Apr 122020

The Player of Games, by Iain M Banks

Synopsis: The post-scarcity Culture recruits their best game player to destabilize an expanding civilization that selects its rulers via an incredibly complex board/card/tabletop-war game.

Book Review: Banks is best known in the SF community for his creation of The Culture, an incredibly advanced post-scarcity civilization, and the series of books that take place within it. Player of Games isn’t the first book in the series, but it is the one that is considered the best entry point into the series. This book feels like it was written specifically to introduce people to The Culture. First we’re introduced to a typical citizen, and we get a typical day-in-the-life narrative to show us how these people live. World details and tech levels are displayed, and then this citizen is recruited to become the representative of the entire Culture to an alien civilization. Much of the conflict comes from the culture clash of this outsider navigating among strange people with strange ideas and customs, and every time there is a conflict not only do we learn how the alien civilization is structured, we also learn how The Culture is different in contrast. It’s pretty darn ingenious.

If this was just a tour of The Culture I’m not sure it would make an interesting book… you do need some story to get me excited. Fortunately, it is a lot more than just that. Yes, the novel does start out very slowly. The first few chapters drag on far longer than their word count would lead you to believe. Perhaps this was intentional, to get the reader to relate to the boredom and ennui of the titular protagonist, but it’s still a slog. It is, however, worth it. Once the central plot is engaged, the story really picks up, and it just keeps getting faster and better as it goes. Plots thicken, stakes are raised, and eventually hell is raised, bullets are flying, and everything is on fire.

More than that, though, this book reminded me that speculative fiction is the genre of Big Ideas. SF/F should be about something. Lots of times, it’s not. It’s just cool stories of interesting people doing exciting things. The Player of Games has a central thesis. I didn’t even realize that I had been starved of stories with a Big Idea until this novel gave me one and reawakened that thirst. It was wonderful, and I hope to not forget this again for a long time.

Dan Carlin often mentions the adage that civilizations ascend wearing wooden clogs, and descend wearing silk slippers. Meaning that only when life is hard and miserable do people struggle to make things better, and once a civilization is rich and secure it becomes weak, its people become lazy, and it declines. This is probably a perpetual fear of anyone living in a rich empire, but it’s hard not to take it seriously. One wonders, is it only by cruel strength, and the hard-bitten willingness to sacrifice the weak that people can advance? Is any great liberal society doomed to be out-competed and replaced by something leaner, meaner, and ruthless? The Player of Games asks exactly that question, pitting a rich, liberal society against a hungry, brutal one. And more to the point, it doesn’t do this by putting them in violent conflict, which would only resolve which civilization is better able to wage ware. It pits the ideals of the two societies against each other directly by abstracting those ideals into a high-stakes game that winnows out the weak and breaks the unworthy.

Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: For the reason stated in the previous paragraph, this is a very good book club book. There was a lot to talk about, much of it being very thought-provoking. Even outside of the central thesis, The Culture itself makes a fascinating topic of conversation (one of the reasons these books have become so popular, after all), and that along can keep a group going for quite a while. And while the beginning is slow, we didn’t lose any readers to it, because the kind of people that go to SF book clubs tend to also be the kind of people that have been gamers for ages, and so the promise of a book about an Uber-Game kept everyone engaged until things go going. :) Recommended.

Podcast Note: A friend of mine has a reaction-style podcast where he and a friend are reading through the entire Culture series together. He’s read it before, the friend has not. The three Player of Games episodes are 1, 2, 3. And the whole series can be followed at the Discord, or the RSS.

Mar 312020

The Devourers, by Indra Das

Synopsis: A trio of vampire-ish/werewolf-ish shapeshifters travels to turn-of-the-century India. One commits a crime that sickens even these monsters, causing the trio to turn on each other, with much collateral mayhem.

Book Review: That synopsis really doesn’t do this novel justice, and I think the synopsis is pretty exciting as it is. This isn’t just a story of vendettas, betrayal, and personal clashes. This is a story about what it means to be human. It is, in my opinion, a statement on human sexual dimorphism and what it means to be a woman in a world were half the population can overpower you and wants to consume you. It’s about what it means to be a man in a world where men are considered predators by everyone, and not for bad reasons. It is about power and honor. It asks if civilization is a glorious thing that lifts mankind up from the wretched natural state we are born into, or if it is the shackles we’ve forged that prevent us from being free and noble and true.

It does all this while telling a great story of a proud person wronged, and of monsters that lurk in the dark to consume us. The plotting is exciting and the visuals are amazing. When one of these shifters goes into its monster form and starts to absolutely destroy the humans trying to oppose it, it was better than most anything I’ve seen on movie screens in ages. It was terrifying and glorious at once. When two such shifters go full-Sayen and attack each other, the prolonged ensuing fight is Akira levels of epic.

The rationalizations of the monsters are seductive, as well. I started to wonder if maybe they were right. Maybe their actions are net positive, and the being devoured is better than the alternative? Das does a great job of getting us to sympathize just enough to waver, even as he exposes us to the horror and violence of this predation.

The one downside to this novel is the framing story it uses. The tale in India is relayed to a young modern-day professor, and the professor is boring AF. The couple chapters with him are OK, but once you get into the meat of the story in India, you don’t want to go back to him. Then the final 25% or the book is JUST him, and that part is a drag. Nothing much happens, the professor has no personality and no motivation, and we’re left wondering “Why does this awesome, powerful, sexy werewolf have any interest in this schmuck?” It’s not terrible though, it’s just kinda dull. And Das has built up so much good will by giving us an absolutely outstanding main story that I didn’t mind coasting through that final part.

If I can speculate for a moment, I think it was required to bring the novel up to an acceptable word-count for a publisher of a first time novelist. Word count is ridiculously important to publishers, even though readers don’t really care. It’s kinda infuriating. Anyway, I think Das did the best he could with what they forced him to do, and the framing story isn’t a total loss, it has a few cool parts.

So, with that small caveat — amazing characters, amazing story, amazing writing, amazing action. Seriously, look back at the first three paragraphs I wrote. This is an absolutely stellar book. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: One of the best book club books we’ve had in a long time, and we’ve had some good ones! This is a fast read, and is gripping on its own. But in addition, it raises many interesting and thought-provoking themes, and comments on them via the actions of the characters just enough to really get conversation going. We went on for far longer than usual, and we all loved every minute of it. There were readers who disagreed that this was about sex roles in particular, and said it was more about power imbalances in general. There were readers who saw tones of trans identification in the monsters being able to change their forms over time. There is just so much to talk about, and all of it is on topics were the novel shows you examples of what it’s talking about and how it affects the people in the book but never preaches at you. If your book club reads only one book this year, it should be this one. Highly Recommended.

Coronavirus note: I’ve been a slacker, and I’m behind in my book reviews. Both this review and the next one I’ll be posting were meetings we had before the outbreak.

Mar 092020

Empress of Forever, by Max Gladstone

Synopsis: Kinda a lesbian Inuyasha in space, and the galaxy is post-apocalyptic.

Book Review: With a synopsis like that, one would expect this to be an amazing ride. :) It is, however, just OK.

The characters are easy to relate to, and everyone will have one favorite one. They are all very archetypical, so as soon as you find the Type that you love most, you’ll really glom onto the character and enjoy them. The action goes fast, and it has ridiculous over-the-top anime combat that’s fun.

And ultimately, that’s mostly what this book is – action set pieces woven together by well-realized archetype characters. This is a perfect story for a video game, where you get to have all the fun of actually kicking huge amounts of ass in all the action scenes. It was a pretty typical JRPG plot as well, starting with a single character who gathers allies to form her party, beats several challenges, then the party is all split up near the end, and finally unites again against the multiple phases of the final boss. It’s definitely OK, but it’s told in the wrong medium, IMHO.

I think this book can be summed by a scene from within itself. One character is asking another why she reads fiction, and the reader answers “Simple. You know what the problem is, and you know how it will all turn out. It’s fun to watch it happen.” That was basically the experience of reading Empress, and if you like comfortable, actiony beach reading, this is for you. For those like me: Not Recommended.

(Also, as a personal gripe, I was really annoyed that the main character is supposed to be smart, but didn’t figure out why she had been yanked into the future, like, immediately. It’s clear from almost the very beginning, and it seems the only reason she never figured it out is because the author wanted to hold onto the reveal for a dramatic moment instead of after her thinking about it for 2 minutes. It’s just one of those things that irritates me.)

Book Club Review: The experience of talking about this book was much like the experience of reading it. Kinda fun, hard to complain, but nothing exceptional. I found myself very surprised that the entire story seems to have been wrapped up in one book. This is exactly the sort of ensemble cast and universe that lends itself to a long drawn-out series of monster-of-the-week books. As I was reading it I had the impression it was trying to set itself up as another Dresden Files style of series. But the ending seems pretty damn definitively an ending. Someone else in the book club mentioned that the ending felt rather rushed, like Gladstone had gotten tired of writing this story. Maybe creating a profitable series was his original intention, but he found it too tiresome to continue? He has written some really good things in the past, maybe this was just trying something new that didn’t quite work. While speculation on how the creative process works, and how maybe business decisions might interact with it, was kinda interesting, I don’t think it’s worth dedicating a book club slot to. Not Recommended.

Feb 122020

Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi

Synopsis: A paint-by-numbers 2nd world fantasy with medieval Africa flavor rather than medieval Europe flavor.

Book Review: Anyone who was a kid in the 80s will recognize this novel. It’s a basic 2nd world fantasy that fits right in with the pulp fantasy of that era. If you’re a kid, and it’s the 80s, this is ok. Because kids don’t have good taste, and in the 80s this whole 2nd world fantasy thing was still new and exciting and lots of authors were exploring the possibility-space of this newish genre. But I’m not a kid, and the 80s are long ago.

This novel doesn’t have an ounce of ambition. Everything here has been done before so many times that you can see the ruts in the ground as you’re trundling through them. The one difference is that the scenery is African rather than European, and even THAT isn’t new, it’s been done since at least Quest for Glory III in 1992, and likely much earlier via D&D supplements.

What’s worse, Blood & Bone doesn’t even take inspiration from the better stuff of the era, it dives right into the careless schlock. The plotting is actively stupid – things happened not because there was a good in-world reason for them to happen, but because the author decided that they wanted the thing to happen… so now it does. Goons were cartoonishly incompetent, they literally stood around until it was convenient for the heroes to fight them, like in those bad ninja movies. Villains are cartoonishly evil, genociding populations just for the heck of it. There’s the standard pairing-up of the opposite-sex protagonists because they’re opposite sex and protagonists, what other reason does one need?

This reads like a cheap cartoon where the writers didn’t care one whit for making good stories for children, they just wanted to churn out weekly 22-minute animated ads for toys. I haven’t read genre fiction this bad since Grant’s “Deadline”. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Not everyone hated this as much as I did. While no one thought it was “good writing,” there are people in our book club that haven’t become jaded grumpy readers, and can still take joy in a silly schlock adventure. You may get a good book club meeting out of discussing differences in tastes, how expectations affect perception, and what different people want out of a reading experience. Plus the haters get to vent some steam by hating, and the non-haters can laugh at them and talk about the fun bits they enjoyed. Still, it’s not really the sort of discussion I think book clubs are seeking, more like something they occasionally stumble into. Not Recommended.

Jan 252020

Ra, by Sam Hughes

Synopsis: When magic is discovered in the 70s, it quickly becomes a branch of applied engineering. After losing her mother under magical (and mysterious) circumstances, a young student takes up Magic R&D to try to undo that loss.

Book Review: There’s so much to like here, it’s hard to decide were to begin. Right off the bat, this is the most true-to-life depiction I’ve seen of what would happen if magic did exist in our world. Much like the discovery of electricity, arguably the last time we found magic, we immediately set out to understand this new thing and learn everything we could about it, then use it to make life easier and better. But also much more complicated, and sometimes more dangerous. Especially in the period of time where we don’t yet fully understand this new force — which is the period that this book is set in. The most exciting time. :)

I’m also impressed by how deep the plotting and world goes, and how skillfully it’s slowly revealed to us. Every time we mostly grasp something, a new layer is revealed that adds to the mystery and intrigue. The rabbit holes are branching and deep, and often self-supportive.

But the scope of this whole thing is what really gets me. When I started the novel, I was in an interesting near-future story about magic and research. By the time I got to the end the story had morphed several times and greatly expanded, seamlessly enough that I didn’t notice at the time. But when I finished the book, and I looked back on where I finished, vs where I started, I would have never guessed I’d get there from here, and damn was that a hell of a ride.

This novel is supremely ambitious, and it’s a joy to read something that bites off so much, and chews it so well.

Along the way, I was confronted by a new revelation about what I value in reality/life, and I had to think hard about what makes human lives valuable. I still haven’t come to answers for the moral questions that the book raised in me. These two things are among the highest praise I can give a book.

It’s not perfect. There are times where it drags a bit (one too many digressing vignettes), and other times where it’s too damned hard to follow (I’m still confused about a couple minor points). Most regretably, about 2/3rds of the way through there is a revelation which caused me to almost stop reading the book entirely. I put it down and considered just not bothering to continue. I’m glad I did, because it turned out I was incorrect in my reading of that revelation, which I discovered two chapters later. But that’s a flaw that could have been avoided with slightly clearer writing.

Nonetheless, this is an outstanding work, and worth reading every word. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: This is a challenging read, and not for everyone. A few people dropped out early in frustration, and attendance was a bit light due to that. And not everyone that stuck it out enjoyed it quite as much as I did, a couple of them thought that the density and focus on the engineering angle brought down the story overall. However we did have a fair few things to discuss and either marvel over or complain about. And it was certainly interesting to mull over the human-value related question as a group. I think you’ll have to take your group into consideration before deciding on this one, it certainly makes the reader put in work. I think it’s worth it, so – Recommended.

Personal opinion/note – The author released a Revised Ending several years after the original publication of Ra. This Revised Ending is so much better than the original that I recommend not even bothering reading the original ending. Maybe if your curious, afterwards, just to compare. But the Revised Ending is leaps and bounds better.

The book can also be read or downloaded freely from the author’s home webpage.

Jan 082020

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O, by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

Synopsis: A poorly-run government agency with a time machine attempts to alter history, and hijinks ensue.

Book Review: This will be a short review, because there isn’t terribly much to say. This is a well written, fun romp through time. It’s almost like a very intellectual Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. We have a team of scrappy underdogs that are very easy to relate to and to fall in love with. I absolutely ADORE the “witch” from 19th century Prussia, every single scene with her is the best thing ever. <3 The government is both powerful and incompetent in the ways you come to expect as you get older. The villains are so deliciously easy to hate. The scenes set in the past feel incredibly realistic (which one would expect with both Stephenson and Galland at the helm). There is an extended scene with a raiding party of naked Vikings pillaging a Wal-Mart which is hilarious and makes perfect internal sense.

The book is also written with the fun gimmick of being a collection of archival evidence that is being presented to the reader, so every single bit of it is either an excerpt from a journal, or a letter that was intercepted, or an email that was leaked, or a PowerPoint presentation, or something. It’s a cool constraint, and it’s fun to see how the authors pull off telling a great story in an entirely epistolary format.

That being said, there isn’t much of substance here. It’s a fun trip, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, but it doesn’t really have much to say about humanity or the world or whatever. I like my fiction (even the comedic romps) to have a deeper motive as well. So not something to rush out for, but good if you’re in the mood for something well written and fun. Mildly Recommended.

Book Club Review: Overall people enjoyed the book, although nearly everyone else thought that it really dragged in the middle. I don’t see it, but if everyone else thought so, it’s something to consider. We had a fun time talking about the characters we loved and the scenes we enjoyed. But there wasn’t any deeper discussion either. Fun for a get-together, but again, not quite what I look for in a book club meeting. Also, it’s a typical Stephenson-length novel, so about twice the length of most novels, which is a lot to ask for a book club, and can bring down attendance. Mildly Not Recommended.

Nov 112019

Aftershocks, by Marko Kloos

Synopsis: Years after an interplanetary war has ended, insurgents from the losing side are starting to show up.

Book Review: I’ve written before about my dislike of the Series Trend. ie: everything is a series now, rather than a single book, because that’s the only way most writers can make a living. But Aftershocks is really taking this problem to a new level.

Aftershocks is a prologue to the real story. That’s it. It is the equivalent of taking the opening crawl from Star Wars and inflating it to a novel rather than a few paragraphs that set up the movie. You can see the beginnings of a story coming, and it looks like it’ll be a good one. The world building is good, the writing is intelligent, the characters are interesting. But the main action of the story literally doesn’t even start, it’s all just set-up.

One might say that this is fine, because Marko Kloos is a proven author with a solid track record. His prior series is well received, and even people who don’t like Military SF say that his series is a stand-out exception. I can believe it, because like I said, the writing really is good. One could very well just trust the author and settle in for a ride. Isn’t this what I do anyway when I read web serials?

The prose is particularly good at quickly and efficiently building visuals. Where other authors take pages describing something, and you still aren’t quite sure what’s happening, Kloos manages to play a fully realized scene in your mind on every page. Everyone is accounted for and the environment feels rich, and he does this all with just a few lines. It’s an extraordinary power!

The characters, likewise, are relatable, and each one feels like a different person with a unique personality. I, personally, also really appreciated the recognition of human sexuality. Much like real-life people, these characters have libidos. They recognize when someone is attractive, and the effect it has on themselves. I’ve been seeing this less and less in SF/F, as novels either become directly about sex/sexual relationships, or completely ignore it. It was neat to actually see a character feel sexual attraction to a stranger, but just not act on it, like almost everyone IRL does almost every day.

Still, I can’t get past the fact that nothing happens. When I reached the halfway point of the book and realized that I hadn’t even get to the part where the author makes a promise to the reader, and probably wouldn’t until the last chapter because Everything Is A Series, I felt disappointment lapping at my knees. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: It really is good prose. It reads fast, and the novel is short, which helps with turnout. There’s even a few things of interest to talk about, regarding the (rather intentional) parallels between Aftershocks’s world and post-WWI Germany. If anyone in your book club has experience with military bureaucracy and/or military culture, they’ll bring a fair bit to the discussion. So you can get talking for a while. But the most common refrain was “It felt sorta… empty.” I guess I’d wait until at least three books are out and then read them all in one go, so there’s something to sink one’s teeth into, story-wise. Until then, Not Recommended.

Also… I had a ridiculously hard time getting hold of an ebook version of this. I wasn’t allowed to simply give Amazon (or any other online retailer) my money in exchange for the book! I had to put in a lot of work to get it, and if I wasn’t reading it for my book club I would have given up early in the struggle. WTF, Capitalism? What is going on here?

Oct 162019

The Freeze-Frame Revolution, by Peter Watts

Synopsis: A group of engineers living in a total-surveillance spaceship decide they must overthrow its near-omniscient sovereign AI, and have to figure out how to do so while also only being awake a few days every several thousand years.

Book Review: I continue to love everything Peter Watts writes. He is a super-stimulus to my taste in fiction.

The premise of the book is already interesting. A covert revolution with ridiculous constraints on action, against a tyrant that can decide to never wake you up every time you go to sleep if he finds out what you’re planning. Watts then rockets us directly into Kafka territory, as the crew almost immediately loses all contact with the rest of humanity due to sleeping away eons between their shifts to create wormhole gates. Why do they continue to make gates for a humanity that may not exist anymore? Why are eldritch monstrosities erupting from these gates and trying to destroy their ship? Why does anything matter? It doesn’t, just keep making gates, that’s your sole purpose, so latch onto it.

After reading a number of works by an author, you come to see common themes between them. Watts’s books are always incredibly lonely. The characters within them are singular and alone. The rest of humanity either doesn’t exist, or may as well not exist anymore. Their peers are all distant, strange creatures, whom one can’t form bonds with. Everything is cold, and quiet, and isolation is all-pervasive. (yes, I love this)

Also, Watts loves non-sapient intelligences. Things that behave as if conscious, but which are not. They are generally incredibly creepy. One of the major themes in Freeze-Frame is the protagonist slowly coming to accept that the AI she speaks with isn’t a person. It’s a series of flow-charts and equations meant to mimic human interaction. And this hurts, because due to the previously-discussed isolation, the AI was the only friend she had. Not only is she losing her friend, she’s realizing she never had one to begin with.


The mark of a good book is, of course, the drawing together of mood and theme into a compelling plot that moves the reader through the story, and Freeze-Frame has that too. The changes that occur over deep time, and the insane level of engineering that was bent to the task of making a thing that would remain stable over so long (and the interesting ways it fails) tie into the covert revolution plot as well. There’s just so much to love here for fans of dark SF.

The two main complaints I have is that the protagonist is the only developed character, everyone else is a bit one-dimensional. I’m not sure that’s a valid complaint though, because the fact that no one else feels fully real is to be expected when you are so isolated and have no connections to anyone. The other complaint is that this is too short. Not just in a “Hey, I want more!” way (although there’s that too!), but in a “This is basically a novella being sold as a novel,” way. It only barely squeaks into the lower bound of a novel in length. However this does force Watts to keep his prose tight, there aren’t nearly as many ponderous descriptions of objects and actions, and much more getting-to-the-point, which I appreciated. And to be honest, if it was a novella it wouldn’t have been read by our book club, since we only do novels.

Regardless, definitely Recommended!

Book Club Review: A good book for book clubs as well. The fact that it is so short meant no one had trouble finishing it, and we had very high attendance. Not everyone is the Watts fanboy that I am, but most everyone found it interesting. There were quite a few things to talk about, and a bit of speculation about the nature of the reveal near the novel’s end. For that matter, there was speculation about what happened to humanity, and how realistic certain aspects of the story were/weren’t. This is a dense book, and like all of Watts’s books, it expects a lot from the reader. There’ll be just as much discussion about this as there are in most books triple its length. Recommended.

Sep 272019

Equal Rites, by Terry Pratchett

Synopsis: When a young witch is given wizard powers, she and her grandmother must find a way to get the all-male wizard university to acknowledge and accept her.

Book Review: This is one of Pratchett’s early works, and it’s interesting watching someone you know will become a grandmaster slowly coming into his powers.

The story is entertaining, but it was thematically confusing for me. The girl-witch doesn’t really do a whole lot, and her grandmother, while being absolutely awesome and someone I’d love to know, its rather inconsistent. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this book until I went to the bookclub and someone dropped a revelation on me – the protagonist of this book isn’t really the girl, she’s just the inciting incident. The protagonist is the grandmother!

After that it all made sense. The grandmother starts out very cynical and jaded. She practices “headology,” which is mostly psychology and the use of ritual and expectation to help guide people’s lives and actions. She is obviously very aware of how powerful ritual and expectations are, but she’s also extremely cynical about it, mostly viewing other people as befuddled fools who need to be lead through life because they’re too dumb for their own good.

She grows, though. The grandmother’s character arc is of someone who comes to see that ritual can be overemphasized and sometimes needs to be jettisoned when human interests are at stake… and that some humans are actually kinda alright.

Now, I say Pratchett hasn’t quite come into his own yet in this book, because that’s not the clear focus of the story, and it’s a bit inconsistent. Also, he doesn’t engage my emotions at the anger level when showing the witches’ fight for equal rights. The wizards seem more befuddled and incompetent than actually unlikable. There was only one moment when I felt any animus towards them, and it passed quickly. It made the whole “sexism” thing seem like not a big deal, just a misunderstanding, and kinda gave a lie to the title. It’s certainly nothing like the rousing political statements and declarations of his later works, which have you on your feet cheering for human rights and swearing to strike down any tyranny and corruption you see.

Likewise, neither his humor nor his socio-political statements really flowed with the story. It seemed like story, humor, and political stuff always had to stop for each other and interject, rather weaving seamlessly into a majestic single melody like his later books.

But still, his prose is eminently readable! When you read Pratchett it always feels like he’s a mischievous uncle sitting in the room and telling you this story himself, weaving this epic yarn with a twinkle in his eye. He’s snappy and funny and doesn’t belabor anything.

And honestly, it feels a bit churlish to say this work doesn’t measure up to his later works, after he’s had thousands of hours more experience. Is it really fair to compare someone to their refined, future self?

So, all in all, a fun read. Pratchett in general is a Strong Recommended. I would recommend his later works first. But if you’ve already gone through those, this one is pretty good too.

Book Club Review: You can’t go wrong with Pratchett for a book club, y’all already know this. Plenty to talk about, even moreso if people are well-read in his universe. Obviously recommended, with the same caveat of “later works first” as above.

Sep 182019

Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Synopsis: The last remnants of humanity flee from a destroyed earth to colonize a previously-terraformed planet. Unfortunately the human AI set to guide and protect the sapient spider species living there ain’t having none of it.

Book Review: This is a Big Idea book. It has a sweeping scope, and lots to say about the human condition. The desperation of the refugee humans, as their colony ship degrades over the centuries and things get worse and worse, is palpable. The value-drift of both the humans and the AI is fascinating to watch. Their culture mutates, their personal drives become maladaptive, and behind this all is the beating drum of survival counting down to extinction.

And that’s just for the human half of the story! The chapters alternate between the plight of humanity, and the ascension of the intelligent spiders on the terraformed world. With a social system based on half their species being born expendable, and vastly different morphology to a human, their cultural evolution is mesmerizing to watch. The fact that their religion is actually real, with a literal god orbiting their planet and guiding them, brings an interesting twist to events. Their shortish lifespans mean we go through quite a few generations of them in the novel, but Tchaikovsky uses a neat SF trick to give the reader continuity with the characters.

This was a pleasure to read. It reminds one of the sci-fi of old in that it explores grand ideas over an epic setting, while still being full of tension and conflict so it remains exciting. With the major difference that it was written just a few years ago, so it has modern sensibilities and feels comfortable to read now. Like, you won’t run into any cringy sexism or racism, and it incorporates the story-telling advances writers have made over the decades. Not to worry though, it doesn’t have any wokeness in it, it’s just… good.

There are a few short-comings, IMHO. The first is a common among epic-scope novels – characters aren’t fleshed out as much as they are in character-driven novels. They’re still pretty good, but the focus is more on the events than on character growth or getting deep into the protagonist’s psyche.

The second is that the ending feels too pat. It almost feels Deus Ex Machina-ish, in its sudden turn-around via a non-signaled power. I was left with a feeling of loss of agency among several of their characters, are their problems were solved for them rather than via conflict/resolution.

And my final gripe is that the prose isn’t nearly poetic enough for my taste. I like Grand, Big-Idea books to have florid, lyrical prose, that reaches in and grabs me by my artistic balls. Things like Palmer or Duncan or Valente write. I want the words to sing for me. However that’s a matter of personal style, and it’s hard to hold that against a book.

On the whole, these complaints are overshadowed by the fantastic exploration of humanity, and the creativity of the story. One can tell just by reading this novel that it took serious work. Recommended.

Book Club Review: A darn good book for a book club. It’s long, but we had a great turn out anyway. With as much as the book has to say about humanity, our flaws, and the things that make us great, there was something for everyone to comment on or bring to the discussion. I don’t think it makes its statements with as much force or eloquence of some other works, but it makes many of them, and it never does so poorly. Y’all won’t be wanting for discussion topics. Recommended!