A Night Without Stars (Commonwealth: Chronicle of the Fallers 2) by Peter F Hamilton.

Stars: 4 out of 5

 

A Night Without Stars is the second book in the Chronicle of the Fallers, but there are plenty of other books in the Commonwealth series, and I recommend them all.

 

At the end of The Abyss Beyond Dreams, which I reviewed here, Nigel detonated the quantumbuster in a desperate attempt to free Bienvenido from the Void. It worked… sort of. The Void spit Bienvenido back into the normal space, but beyond the fringe of the galaxy and millions of light years away from the Commonwealth with no means of sending a distress signal. Oh, and the Faller trees were spit out with them as well. Only now the tree ring is broken, so the Faller eggs fall all over the planet, not just in a ring.

 

A Night Without Stars begins roughly 300 years after that event, and it’s sad to say that Bienvenido’s society is just as totalitarian as ever. Slvasta’s paranoia took deep roots and poisoned the government system even years after his death. Humans with commonwealth genes allowing them to communicate with each other, derogatorily called Eliters, are persecuted. Any attempt to raise the technology level past the equivalent of Earth’s 1960s is foiled without mercy. And the news local media cover have little to do with actual facts and everything to do with propaganda.

 

According to this propaganda, the Faller treat is almost destroyed, since the government launches space missions to destroy Faller Trees every few months or so, and every single mission is successful. The few Faller eggs that reach the surface are dealt with swiftly and ruthlessly. Bienvenido will be free from the Fallers for good within the next hundred years or so.

 

The reality is that the equipment necessary for the space missions is outdated and held together with bootstraps and prayers. Even though most of the missions succeed at nuking the trees assigned to them, eggs fall all over Bienvenido from the remaining trees. The government has to means of tracking where they fall and what happens to them afterwards, because humans have abandoned all but one continent and a few small islands closest to it. The rest of the planet is free for Faller’s taking.

 

The higher ranking government workers know the truth – Bienvenido is lost. The Faller Apocalypse is not a myth spread by Eliters, but a reality. Time for humans on the planet is running out. Then, after another tree is destroyed over Bienvenido, the nuclear blast frees an old Commonwealth escape pod that lands on the planet bringing what might be Bienvenido’s only hope to survive the coming destruction.

 

The Commonwealth series remind me of the Culture Series by Iain M Banks, and I have an undying love for those. But even without that association, these books are a treat to read in their own right. I love that some of the characters I grew to know and love in book 1, like Kyssandra and Laura Brandt, are still around in this book, but even without them, the new characters are just as interesting to follow around. Nobody is entirely black or white. Everyone has their own flaws and weaknesses, but that makes them more engaging.

 

A Night Without Stars is darker and feels more hopeless than its predecessor, which is to be expected since the future of Bienvenido is rather bleak. The book is about 500 pages long, but it’s packed with action and suspense, so it doesn’t feel long. In fact, I kept turning the pages and I couldn’t put it down as the stakes grew higher and higher and I kept wondering if it was even possible to resolve this conflict with at least some of my favorite characters left standing at the end…

 

And this is where I had to dock one star on what would otherwise have been a perfect 5 star rating. The ending is… underwhelming. I won’t describe it because that would be a huge spoiler, but all the conflict and tension and the life or death stakes are resolved too neatly and too easily, in my opinion, without the characters having really earned that resolution.

 

But apart from that ending, this was an excellent book that I would recommend to my friends. And while I wait for the next book in the series, I think I will go back and start at the beginning with Pandora’s Star.

 

PS. I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Confluence (Linesman 3) by S. K. Dunstall.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

I have a particular fondness for this series even since I discovered Linesman, the first book in the series, which I have reviewed, as well as the second book. So I picked up Confluence with a certain amount of trepidation. Would it be as good as the previous books? Let me reassure you right now – it is.

The New Alliance might be in possession of the only alien fleet known to mankind and the only linesman who can communicate with that fleet, but that doesn’t mean they will automatically win a war.  There are outside powers that would stop at nothing to destroy it before the alien fleet is fully operational.

Trouble is brewing within the Alliance itself where many disparate worlds, some of which had been bitter enemies before, battle for dominance. Many of those worlds aren’t happy with the fact that Lancia has Ean Lambert’s contract, which means unlimited access to the alien ships. And while the Crown Princess of Lancia is more than happy to share the technological advances with her new allies, her father the Emperor seems to have a different opinion about what would make Lancia a power to be reckoned with.

So Princess Michelle has to play a dangerous political game to protect those she holds dear. A game that sends Radko on a secret mission right into the heart of the enemy territory.

And all Ean has problems of his own. The alien ships are a lot more self-aware than normal human ships and they are getting impatient. If Ean won’t provide them with a crew, they will start choosing their own crew. In fact, some of them have already started…

What I love about this series is that with each book we learn a little more about the lines and what they are capable of. Just because Ean can talk to line eleven on the alien ships doesn’t mean that he will automatically get all the answers. Lines don’t think like humans, so the most difficult part of his job is to translate what he wants the lines to do into concepts they can understand.

What did we learn about the lines and the ships in this book? That for the lines, ship doesn’t necessarily mean the captain, even though most of the time it is. But sometimes, it can be an unremarkable mechanic that had been working on that particular ship for years, or even a guard who’s been overseeing reconstruction works. We have also learned that ships become more aware the longer they had been crewed, especially if there are no inner conflict within the crew.

Apart from discovering new tidbits about the lines, this book also gives us some important and rather satisfying developments for our main characters and their relationships. I won’t get into details because that would be some big spoilers. Go read for yourselves.

I would just mention that with most of the inner conflicts and tensions out of the way by the end of Confluence, our characters can finally focus on the bigger issue that has been looming on the horizon since they discovered the Confluence fleet. Those powerful alien ships had been in a fight, and a vicious one from the damage they all sustained. A fight they were losing, since the whole fleet jumped into the Void and tried to flee the battle. So what were those aliens fighting against? And how long before their enemies decide to pursue them and discover the human planets, divided, almost defenseless and ripe for the taking?

I don’t know about you, but I am looking forward to exploring this possibility and hope that the author will take us there in the next books.

PS. I received and advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Winter Halo (Outcast book 2) by Keri Arthur.

Stars: 3.5 out of 5

 

I had read and reviewed City of Light, the first book in the Outcast series, and I had absolutely loved it. So I awaited the next installment with no small amount of anticipation and, I must admit it, dread.

 

Why dread, might you ask? Because too often the second book in a series is the weakest, especially if book one was excellent, like it was here. The worldbuilding is set, the characters have been introduced, but it’s too early to start on the main conflict of the series, so book two is often a slump that can easily be skipped (I’m looking at you, October Daye).

 

So how did Winter Halo fare when it comes to the dreaded second book slump? It did better than most, but didn’t escape it entirely. The story moved forward, and we got another piece of the big puzzle, but the main premise of the book still felt… rather secondary.

 

The book picks up right where the first book left off, and there is no rest for the wicked, and no time for Tiger to lick wounds or reflect on the betrayal of some people she’d just began to trust. Yes, they managed to rescue the children held by the vampires, but at least five more are missing, and the odds of finding them alive are bad. And even though one of the people she’d agreed to work with just tried to kill her, Tiger wouldn’t be Tiger if she just stood by and let those children get hurt without at least trying to do something. So she chooses to ally herself with the shifters again, albeit reluctantly, and infiltrate Winter Halo, the company they had investigated in book 1…

 

I have a love-hate relationship with this book. I am still loving Tiger. She is a strong and kickass protagonist who knows her strengths and uses them to advance her cause. I love that she has a strong moral compass and a depth of compassion and love that not many “normal” people have, let alone other dechet. Her relationship with Cat and Bear, the two ghost children that are tied to her, is both heartwarming and incredibly sad. And I understand why she would go to the lengths she goes to find the missing children – She watched all the little dechet children in her care slaughtered and was unable to save them, and has to live with that guilt (and their ghosts), so she would rather die than watch another child hurt.

 

My problem is that this book does a poor job of following through with this premise. We start looking for those still missing children right off the bat. The author even tells us that their time is running out, so you would think that there would be some sense of urgency there? Nope. Tiger and her crew seem to meander all over the place and stumble into bigger plots along the way, and the mention of those children who are still missing is thrown here and there almost like an afterthought.

 

Second problem is that this particular storyline isn’t even resolved by the end of the book. SPOILER ALERT!!! The children are still missing by the end, and Tiger (and the reader) isn’t any closer to finding them than she was in the beginning.

 

And finally, what Tiger discovers in Winter Halo is so big that the destiny of a few children rather pales in comparison… yet it’s not properly addressed in the book or acknowledged by the characters. It’s like hey, the creatures from the rifts might be planning to take over our world and exterminate everyone who lives here, but let’s not talk about that, because the children are still missing…

 

On a positive note, Tiger eliminated yet another villain and, hopefully, threw a wrench in the group’s plans to destroy the world. And she had an honest talk with her love interest after which both decided to give the relationship a chance. Color me pleasantly surprised, because most series would have milked that sexual tension for at least another 2-3 books. I’m glad it’s resolved though, because that opens a new chapter in their relationship to explore – how will they deal with dating each other, coming from such different backgrounds and with such a history of hate and violence between their species? And even if it wasn’t for that, not many books choose to explore the difficulties and joys of two people trying to build something together after that initial “we love each other, let’s hook up” phase.

 

So my wish for the next book is this – let’s finally put that missing children plot to rest. Either find them already or write them off as casualties of this shadow war, but enough is enough. And let’s focus on the more pressing problem of some unknown baddies that have allies even inside the city government trying to destroy the world.

 

PS. I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison.

Stars: 4 out of 5.

 

The end of the world doesn’t necessarily have to come with a zombie outbreak, an alien invasion or a natural disaster that wipes the majority of the population. In The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, it starts with a high fever that has a 98% fatality rate in men, 99% in women, and 100% in newborn babies. And while researchers identify the virus causing this, nobody manages to find a cure before the loss of human life is so significant that all governmental structures simply crumble.

 

The survivors are faced with a bleak future for the human race – with every baby born stillborn or dying shortly after birth, most often killing the mother as well, they might well be the last generation on Earth. People react differently to this news, but one thing is certain – it’s not fun or save to be a woman in this brave new world. There are bands of desperate men roaming around the ruins of our civilization for whom a woman is nothing more than a rare commodity and a slave, to be used and sold for other commodities. And a pregnancy might as well be a death sentence.

 

Our protagonist used to work in the OBGYN department in a San Francisco Hospital, but being a midwife is a dying profession as things stand. She survived the fever, but woke up to a world where meeting another human being was often more dangerous than meeting a pack of wolves.

 

This books is written as a mix between a series of diary entries and normal third person exposition. Most of the entries are by our unnamed midwife, though we also get stories from other people she meets along the way. That was a nice touch, because it gives the reader different perspectives into what is happening. Not everyone reacts the same to the seeming end of the world, which is normal, and I appreciated that the readers got to witness this story through several lenses.

 

But the main narrator is, of course, our unnamed midwife, though she isn’t unnamed per se. It’s just that she uses different names during the story, depending on the circumstances. I think by the end of the book, even she doesn’t remember what her real name was…

 

But constant name changes notwithstanding, I really liked her. She is a fighter. She is not one to roll over and give up, just because the situation seems dire and the future even bleaker. She adapts, she changes what she can in herself when she can’t change the external factors, and she presses on.

 

If it’s too dangerous to travel as a woman, she will dress like a man. But unlike a lot of other female protagonists we see, she doesn’t merely cut her hair and dress in bulky clothes, she tries to act, behave and think like a man. She exercises to bulk up. She practices with guns and other weapons until shooting is almost an automatic response.

 

I like just how tough and resourceful she is. How self-reliant. But that doesn’t mean that she is okay with living by herself the rest of her life. One of the problems this book tackles is the slow insanity that grips you when you spend too much time cut out from the rest of the world. Humans are social animals. We need to be able to interact with other humans on a regular basis, even a little, even just to hear somebody else’s voice answering you from time to time. And I understand why our unnamed midwife choses to join a community in the end, no matter how distrustful she’d become of other humans.

 

My review might have made it sound like this book is rather bleak and depressing. It kinda is, since it is a post-apocalyptic novel, after all. However, the overall message is one of hope. Life will find a way, no matter how bleak the circumstances…

 

So all in all, I would recommend this book to anyone who likes the post-ap genre and would like to read something more realistic than the usual zombie fare.

A Witch’s Kitchen by Dianna Sanchez.

Stars: 5 out  of 5

 

I feel the need to add a disclaimer at the beginning of my review – this is a children’s book. Well, a Middle Grade book, but the point is that this is not my usual reading fare. In fact, I stumbled upon this book by mistake: I loved the cover on Netgalley and requested it without looking for the intended audience. Glad I did, because I loved it!

Millie thinks she is a useless witch who can’t do proper magic. None of the spells her mother tries to teach her turn out right. In fact, the only thing she can do and loves to do is cook, much to her mother’s disappointment. But then she is enrolled into the Enchanted Forest School and discovers that there are other kinds of magic then the one her mother uses and that maybe she isn’t as useless as she thought. She also makes some friends and a few enemies and uncovers the truth about who her father really is.

The story sounds simple when summarized like that, doesn’t it? Well, despite its simplicity, this is a wonderful story that touches on some important topics like the importance of friends, the struggle to meet expectations and the desire to fit in, the difficult choices one has to make when deciding to follow a different path in life. It also talks about things like bullying at school and split families.

Oh, and you can really tell that the author loves cooking just as much as Millie does. The descriptions of most of the dishes Millie made in this book had me salivating and running for the fridge, though sadly, I didn’t have anything as good there to treat myself with.

Millie is a wonderful protagonist. She is shy and very self-conscious because all her life she considered herself a failure, a disappointment and a source of shame for her mother. She has zero self-esteem because she’d been mercilessly bullied and ridiculed by the other witch apprentices because of her inability to cast any “normal” witch spells. But that rather brutal upbringing didn’t turn her into an embittered hag. She managed to remain a very sweet girl who loves making others feel better with her cooking skill.  I like how she more self-assured once she makes some friends in school. Growing up is a hard and often painful process during which you can learn some rather unpleasant truths about people you considered your heroes when you were a child. I like that Millie stands up to her mother and decides to undertake the dangerous journey into the Logical Realm (aka our world) to find the truth about her father.

The Magical Realm of the Enchanted Forest is delightfully fleshed out. Yes, it’s a bit simplistic because it’s a children’s book, but it’s still full of depth and colors and different magical inhabitants, friendly or otherwise. I loved the School and the different creatures that teach there , and I kinda wish the book spent more time there, a bit like the Harry Potter books in Hogwards. I mean the caretaker is a giant tree! The whole school is located on its branches. And the Headmistress is a dragon. I would have loved to see what other classes were taught there, because the few that we saw seemed really interesting. Not that I’m disappointed with Millie’s journey into the Logical Real either, but talking about that would be a huge spoiler, so why don’t you find out about it for yourselves?

I don’t have kids, but I think A Witch’s Kitchen would be an excellent book to read with your middle grader on those fall evenings when the air turns colder and the sun sets earlier and paying outside is out of the question. I think there is something to enjoy in this story for both children and adults. So go on, buy it! You won’t regret it!

PS. I received an advanced copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Girl with all the Gifts by M. R. Carey.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

 

Can I just take a moment to say just how much I loved this book? It is rare to find something new in the overly saturated zombie apocalypse genre, so The Girl with all the Gifts was like a breath of fresh air. I loved the premise, I loved the story and the characters, and I loved the author’s unique take on the whole people turning into zombies trope.

Melanie’s life is a well-oiled routine. Every morning, she waits in her cell to be collected by armed guards and taken to class. She likes her classes. She learns all sorts of things about history and the world outside the Compound, a world she will probably never see, even though she likes to imagine herself exploring it when she lays in her bed during quiet time. Her teachers tell her that she was found wandering out there one day, but she doesn’t remember. They tell her that she is special. They call her “our little genius”, but the guns the guards keep pointed in her direction and the fear in their eyes tell her that there is more to the story than she suspects…

I love zombie apocalypse books, whether they are the “OMG shit just started happening and nobody knows why” genre or the “the world went to hell twenty years ago, how do we pick up the pieces” genre. My only requirement is that I get an interesting story with strong characters and no Deus ex machina in the end. And no gratuitous splatter gore that does nothing to advance the story. And that’s where a lot of books in this genre loose me, because a lot of authors concentrate on the horror of the situation (or the joyful elimination of throng upon throng of shuffling zombies) and forget that a story is first and foremost about people and how they change when faced with horrible situations.

That’s what I loved about this book. Since the world as we know it ended over twenty years ago, humanity has already come to terms with what happened, discovered why it happened and is how trying to recover and maybe find a cure. So even though the book doesn’t have the life or death urgency of the first days of the zombie outbreak books (at least in the beginning), this gives the author a chance to explore the drastic changes such an event would bring to the world and our civilization.

I liked the fact that we know what cause the outbreak. I like the fact that there is a scientific explanation that doesn’t sound too farfetched because it makes this story even more chilling. The hungries are not really zombies in the classical sense – they didn’t die and come back to life, they were overtaken by a parasite instead. So they are still alive, even though the parasite is the one at the wheel. And none of these half-rotting, shuffling nonsense either. The Hungries are fast and once they latch to your scent, they don’t stop until you kill them or they feed on you.

I also liked the overall message of this book that this outbreak isn’t something that can be reversed, that it’s only the next step in the evolution of our planet and of the human species as well. Yes, humans as we know them will perish and the first generation of hungries, but the next generation will be like Melanie -smart, strong and capable of individual thought, even though they will still be parasite carriers. Earth will be different than what we know now, but life will carry on and humans will still walk it.

I am actually really interested in revisiting this world and seeing what became of it say 10-20 years after the end of this book, so I am definitely preordering the next book in this series, The Boy on the Bridge, which comes out in May 2017.

Urban Shaman (The Walker Papers 1) by C. E. Murphy.

Stars: 1 out of 5.

 

I don’t give a one star review to a book very often. Usually, when a book is only worthy of one star in my opinion, it ends up in my DNF (Did Not Finish) pile, and I don’t write reviews on DNF because it wouldn’t be fair to the author if I reviewed something I didn’t finish.

 

But I actually stuck around until the very end of Urban Shaman, because I kept hoping that things would get better. Sadly, they didn’t, which is a shame, really, because the book is well written. There is plenty of action. I didn’t particularly hate the protagonist, even though I didn’t fall in love with her either. There are a few juicy pieces of worldbuilding that kept me interested and wanting to learn more… Problem is, the bad in this book outweighed the good, at least for me.

 

But first things first, Joanne Walker is a car mechanic working for the police department. She is also a mixt race, because her father was Native American and her mother Irish, though she knows little of either of those cultures (I’m not even sure it’s mentioned which Native American tribe her father belonged to, just that Joanne spent some time with the Native Americans in North Carolina). While on a plane back from Ireland where she attended her mother’s funeral, she spots a woman being chased by an armed man and decides to help as soon as the plane lands. This choice will change her life forever…

 

I can see you frowning in puzzlement and trying to re-read that last paragraph, but no, I didn’t make a mistake. Joanne spots a woman running away from a man armed with a knife FROM A DESCENDING plane. Wow, even Hawkeye from the Avengers would be impressed with that! Not only that, but she manages to triangulate the part of the city in which it happened “using basic math she learned at school” (I didn’t say that, the author did). Once again, I’m impressed. Even if I could see something this precise from a descending plane (again, the plane wasn’t even landing yet, but executing the descending approach), I would only have a vague idea where it happened even if I’m familiar with the city.

 

I kept hoping that this miraculous ability would be explained later in the book, but like most of the perks Joanne acquires, the only explanation we get goes along the lines of “it’s magic” or “it’s part of her shaman abilities”. I would be okay with that if there was a learning curve involved in discovering those shaman abilities, but that’s where this book is severely lacking.

 

Every time Joanne encounters a problem, a new ability lands on her lap to bail her out. Pierced by a sword and dying? No problem, let’s enter a trance and heal ourselves! Never mind that Joanne has never attempted a trance before or that healing people and repairing cars have very little in common.

 

Don’t know why the killer is targeting certain people? Let’s enter yet another trance, have an out of body experience and go talk to the ghosts of the victims. Never done that before? Not a problem. You’re a shaman. You instinctively know how to do things like that.

 

It’s that instinctive knowledge that I have a problem with. Shaman is like any other profession, if you think about it. Everyone starts not knowing what they are doing and become more and more proficient with training and experience. Knowledge doesn’t simply land in your lap when convenient. That’s lazy writing.

 

Another sign of lazy writing is how easily both Joanne and people around her accept the existence of the supernatural, even though this world is like ours – logical and materialistic, where supernatural elements stay hidden. Seriously, in the real world, the moment Joanne started spewing all that nonsense about the Wild Hunt and being a shaman to her direct supervisor, he would have called 911 and had her committed. Or he would have just driven her to the psychiatric ward himself, being a cop. Here, he just… accepts it. And he is only one in the long line of people who just take this in stride and roll with it. So much so that this complete non-resistance to the absurdity of the situation threw me completely out of the story on several occasions.

 

And finally, I find it extremely improbable that a person who, in her own words, has no knowledge of either of her parent’s cultures, manages to become an expert in both Celtic myths and Native American shamanism after a few trance induced dreams and a couple internet searches…

 

So to sum this rather extensive review up, this is a very disappointing first book in a series. The world has potential, but I have no desire to stick around and watch Joanne put yet another new ability out of her butt anytime her own rash actions get land her in danger. There are a lot of exciting series that I eagerly follow, but this isn’t one of them.

My dreams and stories. The life of a writer.

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