Category: sci-fi


So, guess who got hit with a fun little dose of anxiety about actually starting her new job back on Wednesday. It’s me. I spent so much time getting up and looking for things to do that I got just about nothing done. All the same though, I’m happy to share this one with you all. The nice folks at Tor Teen sent it to me ages ago and I’m finally talking about it. By an author I’ve reviewed several times before, Ann Aguirre, this is Heartwood Box. Enjoy!

Heartwood Box cover

Araceli Flores Harper’s parents sent her to live with her great aunt Ottillie for her own safety. On paper, the town is safer than nearly anywhere Araceli could possibly be. No crime. No outward threats. But people, her great uncle included, have been disappearing for years with no trace found. That’s concerning enough on its own. But between her new pen pal from World War 1 and the disappearance of her best friend Araceli will need to dig deep into the town’s mysteries for the truth regardless of the danger.

Ann Aguirre’s Heartwood Box does an interesting job of balancing the mystery of what causes the disappearances and Araceli’s attempts to figure them out and the sort of romance across time between Araceli and Oliver.

Aguirre is one of those authors that I adore with major exception to how she writes romance, Heartwood Box is a fascinating exception to that. Something, I think, about how she balances the romance against the plot and Araceli’s feelings about other characters. The plot is allowed to happen without being entirely devoured by the romance. As the plot gets more serious it feels like Araceli leans more heavily on the impossible romance with Oliver. And yet, the only thing that feels lost to the romance was the possible love triangle with the boy next door class clown, Logan, which did not feel like a loss at all given the characters involved.

It actually becomes difficult to talk more about the plot, beyond going over how it balances with the romance, without spoiling the climax. Which is a bit frustrating because the real mystery only kicks in later in the book, the first half or so of the story is introduction and lead up. And yet, it is introduction and lead up that is done well enough that I was almost disappointed when the end started getting closer. I was enjoying seeing Araceli trying to figure out how she was communicating with Oliver, seeing her finding out more about the town, even her interactions with Logan made for good character work and made him feel like more of a character than just the third wheel guy. The character work over all is good actually, I enjoyed reading the interactions between Araceli and her friends. I wanted to see more of them, more of their stories, it made for great side characters because they felt solid and like they had their own stories going on off page.

My problem, if I had a problem at all, with Heartwood Box is the ending. Trying not to go too far into it, it feels way beyond Araceli’s scope. By nature of the narrative and the book to that point, the reader has to stick with Araceli for the ending but then the things that happened seem vastly out of step with what both the reader and Araceli herself know and could expect. It leaves her feeling unmoored in a way that could easily have been the start of a completely different story. This is definitely a matter of necessity, again the reader has to stick with her or it would be way too jarring, but the difference has to be tremendous enough for the reader to get the sheer magnitude of how much changed from the comparatively small scope of Araceli’s life in this small town in New York. It is a trade off that I’m not entirely sure works, but acknowledge had to be made.

Which brings me to this, I liked Heartwood Box a great deal. It falls pretty far from my usual genre preferences but the characters were interesting and the mystery was well constructed enough that I got hooked. It reminded me of the parts of Ann Aguirre’s writing that I really enjoy and made me want to check out more of her YA works. So it earns a four out of five from me. If I felt more confident with the ending it would have gotten a five.

So this is a review that I did not feel entirely comfortable with the writing of. I did not read the first book, Echos, so things felt more than a little disconnected. I do want to thank the nice folks at Entangled Teen for sending me an ecopy of this for review. This is Alice Reeds’ Fractures. Enjoy!

Fractures cover

Miles and Fiona survived the island. Survived a bear. Their rescue by the FBI should have taken them to safety, a new home and new identities. Instead they were taken to a villa in Poland where everyone has strange expectations for them. Instead they find themselves on a freighter in the middle of the ocean with no food or water. If they want to survive and maybe even stop whoever is behind all of this, Miles and Fiona will have to work together and remember all that has been done to them.

I confess that I did not realize that Alice Reeds’ Fractures was the second book in a series until I was around a third of the way through. I had assumed that the aspects that made it feel like a sequel were a deliberate stylistic choice to leave the reader as lost as the main characters were. I was about it, it felt like a cool idea that could have paid off really well. For obvious reasons it did not pay off, this is the second in a series and that realization was part of what started my path towards losing interest in what was going on.

Fractures feels very like a middle book in that everything feels like set up for something later in the series. It moves very slowly with long spans of Miles worrying over his relationship with Fiona or angsting over his brother or how poorly his father thinks of him. Those stretches of internal concerns made Miles a protagonist I just could not get into, he felt so whiny and constantly down on himself that it felt difficult to keep reading at times, like he should have had another solid book worth of character development rather than just retreading the same beats over and over.

Having missed the first book, the antagonists here seemed like their whole plot was poorly worked out. What the protagonists, and thus the reader, find out is interesting but thin. We get an end goal but not much on how the process is meant to work or why. That could work on a level of keeping the protagonists on their back foot until everything came together. But then things never so much come together as the solution gets dumped into the protagonists’ laps less through their actions and more because the book needed to end. It feels like the plot boiled down to nothing and then tied up far too quickly and too neatly for things to actually be over.

There was a lot that could have been interesting here or well done if given a little more attention. Miles aside, the characters show promise. The antagonists are this huge organization that has been picking out and buying specific teenagers to do military experiments on and everything is shadowy and mysterious and so much could have been explained better. The antagonists could have been so much more threatening if the reader was given more reason to believe that the characters were in danger or if the villa felt more locked down than it did. Even the romance could have been better if the reader was shown Miles making the effort to show Fiona that he cares rather than just thinking about how much he loves her over and over. The bit with their files could have had a much bigger effect if it actually affected the characters rather than Miles just talking about how worried it made him and how it was clearly affecting Fiona too.

Fractures winds up having a lot of things that should have been minor issues adding up to something unenjoyable. I found Miles utterly worthless as a protagonist. The antagonists were bland and flatly villainous. It is the kind of book that I am certain would have been more enjoyable if I had read the first in the series, but I also have no intention of going back and reading the first book. I could probably be convinced to read Alice Reeds again later in her career but for now, Fractures gets a two out of five from me.

Postponing this helped a lot, though I wish I hadn’t needed to. Things to work on for next week, right? Let’s get to the book though, here’s Claire O’Dell’s A Study in Honor. Enjoy!

A Study in Honor cover

Doctor Janet Watson lost her arm while working desperately to save injured soldiers on the front lines, ending her career both military and as a surgeon. Given honorable discharge and a partly functional mechanical prosthetic, she’s returned to Washington DC to find her way back to a normal life despite the political upheaval of the New Civil War and her own PTSD. Normal means a place to live, a more functional prosthetic, and a job. Normal means just about anything except Sara Holmes and the many many secrets she brings with her. Normal means that her patients should not be dying under suspicious circumstances, their records deleted within the day. Normal might mean having to work with her evasive and teasing roommate to follow the trail of suspicious deaths into something deeply dangerous, all in the name of justice.

I do not know what I expected when picking up Clair O’Dell’s A Study in Honor. The idea of a cyberpunk mystery using new versions of known characters appealed, though ultimately there is not much cyberpunk to it and the mystery is slow to arrive.

That is actually my biggest complaint about A Study in Honor, it is incredibly slow starting up. The first third or so of the book feels as long or longer than the entire rest of it. It has all of the introduction to the second Civil War, why it happened and how it is effecting things. It has Watson’s thoughts on the candidates for the upcoming presidential election and the promise and failings of the current president. It has Watson falling down a depression hole and just going through the motions of life for a time until the monotony of it is broken by a run in with an old army buddy and her introduction to Sara Holmes. All of this is important background, but it drags on and on. The official blurb does not really help this, given that it covers most of the book, which could easily make the slow start feel even more so. The plot really only starts after Watson has moved into apartment 2B and been given reason to suspect that Holmes is more than she seems.

Holmes herself feels like an oddity. Simultaneously charming and infuriating, Holmes spends much of the early book seemingly toying with Watson by playing a game of questions and half truths. She has some really concerning behavior at one point, it gets explained later in the book but still feels really off from a character Watson and the reader are meant to come to trust. There really never is a point where it feels like the reader could catch up to her even if the reader has figured out what will happen on their own. Her seemingly endless wealth of information and resources just puts her so far outside of what Watson could know that it feels in places like she is being dragged along by some force of nature as Sara Holmes jumps from clue to unknown clue, hauling the plot along with her.

All this feels far more negative than I entirely mean for it to. The plot is familiar enough to figure out what will happen and roughly in what order. The characters of Dr. Janet Watson and Sara Holmes are well written and consistent, Watson perhaps more so since she is the reader’s view into all of this. The background conflict of the New Civil War has far reaching consequences, both serving as the inciting incident for Watson’s return to Washington, DC as well as touching most every major plot point. It feels like a big dangerous thing rather than serving as an excuse for Watson to have been injured and honorably discharged from the army and then just dropped.

Overall, I enjoyed A Study in Honor and I look forward to the follow up, I also appreciate though that A Study in Honor feels like a complete story on its own. I would read more of O’Dell’s writing. So, while it loses a little bit for me due to how slow it starts, I give A Study in Honor a four out of five.

 

Guest Post Scott Coon

Happy Friday everyone! I’ve got a guest post for you for a sci-fi adventure that’s coming out June second, Lost Helix. In the lead up to that the author, Scott Coon, has been so kind as to talk a little bit about his approach to world building. Enjoy!

Lost Helix cover

When a door opens at the back of a stage, if the audience sees darkness, it doesn’t build the same illusion that a wall and small table would create. However, if someone comes through that door with a tray of drinks, no one needs to say there’s a kitchen back there. The audience knows. By including the right amount of detail, we create the illusion of a complete house without describing it. This is the balancing act of world building—bringing the reader into your world without stopping the story to tell them about it. Achieving this balance requires proper planning and execution.

In planning, the author should know everything about their fictional world that might impact the story plus ten percent. Going far beyond that ten percent is called world builder’s syndrome. You plan every element of a city—sewers, mass transit, even the postal system—for a main character who flies off in a rocket where the real story happens. What purpose did that postal system serve? It’s fun to build worlds but it’s a matter of time management. If you want to write a story, your time is best spent writing the story. You do need to build the things that might impact that story, plus a little more beyond that to help you create the illusion of a complete world.

For our rocket man, if this is the Apollo program, you need to know about NASA and its relationship to the government that created it. You don’t need to imagine the American Revolution or Manifest Destiny, but you might need to imagine Congressional budget fights. You also need the Soviets, NASA’s competition. And you should know that the Soviets value party over people since that would affect your characters’ decisions or at least come up in conversation.

“Our budget is on the line. We have to get this rocket in the air.”

“But, Sir, the safety of the crew? I mean, we’re not the Soviets.”

“You’re right. Scrub the launch until we figure this out.”

If you’re about to outline the history of communism, ask yourself what that has to do with the story you’re telling. If the Soviets are merely the impetus for taking risks, probably nothing. If your rocket man is captured by the Soviets and brainwashed Manchurian Candidate style, probably something because you might want to reference that communist history during his forced indoctrination. The key is to know what kind of story you are writing, where it is going, and decide which planning you need.

In execution, the reader should learn everything about the world that does impact the story minus ten percent. Modern readers don’t like being told how things are; they enjoy figuring things out on their own. This is known as the “show, don’t tell” rule and it applies to everything—emotion, time of day, even system of government. You can show most of your world through setting, dialogue, and action. If your characters are frequently asked to show their papers, the reader knows the government is oppressive without being told.

Some exposition is needed but avoid telling your reader about your world in an information dump. Allow your world to come to light on a need to know basis, with exposition prompted by the moment. Here is an example of a small information dump disguised as dialogue:  “Though the Soviets have lost lives in their effort, they got a man into space before us. Now Washington says we have to stop playing it safe with monkeys and risk the lives of Americans so we can catch up.”

The characters hearing this would know about the Soviets, so the information dump sounds unnatural. But realistic dialogue would leave out key details. Adding a small amount world building exposition to fill the gap can create a satisfying experience for the reader. For example: “It’s official. We’re shutting down the petting zoo.” Around the table, he saw the expected mix of reactions. They finally had the green light to catch up by putting their own man in space. But they also knew the price the Soviets had paid in human lives while the U.S. played it safe, launching monkeys.

As the reader wonders what ‘the petting zoo’ refers to, the question is answered, the reader feels satisfied, and world building is achieved. The reader has enough to move forward in the plot. Later, you can add more about how the cosmonauts died, tying those details to other moments in the story to add emotion. If you start the story with a Wikipedia summary of the space race, listing the successes, failures, and casualties, you not only lose readers’ attention, you undermine the impact those details could have later in the plot. So, don’t tell us about your world. Tell the story and build your world around it.

Lost Helix is the key…

Stuck on an asteroid mining facility, DJ dreams of writing music. His dad is a corporate hacker and his best friend Paul intends to escape to become a settler in a planet-wide land rush, but neither interests DJ.

When his dad goes missing, DJ finds a file containing evidence of a secret war of industrial sabotage, a file encrypted by his dad using DJ’s song Lost Helix. Caught in a crossfire of lies, DJ must find his father and the mother he never knew.

When the mining company sends Agent Coreman after DJ and his guitar, DJ and Paul escape the facility and make a run for civilization. Will DJ discover the truth before Coreman catches him?

Scott Coon author pic

Scott Coon has enjoyed success as a science fiction short story writer, winning accolades and publishing over a dozen works in various magazines. Formally a U.S. Army Intelligence Analyst and currently a software developer, Scott brings his technical experience into his work, along with a sense of spectacle.

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It occurred to me while writing this that I really want to ramble about a few sub genres at some point. Not sure how well I would do with that, but it still might be fun. This one is from the nice folks at Entangled Teen, here’s Cindy R. Wilson’s Sting. Enjoy!

Sting cover

The Scorpion robs warehouses in the Light District. These raids help the denizens of the Dark District survive as more and more of the jobs they rely on disappear. But it only takes one person betraying her for the Scorpion to be killed off, replaced in the minds of the Enforcers with a teenage girl, replaced  in their minds with Tessa and thrown in jail to rot far from the people she cares for.  If she wants to get out, to even have the chance at revenge, Tessa will have to team up with the prisoner in the cell next to hers, an outcast from the very Enforcers she wants to stop, Pike. Will their escape allow them to pursue revenge or will the attempt doom them both?

In many ways, Cindy R. Wilson’s Sting feels very much like a book failed by its genre. It feels like a book that had romance ladled into it to avoid filling in the gaps in world building. Or like the author really wanted to dig into the basic social stratification ideas that are heavily used in cyber punk but then backed out for fear of really saying anything. But then it really seems to not know what to do with the romance angle either.

Throughout the first third or so of Sting the reader is introduced to the Dark District with its falling in buildings and denizens who can barely find enough to eat and the jail, Decay, which is being used to erase the jobs that people in the Dark District used to work, thus depriving them of a way to survive, but that has more regular meals and solid shelter than our protagonist can ever remember having had. Tessa wants out though, wants revenge, wants to get back to her sister and helping the people of the Dark District. To do that she has to follow Pike’s plan, which means that she and the reader wind up plopped into the Light District. The reader was shown the Dark District in ruins and told that the Light District was much wealthier, that they had electricity and excess food and all the industry. But then it winds up being so much more than that. The Light District is presented as this big glamorous thing with lights everywhere and brilliant colors on everything and expensive parties regularly.

While I am aware that cities exist with this level of social stratification and that there are people like the Enforcers who want to hurt others seemingly just because they can, it just seems comical here. There is a literal closed off border between the two districts of this one city, a closed off border with armed guards all hopped up on propaganda and undeserved power ready to hurt the Darksiders who might try and go to the Light District for a job or something. It winds up being one of those things that, I am certain that something like it exists, but as presented in Sting it all feels like short hand for actual world building. It feels like the differences needed to be made as stark as possible so that the plot could be remembered through all of Tessa’s random moments of angsting over falling for Pike or over the feelings she had for River.

I confess, a lot of my frustrations here are made much worse by the ending. It feels far too tidy. Too like Wilson was dedicated to that ending from the start and refused to adjust it in light of how dark her antagonist wound up being. It sort of casts everything that came before it in a very artificial light. It feels unearned in a couple of ways.

From a genre angle, as much as I want to compare it to cyber punk, the comparison does not fit well. It is not technology making the Darksiders’ lives worse. Technology really fails to feature heavily, Tessa’s scorpion bots aside. Everything that makes the Darksider’s lives worse is down to one single antagonist and his underlings. The romance plot is certainly key to Sting’s word count, but manages to feel unnecessary and over done. It tends to feel more like filler than important to the character’s arcs. The scenes where Tessa thinks about her feelings for Pike were, at best, frustrating interruptions to what felt like the actual plot even as it feels like the reader is never properly let in on what Pike’s plan is. I kept waiting for something about that to come up, for us to get a better look at how they were planning to deal with the antagonist and show that Pike is as clever as the reader is told he is, but then it never came up.

There was so much here that had the potential to be well done if only given more room for development. So much that should have been given another pass or two before this was sent to the presses. And it just makes the finished book so much more disappointing that the potential was there and not given the development it needed. It took me multiple weeks to finish Sting, not because it was terrible or insulting, but because it was so easy for me to just put it down and do something else. I found other things to do because Tessa getting torn up over her feelings got old just so, so quickly. I came closer to just not finishing Sting than I have any other book in the past three years. For that, it gets two stars.

This one has been a long time coming. The folks at Berkley were nice enough to provide me with an eARC for review and then I fell out of reviewing several times for one reason or another. From Kali Wallace, here’s Salvation Day. Enjoy!

Salvation Day cover

Ten years ago the House of Wisdom was the sight of a horrific viral outbreak, there was only one survivor and the ship has been locked down since. Zahra’s father was blamed for the outbreak, resulting in her mother fleeing to the wastes with her and her siblings to escape retribution for it. Now she and a team are set to make the House of Wisdom a home for the whole Family. They just have to abduct the lone survivor, Jaswinder Bhattacharya, use his genetic signature to access the ship, and get it up and running again in time to meet everyone when they arrive. There are some things better left buried though and there is a reason the House of Wisdom was allowed to sit derelict for ten years.

Kali Wallace’s Salvation Day feels largely like a book with quality writing and far too short of a timeframe. As the title suggests, Zahra’s group only has about a day to get the House of Wisdom ready, so everything that happens, happens within about a day. That leaves some things feeling rushed, like the viral recurrence part of the plot or big chunks of Zahra’s character development.

The character work in Salvation Day bounces a bit. For many of the characters it feels really well considered, even antagonists feel fairly well rounded. There are a couple of characters who feel flat, but it fits them and their function in the book. But then we reach one of the major antagonists and the split between how he is described early on and how he actually behaves when he is introduced is a bit jarring.  It works on a level, because the antagonist needs to be fairly awful for certain aspects of the book to stay on course, tension needs to be maintained. But the contrast also comes with a change in reactions from Zahra that feel off. At first he’s the Family’s leader who’s done all these great things for her and the rest of the Family, she wants to prove herself to him and feels proud to have been selected for this mission, but then later on she starts expressing tremendous fear of this guy and what he might do to her siblings if the mission fails. It coincides with the reader learning more about what happened on the House of Wisdom and with Zahra becoming more and more a sympathetic character, but it also feels like it happens because she is meant to be more sympathetic rather than because she has started realizing how dangerous he is.

Additionally, the cult leader, Adam, feels almost cartoonish in some places. Largely, I think, because of both the need for Zahra to have that turn from the cult and because the reader is not really given space to feel the weight of the House of Wisdom take over being slowed and threatening to fail. If there had been a longer time frame and the reader had been shown the Council breathing down the group at the House of Wisdom’s necks more or if Jas and his classmates had been able to contact the Council while they were away from their captors and we were shown that being brought to bear against the Family over even a handful of days, it feels like a lot would have settled better.

The more I think on it, the less I really feel like I can say about Jas without spoiling aspects of the story. It generally feels like he gets the parts that focus more on furthering the reader’s knowledge of what had happened and uncovering the series of events that lead to his survival and the virus being contained. His sections generally felt slower where it seemed like Zahra’s sections were more action focused. He did feel a bit more complete as a character in some ways, his arc being mostly about facing his past and getting out alive might be part of that. I think I appreciate where the ending took him, it feels like a good stepping off point for more story without feeling like a sequel hook.

Salvation Day is a book that, for one reason or another, it took me a while to review after reading it. I was never quite sure how to talk about it and so I’m left with the parts that stuck with me, some of which are things that I want to leave alone as they are parts of the ending itself and do not really feel fair to talk about. Mostly I find myself thinking that, while I would definitely read Kali Wallace again and while I would really like to see more of the setting, Salvation Day is the kind of book that I enjoyed while reading it but that I probably will not read again. I give it a three out of five with the note that that would have likely been higher if I had made myself write the review earlier.

Sometimes I’m lucky enough to read two wildly different genres by the same author. The last time I had the chance to review one of Myke Cole’s works was a couple years ago, this is actually his first book with Angry Robot. I got to read it for review thanks to netGalley, here’s Sixteenth Watch. Enjoy!

Sixteenth Watch cover

After a riot between Helium 3 miners evolves into a brief, tragic armed conflict between American and Chinese naval forces career Search-and-Rescue woman Captain Jane Oliver is returned to Earth and a teaching position away from the sixteenth watch and the death of her husband. But tensions remain high and the best hope of preventing the first lunar war rests with the Coast Guard. Oliver has a new mission, return to the moon, get the Coast Guard SAR-1 team ready to win this year’s Boarding Action, and prove that they are the right force to keep the peace.

Myke Cole’s Sixteenth Watch feels like a bit of an odd duck when it comes to military science fiction. It feels more character focused and less hard sci-fi than other military sci-fi I have read in the past. How things are done is important, but pulling the team together is more so. Each member of the SAR-1 team is the best at what they do in the Coast Guard, but they have issues jelling with each other.

This is also the most anti-war military sci-fi that I have ever read. The entire reason Oliver is there is because the Coast Guard are a better fit for policing the folks avoiding quarantine without starting an armed conflict than the Navy is. The goal is to avoid a war, to keep things cold as it were, to keep people not only on the moon but also back on Earth safe.

But the only way to convince people to take them seriously is to win what is essentially a massive sporting event, so she has to get the Coast Guard team ready to secure a victory against the Marine team that has won several years running. It kind of winds up being funny, how the ability to keep war from breaking out on the moon is dependent on them winning what’s essentially a sporting event, but it is treated dead seriously and a lot of the challenges Oliver faces wind up being in service to getting her team the kind of practice they need to come together as a team. In a lot of ways that takes the place of a proper antagonist, no single person is standing between the SAR-1 team and active work and the Marine team is brilliantly good at what they do rather than antagonistic. That lack of a direct antagonist feels to the book’s credit. It would be weird if there was just one person actively pushing for the Coast Guard team to fail, rather than any number of people following orders that happened to get in their way or following their own need to see someone else succeed or getting wrapped up in the idea that a war is going to happen so they need to be backing the Navy over the Coast Guard. It is a complicated situation that Cole chose not to simplify.

This actually stands in something of a contrast to the pacing and the characters other than Oliver and her XO. At several points in the plot I found myself naming off the part of the hero’s journey that was coming up. This is very much not a complaint, the hero’s journey is the basis for a lot of stories, but it did make the flow of things a little predictable. I would have liked to have seen more character for the SAR-1 team, a lot of Sixteenth Watch is focused on Oliver working towards getting the team ready and working through the trauma of the events of the beginning of the book, which does not leave much space for the Boarding Action team. I would have liked to have seen more of them growing together as a unit and more individual growth for each of them. But, again, that is mostly a personal quibble the team are not the focus of the book. Oliver is the protagonist, so of course she gets the most focus on her arc.

Ultimately Sixteenth Watch leaves me wanting more, if not a further series with these characters, then more writing in a similar vein from Cole. He is definitely an author I am going to try and keep a better eye on now. This one gets a five out of five from me.

Chris Sarantopoulos Guest Post

Today I’ve got a guest post for you from Chris Sarantopoulos, author of Through Stranger Eyes and several other books and stories, he’s here to talk about the cyberpunk theming that inspired him to write Through Stranger Eyes. Enjoy!

Through Stranger Eyes cover

A lot of the sci-fi writers of the past, like Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and all the others, who paved the way for the newer generations, wrote sci-fi with something very specific in mind: the repercussions technology would have to our understanding of certain things. Things like soul and morality, both for human beings as well as the societies we have built. They pushed the boundaries, and in doing so I think they wanted readers to sit down and think about things. The way I see it, in every story they wrote, there was almost always an underlying question they wanted us to answer. And to a certain extent, perhaps even a warning.

When I started writing my latest cyberpunk thriller, Through Stranger Eyes, I wanted people to do the same about things that in my opinion are important. Things that, even though the story takes place several centuries in the future, are current and should still make us stop and ask ourselves about them. And the most important question was, how far is too far?

As is the case with almost every cyberpunk story, the dominant theme is “high tech, low life.” So immediately, the question I asked myself was, what defines low life? That was the basis behind which I started creating the societal dynamics that would shape my characters. To show this in the most striking way possible, I came up with the idea of a stacked megacity. If that’s too hard to understand, imagine going to your window, looking out and up, and seeing the bottom part of another city on top of you instead of the sky. Then picture another on top of that and so on. The distance between each level is enough to accommodate skyscrapers, mind you. The poorest, those with the fewest opportunities in life, live at the very bottom and the richest at the top. This is one of the things that creates tension and resentment between the different social classes.

Another thing I saw as a means to push the moral boundaries and hopefully get people to think about, was the extensive use of high tech. So extensive that people would rely more and more to it, to the point where technology would become a necessity. A lot of people, myself included up to a certain extent, would say that this is inevitable. It’s in our nature to use technology, whether it’s using a flint stone to light a fire to warm a cave and keep wild predators at bay, or to enhancing our bodies with cybernetics to increase our abilities. But again, how far is too far? What would happen to us as a species if we altered ourselves so much that we no longer resembled a human being as we know it? How able would we be to survive on our own if we relied completely on the tech installed inside us, and then we realised that someone was using that tech, and inadvertedly us too, to further their own goals?

And in the case of Through Stranger Eyes, what would happen if all of the sudden we became a liability to someone and turned that technology into a weapon to take us off the picture?

Of course, there are other things I wanted to address that fitted well in the same “high tech, low life” concept. Mass consumerism, for instance. I’m talking about the invasive and aggressive side of consumerism. The one that, in a futuristic urban dystopia—as is the case of many cyberpunk stories—can even become a form of government. What would happen if this type of government, controlled by a group of companies, no longer saw us as citizens but as wallets meant to spend their contents for their products? What would their boundaries be, once they realised some of us no longer had enough money to spend on their products? Or if we openly spoke against their products? How would they treat us then? Would they create a society where our ability to buy things is the only defining characteristic?

All these questions and more are things I wanted to explore in the world I created for Through Stranger Eyes. In it, a relatively well-off member of that world, a doctor named Rick Stenslandt, one of those who object the fusion of man and machine, ends up in a near fatal accident and is forced to have cybernetic ocular implants or lose his social status. That’s when things take a turn for the worse, as he soon starts remembering murdering members of the governing corporate elite. Powerful and dangerous people. The problem is that he has never met them before. Things become even worse for him when the police finds out about it and consider him the main suspect. As if that wasn’t enough, a pair of trained augmented assassins is after him. It doesn’t take too long for his sheltered life to turn to dust and for him to see what the world is really like. When he loses everything, when the only thing he has left, the one thing he cares the most, his family, is threatened, he decides to fight back and in doing so, he starts uncovering secrets and truths that some people don’t want to be known. What he discovers during his struggle for survival can shake the foundations of the world and plunge it into chaos.

Chris Sarantopoulos author pic

Author Bio:

Chris Sarantopoulos is a Greek writer who learned to communicate in English almost at the same time he started using his native language. He studied Geology in Scotland (you may hear him say aye a couple of times), then decided to diversify and completed a Master’s degree in Service Management. He almost started a PhD, but that didn’t work out. He enjoys writing science fiction, particularly post-apocalyptic fiction and cyberpunk, but also dystopia, fantasy, high fantasy, dark fantasy, and horror (not the splatter type though). Currently, he lives in Greece, and if you happen to spend time there, contact him. He may be able to arrange a meeting.

His work has appeared on Beyond Imagination, Voluted Tales and Eternal Haunted Summer among others.

Author Website     Book Link     Author Amazon Link

I think this book might have kicked off my recent reading streak. I enjoyed it a great deal and very much appreciate Entangled Teen’s providing me with a copy for review. Here’s Pintip Dunn’s Malice. Enjoy!

Malice cover

In a shattering flash of electricity Alice was visited by a voice claiming to be from the future. A voice that would go on to inform her that one of the students at her school is the creator of a virus that, in her time, has killed all but a third of the human population. A voice that charges her with finding out who this person is and stopping them before it is too late. But the voice’s orders often feel contradictory or nonsensical and Alice finds herself questioning if following its orders is really the best way to save the future. Is there anything that she can do to save the future outside of the voice’s orders? And why is it so insistent that she avoid one specific boy?

There is a lot to recommend Pintip Dunn’s Malice. The concept is interesting, the idea of a sort of indirect time travel and the implications of that fascinate me. So does the way the story was laid out, with Alice being pulled in different directions by the voice and her own feelings and fears, but it does so while laying out a solid path to who the virus maker might be and building layers of characterization for most of the cast.

The characters for the most part felt like characters. They felt like they existed for more reasons that to support the romance sub plot between Alice and Bandit and, more importantly, most of them felt like they could have been the protagonists of the book if it had been written from a different angle. Even the nameless background students feel like they could have been characters. Alice notes people interacting in the background as part of describing her surroundings. The only real exceptions here have their reasons for being comparatively out of focus, though there were a couple of characters that I found myself wishing we had seen more of.

The plot is well laid out, a reader can pretty easily catch on to where things are going. Though enough unexpected happens that the book never gets boring. Even the romance subplot is well done, it feels like Alice is actually getting to know Bandit rather than just them suddenly being in love. It fits well with the plot too, supporting and complementing it rather well.

One of the only things I have a real complaint with is how the confrontation with the virus maker was handled. It felt rushed in an odd way, almost like Dunn only had so many pages she was allowed and was running out of them. There was all this set up baked in for the virus maker, right up to the climax where the virus maker sounded both heartbreakingly young and so far gone that it sort of made the rest of the ending not work for me. It was not the worst ending that I have ever read by any means, but I would have liked for it to have been given a little more space to settle in.

I had a lot of fun with Malice. There were moments when I wanted Alice to go ahead and figure out what was going on so that we could get into the fighting back part. There were moments where something clicked and I just knew where things were moving. It was a book that I was willing to go with the flow on and see how things fell into place. The writing was well plotted and, while Malice is vehemently a standalone book, I find myself looking forward to what Dunn writes next. So, this earns a four out of five from me.

 

Selected

So, this came out later than intended. I admit, I kept putting both the book and the review aside for other things. It has been a fun weekend for me though. This one is thanks to the kind folks at Entangled Teen, here’s Barb Han’s Selected. Enjoy!

Selected cover

Easton Academy is a prep school for the elite of the elite in New Maine, the kind of school where Legacy students from old money families go to make connections before heading off to college and whatever their parents expect of them. Victoria Aldridge is not old money. Is not nouveau riche. Is not typical of the students that walk Easton’s hallowed halls.  She’s part of the new Selected program, lower class students with high IQs or brilliant athletic performance backed by rich patron families. As long as she does as well as expected, as long as she is the best, her family has food and a safe place to sleep and she has a shot at a bright future. At least that’s what she has been telling herself for the last three years. When one of her friends is caught passing her a mysterious note everything in her life at Easton starts to crack. If she wants to figure out what’s going on she’ll have to learn to trust the Legacy boy who’s started showing interest in her out of the blue. If she cannot, she might not make it out of Easton alive.

Barb Han’s Selected is a book that feels very much like it knows that it is the first in a series and so does not bother telling a compelling or complete story on its own. Which is a shame because the premise is really interesting. The nation is split in fifty countries and Maine has developed a rich/poor divide that would make a cyber punk dystopia salivate. Our protagonist has to be the best of the best at the fancy school she’s been selected to attend so that her family can have a better life, even as she’s the target of resentment from many of her classmates. But then the most attractive boy in school shows up and we toss that right out the window until the final third or so of the book. Let’s start there.

I feel like this is a case of the author having solid ideas but either not enough of them to give the story substance or she just really wanted to write a romance story and slotted the dystopian ideas around it. A fair amount of that is down to the protagonist, Tori. The reader is introduced to her in her Junior year of high school at Easton Academy and despite, as we are told her having a really high IQ and breaking the curve for all of her tests, she is desperately worried that she has not done well enough on a recent test. Fair enough, her family relies on her Selected status for a better life, but we never really see her struggle with her classes or her dancing in any meaningful way. Classes are easy, she’s brilliant. Tests are easy, she’s brilliant. Dancing is easy, she’s been doing it all her life.

Maybe the book was meant to focus more on her social struggles, her friends disappearing, but so much of the text focuses on her relationship with school golden boy Caius that her friends fade into the back ground. There wasn’t really time put into making the reader care about her friends or friendships, so when things started to go wrong it had no impact. Tori’s friends are, in fact, consistently pushed to the side either in favor of more focus on the romance aspect or because Tori just can’t talk to them about her feelings and what’s going on, they would never understand.  Similarly, so much focus was put on her relationship with Caius that it both seemed to swallow up everything else and left me hoping that something would happen just to get him off the page for a little while. Plus, there were enough moments of Caius talking about his feelings for Tori that just felt super uncomfortable and manipulative, not liking her having a male friend, repeated angry moments early on about her thinking a Legacy like him would have an easier life than her, and other more minor stuff. It made it really hard to buy in to the romance to start with.

If the romance was cut out of Selected it feels like all but around a third of the book would be gone.  This remaining third or so of the book, much like the setting, has some solid ideas and could have made for a really awesome book. Unfortunately, it takes half or more of the book for the plot to really get going and by that time I had long sense stopped caring about the characters or what happened to them. There are some moments from early on that, in retrospect, were setting up elements for a reveal later but they fell flat because the intervening text failed to support any of Tori’s friendships enough for the characters to feel like proper characters. It is frustrating. It is frustrating because there are so many ideas here that could have been good with a little more work, really good if some of the focus on that work was moved to letting the other characters be more rounded.

That is about all that I can say about Selected. There was a lot of potential in both the setting and the ideas behind the plot. But it got sacrificed for a frankly bland instant romance that had a lot of red flags early on. I will not be there for the next book in this series or, likely, the next several books Barb Han writes. Selected shows that she has solid ideas, but the writing lets them down badly.  It earns a two out of five from me.