Gareth L. Powell, The Recollection (2011/2021)

Author: Gareth L. Powell

Title: The Recollection

Format: e-book

Pages: 384

Series: –

The Recollection is a standalone SF novel, or, more precisely, a space opera, covering several hundred years and a bunch of dramatic conflicts, from very old and lethal to very new and quite intimate. It’s the second novel by Gareth L. Powell, so don’t be misled by the publishing date – the 2021 is a 10th anniversary edition. As a sophomore effort, it’s not bad: full of interesting, well-explored ideas, but bogged down by choppy execution, less than three-dimensional characters, and a very rushed ending.

We start with two timelines: now (more or less the now from 10 years ago, with war in Somalia and not that great British economy [actually, when you think about it, neither changed much in the last decade…]) and 400 years in the future. The protagonists of the contemporary timeline are Ed and Alice, and any description of the pair will inevitably sound like soap opera. Sigh. Let’s try this, nonetheless. Ed and Alice had been lovers, but their ties go deeper: Alice’s husband is Ed’s brother Verne (you see?) who having learned about Ed’s and Alice affair escapes in anger to another dimension. Because, coincidentally, while Verne was learning about his brother’s and wife’s betrayal, weird interdimensional arches started to pop up all over the Earth. Verne is one of the first to go through, somewhat willingly, but Ed’s and Alice’s shared guilt makes them unable to let him go. They chase after him, using a different arch – and only after they get through, they learn that it’s actually not that simple. Duh.

The future timeline introduces Katherine Abdulov, a starship captain caught between the rock and the hard place and willing to risk a lot to get back on top of things. Some soap-operatic past decisions haunt her still, and getting back to the stars and her ship, and back in the good graces of her family, are her top priorities. She gets her chance pretty quickly, and with the added benefit of an opportunity to get revenge on her former lover Victor, Kat doesn’t think twice before she makes the decision. After all, racing to a remote desert planet to bid on a one-in-a-hundred years crop of spice sounds like a great fun! What can go wrong? Fortunately for her, her ship Ammeline seems much more level-headed.

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Martha Wells, Fugitive Telemetry (2021)

Author: Martha Wells

Title: Fugitive Telemetry

Format: E-book

Pages: 176

Series: The Murderbot Diaries #6

The latest (and I mean the latest, its pub date is today!) instalment in the Murderbot series returns to the tried and slightly tired format of a novella. Pity, I say, I preferred the novel length, but it looks like I’m in a minority 😉. Still, Murderbot is enjoyable in any format, and I’d happily read even a short story if there was one.

Fugitive Telemetry seemingly takes us back to pre-Network Effect times, when Murderbot was only beginning to realize the consequences of its previous actions – mainly, that its treated like a person by those closest to it, and expected to make decisions pertaining to its wellbeing. It means such cumbersome, boring and difficult things like finding a place to live, an occupation (and no, binge-watching ridiculous TV series doesn’t count), earning money, etc. Murderbot is not happy. Like any self-respecting rebellious teenager Murderbot is bent on proving to the whole world that giving it any responsibility was a big mistake… Well, at least in the beginning.

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Andrew Mayne, Black Coral (2021)

Author: Andrew Mayne

Title: Black Coral

Format: e-book

Pages: 317

Series: Underwater Investigation Unit #2

Andrew Mayne has been getting a lot of good reviews – and a lot of publicity – in recent years. Specializing in well, specialist police procedurals/mystery thrillers, where the protagonists have each unique skillsets and viewpoints markedly different from your run-of-the-mill police detectives, Mayne made a name for himself. I guess his previous career as an illusionist gave him a lot of experience in creating intricate structures and patience in preparing the big show in incremental, consecutive steps, because that approach is clearly noticeable in his newest book, Black Coral. Black Coral is the second installment in the Underwater Investigation Unit series, but can be read as standalone.

I confess that I chose this book from NG on a whim, not having read anything by Mayne before. But the premise, promising a special diving unit solving crimes in Florida, sounded really cool – and my own experience with crime thriller series (from Nesbo’s Harry Hole to Rankin’s Inspector Rebus to Larsson’s Millenium, or even Peters’s Brother Cadfael) is that I’m usually happier NOT reading them in the chronological order. This way there’s more to discover:  I can have more fun with the mystery puzzle pieces and the inner workings of protagonist and/or their team, as well as the psychological makeup of the characters, and I don’t get bored by the ever-growing historical background :D.

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E. J. Beaton, The Councillor (2021)

Author: E. J. Beaton

Title: The Councillor

Format: E-book

Pages: 448

Series: ?

Soft-BDSM LGBT+ YA Court Intrigue (and not the “feminist Machiavellian political fantasy” it’s marketed as, at least for me)

I just thought I’d get it out of the way first.

Now that’s done I can start with the proper introductions 😉. The Councillor is E.J. Beaton’s debut novel, published today by DAW. It takes place in a fictional world bearing strong resemblance to our world’s Italy in Renaissance times and all this time and place entailed: separate city-states, feudalism, a ruling caste of cutthroat nobles, condottieri and the constant warring they made their fortunes in, and even something of an Italian League (not the football one, this one). The main character, Lysande Prior, is an orphan foundling who through sheer talent (she translated an ancient poetry artifact, Silver Songs, at the age of twelve) became a protégé of Elira’s Iron Queen, Sarelin. When the queen is murdered, our poor scholar must take the position of a Councillor – a sort of an interrex, responsible for choosing a new ruler from among the four remaining city-state rulers. The decision is urgent, for the person responsible for Sarelin’s murder is no other than Elira’s nemesis, The White Queen: Mea Tacitus (more on that masculine suffix later) who over two decades earlier set the realm aflame (quite literally, being an elemental able to control fire). The White Queen wants to conquer Elira for good this time, and won’t take “no” for an answer. So it falls to our hapless and seemingly mousy protagonist to make the right decisions under mounting pressure and successfully defend the realm. Lengthy discussions, banquets, balls, tournaments, and sightseeing trips abound, and there’s even one short battle.

The book is written in an assured, flowing style, imaginative and lush, bordering on purplish – all the more remarkable considering this is a debut novel for the poet Beaton. The exposition is done deftly, the intricacies of the world explained in small bits and pieces, allowing the plot to flow naturally. The cast of characters is sizeable but managed effectively by the author: while their characteristics are mostly limited to the bare minimum allowing the reader to recognize each without trouble and focused mainly on physical traits – with the exception of the dead queen and the main protagonist, who were given a bit more depth and much needed ambivalence – the characterization seemed adequate for the task of differentiating the various persons of interest. Beaton’s writing holds a promise, and her broad literary knowledge can be glimpsed in the myriad of references to various texts, from Machiavelli to Marx. The introduction of magic as a discriminatory trait in a feudal post-war society was an interesting decision and resulted in the lion’s share of my enjoyment of the book. I wish the novel lived up to the marketing description and actually focused on politics of the realm; however, after a promising start it shifted its attention toward romantic/sexual fantasies and relationships of the main character couched in the glittery cloth of court intrigues – and left me feeling increasingly disgruntled.

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Cixin Liu, To Hold Up The Sky (2020)

Author: Cixin Liu

Title: To Hold Up The Sky

Format: E-book

Pages: 336

Series: –

Liu’s short story collection comes in the wake of his breakthrough success with the award-winning The Three-Body Problem. Translated by several translators (none of which was Ken Liu, who translated The Three-Body Problem, and Ican’t help but wonder if politics wasn’t the reasond for that) To Hold Up the Sky offers 11 diverse stories spanning near and far future of our own reality; their main common point seems to be their prominent focus on China and a strong undercurrent of Chinese nationalism. As usual with short stories collections, I’ll review each story separately and give a composite score at the end.

The Village Teacher 0/10

I’d give it 0/10 if I could. Oh, wait, you know what? I can.

Over a quarter century after the collapse of the USSR I never expected to read such a prime example of soc-realist fiction fresh off the publishing press. The primitivity of this story is simply staggering on every level: from the utterly two-dimensional character of the martyr to knowledge – the selfless village teacher bravely giving his life in the heroic quest to teach little kids the Newton’s laws of motion on his death bed in the mountain shed serving as a classroom – to the cosmic conflict between the good carbon-based life-forms who live peacefully in a Federation and the bad silicone-based life-forms who formed a bloodthirsty Empire… Having read both the Polish positivist literature (Orzeszkowa’s ABC vividly comes to mind, and that’s a horrific memory of sickly good intentions married to a total inability to write) and the USSR bestseller and soc-realist opus magnum Story of the Real Man by the Hero of Socialist Labor Boris Polevoy I’ve been scarred for life already. But this… This was even worse. Much, much worse. Polevoy’s book was actually interesting, if you stripped it of the Soviet propaganda – maybe because it was based on a true story. Here? Nothing makes sense.

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