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Book Review: To Sleep in a Sea if Stars by Christopher Paolini

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christoper Paolini

Title: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Author: Christopher Paolini

Series: N/A

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Kira Navárez dreamed of life on new worlds. Now she’s awakened a nightmare. During a routine survey mission on an uncolonized planet, Kira finds an alien relic. At first she’s delighted, but elation turns to terror when the ancient dust around her begins to move. As war erupts among the stars, Kira is launched into a galaxy-spanning odyssey of discovery and transformation. First contact isn’t at all what she imagined, and events push her to the very limits of what it means to be human. While Kira faces her own horrors, Earth and its colonies stand upon the brink of annihilation. Now, Kira might be humanity’s greatest and final hope . . . -Goodreads

The Review:

A decent sci-fi. I didn’t hate it. But I do have some thoughts.

Paolini has definitely blossomed as a writer. He always had the storytelling basics, but time and experience has done his craft well. I particularly liked his character construction. So many different personalities and a great dynamic between all of them. I’d be hard-presses to pick a favorite, and I love that.

I wouldn’t say the book was particularly original – I feel like I’ve read many different versions of at least the first 25%. But as the story progressed it started to get more and more creative. It eventually presented enough fun ideas and characters to keep my interest, and soon I was on board. There were one or two plot decisions that surprised me, which is always a bonus.

It is a bit of a drawback for me that it took so long to get going. While many of the scenes boasted action and a fast-paced momentum, the overall plot progression of the book was sluggish. If the scenes themselves hadn’t been so interesting, I could’ve easily gotten bored, and even wondered if I was starting to several times. There was an entire plot point (involving a blue staff) that caused a lot of story repetition. I thought it could’ve been removed completely without any negative effects (or at least merged with other sections). As it stands, I feel it drew the book out a lot longer than it needed to be.

Another criticism is the required “just go with it” attitude I needed to adopt while reading it. Particularly regarding the decisions and reactions of authority figures along Kira’s journey. A lot of what went on felt rather implausible considering what was at stake, even with the concession that most of it happened on the fringes of human-settled space. But still, a lot of things seemed too convenient and narrowly-focused to actually work. That said, it does take place during an alien invasion, so perhaps a lot can be chalked up to everyone being too busy with that to deal with this one aspect. I did appreciate that Paolini at least attempted to incorporate the on-goings in the highly populated worlds to keep me connected to the large-scale stakes of the conflict.

Recommendations: fans of Paolini’s work will likely enjoy this book for similar writing styles and voice. As far as sci-fi recommends go, it ranks somewhere in the middle for me – not the most original I’ve read, but better than many of them because of the fun characters. After compiling my “other books you might like” section, it occurred to me that despite the light adult content, the book still reads more YA (minus the romance) and would probably appeal to fans of that genre more so than scifi lovers. 

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Mirage by Julie E. Czerneda

Mirage by Julie E. Czerneda

Title: Mirage

Author: Julie E. Czerneda

Series: Web Shifter’s Library #2

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: Relationships get complicated when you don’t know who—or what—you really are. Esen must find a way to rescue a hapless group of chimeras, beings who are a new and unique blend of species she knows, when she can’t become one herself. When Evan Gooseberry tries to help, he is shattered to learn he himself isn’t entirely Human and begins to suspect his new friend Esen isn’t what she seems. Complicating matters, a mysterious contagion has killed the crew of the ship that brought the chimeras—and Evan—to Botharis. Everyone’s been quarantined inside the All Species’ Library of Linguistics and Culture, including over a hundred disgruntled alien scholars. The risks climb as Skalet and Lionel continue their quest to solve the disappearance of Paul’s mother’s ship, the Sidereal Pathfinder, only to find themselves caught in a tangle of loyalties as Skalet is betrayed by her own Kraal affiliates, who infiltrate the Library. All of which would be quite enough for one Web-being’s day, but Paul Ragem hopes to rekindle the romance of his first love. A shame Esen hasn’t told him who’s hiding in their greenhouse. -Goodreads

The Review:

I’m a mega Czerneda fan, and Beholder’s Eye (the first Esen novel) has long been a go-to scifi recommend. It was my first Czerneda… heck, it was one of my first sci-fi’s, and I’m sure that plays a role in how thoroughly I’m enjoying this revisit, even 15 years later. Since that first read, I’ve read all of the sci-fi trilogy sets she has on the market, and one thing has become abundantly clear: Czerneda is having more fun than ever.

Her writing always had a good bit of situational humor (my favorite kind), but this latest trilogy really amps up that component, making the books an absolute riot. The tone actually fits in nicely with the latest generation of sci-fi that boasts a lighter, feel-good atmosphere (hi Becky Chambers), so she’s on trend, and recommending her just got even easier.

Good humor aside, she includes some of my favorite creature creations (aliens) across the genre, which is still true now that I’ve read a LOT more sci-fi authors. With a background in biology, Czerneda’s aliens are always well thought out and expertly executed. The fun element comes into play here as well – the ways the aliens interact with the main characters is always great for some laughs.

She also has good characters. I like that Esen isn’t written from a human-minded POV. She’s a Web-Being with thought patterns and tendencies different than our own. Thank goodness we have Paul (human) to keep Esen grounded. ;P Czerneda also has excellent perspective immersion… which can sometimes be so well done that it sacrifices clarity for creativity. All of her books include these signature interlude chapters that take away all context and throw you into the depths of an alien perspective. They’re quite ambiguous and I often find myself retreading them to figure out what’s going on (not that reading them over helps much). Even when seriously studying them for the chance to become a beta reader for another Czerneda project, I struggled with these passages (which is probably why I just missed out on the opportunity). These passages also exhibit a clipped, to the point writing style that makes an appearance to a lesser degree in the rest of her works. Her writing is very stylized, and she often seems more interested in the cadence and mood of the delivery than she is in proper sentence structures (a liberty I don’t mind in the least as it makes the books feel more conversational). In recent books, that unique style has gotten more refined, to the point where the pacing of the scenes rockets (not to be confused with the pacing of plot-advancement, which is ironically a bit slow). It makes for an engaging read, just don’t blink or you’ll miss something.

Overall, this was a good bit of blue blob fun, and I can’t wait to see what Czerneda has in store next.

Recommendations: don’t start here! Go back and begin with Beholder’s Eye or even a different great series starting with Survival. Both hold sacred space on my bookshelves.

I’d like to thank DAW Publishing, Julie E. Czerneda, and Netgalley for the chance to read and review an early copy of Mirage!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham

The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham

Title: The Cruel Stars

Author: John Birmingham

Series: The Cruel Stars #1

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: The galaxy was once terrorized by the Sturm, a group of “species purists” intent on destroying any human with genetic or cybernetic enhancements. Fashioning themselves as the one true “Human Republic,” the Sturm cut a bloody swath across the stars, killing billions before finally being defeated and driven into the far reaches of Dark Space. Centuries of peace bred complacency. Everyone believed the Sturm had died out in the Dark. They were wrong. The enemy has returned and, with a brutal and decisive attack, knocks out almost all of humanity’s defenses. Now on the brink of annihilation, humankind’s only hope is a few brave souls who survived the initial attack: Commander Lucinda Hardy, thrust into uncertain command of the Royal Armadalen Navy’s only surviving warship. Booker3, a soldier of Earth, sentenced to die for treason, whose time on death row is cut short when the Sturm attack his prison compound. Princess Alessia, a young royal of the Montanblanc Corporation, forced to flee when her home planet is overrun and her entire family executed. Sephina L’trel, the leader of an outlaw band who must call on all of her criminal skills to resist the invasion. And, finally, Admiral Frazer McLennan, the infamous hero of the first war with the Sturm hundreds of years ago, who hopes to rout his old foes once and for all—or die trying. These five flawed, reluctant heroes must band together to prevail against a relentless enemy and near-impossible odds. For if they fail, the future itself is doomed. -Goodreads

The Review:

Although wildly entertaining, The Cruel Stars didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

It started out with a bunch of POV introductions, one at a time, that took up a good 20% of the page count. The language was a bit thick at first, and there were a few info-dump scenes where the entire conversation served no purpose but to tell the reader stuff about the character. Needless to say, it took a moment to get going.

But get going it did, and I found myself interested in most of the characters. The concept is that these slightly remarkable individuals will have to come together to save the galaxy from an elitist threat. So the culminations of events that eventually converged them together kept my interest really well. There was also a good balance between slow character development moments and action scenes (after the first 20%). When the inciting moment finally hit, I was hooked.

Up until the last few chapters, I had the book at a 4-star rating. But the way the events unfolded left me wanting. For starters, the “remarkableness” of the individuals involved didn’t play a huge role in the final conflict. What’s more, all of the interesting dynamics that had been building the whole book were reduced down to a surprisingly simple outcome. It was too simple for my tastes, taking the expansive feel of the story and reducing it down to a minuscule gunfight within a few mile radius. At least, that’s how it felt.

I loved the concept of the enemy – a group of human “purists” who are out to destroy any who have been genetically or cybernetically altered. But Birmingham didn’t really explore that much in this first book. There was a single sentence in passing that speculated on whether or not the alterations were destroying what makes people “human” at their core (implying it could eventually cause them to destroy themselves) that my mind ran with. It gave the hated enemy a really interesting ground to stand on because, theoretically, they could have an outside perspective of corruption that those ingrained in the system can’t see (or they could just be evil fanaticists… it’s hard to tell). But it got me asking questions: What does the “enemy” know that the POVs don’t?! Is there more depth here? But the problem is that none of this was explored in the text, it’s just my own conjecture.

I love profanity in books. Seriously. A well-placed f-bomb can completely elevate a scene, and I especially love when it’s used for comedic effect. But for it to work, it has to be incorporated with a certain amount of consciousness. Swearing is it’s own art form, and and based on its use in Cruel Stars, Birmingham was essentially fingerprinting with mud. The placement was random and in such great volume that it only served to make the characters sound crass and uncreative. Even its placement within each sentence made the language clunky and awkward.

So for some pacing issues, an over-simplified climax, an under-realized concept, and the chaotic use of profanity, I came away from the book disappointed in enough key elements that I probably won’t be continuing the series, but also still kind of glad I’d read it.

Recommendations: the book advertises that it’s similar to both the Expanse and Battlestar Galactica, but I thought it channeled Serenity more than anything else (if we must compare. Although it did have some similarities to the BG tangent Pegasus, but the comparison is thin). I probably wouldn’t recommend this unless you’ve already read a bunch of other titles in the genre and just want some mindless action with a little humor mixed in. I was a lot more critical in this review than I usually am, but at least the book provoked something from me. And despite my objections, it was still enjoyable to read. Do with that what you will haha.

Other books you might like (…better):

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Network Effect by Martha Wells

Network Effect by Martha Wells [May 5, 2020]

Title: Network Effect

Author: Martha Wells

Series: The Murderbot Diaries #5

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Release Date: May 5, 2020

The Overview: You know that feeling when you’re at work, and you’ve had enough of people, and then the boss walks in with yet another job that needs to be done right this second or the world will end, but all you want to do is go home and binge your favorite shows? And you’re a sentient murder machine programmed for destruction? Congratulations, you’re Murderbot. Come for the pew-pew space battles, stay for the most relatable A.I. you’ll read this century.

I’m usually alone in my head, and that’s where 90 plus percent of my problems are. When Murderbot’s human associates (not friends, never friends) are captured and another not-friend from its past requires urgent assistance, Murderbot must choose between inertia and drastic action. Drastic action it is, then. -Goodreads

The Review:

There are few things in life that make me happier than spending time with Murderbot.

… which is ironic, considering it it would rather do literally anything than be social. The Novellas alone were enough to solidify the series as an all-time favorite, so discovering this full-length novel was in the works immediate jumped it to the top of my priority list for 2020. Network Effect was every bit as sardonic, action-packed, and endearing as the novellas, but took it one step further by adding even more depth to the characters.

The unique writing style is the best thing about these books (aside from character construction). It doesn’t follow typical storytelling constructs and often comes across as more conversational than anything else. There’s a great deal of punctuation used to convey Murderbot’s sardonic tone, and no shortage of profanity for comedic impact. I’ve never read anything that comes this close to how I communicate in my daily life, so even the bones of how the story was presented sang to my soul. There were a few occasions where the sarcastic voice was a bit heavy-handed, but this is one of the few cases I would rather a little too much than not enough.

And then we have Murderbot. The best character in sci-fi, hands down.

I think it’s my spirit animal. It’s awkward and introverted and just wants to be left alone to watch its tv serials and I can relate to every single solitary time it couldn’t bring itself to “people” anymore. But the brilliance in this novel is that, social obligational constructs aside, it still craves connection. And that’s where the story becomes much more than a action-packed sci-fi. It’s about a rogue SecUnit trying to carve out a place for itself in the universe. Did Murderbot make me cry? Maybe. I don’t know. Fuck off.

Recommendations: The Murderbot Diaries is in close running with The Expanse and Planetside as my favorite sci-fi on the market. It’s exciting, it’s funny as shit, and it has that magic X-factor that gets people emotionally invested. Start with All Systems Red, and I bet you’ll know within the first few pages if it’s something you’ll enjoy. I was hooked from the first sentence, and it has only gotten better from there. Consider this an official Obsessive Bookseller endorsement – this series is fantastic!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Novella Review: Auberon by James S.A. Corey

Title: Auberon

Author: James S.A. Corey

Series: The Expanse #8.5

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: Auberon is one of the first and most important colony worlds in humanity’s reach, and the new conquering faction has come to claim it. Governor Rittenaur has come to bring civilization and order to the far outpost and guarantee the wealth and power of the Empire.

But Auberon already has its own history, a complex culture, and a criminal kingpin named Erich with very different plans. In a world of deceit, violence, and corruption, the greatest danger Rittenaur faces is love. -Goodreads

The Review:

A full review for a novella?! Only when it’s from James S.A. Corey. These novellas usually focus on periphery characters, and I love how in-depth and meaningful the authors make them. The stories are always about the human connection and digging into what motivates us. Auberon took a few pages to warm up, but quickly built momentum. I was totally enthralled by the end. There’s one scene in particular that about had me out of my seat in shock. And that ending! O_O

Auberon dives into the culture and struggles of an outpost colony. It presents some interesting dynamics regarding settlements that take on lives of their own, moving increasingly away from the entities that originally colonized them. It’s seems, no matter the setting, humanity is self-serving when resources are scarce, dragging its corruptive ways to the edges of the universe. Then throw in a character (Gov. Rittenaur) who’s supposed to show up and restore focus and order to this lot with absolutely no backing save his supposed “authority”… and you have a fascinating tale. And a stressful one.

And amidst all of those exterior dynamics, the story also provides an examination of personal vices and how they shape our behavioral patterns. I personally found Rittenaur’s vice especially poignant: perfectionism. A need for things to go according to plan and a strong desire for structure. The story really immersed you into the internal struggles of these characters, and I also thought the authors did an especially good job at incorporating sensory detail.

I’m not usually one for novellas unless it’s a series I’m super passionate about (The Expanse qualifies), and even then, I find they often don’t add a whole lot to the main story. The Expanse novellas are the exception. They may not always have direct influence on the story, but they always immerse you into what it means to be human – the point of the whole series, IMO. Auberon was a glimpse into the lives of those on the fringes of society, and it was a heart-wrenching one at that. These authors are brilliant at making me care about even the most insignificant players, and I’m always holding my breath, wondering what choices they’re going to make. People are beautiful, wretched, resourceful, loving, greedy, and always full of surprises, and this novella highlighted that variety for me.

Side note: apparently they incorporated a character from the Churn (another Expanse novella) but I read them so far apart I didn’t make the connection (or even remember the character lol). I’m not sure how this story will play in the bigger picture (if at all), but it was a good teaser to keep me satiated until the final novel comes out (I can’t wait!!).

Recommendations: The Expanse is one of the easiest series to recommend – it has a little bit of everything and is consistently good throughout the series (happily ignoring the tangent that was book 4). And the novellas are equally as good. If you haven’t picked any up, now’s a good time to start with the finale just around the corner…

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Iron Gold by Pierce Brown

Iron Gold by Pierce Brown

Title: Iron Gold

Author: Pierce Brown

Series: Red Rising #4

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: A decade ago, Darrow was the hero of the revolution he believed would break the chains of the Society. But the Rising has shattered everything: Instead of peace and freedom, it has brought endless war. Now he must risk everything he has fought for on one last desperate mission. Darrow still believes he can save everyone, but can he save himself? And throughout the worlds, other destinies entwine with Darrow’s to change his fate forever: A young Red girl flees tragedy in her refugee camp and achieves for herself a new life she could never have imagined. An ex-soldier broken by grief is forced to steal the most valuable thing in the galaxy—or pay with his life. And Lysander au Lune, the heir in exile to the sovereign, wanders the stars with his mentor, Cassius, haunted by the loss of the world that Darrow transformed, and dreaming of what will rise from its ashes. -Goodreads

The Review: 

After being back and forth on this book over the last year, my brain cells finally have a consensus: Iron Gold was a satisfying continuation to the original trilogy.

I first picked up the book shortly after it came out, then ended up abandoning it several chapters in. It took me too much time to re-immersed, and every time it started to gain momentum, there’d be a new POV. I lost interest, then I started confusing characters, so I got fed up and put it down.

I’m glad I picked it back up.

I thought the additional POVs added nice perspectives to how the system had changed since the uprising. It gave a glimpse into the after-effects felt within each cast (which Darrow’s view alone wouldn’t have conveyed sufficiently). It’s ironic that the exact thing that made me abandon Iron Gold a year ago is now one of the things I liked most about the book.

Another thing I didn’t like originally was the timeline – how soon after Morning Star the story began. I was expecting a next-generation spinoff and didn’t know how to feel about a full-blown continuation. As it turns out, this is also something I ended up appreciating about the book. It would’ve been much easier for Brown to start relatively fresh after ending on such a high note, but I actually thought it took a lot of balls to pick up where it left off. We’ll see if it pays off, but after this 4th book I’m left applauding his creativity and commitment to seeing this story through. I’m eager to see how the overall conflict is going to resolve.

Recommendations: Iron Gold is definitely worth the read if you loved the first trilogy. It has that same dramatic writing that’ll gut-punch you left and right (it’s nice to be back, lol), and it’s a truly bonafide continuation. The beginning suffers a pacing issue with a bunch of POV changes, but the momentum it builds off of that is worth the investment.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes