Book Review: Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside explores what might happen if a master key could open any lock because it could converse with the laws and rules of reality, as well as what might happen if it came across a human who could understand and talk back to it.

Foundryside Synopsis


In a city that runs on industrialized magic, a secret war will be fought to overwrite reality itself–the first in a dazzling new series from City of Stairs author Robert Jackson Bennett. 
 
Sancia Grado is a thief, and a damn good one. And her latest target, a heavily guarded warehouse on Tevanne’s docks, is nothing her unique abilities can’t handle. 
 
But unbeknownst to her, Sancia’s been sent to steal an artifact of unimaginable power, an object that could revolutionize the magical technology known as scriving. The Merchant Houses who control this magic–the art of using coded commands to imbue everyday objects with sentience–have already used it to transform Tevanne into a vast, remorseless capitalist machine. But if they can unlock the artifact’s secrets, they will rewrite the world itself to suit their aims. 
 
Now someone in those Houses wants Sancia dead, and the artifact for themselves. And in the city of Tevanne, there’s nobody with the power to stop them. 
 
To have a chance at surviving—and at stopping the deadly transformation that’s under way—Sancia will have to marshal unlikely allies, learn to harness the artifact’s power for herself, and undergo her own transformation, one that will turn her into something she could never have imagined.

Goodreads

About Robert Jackson Bennett

Award-winning author Robert Jackson Bennett


Robert Jackson Bennett is a two-time award winner of the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel, an Edgar Award winner for Best Paperback Original, and is also the 2010 recipient of the Sydney J Bounds Award for Best Newcomer, and a Philip K Dick Award Citation of Excellence. City of Stairs was shortlisted for the Locus Award and the World Fantasy Award. City of Blades was a finalist for the 2015 World Fantasy, Locus, and British Fantasy Awards. The Divine Cities trilogy was nominated for a Hugo for Best Series. His eighth novel, Foundryside, was released in 2018 to wide acclaim.

Robert Bennett’s Website

My Thoughts

My friend told me about Foundryside because the main character is a rogue and she knows I like playing such characters in various RPGs. I’m drawn to that chaotic-neutral and neutral-good mentality. That was the hook, anyway. Turns out she just had the right pitch to get me to read a fantastic book. 

What I Liked

Plot

Foundryside explores what might happen if a master key could open any lock because it could converse with the laws and rules of reality, as well as what might happen if it came across a human who could understand and talk back to it. The story takes place in the wake of a civilization once vast and grand but now dead and fabled so long ago that present day feels more like the end of time. Even the scraps left behind from that powerful civilization have become worth staggering amounts of money, so that the worth of the key initially drives the plot forward, but eventually the value of life–a value few of Tevanne’s varied populace share except where one’s own skin may be concerned–becomes the true spine of the story. 

characters

Sancia. The most beastly female character I’ve ever read. She’s stronk. Multiple characters (all men) call her ugly. She’s still hardy, resilient, and good-hearted, capable of getting herself into bad situations for the right reasons and back out of them with a whole lot of ass kicking. (Almost like she holds inherent value as a person, despite lacking conventional attractiveness to the male gaze. Wild.) I love her.

Gregor. Not, as I at first expected, an over-good character. He’s cheery (hilariously so), moral, and capable of flexible thinking concerning his goals to remake the world (or one city) into something decent. Tragedy dogs his steps and the twists to his character arc tugged at my heart strings. 

Orso. An absolute terror of a genius. Comes off as an impatient arse, which he is, but only because he has high standards, and when the people around him reach those standards, he will go to hell and back with them. Oddly charitable, despite this, and willing to acknowledge his own mistakes. Would absolutely try to impress this guy, but probably fail.

Berenice. The absolute coolest-blooded character. Smarter than pretty much everyone, on-par with Orso, and not afraid to say so out loud. Perfectly aware of her worth and a total orderly opposite of Sancia’s chaotic nature. Might be living in denial about some of her own traumas. Easily my favorite. 

Clef. A relic of a civilization so ancient that most understanding and knowledge of its denizens has been lost. Talks in such a way that he reminds me of the speech patterns of modern-day young people (very relatable), almost as if his past might be our present world’s future, if humanity ever figured out the key to the coding of the universe. Plucky and indescribably ride-or-die for anyone whose name is Sancia. 

Other brilliantly-wrought characters make appearances in Foundryside, but these four make up the main group. 

theme

Changing perspective. The narrative of Foundryside drops information about the function of the world from the mouths of different characters, which coalesces into new, wild ideas about reality as these characters interact with each other. Tevanne has functioned the same way for always, with four houses hoarding 99% of the wealth, leaving the rest for those living around the fringes. Such power derives from convincing those at the bottom that things have always been this way and always will be, too dangerous for resistance or change. But as people from all classes and social strata of this town interact–a thief trapped in poverty, a former soldier attempting to generate law enforcement, a genius desperate for a piece of the pie, and  brilliant inventor –they begin to broaden their understandings and to recognize that sometimes reality is only a matter of perspective. 

ending

The ending of Foundryside–explosive and twisty and clever–takes readers so far from the beginning. The characters never leave the city of Tevanne, yet the end has you feeling like they’ve traveled across the world on an epic journey, so far away and changed are they from who they were at the beginning. Triumph and tragedy intermingle, engendering unresolved problems and promising more thrilling adventure to come in the next book. 

What I Disliked

Nothing. I loved it all. 

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Book Review: Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Our Murderbot remains ever capable of combat intelligence, but not only does it continue to struggle with social norms, it also now must make decisions for itself, a thrilling but terrifying experience for the newly emancipated SecUnit.

Artificial Condition Synopsis

It has a dark past – one in which a number of humans were killed. A past that caused it to christen itself “Murderbot”. But it has only vague memories of the massacre that spawned that title, and it wants to know more.

Teaming up with a Research Transport vessel named ART (you don’t want to know what the “A” stands for), Murderbot heads to the mining facility where it went rogue.

What it discovers will forever change the way it thinks…

(Via Goodreads)

About Martha Wells

Martha Wells has written many fantasy novels, including The Books of the Raksura series (beginning with The Cloud Roads), the Ile-Rien series (including The Death of the Necromancer) as well as YA fantasy novels, short stories, media tie-ins (for Star Wars and Stargate: Atlantis), and non-fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel is The Harbors of the Sun in 2017, the final novel in The Books of the Raksura series. She has a new series of SF novellas, The Murderbot Diaries, published by Tor.com in 2017 and 2018. She was also the lead writer for the story team of Magic: the Gathering‘s Dominaria expansion in 2018. She has won a Nebula Award, an ALA/YALSA Alex Award, a Locus Award, and her work has appeared on the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Award ballots, the USA Today Bestseller List, and the New York Times Bestseller List. Her books have been published in eleven languages.

(Via Martha Wells’s website)

My Thoughts

I was terrible and picked up both Artificial Condition and its sequel Rogue Protocol from the library at the same time so no one could snag them before me. Muahahahaha!

What I Liked

Plot

Murderbot undergoes some serious character changes in Artificial Condition as it works to uncover its past and, in the end, make some decisions about its future. For once it works for humans it chooses, not ones chosen for it by its company, and though its responsibilities change as such, it still gives all its effort to protect them. Almost as if, given the opportunity, bots might be capable of decency when not controlled and governed by corporate overlords. All this while keeping its own identity as a dangerous rogue SecUnit a secret.

Plots, subplots, and revelations populate Artificial Condition, packing action and intrigue into just a handful of chapters that I wished would go on forever.

Characters

In Artificial Condition, our Murderbot remains ever capable of combat intelligence, but not only does it continue to struggle with social norms, now it must make decisions for itself, a thrilling but terrifying experience for the newly emancipated SecUnit. It also has to deal with the responsibility of when those choices go badly wrong for the humans it contracts to protect.

In All Systems Red, Wells casually introduced polygamy into this sci-fi future world. Artificial Condition zooms in on this aspect with the appearance of three young technologists who are married to each other and a few others still back at their base. To cap this off, one of them, Rami, identifies as a third gender, or a tercera (third, get it?), using pronouns like ‘te’ and ‘ter’ (because ’tis’ would just be confusing). I. love. it. This essentially non-binary character acts centrally to the plot in a leadership role for the other two, making choices that drive the story forward.

Theme

Embracing humanity. Sort of. Murderbot would much rather remain the SecUnit it was created to be, but to get the information it wants, it has to reluctantly keep building on its previous character development and manage to act human enough to fool other humans, even going so far as to dress like a human, shedding its comforting armor.

The narrative of Artificial Condition also shows a Research Transport Vessel whom Murderbot dubs ART displaying emotion, both for humans and for MurderBot as it prods its SecUnit passenger toward character growth. (‘ART,’ ‘Artificial Condition,‘ do you get it?) Even a handful of ComfortUnits show something like soul in their decision making, both in positive and negative choices.

All, however, retain their bot-ness, their otherness, their deep-seated difference from humans. I appreciate so much that the narrative arc for freed bots or otherwise doesn’t just focus on them becoming human. They are allowed to simply equip human behavior where applicable and necessary for individual evolution.

Ending

The conclusion of Artificial Condition kicks ass. After experiencing Murderbot’s fighting capabilities in All Systems Red, the reader knows things are about to go down (possibly in flames) as the plot hurtles toward the end.

My Rating: 5/5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.31 stars


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Book Review: The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

The Darkest Part of the Forest seems brief as a stand-alone novel, but it’s packed full of events, action, and twists, traipsing all over the fictional town of Fairfold, through the woods, and down below the Faerie hill.

The Darkest Part of the Forest Synopsis

Children can have a cruel, absolute sense of justice. Children can kill a monster and feel quite proud of themselves. A girl can look at her brother and believe they’re destined to be a knight and a bard who battle evil. She can believe she’s found the thing she’s been made for.

Hazel lives with her brother, Ben, in the strange town of Fairfold where humans and fae exist side by side. The faeries’ seemingly harmless magic attracts tourists, but Hazel knows how dangerous they can be, and she knows how to stop them. Or she did, once.

At the center of it all, there is a glass coffin in the woods. It rests right on the ground and in it sleeps a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointed as knives. Hazel and Ben were both in love with him as children. The boy has slept there for generations, never waking.

Until one day, he does…

As the world turns upside down, Hazel tries to remember her years pretending to be a knight. But swept up in new love, shifting loyalties, and the fresh sting of betrayal, will it be enough?

(Via Goodreads)

About Holly Black

Holly Black is the author of bestselling contemporary fantasy books for kids and teens. Some of her titles include The Spiderwick Chronicles (with Tony DiTerlizzi), The Modern Faerie Tale series, the Curse Workers series, Doll Bones, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, the Magisterium series (with Cassandra Clare) and The Darkest Part of the Forest. She has been a a finalist for an Eisner Award, and the recipient of the Andre Norton Award, the Mythopoeic Award and a Newbery Honor. She currently lives in New England with her husband and son in a house with a secret door.

(Via Holly Black’s Website)

My Thoughts

I had to actively seek out The Darkest Part of the Forest at a more far-flung library branch than the one I usually visit, but I had heard good things about it floating around the internet, so I deemed it worth the effort.

Some have postulated that this tale exists in the same universe as The Cruel Prince (which I reviewed here) and I could certainly see it, but readers don’t have to have read one to dive into the other. Each book stands alone.

What I Liked

Plot

The Darkest Part of the Forest seems brief as a stand-alone novel, but it’s packed full of events, action, and twists, traipsing all over the fictional town of Fairfold, through the woods, and down below the Faerie hill. I thought it was cool how the main characters became fantasy trope classes — a knight, a bard, a wizard, and a druid.

Characters

There! Are gay characters! Who kiss!

There! Are lady characters! Who talk with each other about things other than boys! (Mostly they talk about monsters, which I am all about.)

I liked very much the human X faerie coupling parameters that happened quite naturally over the course of The Darkest Part of the Forest. We get two (2) romances that build on past, off-screen pining rather than sudden interest, which I can appreciate.

Theme

A certain friend of mine would appreciate the rampant duality of The Darkest Part of the Forest (the kind of thing that features heavily in his current Dungeons & Dragons campaign). We get brother and sister siblings, one paranormally blessed and one not. Night and day versions of one character. A human duo and a faerie duo. A party in the mortal realm and one in Faerie, as well as a battle in each. A faerie who belongs with the humans and a human who belongs with the faeries. Two worlds, the court of the Alderking and the town of Fairfold, so closely linked, ultimately become mirrors of one another.

Ending

The ending of The Darkest Part of the Forest involves ascension of a new generation as well as acceptance. While the new court may be small, they draw their strength from a certain entwining of mortals, solitary faerie, and court faerie. I would love to see this bunch appear somewhere in the series for The Cruel Prince, just to know what the rest of Faerie might make of them and their inclusiveness.

What I Disliked

While most likely a stylistic choice, there were three or so parts of The Darkest Part of the Forest mentioned but glossed over. Some of them had to do with memory loss, others seemed cut out for pacing maintenance. Either way, I wouldn’t have minded reading them as they happened, rather than summarized as an after mention.

There were maybe fewer lady characters with meaningful impact on the plot than I would’ve liked, but Hazel, the main character, drives the whole thing forward anyway and more than makes up for it.

Recommendations

I would recommend The Darkest Part of the Forest for lovers of urban fantasy, faerie aesthetic, lady knights, and soft horror.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Goodreads rating: 3.91 stars


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Book Review: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

When I got the hankering to reread The Rook, I thought I’d give it a review this time. 

The Rook Synopsis

“The body you are wearing used to be mine.” So begins the letter Myfanwy Thomas is holding when she awakes in a London park surrounded by bodies all wearing latex gloves. With no recollection of who she is, Myfanwy must follow the instructions her former self left behind to discover her identity and track down the agents who want to destroy her.

She soon learns that she is a Rook, a high-ranking member of a secret organization called the Chequy that battles the many supernatural forces at work in Britain. She also discovers that she possesses a rare, potentially deadly supernatural ability of her own.

In her quest to uncover which member of the Chequy betrayed her and why, Myfanwy encounters a person with four bodies, an aristocratic woman who can enter her dreams, a secret training facility where children are transformed into deadly fighters, and a conspiracy more vast than she ever could have imagined.

(Via Goodreads)

About Daniel O’Malley

Dan O’Malley graduated from Michigan State University and earned a Master’s Degree in medieval history from Ohio State University. He then returned to his childhood home, Australia. He now works for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, writing press releases for government investigations of plane crashes and runaway boats.

(Via Daniel O’Malley’s website)

My Thoughts

I read The Rook by Daniel O’Malley just before its sequel, Stiletto, released back in 2016. I loved it then and when I got the hankering to reread it (or a third book, which doesn’t seem to be in production, unfortunately), I thought I’d give it a review this time around.

What I Liked

Plot

Supernaturals + British secret agents = secret service superheroes. The basic premise of The Rook gives off X-Men vibes but the execution lands more within the realm of humorous and relatable James Bond, just with superpowers that involve licking things or venting toxins or diplomacy. Plus it features so many ladies playing active roles, impacting the narrative, and kicking ass. The playful tone puts me in mind of Artemis, just with even more women for fun and sharp banter. Also, while multiple characters maintain or express a desire for companionship, there’s only the barest hint of possible romance, leaving all the focus on the mysteries of the story.

Characters

The main character of The Rook, Mifanwy Thomas, cracks me up. Her internal monologue as she struggles to cope with the weird world of the Checquy she’s landed in entertains from start to finish, manifesting even more so in her dialogue and interactions with other characters. I like that she gets to have and wield power and authority as she fights for the respect she never earned pre-amnesia.

Mifanwy also builds and maintains friendships with another powerful woman in her organization, her very capable secretary, and a new friend outside of work. Beyond these, she displays pettiness and flaws, weaknesses and fears, criticisms and thoughts, awkwardness and a propensity to make mistakes. Well-rounded and badass.

Themes

The main aspect of interest here is the exploration of personality sans emotional trauma. With Mifanwy’s memories, and therefore all past traumatic events that would have shaped her into the timid, mousy woman she had become before her amnesia, wiped away through nefarious events, the narrative poses a question: who are we meant to be? How does PTSD alter that? How actively do traumatic events shape an individual? The narrative of The Rook implies that the answer is very as it presents the same woman as two totally different people.

Ending

Twist on twist on twist makes the climax of The Rook. While all kinds of other mini- and sub-plots get sprinkled throughout the narrative, the main plot itself gets so many loose ends tied up altogether at the same time. The intricacies of all the moving parts weaving together at once like that makes for a satisfying ending.

What I Disliked

Nothing. I love The Rook.

Recommendations

I’d recommend The Rook to fans of James Bond, the X-Men, and dry British humor.

My rating: 5/5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.12


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Book Review: The Death of the Necromancer

High jinks rule the day throughout The Death of the Necromancer. The narrative comes packed with every aspect Victorian-era criminal life has to offer, plus necromancy.

The Death of the Necromancer Synopsis

Nicholas Valiarde is a passionate, embittered nobleman with an enigmatic past. Consumed by thoughts of vengeance, he is consoled only by thoughts of the beautiful, dangerous Madeline. He is also the greatest thief in all of Ile-Rien… On the gas light streets of the city, he assumes the guise of a master criminal, stealing jewels from wealthy nobles to finance his quest for vengeance the murder of Count Montesq. Montesq orchestrated the wrongful execution of Nicholas’s beloved godfather on false charges of necromancy–the art of divination through communion with spirits of the dead–a practice long outlawed in the kingdom of Ile-Rein.

But now Nicholas’s murderous mission is being interrupted by a series of eerie, unexplainable, even fatal events. Someone with tremendous magical powers is opposing him. Children vanish, corpses assume the visage of real people, mortal spells are cast, and traces of necromantic power that hasn’t been used for centuries are found. And when a spiritualist unwittingly leads Nicholas to a decrepit mansion, the monstrous nature of his peril finally emerges in harrowing detail. Nicholas and his compatriots must destroy an ancient and awesome evil. Even the help of Ile-Rien’s greatest sorcerer may not be enough, for Nicholas faces a woefully mismatched battle–and unthinkable horrors await the loser.

(Via Goodreads)

About Martha Wells

Martha Wells has written many fantasy novels, including The Books of the Raksura series (beginning with The Cloud Roads), the Ile-Rien series (including The Death of the Necromancer) as well as YA fantasy novels, short stories, media tie-ins (for Star Wars and Stargate: Atlantis), and non-fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel is The Harbors of the Sun in 2017, the final novel in The Books of the Raksura series. She has a new series of SF novellas, The Murderbot Diaries, published by Tor.com in 2017 and 2018. She was also the lead writer for the story team of Magic: the Gathering‘s Dominaria expansion in 2018. She has won a Nebula Award, an ALA/YALSA Alex Award, a Locus Award, and her work has appeared on the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Award ballots, the USA Today Bestseller List, and the New York Times Bestseller List. Her books have been published in eleven languages.

(Via Martha Wells’s Website)

My Thoughts

Once again, I unwittingly picked up a sequel at the library, possibly because nowhere does the cover of Martha Wells’s The Death of the Necromancer indicate Ile-Rien #2, possibly because my library branch simply doesn’t carry the first in series installments. (Before proceeding to read The Death of the Necromancer, I started Black Heart, the third in Holly Black’s The Curse Workers series and had to put it down on realizing my mistake. Possibly, I myself am cursed.)

However! While the narrative makes what I assume are some allusions to the previous book, they’re explained well enough that I didn’t feel lost without Ile-Rien #1. If you don’t want to check out The Element of Fire before reading this one, you really don’t have to.

What I Liked

Over-Arcing Content

High jinks rule the day throughout The Death of the Necromancer. The narrative comes packed with all kinds of sticky situations, clever escapes, “high-speed” horse cart chases, disguises, traps, schemes, and every aspect Victorian-era criminal life has to offer, plus necromancy. The characters operate on a morally ambiguous level, skirting the edges of ethics without resorting to unwarranted cruelty. (I would’ve accepted something grittier, but it was nice.)

Characters

The ragtag group of Nicholas Valiarde’s followers reminded me very much of the Dregs from Six of Crows, one of my favorite books. I’m sure this has to do more with tropes than anything else, but they were character tropes that I already know I enjoy–the scheming, clever leader in Nicholas, the spitfire master of disguise in Madeleine, the fallen nobleman in Reynard, the surly bodyguard in Crack, etc.

Madeleine herself got not only just as much development as Nicholas but also point-of-view scenes throughout The Death of the Necromancer, convincing me that she functions as a co-main character. On top of that, the plot resolution(s) literally couldn’t have happened without her. 10/10 lady lead character.

There also appeared Inspector Ronsarde and Doctor Halle, who look like Detective Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, but only if you squint. When their names turned up toward the beginning of the narrative, I never expected them to become integral to the story but what fun when they did. Also, Gay Undertones for Days.

Motifs

The apparent main plot of The Death of the Necromancer cleverly fades back into a sub-plot as the narrative progresses, honing in on a comparison of Nicholas’s mindset in his own scheme of revenge compared to that of the main villain. Wells also often encourages the reader to empathize with Nicholas, then reminds us how the other characters see him as someone capable of ruthlessness, how the truth of who he is probably lands somewhere between the two perspectives.

Romance. I’m an absolute sucker for a pre-established relationship. Nicholas and Madeleine had something going on before the beginning of the narrative, with their intimate understanding of each other, their muted pining and worry when apart, their silly attempts at stoicism toward one another. They spent the whole time being partners. In crime. Working together as a team. I ate that right up.

Ending

The final confrontation between our characters and the Big Bad had a lot more running around than seemed reasonable, but the final revelation of the villain and his clash with the heroes did not disappoint. The denouement of The Death of the Necromancer took its time with wrapping up, making sure to tie up any loose ends using elements sensibly pulled from the plot. It also allowed Nicholas, despite his status as some kind of hero-criminal as far as the crown was concerned, to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes one last time, staying true to his clever nature.

What I Disliked

I liked The Death of the Necromancer, but it took me approximately an entire month to read it. (Likely incurring a fee at the library because guess who didn’t bother to renew?) Though the narrative featured many of the things I like–a ragtag bunch of morally neutral criminals, an intelligent mastermind leader, necromancy, a reasonable romantic element, and a realistic heroine–my main complaint comes of the pacing. Much as I said in my review of Sabriel, the somewhat older-fashioned narrative style just felt less punchy and more draggy.

The narrative also suffers some from too many similar names. A number of them start with an R or end in “-ard(e)” so that even up until the end, when I’d become familiar enough with the characters to tell them apart, I still had to stop and orient myself when one of these names reappeared on the page.

Recommendations

I’d absolutely recommend The Death of the Necromancer to fans of Sabriel for the many elements shared between the two, as well as to fans of Six of Crows for the Victorian-era heist aspect. Also for readers who enjoy a more subtle romance and plot integral heroines.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Goodreads raiting: 4.07 stars


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Book Review: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Only seven chapters long, ‘All Systems Red’ moves along at a snappy pace, following the tale of Murderbot, an angry, dismissive robot learning how to deal with autonomy and other people during crisis. Can relate.

Capture
All Systems Red by New York Times-bestselling author Martha Wells

All Systems Red Synopsis

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

(Via Goodreads)

About Martha Wells

Martha Wells has written many fantasy novels, including The Books of the Raksuraseries (beginning with The Cloud Roads), the Ile-Rien series (including The Death of the Necromancer) as well as YA fantasy novels, short stories, media tie-ins (for Star Wars and Stargate: Atlantis), and non-fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel is The Harbors of the Sun in 2017, the final novel in The Books of the Raksura series. She has a new series of SF novellas, The Murderbot Diaries, published by Tor.com in 2017 and 2018. She was also the lead writer for the story team of Magic: the Gathering‘s Dominaria expansion in 2018. She has won a Nebula Award, an ALA/YALSA Alex Award, a Locus Award, and her work has appeared on the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Award ballots, the USA Today Bestseller List, and the New York Times Bestseller List. Her books have been published in eleven languages.

(Via Martha Wells’s website)

My Thoughts

How All Systems Red wound up on my Goodreads TBR list is a mystery to me. I suspect I must have seen one of my friends mark it as Read and seriously liked the description, which hints at an angry, dismissive robot learning how to deal with autonomy and other people. Can relate, so I snagged it from my local library.

I was not, however, expecting a novella. All Systems Red is only seven chapters long, about 160 pages, but what an excellent clutch of chapters. Tor will be releasing three more novellas of The Murderbot Diaries throughout this year and I already have the sequel, Artificial Condition, on order. I had never even heard of Martha Wells before, but I believe I’ve just become her newest fan.

What I Liked

Over-Arcing Content

With the constraints of the limited page amount, the plot of All Systems Red moves along at a snappy pace, wasting no time with extraneous details or fluff. Yet it avoids sacrificing important story aspects like emotional investment, character development, and plot twists. It’s interesting from start to finish, cleverly revealing bits of the universe through relevant character thoughts, dialogue, and setting description.

Characters

The main character of All Systems Red, which calls itself ‘Murderbot,’ has more personality as an android than many of the main characters I’ve read in the past. It’s shy, smart, and youthful, has interests, opinions, and wit, and embodies a certain sense of true asexual, aromantic, gender neutrality. The story happens in first person and Murderbot makes a point of indicating that it has zero interest in sex or romance, which is the kind of main character I want to read! Skip the romance fluff and get down to important things, like group dynamic observations and interactions or Big Questions. Murderbot also represents a recognizable dynamic of the Millennial generation — under-educated, over-competent, and winging it at any given moment.

The rest of the crew surrounding Murderbot shines each in their own way. Based on the names, readers can divine a diverse group in ethnicity alongside Murderbot’s observations of their eclectic gender orientations and futuristic lifestyles. Many ladies populate the crew, receiving action, agency, and voices throughout.

Motifs

The spacefaring interplanetary exploration motif put me just a little in mind of the beginning of the movie Alien, but with the draggy elements cut out. The plot features a good mix of exploration, action, and mystery.

The Ending

At first I thought the ending of All Systems Red would be just okay. There are big and small resolutions that tie up the plot itself quite neatly; however, the way things appear to go at first leave Murderbot’s personal issues somewhat reconciled, but certainly not complete or satisfied. I greatly preferred the way the plot actually ends, transferring into a sequel with a little meta tag as the last word. I’m considerably more satisfied with the way All Systems Red subverts typical short-story ending tropes, but I recognize such success arises from the opportunity to continue.

What I Disliked

Perhaps because of the point of view of Murderbot, who doesn’t care about distinguishing human characteristics, it was at first hard to tell the other characters apart. Yet as the plot progressed, it became easier to know who was who based on dialogue, actions, and group dynamics, so it doesn’t remain a problem for very long.

The explanation of Murderbot’s crew identity came off as a little convoluted so that I’m still not quite sure what the narrative meant to relate about their background. Possibly a reread would solve that problem, though.

Recommendations

I recommend All Systems Red for fans of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and the world setting of the Alien movies franchise (minus the alien horror aspect), as well as for readers looking for a total lack of romantic subplot in science fiction.

My Rating: 5/5 stars
Goodreads Rating: 4.15 stars


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Book Review: Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman

While I don’t quite agree that ‘Thunderhead’ beats ‘Scythe,’ they’re absolutely comparable in terms of quality. 

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Thunderhead by New York Times-bestselling author Neal Shusterman

Thunderhead Synopsis

Rowan has gone rogue, and has taken it upon himself to put the Scythedom through a trial by fire. Literally. In the year since Winter Conclave, he has gone off-grid, and has been striking out against corrupt scythes—not only in MidMerica, but across the entire continent. He is a dark folk hero now—“Scythe Lucifer”—a vigilante taking down corrupt scythes in flames.

Citra, now a junior scythe under Scythe Curie, sees the corruption and wants to help change it from the inside out, but is thwarted at every turn, and threatened by the “new order” scythes. Realizing she cannot do this alone—or even with the help of Scythe Curie and Faraday, she does the unthinkable, and risks being “deadish” so she can communicate with the Thunderhead—the only being on earth wise enough to solve the dire problems of a perfect world. But will it help solve those problems, or simply watch as perfection goes into decline?

(Via Goodreads)

About Neal Shusterman

Neal has made his mark as a successful novelist, screenwriter, and television writer. As a full-time writer, he claims to be his own hardest task-master, always at work creating new stories to tell. His books have received many awards from organizations such as the International Reading Association, and the American Library Association, as well as garnering a myriad of state and local awards across the country. Neal’s talents range from film directing (two short films he directed won him the coveted CINE Golden Eagle Awards) to writing music and stage plays – including book and lyrical contributions to “American Twistory,” which is currently played in several major cities. He has even tried his hand at creating Games, having developed three successful “How to Host a Mystery” game for teens, as well as seven “How to Host a Murder” games.

(Via Neal Shusterman’s website)

My Impressions

For a reader, an entertainment consumer of any stripe, really, hyped up claims about a new release tend to disappoint. I picked up Thunderhead from the library because I liked the prior installment, Scythe, enough to devour the last chunk of it in one Saturday afternoon (even with my Work In Progress judging me from my writing desk). But when I read somewhere (an offhand comment? an official review, maybe?) that Thunderhead surpassed Scythe, I became wary. When does book two in a trilogy compare with the first? Rarely.

Yet I found myself pleasantly surprised. While I don’t quite agree that Thunderhead beats Scythe, they’re absolutely comparable in terms of quality.

What I Liked

Over-Arcing Content

The narrative of Neal Shusterman’s Thunderhead brings expanded perspective to already established lore, homing in on previously mentioned sects like our wonderful and terrible Scythes, the religious Tonists, and a new class, the rebellious Unsavories. It touches on many aspects of what it means to be human in an immortal world, recognizing the need for deific reverence, rebellion, and guidance.

It also covers the perspective of an entity that recognizes itself as not God, but which concludes that it might as well be. It also begins to relate more and more to the humans which it protects as it discovers within itself the ability to experience betrayal, anguish, fury, and helplessness.

Characters

Citra Terranova and Rowan Damisch, or rather, Scythes Anastasia and Lucifer, pick up with coming into their own separate but intertwined callings, each becoming more formidable and dangerous in the realms of politics and shadows. Scythes Curie and Faraday continue to impact Thunderhead‘s narrative, inciting change in the same vein as their protégés.

We meet a few new characters as well, including the Thunderhead itself, (the musings of which replace the Scythe gleaning journal excerpts present in Scythe), as well as Greyson Tolliver, a boy raised by the Thunderhead and used as an extension of its will. (Jesus son of God metaphor, anyone?)

The villains, whose identities I cannot spoil because it’s a huge reveal, get a little more focus as well. The allowance of a passionate and intelligent female villain satisfied me very much, and I do hope she gets a long existence of betrayal and revenge.

Motifs

The “war in Heaven” motif that grew present toward the end of Scythe becomes even more apparent with the insertion of the Thunderhead’s point of view on the increasing division between new order and old guard Scythes. Even without the blunt function of having Rowan use Lucifer as his Scythe name, it’s pretty clear that this immortal world stands in for Heaven and the divided Scythes represent pre-Fall angels and devils.

The Ending

That ending. Hard on the heels of triumph comes disaster, relating in loving detail and fabulous pacing the follies of humanity. The denouement events stirred my anxiety and had me on the edge of my seat during my lunch break. I had meant to cut that break short to make up for lost paid time, but I literally couldn’t stop reading Thunderhead until I finished it. Delicious anguish, tagged with a note of hope. The cliffhanger has its hooks in me and I must know how this series ends. No doubt, I will be picking up book three, entitled The Toll.

What I Disliked

Without revealing any spoilers, I at first disliked the beginning of the villain arc. It seemed clichéd, just a trope that’s become a recognizably lazy storytelling insertion. But as Thunderhead progressed, Shusterman proved himself capable of handling a worn out trope and sparking new life into it.

So it grew on me and I no longer have much of a problem with it at all.

Recommendations

I recommend Thunderhead to readers of thought provoking, philosophical fiction, compelling narratives, and examinations of the human condition.

My rating: 5/5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.54 stars


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