Book Review: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Part nature documentary, part retelling of the human condition, Children of Time tells of the clash between a race just beginning and another on the verge of vanishing forever.

Children of Time Synopsis

A race for survival among the stars… Humanity’s last survivors escaped earth’s ruins to find a new home. But when they find it, can their desperation overcome its dangers?

WHO WILL INHERIT THIS NEW EARTH?

The last remnants of the human race left a dying Earth, desperate to find a new home among the stars. Following in the footsteps of their ancestors, they discover the greatest treasure of the past age – a world terraformed and prepared for human life.

But all is not right in this new Eden. In the long years since the planet was abandoned, the work of its architects has borne disastrous fruit. The planet is not waiting for them, pristine and unoccupied. New masters have turned it from a refuge into mankind’s worst nightmare.

Now two civilizations are on a collision course, both testing the boundaries of what they will do to survive. As the fate of humanity hangs in the balance, who are the true heirs of this new Earth?

Goodreads

My Thoughts

On Tor.com’s Facebook page, I came across James Davis Nicoll’s article “SFF Works in Which Violence is Not the Solution.” Among the offerings listed appeared Mushishi, my favorite television show and ultimate inspiration for my free-to-read flash fiction series about The Hopeful Wanderer. Stories with non-violent solutions speak to my heart – hence the existence of the Wanderer – and the presence of Mushishi recommended this list to me wholeheartedly.

Almost every work in this article now lives on my Goodreads TBR list, but only Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky was available in my library network when I went looking for them. I’ll get ahold of the rest someday.

Appraisals

PLOT

Part nature documentary, part retelling of the human condition, Children of Time tells of the clash between a race just beginning and another on the verge of vanishing forever. The narrative follows two intriguing plotlines and their occasional overlap.

Tchaikovsky takes a species almost universally abhorrent to humans – spiders – and makes them sympathetic and understood as they evolve into a sentient race on a terraformed planet. Guided by their Messenger in the sky and nano-virus evolution through hunter-society, superstition, radical religion, invention, enlightenment, and space-faring unity. The most interesting part I found personally was the examination of sexism through the lens of males as the inferior gender, and how the brave and the empathetic make changes to this problem.

The humans, on the other hand, walk an opposing path. As thousands of years pass to those in cryogenic sleep, individuals in the cargo get woken for crisis after crisis as the last race of its kind squabble, in-fight, revolt, and work desperately to stay alive on a crumbling ark ship. The mechanics of time and generations become skewed through the use of cryogenics, with legendary figures rising from their ‘coffins’ to find several generations of humans passed. Though the Gilgamesh seeks a home for the humans among the stars, only one terrifying world will do.

CHARACTERS

My favorite character motif of Children of Time comes from the spiders society. As the story progresses over spider generations, living and dying in the thousands of years passing by for the humans, each new generation features three or four characters, new every time, but bearing the placeholder names of their ancestors. I loved learning which roles the Portias and the Biancas and the Fabians and the Violas would play during the rise of each new situation. The scholar? The warrior? The leader? The mad genius? Always Tchaikovsky focused on these characters as the most important movers of their world.

From the human camp, I found myself relating to the four to five characters present from Key Crew. From bumbling Mason, looking for meaning in a meaningless universe; to Lain on whose shoulders ride the leadership of an entire race; to simple Karst keeping up a smiling appearance hiding a sense of failed understanding beneath; to Guyen’s egotistical bid for eternity to see through his long-range plan; to logical Vitas and her hidden fears.

THEME

The difficult path to harmony. Throughout its existence, humanity has demonstrated its inability to get along with others. Children of Time presents the notion that lacking outside help, and perhaps a three-dimensional perspective, humans may never break the pattern of self- and environmental-destruction. Without the intervention of the alien spider intelligence, humanity would continue to spiral ever closer to the brink until someday it destroyed itself.

ENDING

Couched within the ending of Children of Time comes the non-violent part promised in Tor.com’s article. However, Tchaikovsky keeps his solution close to the chest, having me worried up until the last second that violence would be the answer after all.

Criticisms

Sudden sex is sudden and people sigh rather often. The usual. Otherwise, Children of Time is a magnificent science fiction offering. The story will stick with me for ages to come.

My Rating: 5/5 stars
Goodreads Rating: 4.30 stars

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Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Agniezka gets thrown into unfamiliar situation after unfamiliar situation, just as she thinks she knows what she’s about. Each time, her lack of understanding gets her into trouble as she tries to fit into her surroundings and play by the rules. Only when she recognizes that the rules are garbage and that she must do things her way does she begin to stand a chance at getting what she needs.


Uprooted Synopsis

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose. (less)

Goodreads

My Thoughts

Another library find, Uprooted caught my eye as I prowled the shelves. I was coming down with a cold and needed something to keep me company in the long, gross days ahead. Though I had read no Naomi Novik offerings to this point, I knew her name, and the first page of Uprooted intrigued me.

Appraisals

PLOT

Concerning plot, Uprooted takes its time. Or rather, it covers a lot of ground over the course of the story. From a wizard’s tower to a cursed forest, a trip to a distant capital and back, rescue and battle, and a final confrontation in the heart of the Wood.

The fight scenes present vividly the fear and desperation of battle, all the ways things can go wrong, ending in loss of life. Exploration of the magic and new understandings of old ways of thinking show up as expressive imagery. The world itself appears both vast and detailed.

CHARACTERS

Many of the elements I loved in Tamora Pierce’s series The Immortals showed up in Uprooted. The wild magic element of Agniezka’s powers. The world weary mage in Sarkan. Her complete disinterest in keeping herself tidy, with no level of ridicule or criticism capable of changing that. Her chaos versus his orderliness, and the eventual recognition from both the value of the other’s method, the importance of putting the two together instead of keeping them apart. I found the two vivid and dynamic, changing and growing over the course of the story, ultimately becoming equals.

THEME

Stick with your guns. In Uprooted, Agniezka gets thrown into unfamiliar situation after unfamiliar situation, just as she thinks she knows what she’s about. Each time, her lack of understanding gets her into trouble as she tries to fit into her surroundings and play by the rules.

Only when she recognizes that the rules are garbage and that she must do things her way does she begin to stand a chance at getting what she needs.

ENDING

Possibly my favorite part of Uprooted, the ending. Agniezka ultimately becomes independent, a powerful yet compassionate witch, sharing empathy with her enemy and working hard to set the lingering after-effects of a centuries-long war to rights. She chases after no one’s approval but her own, so that in the end, she is enough for herself.

Criticisms

As mentioned, a lot happens in the plot of Uprooted. Several times, the story appears to be ending, only for another movement to begin. I had no problem with more to read, but getting catfished like that became a little wearying.

My Rating: 5/5 stars
Goodreads Rating: 4.09 stars

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Book Review: Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones by Micah Dean Hicks

The narrative examines topical questions of today wrapped up into one metaphor – those of labor replacement as artificial intelligence and digitization invade the workplace, as well as the decline of the coal industry (and others) as alternate energy options become available.

Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones Synopsis

Jane is haunted. Since she was a child, she has carried a ghost girl that feeds on the secrets and fears of everyone around her, whispering to Jane what they are thinking and feeling, even when she doesn’t want to know. Henry, Jane’s brother, is ridden by a genius ghost that forces him to build strange and dangerous machines. Their mother is possessed by a lonely spirit that burns anyone she touches. In Swine Hill, a place of defeat and depletion, there are more dead than living.

When new arrivals begin scoring precious jobs at the last factory in town, both the living and the dead are furious. This insult on the end of a long economic decline sparks a conflagration. Buffeted by rage on all sides, Jane must find a way to save her haunted family and escape the town before it kills them.

Goodreads

My Thoughts

On a trip to Tulsa, OK to view the release of Detective Pikachu at the Warren Theater, a few of my friends and I stopped into the Barnes & Noble down the street from the hotel where we usually stay. Fresh from a job promotion and corresponding pay raise, I had given myself permission to buy a book. A new one, never used nor from the library sale rack.

Though I had a few possibilities lined up, none of the books on offer there interested me much. But one of my friends casually suggested Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones to me. The first few pages showed a life none of the other possibilities had, so I bought it. My first book purchase in a long, long time.

Appreciations

PLOT

Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones presents an immediate saturation of imagery, never leaving the reader confused as to description. Quick sentence elements and dynamic plot shifts barrel the story forward.

The narrative examines topical questions of today wrapped up into one metaphor – those of labor replacement as artificial intelligence and digitization invade the workplace, as well as the decline of the coal industry (and others) as alternate energy options become available.

Specifically, it covers how such economic changes effect workers and their storied histories of fighting just to exist in such industries at all. Plus the uselessness of such strife when changes make all that effort moot.

CHARACTERS

Jane, the main point-of-view character of Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones, clings to the known as it disintegrates around her just for the familiarity. Holding out on change until the very last second, proving herself no different from the rest of the townsfolk, both living and dead, even though she can see what’s happening to all of them. She takes some stabs at making a difference and finds that reality bites back, hard.

THEME

Death does not us part. The point of view of Henry, Jane’s younger brother, demonstrates what a great hold one’s surroundings can exert, to the point that even death imparts no relief from tasks uncompleted. In Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones, anger and hopelessness at the current climate, and the unwillingness to change and improve a given situation, holds all back from betterment.

ENDING

The ending of Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones takes a surreal turn, pulling out a peculiar and inexplicable subplot as the solution to the narrative’s conflicts. Symbolic, to be sure, but almost to the point of incomprehensibility.

Criticisms

Gloominess begins and ends Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones. Given a natural melancholic bent myself, this made finishing the book while remaining cheerful a very difficult task.

In addition, I prefer character-driven stories in appreciation of the human element. But Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones leaned far more toward a plot-driven narrative, hammering home the sense of uncontrolled hopelessness present throughout the tale.

My Rating: 4/5 stars
Goodreads Rating: 3.96 stars

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Book Review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Those joining the military cannot imagine what they will face, and are forbidden from contacting anyone back home after joining. They are, after all, dead to their world.


Old Man’s War
 Synopsis


John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.

The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce– and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.

Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.

John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine–and what he will become is far stranger.

Goodreads

My Thoughts

When I lifted Old Man’s War by John Scalzi from the library shelves, the soft cover art had me nostalgic for that of Ender’s Game, one of my first sci-fi reads. The initial line in the synopsis packed punch and the rest promised mystery, so I gave it a go.

What I Liked

PLOT

While I won’t give some of the twists away (because they’re good twists), the premise of Old Man’s War involves the elderly returning to youth in return for the promise to fight in an intergalactic war both never-ending and ever-shifting. The tone leans into the oppressiveness of war, the way its horrors translate across space and species, but can take forms so much worse than anything humans have perpetuated on earth. Those joining the military cannot imagine what they will face, and are forbidden from contacting anyone back home after joining. They are, after all, dead to their world.

CHARACTERS

John Perry comes off as an Everyman, neutral enough for anyone to step into his shoes and see the world – and the universe at large – through his view. He gains friends and grows attached to some people, but seems less than effected when war wipes them out. Distant. Even the chapters of Old Man’s War describing these deaths step back, as if to avert the reader’s gaze from the impersonality of war, just a little. He does, however, love his deceased wife more than anything, holding onto his feelings for her as if they can supplement his own emotions.

Showing an aptitude for staying one thought ahead of constantly changing battlefields, John Perry adapts to war and, as much as he can, excels at it. To the point of ultimately joining the military’s most elite branch, even if he forever hovers at the bottom of their ranks. Though death almost claims him countless times, he lives war as if he has known no peaceful life.

THEME

War doesn’t care about you. From the beginning to the end, Old Man’s War reiterates that death happens in an instant and often for no reason. Soldiers must find meaning in the tiny things or die with nothing. Even then, no one can say whether it matters in the end except the dead.

ENDING

The ending of Old Man’s War felt just a little rushed. The buildup and rising action worked great, but where the components for winning a decisive battle should have come together, they seemed to come out of nowhere and then vanish into dust. Perhaps because averting one disaster means just going on to the next crisis, rendering the details somewhat unimportant.

Criticisms

With the recognition that Old Man’s War was written during an earlier literary time than the era in which we find ourselves today, the narrative contained some troubling tropes. While I still enjoyed the story and the message it had to offer, it still contained aspects of the Bury Your Gays and Manic Pixie Dream Girl tropes. I’m not saying don’t read it, but I am saying be prepared.

My Rating: 3/5 stars
Goodreads Rating: 4.24 stars

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Book Review: King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

King of Scars focuses on that lingering sense of incompleteness that follows victory over a traumatic struggle. What now? How to deal with the ghosts and monsters that haunt the victors? When has the battle truly ended?

King of Scars Synopsis


Nikolai Lantsov has always had a gift for the impossible. No one knows what he endured in his country’s bloody civil war—and he intends to keep it that way. Now, as enemies gather at his weakened borders, the young king must find a way to refill Ravka’s coffers, forge new alliances, and stop a rising threat to the once-great Grisha Army.

Yet with every day a dark magic within him grows stronger, threatening to destroy all he has built. With the help of a young monk and a legendary Grisha Squaller, Nikolai will journey to the places in Ravka where the deepest magic survives to vanquish the terrible legacy inside him. He will risk everything to save his country and himself. But some secrets aren’t meant to stay buried—and some wounds aren’t meant to heal.

Goodreads

My Thoughts

While I liked Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy pretty well when I read it, I’ve been a fan of her books ever since the release of the Six of Crows duology and her anthology of short-stories, The Language of Thorns. So naturally, I borrowed King of Scars from my friend as soon as feasibly possible. She read the entire thing in a day, stopping only for a recharge nap. I might have read it a little slower than that, but only just.

What I Liked

PLOT

King of Scars follows the incomplete tales of side characters from the previous Grisha trilogy and Six of Crows duology in Nina Zenik, Nikolai Lantsov, and Zoya Nazyalensky — characters fans of the Grisha world have embraced and loved. More specifically, the narrative focuses on that lingering sense of incompleteness that follows victory over a traumatic struggle. What now? How to deal with the ghosts and monsters that haunt the victors? When has the battle truly ended? Though readers need not have read the previous installments of this world, doing so enriches the experience of King of Scars, as it contains constant and thrilling call-backs to previous content in mentions of Alina Starkov, Kaz Brekker and the Dregs, and even vague hints in the direction of The Language of Thorns.

CHARACTERS

In the Six of Crows duology, readers met Nina Zenik, protege of Zoya Nazyalensky, for the first time, and even got her point of few on several occasions throughout the daring heists and mad schemes perpetrated by the Dregs, the Ketterdam gang she ran with for a while. But her story ended in tragedy and personal trouble, so King of Scars narrates the continuation of her character development as she struggles to lay her past attachments to rest and embrace a new and dangerous power awakened within her, all while attempting to rescue a country that hates her from its own self.

Both Nikolai Lantsov and Zoya Nazyalensky appear in the original Grisha trilogy, but both, as intriguing characters, reach the trilogy end with unresolved problems. Each carry a certain darkness within them, one a hunger for power, the other a hunger for control. If they hope to successfully remake Ravka into a peaceable country, they must each face their own demons, and learn to recognize when the wrong path may appear as the right one.

THEME

The ever constant struggle of wrestling ones own demons, sometimes literally. Trauma doesn’t just go away. Torments resurface over and over again. In King of Scars, Ravka is a land beset on all sides by constant war, turmoil, and worry — an aspect reflected in the hearts of its leaders and greatest champions. The more they deal with their wounds, the more their personal ghosts seem bent on manifesting and becoming more corporeal than ever before. Sometimes, facing trouble makes the situation even worse, but it must be faced. Again and again and again.

ENDING

While the heroes triumph in King of Scars, they also experience defeat and new, encroaching threats. The bad times our heroes feared have arrived at Ravka’s door.

What I Disliked

The resurrection of previously vanquished villains. Maybe Bardugo is just the type who likes to revive the bad guys just to kill them again, but I would have liked to see how she introduced and handled a new antagonist for King of Scars. (There are lots of bad guys in the previous installments and the revival happens pretty early on, so this doesn’t spoil.) But this story is all about wrapping up unresolved issues, so perhaps such a trope fits well with the overall intent.

My Rating: 4/5 stars
Goodreads Rating: 4.28 stars

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Book Review: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

He has a calm, thoughtful demeanor and a coat with more than two sides; she exudes roguishness and capability. In A Darker Shade of Magic, their fates intertwine…

A Darker Shade of Magic Synopsis


Kell is one of the last Antari—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel Londons; Red, Grey, White, and, once upon a time, Black. 

Kell was raised in Arnes—Red London—and officially serves the Maresh Empire as an ambassador, traveling between the frequent bloody regime changes in White London and the court of George III in the dullest of Londons, the one without any magic left to see.

Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see. It’s a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.

After an exchange goes awry, Kell escapes to Grey London and runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive.

Goodreads

My Thoughts

I picked up A Darker Shade of Magic at the recommendation of my friend, who once again recognized that I’d be interested in the roguish thief character, Lila Bard. Also, I had lately been seeing V.E. Schwab’s name floating around, especially with her nomination topping the list for the 2018 Goodreads Choice Awards in the Science Fiction category.

What I Liked

PLOT

Five alternate worlds sit on a spectrum from most magical to least, all interconnected by one city called London, through which Kell, as an Antari, can travel. I loved the prospect both of thematic London parallels and one person who can pass between them. Blood, magic, political intrigue, daring, and temptation. The aesthetic of Place and Objects shines through the pages, practically demanding fan art. The world of A Darker Shade of Magic begs for story to fill it up.


CHARACTERS

Delilah Bard, a street thief who yearns for adventure on the high seas as a pirate, and Kell, a blood magician capable of stepping between worlds. He has a calm, thoughtful demeanor and a coat with more than two sides; she exudes roguishness and capability. In A Darker Shade of Magic, their fates intertwine by pure accident, but the narrative hints that Lila may be more like Kell, dulled by the magic-sapping atmosphere of Grey London, than she or Kell could imagine.

THEME

Power addiction. What does an Antari, capable of not only manipulating all elements of magic but also of passing into alternate realities, do with this almost limitless ability? Thirst for and acquire yet more power, of course. Imagine literally being the whimsical magician whom those in Grey London (our world) only dream of being and still feeling unsatisfied.

In A Darker Shade of Magic,Lila embodies that Grey Londoner, knowing the deep chasm within her heart must have been filled by more in another life, but not in her own world. Yet, perhaps because she did not grow up with magic at her dispense, she relinquishes the power promised by the black stone more easily than does Kell.

ENDING

The ending of A Darker Shade of Magic does not leave the reader on a cliff hanger, but it has dropped enough unanswered questions into the narrative by then to warrant further investigation in the next installment.

What I Disliked

Although the narrative of A Darker Shade of Magic throws Kell and Lila around — bloodying, bruising, and bashing them — I never quite worried about them. There are many moments that raise the tension, but the two always escape danger. By the end, I had no worry that they might not win the day, leaving me on the whole unenthused at the struggle.

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Goodreads Rating: 4.09 stars

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Book Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars Synopsis

On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.

Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.

Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

(Via Goodreads)

Award-winning author Mary Robinette Kowal

My Thoughts

I came across The Calculating Stars by award-winning author Mary Robinette Kowal while perusing the Goodreads Choice Awards 2018 Science Fiction list. Lady astronauts? Hidden Figures vibes? Alternate universe featuring one of my favorite historical subjects? Sign me right up.

What I Liked

Plot

The Calculating Stars closely examines the entire process by which an era known for its traditional gender roles might be rocked on its foundation when the impact of a meteorite accelerates the progress of gender equality. At no point is this easy. The multitude of fierce, intelligent, and brave women battle gender stereotyping on every page as the narrative spotlights the intense riptide of sexism prevalent in their everyday lives. Though so many women work as calculators capable of more perfect accuracy than IBM computers, the relevancy of their work has to take a backseat to changing the public’s social view of a woman’s assumed fragility. Who less qualified to step into the public’s eye to accomplish just that than a socially anxious math nerd like Elma York? She believes women and minorities should have equal opportunity in scientific fields, but the audience gets to watch as she grows into this steadfast mentality.

Permeated throughout this examination is the atmosphere of working at what would have been NASA if it had existed a little earlier in history — calculating the first trip into space, overcoming the challenges of implementing a space station, dreaming of reaching the moon and beyond in the race to save humanity from a planet Earth preparing to fry itself to death.

Characters

The characters of The Calculating Stars felt like real colleagues, the kind of people I could see myself working with as coworkers and getting to know over the course of a few years. Elma and her husband Nathaniel complement each other both as lovers and as partners. I appreciate how Nathaniel never needs Elma to play the traditional feminine role, and often expresses himself with natural emotions, communication with her, and thoughtfulness, all while juggling a difficult job. Elma’s rival, who perpetuates the very stifling gender stereotypes she battles throughout, gets to show both his awful sides and his good sides in such a human fashion that both regularly blindside Elma. Other characters bring values that matter to the story, but all of them present like just one aspect of many that these people might have.

Theme

Women getting what they want. Though the women characters of The Calculating Stars struggle and fight with various different tactics against persistent stereotyping, sexism, mockery, and belittling, the narrative also sprinkles in satisfaction for these women throughout. When they successfully pass a test, during sexual intercourse, in motherhood, in life threatening dangers, as homemakers, as career women. I could probably count the number of books that present this much satisfaction for women on one hand. The number of such science fiction books fits on just two fingers.

Ending

The Calculating Stars ends on a high note, but with the promise of more difficulty ahead. The next arc seems to indicate a requirement to convince the public of the dangers of remaining on earth much longer, as well as an examination of racism in choosing who will first get to colonize space.

What I Disliked

The complication of cattiness among women put me off at first, but the narrative of The Calculating Starsresolves this particular unhelpful stereotype in a realistic and wholesome fashion, as if it meant to unpack the connotation that goes with it all along.

My rating: 5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.21 stars

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