damage he did to Lenz and is trying to figure out how to deal with Owen.
By necessity, Nowhere Near You is quite different from the first book. Ollie is meeting people, so there’s that aspect – new people to talk to, and about, and new experiences – and of course he’s also interacting with electricity, which is a whole thing in and of itself. His sheer joy at experiencing a city and all the things that ordinary humans take for granted is a crazy delight to read. While Moritz is still at home, he’s interacting with new people too as he goes to a new school and meets… some good people, and some very dodgy ones. Again, of necessity, these new experiences change the two boys, and not always for the better. Both of them have incredibly awful experiences that reinforce their tendencies towards self-blame and depression, although again they both work hard to encourage the other. As they change they also have to confront aspects of each other that don’t always fit their view of the friendship, and I deeply appreciated Thomas’ care for her characters and desire for honesty in the way their friendship develops and overcomes those problems.
Once again the locations are deeply important, as both Ollie and Moritz interact with their places and try to understand their literal and figurative places within society. Other people become more important as they reject their hermit ways; again, parents of various sorts – biological, adoptive, foster – and various levels of emotional connection. It’s the other kids who are most interesting, though. Ollie meets some of the other experimental kids, and although you could probably read their various ‘disabilities’ as metaphorical I liked Thomas’ deadpan way of dealing with them: here’s who they are, what they can/not do, and they are real in this world and deserving of respect. Moritz mostly meets people who are ‘normal’ (caveats etc) and what I realise, on reflection, is that all of these people – experimented on and not – are as equally likely to be messed up, frustrating to know, or a complete joy, as each other. They’re individuals. I liked that a lot.
Also once again, there’s a lot of secrets that rear their less than pleasant heads over the course of Ollie and Moritz’s communication. And once again they both have their anger and both eventually deal with it. I really like how Thomas shows that being angry with someone doesn’t have to mean the end of a friendship. I think that’s about the most powerful aspect of the whole thing. Oh and also that being different doesn’t have to be the worst thing ever.
This was a delightful diptych and I look forward to seeing what else Thomas produces over the next few years.
Because You’ll Never Meet Me
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It was published in 2015 and they have sent it to me now because the sequel has just been published, and they were sending that to me as well. NICE MOVE BLOOMSBURY VERY CLEVER.
I had forgotten just how much I like an epistolary novel. I mean, I adore Freedom and Necessity possibly beyond reason, but that’s a pretty special case. Turns out it works nicely here, too.
Ollie and Moritz start sending letters – yes, actual letters, because Reasons – when Ollie is given Moritz’s address by his doctor. Ollie is a hermit for medical reasons and Moritz has a number of issues of his own such that while he’s not quite a hermit he’s definitely anti-social. Over the letters, the two develop a tight bond that’s mostly based on honesty, although their trust is tested at several points. They both keep secrets for a number of reasons – some good, some dubious. They take it in turns to be utterly depressed, often with good reason, and attempt to encourage one another. With varying degrees of success.
Look, yes, this book presumes that 14 and 16 year old boys are capable of and willing to write letters to strangers. It also presumes that said boys are willing to occasionally be emotionally open. These things can indeed be true. These things are not the least probable aspects of the book.
Ollie and Moritz’s letters are neatly separated by different fonts, which is a technique I have to admit to loving, as well as by tone. There is little fear of mistaking one for the other: Ollie is exuberant (usually) while Moritz is more formal. Their personalities are very different, due to their childhoods and their homes and their experiences. They make a lovely contrast. There are other characters: parents – biological and adoptive, loving and uncaring (those two sets do not always match); love interests; visitors; casual bystanders. The locations form a key part of the stories, as Ollie and Moritz (literally) navigate their worlds. But really it all comes back to the two boys.
This was an excellent novel. It’s YA… and I guess it has other genre elements but explaining those would be spoilers, so… just find out for yourself.