Book Review: A Closed and Common Orbit

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WARNING: As the second book in the series, this review (and in particular, the summary below) will have spoilers for The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet!

From Goodreads:

Lovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who’s determined to help her learn and grow.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that no matter how vast space is, two people can fill it together.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet introduced readers to the incredible world of Rosemary Harper, a young woman with a restless soul and secrets to keep. When she joined the crew of the Wayfarer, an intergalactic ship, she got more than she bargained for – and learned to live with, and love, her rag-tag collection of crewmates.

A Closed and Common Orbit is the stand-alone sequel to Becky Chambers’ beloved debut novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and is perfect for fans of Firefly, Joss Whedon, Mass Effect, and Star Wars.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that the first book in this series, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, was my favorite book of last year.

I always get nervous when I’m reading the second book by an author I’ve absolutely loved. I’ve found far too many who have disappointed me, and been one-hit wonders. Many people criticize Rothfuss, saying Wise Man’s Fear isn’t as good as Name of the Wind (though I enjoyed them both). I’ve heard the same accusations leveled at Anthony Ryan (though I have not read his stuff yet). I personally feel this way about Ernest Cline. (Read Ready Player One, don’t bother with Armada.) Thus, when I’m heading into the second book, I always feel a bit nervous, and worry that I’m going to be let down again. I loved the first book so much, I want to have that same awesome experience.

Thankfully, Chambers delivers with A Closed and Common Orbit. The book is every bit as lovable, adorable, intimately human, progressive, and deep as the first one and, dare I say, I think I even loved it a bit more. While Long Way followed the crew of the Wayfarer across the galaxy, traveling to a large number of varied planets and meeting each member of the large crew, and their families, Orbit focuses on only a handful of characters, digging deep into their backstory and journey. I felt like there was a much better sense of connection between the chapters because of this, and more progression throughout the book. While Long Way felt very episodic, Orbit felt like a cohesive novel.

One of the other issues that initially worried me about this book being a sequel to Long Way is that we’re not following any of the characters in the original novel. There’s an entirely new cast here. This book takes place completely planet-side, and follows Lovelace, in her new body. This allows the novel to stand on its own, something that far too few novels do these days, with the massive number of ever-ongoing series that there are. It was not a problem, however, and I fell in love with these new characters just as quickly as I did with the original cast.

The book still is, like the first one, a character study. I love me a good plot-based novel about saving the world, a book that is utterly epic in scope and stakes, as much as the next person. (Considering my obsession with Sanderson, Jordan, etc., probably more than the next person.) However, sometimes I need a break, and an intense, deep character study is an amazing break, a lovely rest.

Because it digs so deep into its characters, Orbit can ask some deep questions. What makes us people? What really is humanity? Who deserves to be a person, and why? What is one’s purpose? All these questions and more are addressed in this book. Not all of them are answered, and some of the answers are very personal to the characters involved, and not universal. I loved the way this was handled and explored. Many of the decisions made that revolve around these questions really resonated with me. Some of them left me with questions about my own life, and my own notions and beliefs. Any book that challenges you to examine yourself a bit is good for you, and thankfully, this one was an enjoyable read as well.

The book is every bit as progressive as the first, from its questions of AI humanity to various gender-fluid characters prominent in the plot. There were unique and interesting cultures and family structures, all presented with a very open mind and in such a way that make complete sense for the species and conditions in which they arose. While we don’t explore quite as many of these as we did in the first book, they’re still fascinating, and I loved how they were presented here.

Despite the deep questions asked, and the issues raised, Orbit, like Long Way before it, is an ultimately happy book. There are so many beautiful little moments that make me smile, and if I ever tear up, it is because the moment was bittersweet. My heart was warmed by reading this book, and honestly, everyone needs more books like this. The world is a grim place many days, especially with our recent political climate, and it’s always nice to be reminded that everyone you meet is a person, with their own story, and that there are little moments of beauty around us, in all of the people around us, if we just look.

This book does a lot of the things that Ancillary Justice did. It has very progressive ideas, it’s a space opera, and it focuses around an AI out of its ship, stuck in a single body. It asks the question of what it means to really be a person. The difference is, Orbit does it right. I was lukewarm on the first Ancillary book, and found the second two to be downright boring. Orbit is never boring, and even though it is slow, the characters are so warm and so realistic that I couldn’t help but fall in love with it. Everything Ancillary Justice tried to do, A Closed and Common Orbit did, and did better.

In summary, A Closed and Common Orbit is a worthy sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. If you liked the first book, you need to read this one as well. It is absolutely heartwarming, charming, open-minded, and deep. I absolutely loved it, and needed this book in my life. Five of Five stars, and my highest recommendations. (And if you haven’t read Long Way, please, please, at least try it. However, both books are completely stand-alone, so you can read them in any order you want.)

Links:

Becky Chambers.

Goodreads.

Amazon.

Traveling to ICFA 38

Hey all! Shannon and I are currently in Florida, at the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts conference, ICFA 38! Shannon is presenting a paper tomorrow (Thursday), and has spent the last several weeks making sure it’s in great shape. I’m excited to hear her deliver it, it’s really well done. Because of all this, we’re really busy, and don’t have a full Wednesday post for y’all this week.

We will get you a full con report soon, and I can probably talk Shannon into posting her paper as well. I still owe you a WorldCon report for last year–that’s in the works, and will be out eventually. I’m reading a lot of books now that I’m done beta reading, and oh, it feels sooooo good. 🙂 More about those books later too, of course.

For now, here’s a picture of us WAY too early this morning, waiting for our flights out of Austin.

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Movie Review: The Accountant

The movie has a really interesting premise, which I don’t feel is quite adequately portrayed in the trailer. It shows the story of Christian Wolff, an accountant with some very special talents. Wolff has high functioning autism, and an incredible talent for numbers. He works for high profile corporations, and occasionally mobs and other shady operations, finding errors in their accounting records. He runs a small town accounting firm, helping local citizens with their taxes, as a bit of a front. He is also very good with a number of weapons, and can fight proficiently with everything from his hands to a sniper rifle. The movie follows his story as he tries to uncook the books for a massive corporation, where there are (of course) some deep-seated problems which lead him down dangerous roads.

The action that ensues is quite good. The fight scenes were all well choreographed, and quite exciting. None of them were too long, and I never really felt any action fatigue. Some of them were a little on the brutal side for my taste, but it fit the tone of the film, so I didn’t really mind.

The overall plot was fairly straightforward. I got lost a few times, and had to ask the friend who saw the movie with me to explain some of the more subtle elements to me after the movie was over, but overall, it was engaging and solidly done.

I was quite happy that the writers didn’t try to force any unrealistic romance into the movie. Wolff has high functioning autism, and he is, accurately, socially awkward. He is not the kind of person who would quickly form romantic attachments, or attract other people to him. There were definitely moments in the movie where the writers could have used the trope of having the hero be universally loved, but it would have felt horribly forced and out of character, and I am very glad that it was not done.

Not just with the romance, but overall, the portrayals of autism in the movie felt very authentic. The scene where Wolff is obsessively working on an accounting set of books, for example. The level of attention he gives to the work, the way he sets everything out so he can see it, and his reaction when his work are interrupted are all spot on. In addition, his sensitivity to noise, his desensitization training, and everything down to the little details like how he arranges his food on his plate, give the movie a very authentic and accurate feel. I absolutely loved this aspect of the film.

In summary, despite the high level of violence, the solid plot moved the film along, and the spot on depictions of an autistic main character who is also incredibly capable were amazing, and I absolutely loved it. If you have an autistic friend or family member (who is old enough to watch a fairly violent action movie), I highly recommend watching this film with them. I guarantee they will poke you several times throughout and say, “Yeah, that’s exactly right. That’s how it is.”

Five out of Five stars, easily. I’ll be watching this one again on my computer at some point, I’m absolutely certain.

Updates and Apologies

Mark here. I’ve been really absent lately, and I’m sorry about that. I’ve got my excuse, but… It’s an excuse.

I’d say it’s a pretty good one, too, though.

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You see, I was beta reading Oathbringer. According to this post, it is currently ~514,000 words long. For some perspective, the entire Lord of the Rings (The trilogy, not just one of the books.) is only 473,000 words long. So the beta reading process took about 2.5 months. I might talk about it somewhere later, but for now, all I’ll say is it was intense, exhausting, rewarding, and it’s over. Also, Oathbringer is a freaking amazing book and you want to preorder it now. November 14th is the release date, and you will want to read this as soon as you can. Trust me.

Oathbringer is the only book I’ve finished reading this year. It’s the middle of March. I tend to average about 50 books per year, give or take, so that’s a ridiculously slow rate for me. The problem was, every time we had a break between parts of the book that we were reading, it was only for a few days, and I didn’t have time to get through anything else. Limbo isn’t fun…

But that is done now, and I’m back. I’ve got a (movie) review ready for later this week, and I’m starting several other books very soon, in hopes of getting back on track with the blog.

I’d like to finish with a huge thanks to my coblogger Shannon for keeping things running while I was busy on Roshar!

Book Review: Seveneves

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I read this book because it was one of last year’s Hugo Nominees.

This book was very much hard sci-fi. Much harder than most of the other books I’ve read, and probably too hard for a lot of people. If you want a story about just characters, Seveneves is probably not the book for you, though that doesn’t mean those stories aren’t there. I would personally have to say that I enjoyed it, in part, because of the science, rather than in spite of it. It is explained so well, and in a way that is so relevant to the plot, that it never bored me. I’m generally much more of a fantasy geek than a sci-fi nerd, and will happily read pages on invented magic systems. Stevenson managed to turn the science here into a fascinating story, even without extrapolating very far into the future for most of the ideas.

That being said, this book had one major problem, one jarring element, that kept it from being amazing for me. WARNING: If you highlight the next paragraph, there are MAJOR SPOILERS for part of the plot.

The first 2/3 of the book are an intense, brutal, amazing survival novel. Then, once we have survived as a species, it jumps thousands of years into the future, starts over with a completely new set of characters, and follows an entirely different plot—that of our return to Earth. I found this jump to be jarring, unnecessary, and it darn near ruined the book for me. It didn’t feel like the same book at all. Honestly, if I could just go read the first 2/3 of the book, and consider it a complete novel, I would be perfectly happy and I would have enjoyed the book a lot more. Then the last 1/3 can be a companion novel, released a few years later. They should not be called the same book, at all.

The book did not move quickly at any point. There was no overwhelming sense of urgency to the plot, no need to get things over with and get to the next exciting bit. Rather, it took its time and it did it incredibly well. It still managed to have a rising tension that permeated basically every page, and somehow drew me through the entire thing. I’m not sure how well it would hold up to a reread—and I don’t honestly intend to find out—but it gripped me on my entire first reading.

The premise of the book is very simple, and it’s laid out on the first few pages. It’s a simple “What if?” question that I’m sure many people have contemplated before. I didn’t even feel that any of the results or reactions to the inciting event were outlandish—every decision felt realistic, every happening totally possible. It scares me a little bit, sometimes, how easily our modern society could fall into chaos and disappear. The progression of ideas, and the level of intriguing plot and tension that Stevenson was able to create with such a simple idea shows off his skill—you don’t need a list of “WOW!” ideas to make a great book, you just need everything to be solid, and be a good writer.

Not only did I feel that all of the scientific extrapolations in the book were solid and believable, but also the character actions and reactions. People made some bad decisions, and I sometimes wanted to bash their heads together and just yell at them to cooperate. I was able to get inside the heads of several of the characters from the book, and in many cases, I cannot deny that I would also have made some very bad decisions had I been in their places.

The title of the book makes no sense before you read it—I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce it until I figured out what it meant. Once I did figure that out. . . I think it’s genius. But I won’t spoil it here.

In summary, Seveneves was a very good book, with understandable character decisions and a believable sci-fi plot, that, despite it’s slow pacing and simple premise, entranced me and drew me through. Unfortunately, there’s then another book that is half the length of the first one, tacked on to the end, and it didn’t fit at all, though it was good in its own right. I’m going to give it three of five stars, and recommend that you at least read the first two parts—but if you don’t read the third part, you’re doing just fine.

Oops.

I’m mostly done with a very nice WorldCon review post that’ll probably have to be split into two or three parts. I was planning to have it all ready tonight for upload.

Then this thing called Oathbringer came along for beta reading.

Don’t expect to see a lot of me for the next 2 months. I’m going to be very busy. (I’ll still try to post, and will likely get reviews done, at least. And maybe I’ll get Shannon to clean up the WorldCon post and post it. Or maybe I’ll have a little free time, somewhere. We’ll see.)

Book Review: Sleeping Giants

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This book has been compared to World War Z (which I have not yet read), in part for its format. It’s a very interesting format. I wouldn’t quite classify it as found footage, but it’s not really an epistolary either. It’s told through interviews, occasional surveillance videos, and other such things. Mostly the interviews, though. Perhaps the most similar book that I’ve seen recently is Illuminae. (This one doesn’t have any illustrations, though.) The format is done really well, though there are times I could tell that the author was forcing himself to use the format, and it doesn’t really fit. Overall, though, it works really well, and brought a fresh feeling after reading so many books told in the same limited 3rd person viewpoint.

One trick that Neuvel tries to pull with this format is an unknown narrator. The person who conducts most of the interviews attempts to keep himself a mystery during the book—and this element really didn’t work for me. Because we only get to know a few characters in the book, and most all of them have met and been interviewed by the narrator, I feel like the narrator will end up being someone we don’t actually know, and therefore the reveal won’t be a shock.

The overall story is very intriguing. It’s a mix of a conspiracy story, mystery, military tale, and HOVER FOR SPOILER. The interweaving of so many layers makes it really gripping, and I enjoyed the story the whole time I was reading. It was a very quick read, despite the plot sometimes not moving super quickly (and sometimes jumping over months at a time), so I felt the plot was overall well written.

Two elements in particular that the book excelled at were the mythological aspect underlying many of the discoveries that were made, and the linguistics applied while deciphering the “foreign” texts. While both of these were done with very few actual details, and much of the story was implied, the parts that were there were done very well, and I loved the depth they added to the story.

My biggest complaint with the story is the ending—or lack thereof. I didn’t feel like there was actually any climax or resolution to the story. It doesn’t feel like the first book of a story—it feels like the first part of of a larger book. This really disappointed me, and I honestly don’t recommend reading it until you can read the second, and maybe third, parts. This really ruined my sense of enjoyment, as the book didn’t give me any closure, or really even that much indication that the end was coming, until I turned the last page and there simply wasn’t another page.

In summary, Sleeping Giants was a really interesting read that pulled me through, layering multiple plots very well with a cool storytelling style that only occasionally felt stretched, but let me down significantly at the end when there was no real climax or conclusion to the book. I give it 3 of 5 stars, and recommend it as part of the series, perhaps to be read once the other books have been released.