Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Two 2014 Favorites

I’m sneaking one last review on here before 2015 begins. I realized last night that I had yet to review two of my favorite books that I read this year (quite possibly my top two favorite books).

All the Light We Cannot See

Cover of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony DoerrAuthor: Anthony Doerr
Rating: 5 stars
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 531 pages

Towards the end of World War II, the seaside city of Saint-Malo, France is bombed by the Allies. Werner, a young German soldier with a innate understanding of electronics is trapped underneath the rubble with a radio. Across the city, a blind girl, Marie Laure, finds herself alone in her uncle’s home, hiding from a Nazi treasure hunter obsessed with a precious jewel in her possession, with a radio transmitter and her braille copy of Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

There are so many beautiful details in this book, particularly surrounding the story of Marie Laure and her father. Her father, the master of locks at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, builts miniature replicas of their neighborhood to help Marie Laure learn how to navigate on her own. Werner’s life is more difficult, but he remains inspired by a strange radio broadcast he heard with his sister as a child.

Besides the details, the writing is very beautiful. The prose can be a bit dense at times, however Doerr counters this with very short chapters with give the book some breathing room. I really wish I would have had time to read this one more slowly. Since I was reading it for class I had to clip through it at a very fast pace. I’m planning on a reread once it’s published in paperback (June 2016).

Station Eleven

cover of Station Eleven by Emily St. John MandelAuthor: Emily St. John Mandel
Rating: 5 stars
Genre: Literary Fiction/Science Fiction (very light)
Length: 333 pages

I’m going to use a word here to describe Station Eleven, but I don’t want you to let it turn you off the book. Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic (but not dystopian) novel set in the near future after the Georgian Flu wipes out most of the Earth’s population as well as crippling most technologies. Small communities have formed, often near wherever a group of people happened to be at the time the flu hit.

However, this isn’t a particularly science fiction-y book. The story is not centered on survival or plot or what happens next. Rather, the story moves back and forth in time (pre- and post-flu) weaving together multiple characters, but focused on the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who travel across North America performing, because “survival is insufficient.” Station Eleven examines art, humanity, memory, and those things that may survive us: the smart phone in the Museum of Civilization, an obscure sci-fi graphic novel, a Star Trek quote, Shakespeare’s plays.

The title of the book comes from the title of a graphic novel one of the characters creates over many years about a failing, partially flooded space station now consisting of interconnected islands led by Dr. Eleven and the group of people hiding in the Undersea who only want to return to a ruined, alien-dominated Earth. I wanted this graphic novel to be real. I really wanted this graphic novel to be real. Sadly, it is not, although the cover designer, Nathan Burton, did illustrate a few pages.

And like All the Light We Cannot See, the writing in Station Eleven was absolutely beautiful to read.


Ancillary Space

cover of Ancillary Justice by Ann LeckieTitle: Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword
Author: Ann Leckie
Rating: 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Length: 409 pages, 359 pages

Synopsis: Breq used to be a starship. She was the AI for the ship Justice of Toren, able to directly command hundreds of bodies, known as ancillaries. Now, this former spaceship has lost almost everything. Reduced to one body (the former One Esk Nineteen), Breq has her mind set on one objective–finding a weapon that will allow her to kill one body of Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, who she believes is responsible for her current condition.

Ancillary Justice is interwoven with scenes from the past. We learn the heart-breaking tale of what happened to Justice of Toren during a planet annexation that goes horribly wrong. Specifically, we get to better understand the singing One Esk Nineteen, who served and cared deeply for Lieutenant Awn.

Ancillary Sword picks up a week after the end of Ancillary Justice. We are no longer jumping back and forth in time, having learned the secrets that lead to Breq’s reduction to one body. Breq is made Fleet Captain of the ship Mercy of Kalr, whose former captain trained the crew to act as ancillaries. Breq is joined by Seivarden and the “baby lieutenant” Tisarwat, and sent to guard Athoek Station, a far-reaching system known mainly for cultivating tea. Of more importance to Breq, Athoek is the home of her beloved Lieutenant Awn’s younger sister. Once there, Breq immediately begins investigating several outside threats as well and a few internal inconsistencies that point to something not quite right at Athoek Station.

Several things make Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword unique. First, the book is written from the point-of-view of a former starship AI that used to control thousands of bodies. The point-of-view is unusual and strange, as readers sometime get glimpses of multiple events happening simultaneously. Second, Breq’s language does not have any concept of gender, so Breq struggles to identify who is masculine and feminine. She uses ‘she’ by default, as well as feminine words such as daughter and sister to represent child and sibling. In many cases, the reader never learns the sex of a character (most character do not seem to have a preferred gender, either). These two qualities make both Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword a very unique reading experience.

Review: I’m glad I read Ancillary Justice before I knew that there was a lot of hype surrounding this book.  Ancillary Justice has (deservedly) won multiple awards. Around the Internet, people are also raving about the books (The Book Smugglers, Tor, NPR, io9). When I read it for class this summer, however, the response in class was not positive at all. Because of this, for awhile Ancillary Justice felt like my own little secret–an awesome sci-fi book that only I knew about or appreciated.

That’s ridiculous of course. We’ve since seen Ancillary Justice win the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke, so apparently I’m not the only one that loves these books after all. They don’t need my loving protection.

Because of the unusual perspective of Breq (spaceship AI in a culture that doesn’t differentiate genders), reading Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword can be a bit disorienting, but in the best way possible. If you’re someone who needs to be able to visualize characters, these books might be frustrating. In most cases, you’ll never figure out the biological sex or the gender of the characters. Reading the book really challenges you to think about how you think about gender. (Side note: as another win for the book, a majority of characters, if not all, are people of color.) Also, Leckie has some spectacular pieces of writing, particularly during flashbacks, where she tries to capture what it might be like to be one consciousness experiencing multiple situations through multiple bodies. It’s absolutely stunning.

Aside from the two defining features of these books, the stories themselves were very interesting. In fact, I’m writing this review right now instead of working on schoolwork because I could not stop thinking about Ancillary Sword. The books move at a slightly slower pace than most sci-fi and are rich in detail, but tackle a lot of interesting issues: identity, colonialism, culture and language, systemic inequality, etc. I especially love the explorations of whether a starship AI can care about and form attachments to the people on the ship as well as the nuances of what happens to an ancillary’s personality when they are made into an ancillary.

Breq is a unique narrator. She comes off very distant and unemotional, even cold (due to the fact that she is an AI). Breq experiences everything in a strange dichotomy–very closely (Breq can often read the emotions people are feeling as the Justice of Toren or by linking in with Mercy of Kalr) accompanied by a strange emotional distance due to the fact that Breq does not understand everything the way you or I would.

What really drew me in, besides the unique narration, were various relationships between characters: particularly One Esk Nineteen and Lieutenant Awn, Breq and Seivarden (particularly in Sword–Seivarden annoyed me a bit in Justice), and Breq and Tisarwat. I also loved the small details that enriched the characters and the world they inhabit. One example is the singing. Breq has a habit of collecting songs and constantly singing or humming to herself without knowing. She acts this way even as an ancillary that is part of a ship, which individualizes her (and also raises questions about how the former identities of people influence the ancillaries they become). Once in command of the Mercy of Kalr, some of Breq’s crew pick up the habit and start singing as well.

Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword (named after the ships, by the way–Justice of Toren and Sword of Atagaris) are definitely worth a read if you enjoy sci-fi. Sadly, Ancillary Sword was just published, which means I’ll have to wait ages for the final book in the trilogy, Ancillary Mercy!

5 stars for both.

American Gods

Sonya has risen from her library school grave (aka graduated) and will actually have time to review books now!! 🙂 With that out of the way, let’s hear about American Gods:
I would have given American Gods 2 stars, but the last 100 pages were much better so 2.5 it is. I don’t want to say I can’t like this book because I think in a different context I would. I started this book during the break between summer and fall classes thinking it would make for a nice relaxing read. However, American Gods is a fairly hefty novel in terms of content, so I think if I had been in a mood for something deep, I would have liked it more. What I really wanted was something fluffy, and I thought American Gods would be a fast-paced mystery-sci fi novel. It wasn’t. Since its also character-focused it moves less quickly; Gaiman takes his time developing the characters. What I really wanted, though, was a fast-paced fantasy novel! I mean the cover has a highway with lightning on it! 
American Gods was recommended to me by Nox and Zelda as being one of Gaiman’s best. I loved The Graveyard Book and Coraline, so I thought I might delve into some adult fiction, and American Godscame highly recommended. Plus, Gaiman’s concept for the book seems intriguing and original. The concept of gods as real manifestations was interesting let alone the concept of “American” gods such as media, the internet, and television. The beginning caught my attention but after Shadow and Wednesday set off to rope more gods into Wednesday’s plan, I just lost interest. The vignettes about how the gods came to America that are scattered throughout I found distracting. The last 100 pages or so were actually quite good, but I often found myself counting how many pages to the end of the chapter and to the end of the book. I just wanted to be done with it so I could go back to reading Gone with the Wind (which is wonderful!). Perhaps I might try a different adult novel by Gaiman and see if it goes better. Any recommendations?!