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.

Comic Review: Descender, Vol 1: Tin Stars

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From Goodreads:

Young Robot boy TIM-21 and his companions struggle to stay alive in a universe where all androids have been outlawed and bounty hunters lurk on every planet. Written by award-winning creator, Jeff Lemire, Descender is a rip-roaring and heart-felt cosmic odyssey. Lemire pits humanity against machine, and world against world, to create a sprawling epic. Created by Jeff Lemire (Sweet Tooth, Trillium) and Dustin Nguyen’s (Little Gotham) critically acclaimed, bestselling new science fiction series!

Collecting: Descender 1-6

Okay, it is time to reel in my flailing before beginning, this graphic novel was that good.  I honestly have not read something this amazing in quite a long time, and it was wonderful for a comic to just “click” with me so well.  Descender is fantastic sci-fi rendered in a beautiful watercolor setting that was incredibly unique and refreshing.  Alien worlds emblazoned in rich shades, so unfamiliar and otherworldly, fit with the flow of the story well enough that any doubts I may have had from the deviation from normal comic book art were blown out of the water.

The story follows TIM-21, a companion android for children that wakes up years after an attack from massive robots known as the Harvesters.  Alone and afraid on a desolate mining planet far from populated reaches of the galaxy, different factions vie for retrieving him due to his importance in identifying the origin of the murderous machines that killed millions upon millions.  Those groups, such as the UGC, Grishians, and the like, all have their own clear motives and were each fascinating in their own right.  I cannot wait to learn more about each of them as this comic progresses!

The grayness of each character was another favorite part of this work for me.  No one was strictly good or evil, which in comics feels great as there is so often a clear good guy and bad guy, especially in the superhero genre.  From the “father of modern robotics” to those who want to destroy all robots in existence, they all have solid reasoning for their actions and their own light and dark sides.  This becomes clearer as the comic progresses.  All we can root for is poor TIM-21, who just wants to see his family again.  And, of course, Driller, because Driller is the best and there is no argument that’ll make me believe otherwise.

Finally, the theme of the humanity of robots is always a wonderful one to visit, and this comic has this in spades.  TIM-21 is programmed with emotions to facilitate his job as a companion robot, and the robots shown throughout the story feel much more human than their modern-day counterparts.  Yet, they are being massacred due to the robot attack that so many planets endured.  The parallels to genocide are not easily missed, and the easiest characters to empathize with are the machines.

Overall, I cannot wait to read the second and third trade paperbacks that are currently out and will likely review those as well!  (We may have already bought them, I was so excited.)  Descender deserves all five stars, as Jeff Lemire has created a beautiful world and characters I can get behind.  This is probably my favorite sci-fi comic outside of Saga, which is a high honor!

Amazon

Goodreads

Favorite Books of 2014

This list is going to be presented in 2 parts. The first part is the books I read for the first time in 2014, but which were not released that year. The second is 2014 releases that I read and really enjoyed. I didn’t put any rereads on this list, to prevent it from being 100% Sanderson. Neither list has a strict number of books on it, they’re just however many books I really enjoyed. I’m hoping this list will be longer next year, as I want to get more reading done. (Goals/resolutions post coming… Tomorrow?)

2014 Most enjoyed backlist books.

3. The Last Unicorn

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This is something of a classic that a lot of people couldn’t believe that I’d never read–and I see why. It’s not an epic tale, but it’s a touching one. It’s a beautiful story that just resonates in some way that is timeless and is difficult to describe. Really good read, and quick too. Definitely recommended.

2. The Android’s Dream

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I think one of my problems with many sci-fi novels is that they try to dig into the technology to make it “hard” sci-fi, and they do it wrong. Often, it’s obvious that the author has no idea what they are talking about, and it just makes me cringe. This happens particularly often in the realm of computers… Or perhaps I just notice it more because I’m a computer science major in college and spend an unhealthy amount of time working with the things every day. That’s why The Android’s Dream was so incredibly refreshing. It’s computer technology, hackers, aliens, and all the stuff that makes sci-fi cool. Done right. It’s very accurate, but it’s also riotously funny, completely self-contained, and never gets distracted from the hugely entertaining plot. This one really exceeded my expectations and I’m surprised there isn’t more hype about it. You can find my review here.

1. A Storm of Swords

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Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire is a modern classic, and it’s hard to believe that I only started reading this series in 2013 and finished in 2014. (Up to A Dance with Dragons, the last book that is actually out.) GRRM is an absolute master of characterization and satisfying, interesting grey characters. I’m constantly left in awe of his work, and the second half A Storm of Swords, with The Red and Purple Weddings, the trial and combat, and the appearance of a certain someone in the epilogue, is one of the most gut wrenching and amazing things I’ve ever read. You can get away with not reading the books after this, but everyone should at least read up through here. It would be criminal not to.

2014 Most enjoyed releases.

6. What If?

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This is a non-fiction book, which is why I’ve stuck it at the end of the list. It’s quite a departure from my usual fare–I typically only read books like this when I have to for a class. This one, based on the popular What If? columns that xkcd writer Randall Munroe offers up on his website, is simultaneously one of the most entertaining and educational books I’ve ever read. You don’t need to be an uber nerd to understand what’s going on here–Munroe does a great job of explaining the results of his questions without going into the unnecessary details of the formulas he had to use. You will enjoy this one regardless. I promise. My review is here.

5. The Mirror Empire.

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I really enjoyed this one a lot. It had some of the most creative worldbuilding that I’ve ever seen. More inventive, honestly, than even some of Sanderson’s worlds. It really blew my mind, and the plot is utterly brilliant as well. I wish I could have said I completely loved it, but it left me confused in places and I felt it could have used a little smoothing out. Still, I did enjoy it, and I have high hopes for the next book in the series, Empire Ascendant. My review can be found here.

4. Ghost Train to New Orleans.

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This was a fun little read that I wasn’t quite expecting to be this good. I’m not a huge urban fantasy fan (Though a few of my friends are trying to convert me.), but I enjoyed the first book in the series enough to get this one on release day. If we’re going purely by enjoyment versus expectations, this one exceeded my expectations more than any other book on the list. My review resides here.

3. The Crimson Campaign.

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Brian McClellan in one of those guys who just won’t stop writing good stuff. In-between producing an amazing novel every year, he’s written several short stories and novellas in his powder mage world, which explores what happens when magic meets (and comes from) gunpowder. It’s a fascinating blend that I haven’t seen anywhere else, and his ability to ramp up the tension is superb. His first book, Promise of Blood, was an excellent, solid, four-star book that even earned him a well deserved cover-quote from Sanderson himself. The Crimson Campaign was even better in every way, and I tore through it as soon as I had the chance. Highly recommended. My review can be found here.

2. The Emperor’s Blades.

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This book was getting a lot of hype, so I figured that, when I received an ARC, I should probably read it. I did. I’m glad that I did. It was utterly incredible. I have never read a book with such incredibly tense pacing, certainly not of this length. What Staveley has managed here is nothing short of magical, especially in his debut. This isn’t just a book that I highly recommend, this is a book that I very nearly demand that you read. My drooling review is here.

1. WORDS OF RADIANCE.

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(I know that’s not the cover, but it’s one of the amazing end-pages and it’s just too beautiful to not use.)

I do not have enough superlatives to describe this book. Sanderson’s early books, Elantris and Warbreaker, are good, with very powerful surprise endings. He outdid himself with the Mistborn trilogy, which is still one of the most feels-inducing, beautiful things I have ever read. There are, perhaps, only a handful of books in all of fantasy literature that I would compare to the Mistborn trilogy, and most of those would be to describe how Mistborn is better. Then Sanderson wrote The Way of Kings. It is incredible. Simply put, when I read it, my initial thoughts (When I could think again) went something like, “This is the best book I have ever read. There will not be a better book. I’m sorry to all of the other books I ever read.” I felt the same way when I reread it last year. And then Words of Radiance came out. My mind has never, ever, been blown so much. World of Radiance is as big of an improvement on The Way of Kings as the Way of Kings is over every other book written. I was not able to write a review that did this book justice. I’ll try when I reread it, but I’m not making any promises.

That’s it for me. I read a total of 42 books, plus numerous novellas and short stories in 2014, and these were the ones I most enjoyed. I hope everyone else had a great year and found many books that they enjoyed as well! I’m looking forward to 2015 and the books it will bring. 🙂

Book Review: The Android’s Dream

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From the back cover:

A human diplomat kills his alien counterpart. Earth is on the verge of war with a vastly superior alien race. A lone man races against time and a host of enemies to find the one object that can save our planet and our people from alien enslavement…

A sheep.

That’s right, a sheep. And if you think that’s the most surprising thing about this book, wait until you read Chapter One. Welcome to The Android’s Dream.

For Harry Creek, it’s quickly becoming a nightmare. All he wants is to do his uncomplicated mid-level diplomatic job with Earth’s State Department. But his past training and skills get him tapped to save the planet–and to protect pet store owner Robin Baker, whose own past holds the key to the whereabouts of that lost sheep. Doing both will take him from lava-strewn battlefields to alien halls of power. All in a day’s work. Maybe it’s time for a raise.

I managed to read this one in four days, something of a miracle considering my current reading load and how the rest of my life is going (School, mostly.).

The book starts off talking about farts, something that almost put me off immediately. I enjoy funny books, and I know that humor sometimes gets crude, but potty humor is, for some reason, something I nearly always find disgusting.

Thankfully, this type of humor worked perfectly into the plot, and made sense. It also was not a large part of the rest of the novel.

That’s not to say the rest of the book wasn’t funny. I haven’t read a book this hilarious since Sanderson’s Alcatraz series. Many of the plot points and ideas–even the alien species and the religions–in the book seem ridiculous and crazy at first glance, and I found myself laughing throughout.

But Scalzi also managed to do something here that I’ve never seen done before quite so well: he blended the ridiculous levels of humor and insanity into a coherent plot, where every part, every rambling explanation of how a man wrote prophesies as poems to get money from an old lady, and inadvertently founded a church (Uh, yeah. That happened.), and makes it not only make sense, but also play a critical role in what happens in the plot. I was continually astonished by the way he did that in this novel; every time he went off to explain some new and crazy idea, I expected it to be just put there to be silly. I was wrong every single time, and it made me happy, every single time.

The plot itself was gripping. It follows a rather interesting and shady bunch of people across the galaxy. Many of them are brilliant at what they do, some are simply despicable. My favorite is, hands down, Harry Creek. He is, in many ways, everything I wish I could be. A talented programmer, a brilliant soldier, and a genuinely good guy, who’s just trying to do what he can to save the human race from complete annihilation at the hands of a race of aliens who want… A sheep.

Two of the main characters, Harry and Archie, are both very good with computers, and technology plays a critical role at several points in the plot of the novel. I’ve read plenty of books before where the computer science side of things was handled with a hand-wave or a few fancy tech buzz-words. Not here. This is the real deal. Scalzi knows what he’s talking about when he talks about computers and how they work. I’m a second year computer science student, and I’m not sure that I could write those portions of the novel as accurately as he did, but I definitely know enough to know that he wrote them correctly. I’m not sure if he is that knowledgeable himself, or if he called in an expert to help him (Sanderson has said, for example, that he did something of the sort with the medical scenes in The Way of Kings.), but the end result is excellent. I want to thank Scalzi for the attention to detail, and I wish more authors would do this.

The plot of the novel itself is never forgotten for more than a few pages, and the pacing is excellent. In a novel that could easily become sidetracked in the richness and humor of the universe, Scalzi manages to focus on the single central plot, and I was very impressed and never bored with the book. I finished it in four days, and it did not feel like I was rushing. In fact, I usually put it down at 3 AM, wishing I could read more, but knowing I had to get up and do other things the next day.

This novel is a stand-alone, and it shows. At times, I think I forget how satisfying a good stand-alone novel can be, lost in the glory of Randland and Westeros, the Cosmere and Temerant (Kudos if you know them all.). I’ve loved other stand-alones before, most notably Tigana. The Android’s Dream reminded me why. It is completely self-contained, and has an incredibly fun, twisty, and satisfying ending. It reminded me of a Sanderson ending, with its complexity and unexpectedness, although I was able to call a few of the major twists a few pages before they happened. Four days to start, live, love, and finish an entire world. I really should read more stand-alone novels.

In conclusion: The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi is a fast-paced, laugh-out-loud hilarious–even if it does occasionally stray into crude humor–stand-alone novel. It manages to make the humor utterly ridiculous and simultaneously integral to the completely serious plot. It’s one of the few novels I’ve read that portrays computer technology accurately, and it has a very twisty, satisfying ending.

It blew me away. If you like brilliantly funny novels, and you want a quick, satisfying read, I highly recommend The Android’s Dream. Five of Five stars.

Links:

Goodreads

Amazon

John Scalzi’s Blog

Book Review: The Burning Dark

I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of The Burning Dark by Adam Christopher, and I’ve just finished reading it.

Captain Abraham Idaho Cleveland, called Ida, was a hero. While he was captain, he led a fleet into battle against the spiders, AIs than can eat planets, and even stars. And, against all odds, he won the battle. Now, left with an achy robotic knee as a memento of the battle, Ida has been sent to oversee the last stages of the disassembling of the U-Star Coast City, a Fleet space station. He doesn’t know why he’s been sent to the station, and neither do the remaining crew members, none of whom have heard of his exploits, which should be legend, even in this backwater system. Ida is very frustrated by these events.

The U-Star Coast city sits in the same solar system as the star Shadow. That’s why it was put here in the first place–to study the strange, potentially deadly, purple star. The light from the star begins to mess with Ida almost as soon as he is in the system, and soon it shuts down the standard lightspeed communications, and appears to be playing havoc with the station’s internal systems, particularly those for lighting and atmosphere. This gives the station an eerie feel, and sets almost everyone, who, to the last man, want to be done with this job and gone, on edge.

Cut off from the rest of the galaxy, with the crew beginning to hate him, Ida turns to his hobbies, creating a radio that he quickly uses to listen to illegal frequencies. The only problem is, he doesn’t know why they’re illegal. When he finds a hypnotizing distress call echoing on one of the frequencies, he becomes obsessed with the origin. Things just get stranger from there, as crew start to disappear, and the mysteries, such as the location of the station’s commandant, seem to multiply.

It took me nearly a month to read this book, but that’s my fault. I simply haven’t had much time to read lately. I enjoyed the book. It’s not my usual fare; I’m much more into fantasy than sci-fi, and longer rather than shorter books (At 336 pages, this is by no means a short book. I’m just used to 900+). Never the less, I enjoyed this one. It proves that good writing transcends genres, and can be enjoyed regardless of what your tastes are.

This book is not without its flaws, though. The characters often feel one dimensional; every hobby and bit of back-story that I can remember is only there because it serves the plot in some way, and I don’t know anything about the characters apart from that.

The characters can also be dense, sometimes. There were parts of the book where I was frustrated at the characters because I had realized something of what was going on, and the characters did not for another fifty or hundred pages. However, much of this may have been because of the way the book jumps from viewpoint to viewpoint, including teaser viewpoints that show some of what is going on behind the scenes, or something that happened years ago that will be instrumental to the plot in a few chapters.

However, the characters, despite their flaws, are also convincingly real. While I would have loved to see more back story and quirks from them, I thought they were psychologically well done. Not only do they have an authentic gritty feel to them, the sense of impending despair that sets in as the star’s light affects them, and other events happen in the second half of the book, is very convincing. There were several times, when I stopped reading, that I had to remind myself that it was the characters in mental anguish, not myself, and that I needed to relax. I love it when a book can immerse me so fully in the character’s mentalities that I have to remind myself that I’m not them.

The pacing of the book seemed a hair slow, but keep in mind, I read it over the course of the month, and I’m used to reading 1000+ page books in 3 days. Given the length of the book, and the amount of action, I’m going to say this was a misperception on my part. I’m guessing that if I’d read this book at my normal pace, and it had taken me a day, or at most two, then I would have thought it very quickly paced. The tension throughout is constant, and there aren’t dull moments. However, because of the number of mysteries and amount of confusion, I would recommend against reading too hastily, and instead reading a little more carefully.

The ending was satisfying and well fore-shadowed, with no deus-ex-machina or other surprises that can ruin endings. I liked it, and felt that it held the book together well, making the read worth it.

Overall, I’d give this book 4 of 5 stars, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading, if you can handle the darker side of things, as the book is quite dark. Also, a content warning: Lots of swearing, and while the descriptions not graphic, there is at least implied sex/nudity.

The Burning Dark will be out in March of 2014 (Sorry to tease you so far ahead of time.) from Tor. Links:

Amazon

Goodreads

Adam Christopher