Category Archives: Soft Science Fiction

A Desolation Called Peace (Teixcalaan 2) by Arkady Martine

Stars: 5 out of 5

First, a necessary disclosure: this is book 2 of a duology, so I would strongly recommend reading book 1 (which I reviewed here) before you jump into this one. Can you read it as a stand alone? Probably… but you will miss out on a lot of context and dramatic events that brought our characters to where they are in this book.

The story picks up two months after the end of the first book. Lsel Station got what they wanted – the Teixcalaan Empire is now at war with the mysterious aliens that had been disappearing their ships in the darkness of the void. Mahit is back on Lsel, but the place she grew up in doesn’t feel like home anymore, especially with the secret she is carrying about the sabotage of her imago machine and the unorthodox method she used to repair it.

And back in the City, the new Emperor is now forced to win a war she didn’t want, while also fighting the clock and dagger fights with officials of different departments that didn’t particularly want her on the throne… like the ministry of War, who she needs to fight this war instead of her.

We get to follow some of the characters that we came to know and love from the first book, like Mahit and Three Seagrass, who end up in the middle of the action once again, trying to find a common ground with an alien species so different that they don’t even have a language per se and who don’t consider individual deaths as anything of consequence.

We are also introduced to new characters, some of which we briefly saw in the first book, like Eleven Antidote, the 90% clone of the late Emperor. I must admit that I absolutely loved his POV in this book. He is eleven years old, but he is not a typical child. He’s been brought up and educated as a clone of the Emperor, so he never had a real childhood. He is also very smart and precautious, and he likes to think things through and solve mysteries. And I loved the courage and determination he showed when he acted to right what he was convinced was a wrong, even though he was going against the orders or the current Emperor by doing so.

Another wonderful new character is Twelve Cicada, who is the second in command to Nine Hibiscus, the fleet commander charged with wining the war against an enemy who can appear in and out of subspace and spit a substance that dissolves ships along with the pilots. I loved the relationship between these two and how they complemented and tempered each other. And I found highly satisfying the fact that Twelve Cicada was the one to find a solution to this conflict in the end.

This book touches several important themes. What exactly is the price of civilization and isolationism? Can you be a person even though you aren’t “civilized” in the eyes of your opponent? To Teixacaalisim, everyone else is a barbarian, including other humans, so the encounter with something even more alien has them unsettled and unable to react properly.

Who are you in the end as an individual, when your home station feels like hostile environment, but the Empire you longed to belong to all your life threatens to swallow you whole and kill your individuality? That is the question Mahit grapples with in this book.

And finally, is destroying a whole planet a price an Emperor is willing to pay to maybe end a conflict before it becomes a war of attrition? Or is that an act too atrocious even for Teixcalaan? What legacy do you want to leave for your descendants? That’s the problem Eleven Antidote grapples with.

There are multiple layers in this book, so it’s hard to address them all without spoilers. My advice is, read this duology. Go by the first book and read that while you wait on the second one to come out in March 2021.

PS: I received an advanced copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Fractured Void (Twilight Imperium #1) by Tim Pratt

Stars: 3.5 out of 5

I admit that this was a fun and lighthearted romp of a novel.

As far as first books in a series go, it fulfilled its function rather well – it introduced the world and the characters that live in it without it ever filling like an infodump.

The world is fascinating. We have different planets, and a lot of different alien species that have learned to co-exist in a way that seems very natural. The way they operate, talk and interact with each other never feels forced. Also, all alien species described fit well into their environment, like the “squid” people who live on two planets that are covered by oceans.

This is what attracted me the most to this book. I love when the author knows their world. He doesn’t have to give us an infodump on it for the reader to see that. The little hints thrown here and there along the story show the reader that there is much more history to explore and that the author knows what’s going on. There is background there. Things happen for a reason. I would love to explore this galaxy a bit more in the next books.

But the worldbuilding is only part of the magic formula. The other ingredient is the characters. And I admit that this part didn’t work quite as well for me.

I liked the Duval Devils alright, even though they seemed a little over the top in their piratey brashness from time to time. They seemed like a group of misfits at first, posturing in front of each other and trying to look cool. But I admit that they gelled as a team somewhere halfway through the book, probably because they finally had a common goal and a common detestable person to hate. I think Tib was my favorite character in this book. She is smart, she is efficient, and her sarcasm is right up my alley.

I really didn’t click with the duo that was opposing them. I know Azad and Severine were supposed to represent two strong female characters, but… I don’t know… I think Azad’s complete lack of scruples or any moral compass at all did her no favor. She has all the markings of a psychopath, and I have never been particularly found of those. The author kept them alive for a reason, so my guess is they will play a part in future books, but honestly, I could care less.

The author takes home the 2020 award for creating the most detestable character of the year, and he isn’t even a villain in a true sense of the term. Thales is a despicable, nasty piece of work. He is a megalomaniac with a huge chip on his shoulder who never forgets any offense, real or perceived, towards his fragile ego. I admit that I cheered a little when our good captain punched him in the face. And I definitely felt good when he got what he deserved at the end of the novel.

My problem with this book is that it feels like a big prologue rather than a first book in a series. The set up for the real conflict happens in the last two chapters and in the epilogue. Yes, it was fun to see the Duval Devils wheezing around the known galaxy assembling parts for the wormhole device, but it’s only set up. The bad guys are introduced only in the last chapters, so the end of the book feels rather anticlimactic. Yes, Thales got what he deserved, but the damage is already done, and the REAL STORY starts now. Only it doesn’t because the book ends.

I like this book well enough to pick up the next one in the series, because the writing was fun and light and there was a good balance between action and exposition. Hopefully, I will like the characters of the next installment better than this one.

PS: I received a free copy from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett

Stars: 4 out of 5.

 

Mona’s life has been a mess ever since a car accident took her unborn baby from her. Since then, she’s been drifting town to town, shitty job to shitty job, with no idea what to do with herself. Until she goes to her father’s funeral and discovers that her mother, who killed herself when Mona was seven years old, had owned a house in a little New Mexico town called Wink. At first glance, Wink seems like a perfect little American town where everybody is happy and friendly, and time stopped somewhere in the 1970s. Only nobody ever leaves, and walking outside at night is strongly discouraged…

 

This is a difficult review to write because a huge part of what makes the book excellent is the mystery behind the town and the identity of some of its inhabitants. So I can’t dwell on the story too much as to not reveal any spoilers. Let me just say that the idea is original and the execution is very well done. For more details, get the book and read it for yourselves. You won’t regret it, I promise.

 

So since I cannot talk about the story, let me talk about Mona Bright. I love me a strong independent heroine and I’m happy to say that Mona is one.

Yes, She had an unhappy childhood with a harsh and distant father and a mentally unstable mother, so human interaction doesn’t come easy for her. She chose to be a cop because her life until then was more about weapons and hunting with her father than about dolls and socializing with other people her age. She isn’t good at that, at socializing. But she is very good at shooting things and making split second decisions under pressure. She tried to create something she never had – a happy family with a husband who loved her and a little girl she wanted to love and cherish like her mother never cherished her. Only that dream was cut short by a drunk driver running a red light.

 

By the time she learns about the property her mother owned in Wink, Mona really has nothing to lose, so it’s easy for her to pack all her possessions into the trunk of her car and drive to the middle of nowhere to a town that doesn’t show on any maps except a few local ones, and all that in the hope that this house and this town would give her a glimpse into her mother’s past. All she wants is to see that time when her mother was a happy, accomplished scientist, not a broken ruin scared of her own shadow.

 

My description might have made you think that Mona is all doom and gloom and maybe not someone you would want to follow for 300 pages, but you would be wrong. Yes, Mona is not exactly the soul of a party and she tends to lean on the pessimistic side, but she never lies to herself. And she doesn’t bend. When threatened or attacked, she gives as much as she gets.

 

And when what she finds in Wink leaves her with more questions than answers, she doesn’t hesitate to dig deeper, even if what she uncovers suggests things that should be impossible. In fact, I would argue that Mona is the only person who could have done what needed to be done in Wink because she was the only one willing not to play by the rules…

 

I loved this book. It was fast-paced and interesting and never predictable. And I’m glad that the author chose to leave it as a standalone. The story is done. What happens to Mona after Wink is entirely up to her, and just like the ending suggests, the possibilities are endless.

 

So why did I give this book 4 stars instead of 5? Two things. First, the fact that the author chose to tell this story in third person present tense threw me off at the beginning and made it harder to get into the story. I got used to it eventually, but this stylistic choice can be a turn off for some readers. Second, I found some of the POVs rather useless to the story. A character would hijack the story for a small section to never reappear again until the grand finale.

 

But overall, I would strongly suggest this book to all my friends and readers who love a good science fiction mystery or urban fantasy, because this can kinda sorta be considered both and neither. Just get the book and find out for yourselves.

Welcome to Outcast Station by Jeanne Adams and Nancy Northcott.

Stars: 4 out of 5.

This book is composed of two distinct novellas which tell two distinct stories. The only thing that connects them is the location – Paradise Station, better known as Outcast Station, a backwater space station orbiting a backwater planet.

The Accidental Plague by Jeanne Adams tells the story of Bvax Scientist Ravinisha Trentham, who has lived all her life as an outcast simply because of the planet she was born on. Her compatriots once conspired to overthrow the global governmental system and the rest of the planets haven’t forgotten about it, even 60-some years later. It doesn’t matter that Ravi doesn’t embrace the same beliefs, she looks like one of the outcasts, so she is treated like one.

Even though she finished her apprenticeship as a Bvax Scientist with flying colors; even though she was the best in her class; the dispatch to Outcast Station is the best she could hope for. But, as Jeanne Adams slowly shows us in her story, even outcasts can build a place they can call home. Ravi’s story is one of hope. She begins by being sneered at and belittled, but proves her worth, helps the station and finally becomes a respected member of the small community.

The protagonist of The New Badge by Nancy Northcott is the complete opposite of Ravi. Hank Tremaine was a successful marshal on one of the inner planets… until he crossed the wrong person and landed at Outcast Station as punishment. While for Ravi this assignment is a chance to prove her worth, Hank considers it more like a prison sentence – unpleasant, but if he keeps a low profile, he might be paroled sooner rather than later.

Hank is fully resolved to do his job and keep his head down and stay out of trouble. Unfortunately for him, trouble finds him as soon as he lands on the planet. Now Hank is faced with a moral dilemma: agree with his superior officers and do a half-hearted investigation, or dig more and incur their wrath, thus  annihilating his chances of getting transferred out of this back-end of the known space early.

While the two novellas have no common characters, they cover very similar themes: The courage it takes to stay true to your convictions despite the circumstances, even if abandoning them would make your life easier. The realization that there are bad people, but also good people even on a backwater station like Paradise, and that friends and allies can be found in the most unlikely places. And finally that home is what you make of it.

I liked the world of Outcast Station and the characters that inhabit it. I especially liked the concept of The Accidental Plague that with humanity spreading throughout the galaxy and interacting with other species, there is a need for a strict disease control and prevention protocol. After all, a space station is a very fragile ecosystem where viruses and pathogens would spread like fire. Without strict control and rapid response protocols put in place by Bvax scientists, a thriving station could transform into a tin can full of dead bodies in a matter of weeks.

So why did I give this book four stars instead of five? Because there are several plot lines in both stories that are started, but never resolved. Like the whole conversation between the station master and an unnamed individual about some shady deals going on (smuggling maybe?), and a couple others.

Now I haven’t read any other books by these authors, so I don’t know if those two novellas are part of a bigger series where all those questions are answered. To me, this is a standalone volume, so I would have appreciated to have all the loose ends tied when I turned the last page of the book.

This little complaint aside, I enjoyed both stories and wouldn’t mind revisiting Outcast Station again if the authors decide to write more.

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

Hunger Makes the Wolf by Alex Wells.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

I’m always excited when I find a new book that makes me stay up all night reading because I simply can’t put it down. I’m doubly excited when that book is the first in a brand new series. Hunger Makes the Wolf is both those things. Needless to say that I’m absolutely in love, but I promise to keep my fangirling to a minimum and try to explain to you why I thought this book was so good.

Humans have conquered the stars and colonized countless planets. All this was made possible thanks to Rift travel. But the secret to successful rift travel is in the hands of TransRifts Inc, the company that has absolute monopoly over both rift ships and the weathermen who make sure that they make it through the rifts in one piece and unaltered. Needless to say that nothing moves around the universe without TransRifts’ approval.

Tanegawa’s World is a closed planet owned by TransRifts and corporate law is the only law that exists there. Tanegawa is barely terraformed enough to sustain life, and would not be inhabited at all if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s the only known world that produces minerals needed to build transrift ships. Those who live on this harsh and unforgiving desert world have two choices: work in the mines or become a farmer. And if you don’t keep your head down and do exactly what TransRift officials tell you to do, you get blacklisted, which means you can’t work anywhere, so your choices are to die of hunger and exposure or join one of the rowing bands of brigands which, in most cases, means die a violent death in the near future anyway.

Hob Ravani arrived on Tanegawa as a stowaway on one of the rift ships when she was a kid. Luckily for her, she was taken in by Nick Ravani, leader of a bikers gang called the Ghost Wolves. For ten years, she’d managed to stay under the radar from TransRift authorities, as much as a band of mercenaries can stay under the radar, but when they discover the body of Nick’s younger brother in the desert, Hob knows that things are about to change. Because he’s been hot in the back and left to die in the dunes, and his daughter is missing. The Ghost Wolves are on a war path, but even they can’t imagine the consequences of their revenge and the ugly secrets about TransRift, the Weathermen, and Tanegawa that they are about to drag into the light…

First things first, I have a confession to make. I absolutely love Hob Ravani! She is the perfect embodiment of this harsh world she lives in – stubborn, tough as nails, ragged and half starved, and fiercely loyal to those she considers family. She can be hard and unyielding, just like the desert she lives in. She will not run from danger but meet it head first, with a defiant grin on her face and her guns blazing…

I also love that this impulsiveness and unwillingness to compromise and listen to reason has landed her in trouble before. In fact, she starts this book as the lowest man on the totem pole with the Ghost Wolves because one of her impulse decisions almost had them all killed three years prior. What makes Hob a good protagonist is that she acknowledges her mistakes. She doesn’t try to blame her shortcomings on others or on the circumstances. In fact, nobody is harsher on herself than Hob. She knows she screwed up. She swore to never be that stupid again. And even though most of the Ghost Wolves have forgiven her transgression, she hasn’t forgiven herself yet. But even though that mistake makes Hob doubt herself at times, I love that when push comes to shove, she takes the reins of command and does what needs to be done. But she does it after weighting the pros and cons and fully aware of the consequences.

Mag Ravani, Hob’s adopted cousin, couldn’t be more different, but is a strong woman as well. Unlike Hob, Mag is calm and thoughtful. She doesn’t rush into things head first. She sits down and analyses the situation from all angles before she decides on the best course of action. Where Hob is fire, Mag is water. The kind of water in an underground river – a lifesaver for desert dwellers but can drag you under and drown you in its dark current as well. And nobody will hear you screw underground.

I love the fact that Hob and Mag genuinely love each other. They are sisters and they are friends, and even though the events of three years ago cast a shadow over their relationship, they talk about it like adults and manage to move past it. And they have each other’s backs. They work together.

Even though Hob and Mag are the main protagonists of this book, the story is full of other interesting characters that I enjoyed following. All the Ghost Wolves, and especially Coyote. The special agent who infiltrated TransRift and bit more than he can chew. The Bone Collector… I want to know more about them. I want to know more about Tanegawa and I want to know what happens to Hob and the Ghost Wolves after their epic confrontation with TransRift at the end of the book. So I pray and hope that there is a second book somewhere in my near future, because I’m in love with this world.

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

The Courier by Gerald Brandt.

Stars: 3.5 out of 5.

I actually enjoyed this book quite a lot. It’s fast paced, well written and entertaining. The story is solid and the protagonist quite engaging. So why did I give it only 3.5 stars? Because it could have been so much better if the author had worked on his antagonists a bit more…

But we will get to that later. So what is this book about? Well, Kris Ballard is a motorcycle courier who tries to scrap a living doing courier jobs between levels 3 and 4 of San Angeles, a huge multilevel conglomerate city that has swallowed the west coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco. She makes barely enough to put food on the table and a roof over her head, so when Dispatch sends her after a late package, promising better rates and a tip, she grumbles, but goes anyway. After all, her bike needs new tires. Only the delivery goes all kinds of sideways when she walks in on a murder. Now she is on the run with the package that every corporation out there seems to want and her life is pretty much over if she can’t stay one step ahead of the hunters.

First, let’s talk about the things I loved about The Courier, and the most notable one would be Kris herself. She is one tough young woman. She comes from a background of tragedy and abuse, but she had the strength and courage to pull herself out of the muck and build herself back up again. She doesn’t expect handouts from anyone and relies only on herself. She is smart and street savvy and doesn’t scare easy. And one thing I really like about her is that she is too stubborn to give up. No matter what life throws at her, no matter how bleak the situation, she finds the strength to keep on going. So Kris immediately had my affection, and following her through her story was a blast.

Second, as I said, the story is well thought out and fast paced. I didn’t have time to take a breath because everything was unfolding so fast, which is actually a good thing because it stressed the urgency of Kris’s situation. The tension revs up the moment she starts running for her life and doesn’t let down until the last pages of the book.

I also like the world the author has created where big corporations have pretty much divided zones of influence on Earth and own everything, from the government to the police, healthcare and entire giant cities. Earth has been pretty much depleted of all resources and those rich enough have fled to the Sat cities who orbit the planet. Those who weren’t so lucky are trying to scrap a living on a polluted dying planet. This premise has potential, and we have only seen a small fraction of the world in this book, since Kris never left San Angeles. From what I understand, this is the beginning of a series, so I’m looking forward to exploring this world a bit more in the consecutive books.

Now I need to talk about the stuff that I DIDN’T like, because even though the book was well-written, the flaws were jarring enough to make me knock 1.5 stars off my score.

First of all, apart from Kris and Miller, all the other characters we encounter seem pretty one-dimensional. In fact, most of them are more like walking names or stereotypes. Devon is a nerd with uncanny computer skills. Dispatch is a down on her luck woman who seems like a b*^ch but has a good heart underneath. And Jeremy is a megalomaniac as well as a possible psychopath.  Not to mention the very simplistic approach that since the corporations are bad, everyone who works for them is bad as well.

I mean, take Quincy for example. He is part of the corporation’s Black Ops, which by definition should be a group of very skilled professionals right? Wrong. Instead of getting in and out and done with the mission as cleanly as possible, he plays with his victims, he tortures them, and he isn’t even against an occasional rape.  I would understand if he was a common thug or gangster, but he is a Black Ops team leader, for God’s sake!

My second problem with this book is that the idea that an untrained 16 year old girl would be able to escape several trained killers and Black Ops over 5 times and then even kill one of them is rather ridiculous. One or two times I would understand, but more than that? That screams of sheer incompetence on the killer’s part or too much luck on our protagonist’s part. After a while it’s simply not believable.

But all those flaws become apparent only AFTER you finish the book, because while you are immersed in the story you are too busy running with Kris to notice this. Though admittedly, the sadistic villains got on my nerves even while I was reading this book.

All in all, I would recommend this book to anyone who wants a fast-paced story with a strong protagonist though.

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

Zero World by Jason M Hough.

Stars: 2.5 out of 5

I had a lot of difficulty grading this particular book. There are many things I loved about it and just as many that I absolutely hated, and some left me indifferent. So after much internal debate, I decided on 2.5 stars.

Let’s talk about the things I loved first.

I liked the technologically advanced Earth of the future that we are introduced to in the beginning of the book. The space travel, the physical enhancements and implants that seems to be common amongst the population. I would have loved to have been able to explore that world a bit more and I was disappointed when the focus shifted towards Gartien.

But I loved Gartien as well, because I’m a sucker for well-crafted new worlds and the amount of work the author put into creating this world that is so close but yet different to our Earth is impressive. I love the details the author added to flesh out those differences, be it in the customs and habits of its inhabitants, or in their speech patterns and religious beliefs. Even their physiology is slightly different than ours.

Character-wise, I liked Melni. She is a strong woman and an effective undercover operative who is very good at planning, but can think on her feet when needed. What I didn’t like is how quick she is to trust Caswell and even side with him when push comes to shove. It looked extremely out of character for someone for whom caution and suspicion were a necessity of survival.

So what didn’t I like about this book? Well, the plot was rather lacking to be frank. It starts like a science fiction spy / assassin thriller then shifts gears about 50 pages into the book and becomes a sort of Indiana Jones-esque romp through Gartien with seemingly half the world in hot pursuit of our protagonists. And it ends… I won’t say anything about the ending there apart from it was messy and left me highly dissatisfied.

The plot also left me with the feeling that the author started with one book in mind, then flipped everything into a different direction halfway through. There are also some lapses of logic in the character’s actions that I found hard to get past.

For example, Caswell only has 15 days to complete his mission before the implant in his brain automatically resets his memory back to 15 days ago, erasing all knowledge of where he is and what he is supposed to do. Yet, when we get bogged down in the details of his journey with Melni (whom he follows almost halfway across the world), that sense of urgency is lost. I mean, hello, your clock is ticking, Caswell, show a bit more concern about it!

Speaking of Caswell. This is the first book where the protagonist left me absolutely indifferent. It’s not that I didn’t like him and I didn’t really hate him. I just could care less about him and whether he survived to complete his mission. Maybe because in my eyes, Caswell is a coward. He chose to get that implant because that way he can kill as many people as he needs and pretend that it never happened because his memory is wiped clean every time. I’m sorry, a killer is still a killer even if he doesn’t remember his kills. And the sea of bodies he leaves in his wake on Gartien only proves my point.

In other words, I was looking forward to Zero World but I leave this book rather disappointed. I liked Darwin’s Elevator much better.

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

Linesman by S.K. Dunstall.


Stars: 5 out of 5.

I must admit that I absolutely loved this book. It’s one of those books that grabs you from the first page and doesn’t let you go until you are done with the story. Needless to say that I spent a few sleepless nights finishing it up and was rather useless at work the next day because I just couldn’t put it down.

Humanity has spread through the cosmos and populated numerous worlds, all thanks to the Line technology – a technology humans had found on an alien spaceship and successfully replicated. The lines allow spaceships to travel through the void, making travel in space instantaneous. There are a total of 10 lines on a ship and each one is responsible for a different function, but the most important ones are line 9, which takes the ship in and out of the void, and line 10, which allows the ship to travel through the void to another destination.

However, nobody really understands how those lines work or why only certain people have the affinity to repair and maintain those lines. These people care called linesmen and they are ranked from rank 1 to 10, by the number of lines they can interact with. Level 10 linesmen are the rarest and the most important, thus the most sought after.

Then there is Ean Lambert who, while a certified 10, is a joke even among his peers. He came to the cartels late in life and pretty much taught himself how to communicate with the lines. And his method is very unorthodox to say the least. He sings to the line, because he perceives them as music, not as energy like all other linesmen. And he is persuaded that the lines are sentient. No wonder everyone else thinks he’s crazy. Until an alien ship appears in human space and it has a line that only Ean Lambert can hear and interact with…

I absolutely loved Ean. He has a huge chip on his shoulder because he has always been made to feel inadequate. Because of his origin as a kid from the slumps. Because he came to the cartel house as a teenager instead of a small child. Because his methods are unlike the standard methods thought by the cartels, thus are considered wrong. Because he’s always been the laughing stock of his peers.

What I love is that even though he doesn’t have much self-esteem at all, he still refuses to bend and conform to the “traditional” way of doing things. When it comes to the lines, he will always do what feels right, even if it means singing until his voice breaks and everybody looks at him like he has a few screws loose in his brain. He loves these lines, and amazingly enough, they return that feeling. I am happy with the personal growth Ean goes through in this book and that he finally finds a place where he belongs and where he is happy.

The world of Linesman is also really complex and interesting. There are several different factions and world alliances that are at the brink of war, and the appearance of a potential new weapon has all of the scrambling to get to it first.  Political alliances are brokered and broken, tensions run high, and skirmishes threaten to degenerate into a full-blown armed conflict.

There is a sense of urgency throughout this book that keeps your turning the pages, because you want to know what happened to Ean and the crew of the Lancastrian Princess and make sure that they are all okay.

Anyway, I strongly recommend this book to all science fiction lovers and I’m looking forward to Book 2 that’s supposed to come out in February.

Dark Star by Oliver Langmead.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

Dark Star is one of the strangest books I’ve read in a while. It’s written entirely in epic verse, even though the story it tells is more reminiscent of a noir movie than an epic ballade. I admit that this format was rather off-putting at first. I almost closed the book when I saw it. I’m glad I didn’t.

This book is like a dark vortex – it moves slowly at first, luring you with a false sense of security, then sucks you in faster than a whirlpool. Once you start reading, you cannot put it down. And the epic verse gives this story a fascinating depth as well: the format doesn’t allow for wasted words, so the author has to make all of them count. As a result, they have a bigger impact on the reader, highlighting the story like the beam of a good flashlight. Once I started reading it, I simply couldn’t put it down.

Vox is a world of eternal darkness, a planet revolving around a start that’s just a dark hole in the sky, absorbing all light. The city of Vox is powered by three Hearts that had been taken out of the starships that had crashed on this inhospitable world. Light is a precious commodity in this world. People could kill for a functioning lightbulb. And light is growing dimmer and dimmer with each passing year, so it’s no surprise that when one of the Hearts is stolen, the city is plunged into chaos.

But for Inspector Virgil Yorke, the theft of the Heart is not as important as the discovery of a dead girl with so much light in her veins that she glows brighter than any lightbulb even in death. And he will investigate the circumstances of her death with the tenacity of a pit-bull, especially since everyone in the precinct wants this death to be swept under the rug…

It’s rare for me to write a raving review for a book. It seems like no matter how much I enjoy a story lately, I can’t help but find some flaws in it that dampen my enthusiasm. Dark Star is the rare exception to that rule. There is absolutely nothing I can critique here. I loved every single world of this strange epic poem.

I loved Yorke. He is broken. He is hopeless. He is drowning in darkness and haunted by his own ghosts just as Vox is drowning in the non-light of its dark star with light-starved people haunting its streets. He is the best possible guide through this dark world. No wonder that his first name is Virgil. Like Dante’s Virgil, he is leading the reader through his own version of dark hell, and you can’t help but stick for the ride, because no matter how broken and disenchanted Yorke is, he is also very human.  I liked him. I understood him. I empathized with him. And I knew that even if he found out who had killed Vivian North and why, it would not change his own circumstances.

Yes, Dark Star does not have a happy ending, not entirely. It just brings a little bit of light and maybe some peace to the tortured souls of Vox before the end. And allows Virgil Yorke to finally let go of his ghosts…

Do you want to read a wonderful book with a profound story that touches you? That reads like a song, a strange and haunting melody that will stay with you long after you close the book, like the memory of light in a dark room? Then pick up Dark Star. Don’t let the unusual format put you off. This is a must read and re-read in my books.

PS. I received and advanced copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley.

Darwin’s Elevator by Jason M Hough

Stars: 4 out of 5.

I don’t remember where I heard about Darwin’s Elevator. I think it was in my “alsoboughts” on Amazon after I read Abyss Beyond Dreams by Peter F Hamilton, or maybe someone on Twitter mentioned it. Anyway, I’m very glad I and decided to give it a try. I discovered a very good author that I will definitely follow.

Over 20 years ago, a strange alien ship stopped above the little town of Darwin, Australia and shot a line down to Earth, just like a normal ship would cast an anchor. It became the Darwin Elevator that permanently ties the spaceship to the Earth. Nobody knows what this device was supposed to do, because nobody has ever seen the Builders, the aliens who brought the ship here, and the ship cannibalized itself to build the line, leaving only a hollowed husk.

The brightest minds flocked to Darwin to study both the Elevator and the ship. They built huge orbitals along the elevator line. The city  itself thrived, because all those people on orbit needed food, water and other goods to live. Life was good, economy was thriving… until five years ago an alien virus decimated 99% of the population on Earth. The SUBS virus turns people into mindless animals, ruled by one primal emotion, which is usually rage. The infection period is as small as a couple hours and there is no cure. But the Elevator produces an Aura that keeps the air in a 9 kilometer radius around it SUBS-free. So Darwin transforms from the outpost of scientific discovery and innovation, to the port of last resorts to all that’s left of humanity. That’s where the story of Darwin’s Elevator begins.

I loved the characters in this book. They are different, and live in different circumstances, which makes their points of view very different as well. So through their eyes, we get to see different facets of this complex situation.

Skyler and the ragtag crew of the Melville who explore the slowly crumbling world beyond the Aura and try salvage anything the inhabitants of Darwin and the orbitals might need. They are amongst the few who can still venture outside of the Aura, because they are immune to the SUBS virus. But that doesn’t make their expedition any less perilous, because the areas they explore are infested by subhumans who cannot be reasoned or pleaded with.

Tania Sharma, on the other hand, hadn’t set up foot on Earth in over 15 years. She is a scientist on one of the Orbitals who is determined to discover the reason behind the Elevator and the SUBS virus. She also becomes more and more convinced that the Builders are coming back and that everything is part of a bigger plan.

And there are plenty of interesting secondary characters as well. In fact, I found some of the secondary characters even MORE interesting than the main protagonists. “The Ghost” of Gateway station, anyone? I really hope to see more of them in the next books, and hopefully, they will have a bigger role to play.

The world Mr. Hough created is also very interesting, even though we don’t really get to explore it too much, apart from two expeditions outside of Darwin itself, but it has promise. The first book also doesn’t tell us much about the mysterious Builders and the Elevator, but then again, our protagonists are just as ignorant of this as we are. Hopefully, we will discover more about this in the future books. That was probably my main complaint about Darwin’s Elevator – a lot is hinted on, but not resolved or explained. But once again, it’s normal to have that when setting up an arc that encompasses several books. The plot and conflict of this particular book was successfully resolved by the end of the story with no real cliffhangers, so I’m happy.

My only other complaint and the reason I gave this book only 4 stars is that the antagonist was a bit too much of a caricature. I get the ruthless power-hungry warlord, even though that has been done and overdone before, but why make him a sadistic sexual pervert as well? That’s a trope upon a trope here. It makes him a bit too bad to be believable. I just really hope that if Russell Nightcliff continues to be the antagonist in the next books, the author adds a bit more depth to his character. Or better still, kill him off and introduce and original, not cookie-cut villain.

But those few gripes aside, I really loved Darwin’s Elevator, and I already picked up the next book in the series.