Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

Category: Reviews Page 1 of 14

Astronettes? Lady Astronauts? Astronauts!

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut Universe series is the latest rabbit hole I fell down. Or should I say a black hole that drew me in? Three main works have been published so far, as well as two novellas. Book four will hopefully hit the shelves next year.

I’d wanted to read The Calculating Stars for some time but the audiobook kept gathering dust on my TBR. After listening to The Original, co-authored by MRK, I decided to not ignore it any longer.

In this alternate history the fate of humanity is threatened shortly after the end of World War II. This time not by war, but by a meteorite, which hits the east coast of the United States of America. The impact is similar to the one that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, and doesn’t bode well for humanity. Colonising space might be the only option for humanity’s survival.

Elma York, a child prodigy with two doctorates and former pilot in WWII, is at the heart of this series. She’s working as a computer for the International Aerospace Coalition to help bring the first man to space. But with her skills as a pilot she soon wonders, why she can’t become an astronaut, too. Women will be needed in space colonisation sooner rather than later. Which leads her to notice that not only women are left out of the space programme.

This character driven story uses the sexism and racism of the 1950s and 1960s, sprinkles a good portion of humour, lots of ambition, some grief and heart break, and character flaws on it and out comes a story with characters to root for.

Without wanting to give away too much about the content of the sequel novel, The Fated Sky, let me just tell you, I bought book two and three (The Relentless Moon) right after finishing The Calculating Stars.

The Fated Sky reminded me, in part, of Weir’s Martian and Artemisin part! Yet, it is it’s own unique story about the possible colonisation of Moon and Mars, including months of space travel with all its obvious dangers, but far more interesting and gross are the not so obvious dangers, like regurgitating vacuum toilets. I’m looking forward to the third book in the series, but I am pacing myself a bit, because the fourth book, The Martian Contingency, won’t be published before 2022.

The audiobooks are narrated by the author herself. Something that I enjoy very much in general and enjoyed with this series in particular. MRK does an excellent job giving Elma and her friends and foes a unique voice.

Lastly, I’d like to point out that I truly appreciate all the research that MRK put into the series to represent science and history as accurately as possible. I especially enjoyed the lengthy acknowledgements and lists of bibliography at the end of the books, which probably only represents a fraction of what the author actually learned and looked up.

5/5 Harpy Eagles for The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky

Bloodlines

Fantasy is full of bloodlines; the (hidden) heir to the throne, magic running in the family, the chosen one, and so on. But how might a bloodline based Sci-Fi novel look like?

The plot of A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel, published 02 February 2021, is based on two feuding bloodlines. We have women who pass their historical, scientific and personal knowledge down through the generations; and seem to be identical replicas of each other. And there’s a group of men who’s been trying to track them down and kill them over the centuries.

The story starts during the 1940s, with Mia being sent to Nazi Germany to help extract Wernher von Braun before the Russians get to him. Mia is the hundredth generation of identical women who have shaped the history of humankind in order to “take them to the stars” and it’s her duty to get the space race going no matter the costs.

The women have left a lot of carnage behind them during the thousands of years they have tempered with human history. They have shed their own blood and that of innocent people, all in the name of a set of certain rules that will allow them to protect their aforementioned knowledge and use it to help humans to get into space.

Their enemy, ‘the tracker’ is not just one person, it’s a group of a father with his four sons. They have been trying to find these mother-daughter duos for ages, literally tracking them since they first appeared on Earth, and likewise leaving dead bodies in their wake.

Yet, are those two factions enemies, or was a huge part of the knowledge lost in the early days of the one hundred generations of women? When the enemies do collide, it seems that the male side knows more about their origins and alludes to a first contact story-line that will hopefully be picked up in the sequel.

I liked the idea of the story, but it reminded me a lot of the film Hancock, just that we don’t have immortal beings here, but immortality is gained by practically reproducing identical replicas with each new generation. Georg Mendel, him of sweet pea fame, would love this; he’s mentioned in the book.

3/5 Harpy Eagles

Sharks in the Time of Saviours

I’m not even trying to think of a clever blog post title here because the book title is so beautiful. Sharks in the Time of Saviours is Kawai Strong Washburn’s debut novel and it is one of those magical realism books that makes you think about it for days after finishing it.

In the book, we are spending time with the Flores family, mostly in Hawaii. The story is narrated from a first person point of view, alternating between the different family members. The family is hit hard by the collapse of the sugar cane industry, and their economical situation is getting quite desperate.

That’s when their younger son Nainoa is saved from drowning during a family trip by nothing other than a shiver of sharks. (Which is now my favourite collective noun alongside a murder of crows, but I digress.) The family takes this as a sign that the ancient Hawaiian gods are on their side. After the incident, Noa is considered a legend. You might imagine that this does not sit too well with his siblings. Growing up, all three siblings head over to the US mainland and try to make their own separate ways. Each of them finds that it is hard to shake off the past, and tragedy forces them to come back to Hawaii.

After the initial shark incident, I expected more fantastical elements to pop up throughout the story, but they take a backseat. This is more of a family story than a fantastical one, but it still had me turning the pages. The changing points of view certainly helped with that. I really enjoyed to spend some time with Nainoa’s siblings Dean and Kaui, to see what not being The Special One did to them.

A note on the cover: I first noticed the book because of the bright and slightly bonkers US cover, but bought the UK version in the end. After reading it, I think the quieter blue colour is a better fit for the story.

4/5 Magpies

Let’s eat Grandma!

Star Eater by Kerstin Hall, published 22 June 2021.

This dystopian-esque fantasy novel has an MC fit for a YA novel, hereditary magic based on cannibalism, a Sisterhood of nuns running the government, a resistance movement, zombies, food shortage, and big cats.

This review is based on an ARC of the Recorded Books audiobook.

Where do I even start?

I’d have liked some pointers as to where we are, what kind of period of human history this might be similar too. The only information I get on that is there are horses drawing carts and cabs. Also gas lamps are mentioned once. So, probably somewhere similar to the late Middle Ages with gas lamps?

The main character El/Elfreda is a 22-year-old acolyte of the sacred order of sisters that is ruling Aytrium. She became an acolyte about a year ago when her mother went into her martyrdom. She is, [let’s say it together:], no one special and yet the chosen one to save the world. Add a love triangle or two to the mix,… Yet, the book is hailed as not YA.

The magic system: Magic is called Lace. It is used for protection and defence against Haunts (zombie men created through the Renewal ceremonies performed by acolytes, see below) mainly, but can also be used for compulsion of others. Furthermore, it is used to keep Aytrium afloat. [It’s not quite clear to me whether Aytrium is a country or a city with a few villages surrounding it. Also, it wasn’t clear to me that Aytrium was a floating landmass and has been floating for more than 500 years. It was first explicitly mentioned at about 60% of the audiobook; let’s hope the print edition will have a map that shows this.]  

The following paragraphs will contain spoilers. Frankly, I didn’t very much like this book. It is a non-YA YA novel with YA characters, having YA relationships, YA dialogues and affects, and the adults have betrayed them.

[Spoiler alert!]

Only the members of the Sisterhood have Lace. It’s hereditary magic, which means, it is passed on from mother to daughter after the mother starts her martyrdom. The martyrdom means, the mother falls in some form of coma after her own mother dies and her daughter now has to make weekly visits to her mother in the facility where martyrs are stored. This is a kind of morgue where the still breathing corpses are stored so that daughters can eat some of their mother’s flesh to replenish their Lace. In the flesh and organs, the magic is stored, hence the extremities are eaten first, the organs, especially the heart, last.

In order to keep the Lace within the Order, the members of the Sisterhood cannot have heterosexual relationships. How do they procreate then? The acolytes must perform monthly Renewal ceremonies where they have to have sex with a convicted murderer or rapist. If they get pregnant and the child turns out a boy, the child is given away, and the acolyte has to continue the renewal ceremonies. If the child is a girl, the acolyte keeps the child, raises it, and is henceforth released from renewal duty; grandmothers go into martyrdom and mothers and daughters now have the clock ticking for when they will ‘level up’ within the Sisterhood.

These renewal ceremonies create zombie-like creatures. The men the nuns have sex with catch some form of STD that turns them into Haunts that will, if they aren’t “sent over the edge” (can’t be killed, can’t stay in Aytrium either), haunt the Sisters in order to kill and eat them. Sometimes, men catch this zombie disease without having to have had sex with a member of the order, this means they are used in the renewal ceremonies until the disease is so far advanced that they have to be “sent over the edge.” [The term is mentioned early on in the book, but it doesn’t mean that the listener/reader automatically knows that Aytrium is a floating landmass. Could refer to a cliff-face over, say, an ocean, too.]

As it happens, the Haunts are exactly how the Chosen One story-line gets going. El, our doormat of an MC, hates having to eat the flesh of her mother, hates the Renewal – for obvious reasons – so when a cabal approaches her with the promise to get her out of renewal ceremonies, she agrees to spy for them. Like in every dystopian YA story, she learns about how the ruling class is cheating and suppressing critical information, she wants to support the resistance without actually betraying her vows to the order, her best friends are in the midst of it. And of course, her best friend, from when they were kids and who El has a crush on, caught the zombie disease from one kiss they shared. And of course, the sister of this guy, also El’s best friend, is someone who not only El has a crush on, but who secretly has a crush on El too – hello love-triangle. Luckily this is kept at a minimum. When El and some other members of the Order find themselves in a trap (one with a capital T, predictable from a mile ahead), El finds out that she is the one child born every 70 years that could make or break the Order. Either the Order will gorge themselves on El, because she has lots of Lace. Or El has to bring the Order down by sacrificing herself and her magic. Sacrificing herself will somehow bring her boy back from zombie-dom, so… the last 20% of the book are about how she gets to sacrifice herself.

Just FYI: The resistance see the Sisterhood as a tyrannical order of outsiders and want to get rid of them. The Sisterhood was able to crush all attempts so far, but the resistance is gaining ground, not least because some members of the Order are secretly working with them?

The food shortage seems to be a regularly occurring problem the Aytrium is facing, based on draught years and rain seasons. El works for the department that is responsible to find alternative food supplies. But, once the Chosen One plot gets under way the food shortage is no longer mentioned. I assume it is all resolved due to the way the story ends. Still, this subplot took up a lot of pages, just to be ignored in the end.

Also, there were big cats that were used for long distance travel. They were kept in stables and were probably only for the use of members of the Sisterhood. They can cover ground fast and they are warm in a chilly night.

The titular Star Eater is someone who might have eaten an actual star or someone who was considered the star, or ruler, of the people. Anyway, this eating of the star made the Star Eater so powerful with Lace she managed the ascension of Aytrium all on her own. How? Why?

To be honest, this book left me with a lot of questions about heredity, about the magic system, about the Haunts, about the original Star Eater and how and why Aytrium became a floating land, about what the rest of the world looked like, about why there is a resistance to the Sisterhood when we never get to see what’s so bad about it and know nothing about whether the general public is actually observing the Sisters’ religion, the (forced) bi-sexualism, and so much more.

1/5 Harpy Eagles – lots of unused potential, lots of predictable twists, reads YA although it is not supposed to be.

Talk dirty to me

Ha, made you look, right?

I love a good audiobook. What’s even better than a good audiobook? An audioplay. Better than an audioplay? [Yes, yes, there can be a superlative here.] Better than an audioplay is an audioplay based on a story by Neil Gaiman, played by a whole cast of gorgeous voices and narrated by Neil himself. That’s reason enough for me to not fiddle with the speed of my audioplayer, which I usually set to somewhere between 1.75 and 2.5.

The Sandman audioplay is based on the DC comics/graphic novels of the same title. I’m going so far as to say that I enjoyed the audioplay much more than the GNs, because the cast surrounding James McAvoy makes the story/stories really come to life for me.

I can’t say much more without either starting to go all CAPS, or gushing about details. Get yourself a copy of the original version – trust me, I dared to listen into the German version for a few minutes, just not the same feeling – and enjoy it. Each episode is worth your time, and, at the same time, you can pace yourself by at least trying to listen to not more than one episode at a time. Something I failed at spectacularly.

5/5 Harpy Eagles

Serial killer terrorising parallel universes

The 22 Murders of Madison May by Max Barry, publishing day 06 July 2021.

Felicity is a reporter for a New York online paper. When she has to cover for a colleague, she visits the crime scene of Maddy May’s murder. Strange graffiti and a man in a hat plus her instinct for a good story make her investigate this further. What she uncovers is a secret society travelling parallel universes, and a serial killer who’s also travelling through the multiverse to kill all the versions of Madison May who are not the perfect Hollywood actress he fell in love with. Furthermore, Felicity is pushed into a parallel universe herself, which then prompts her to travel on to other parallel universes to find one that feels more like ‘home’. Because, you can only travel forward, never back.

To be honest, I don’t remember much from the book although I only finished reading it a couple of days ago. It’s a lot of plot, but the dialogue makes it a quick read. Still, the characters weren’t outstanding. The different universes gave the whole story a bit of a Groundhog Day feeling, and the finale was rather predictable.

2.5, so 3/5 Harpy Eagles

June BuddyRead Reveal

This June we’ll be reading Brian Catling’s Hollow, published 01 June 2021.

Neither of us had this author or the book on the radar and so it’s a total surprise to us. Hence, we can’t tell you anything about what we are hoping to find inside. But, please don’t let it be a fantasy Western with gun slinging orcs.

The blurb hints at an epic odyssey of a group of mercenaries, protecting a divine oracle on it’s journey through a land raging with war between the living and the dead; giants, sirens, surreal paintings, bone marrow and the confessing of sins… A small part of me is wondering whether The Otherland‘s May(?) newsletter topic – fungi/mushrooms – might have played into the selection of this book.

An audiobook Original

The Original by Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal, narrated by Julia Whelan, published, as audio only, 14 September 2020.

In a future where people can prolong their lives with weekly boosts of their nanites (nanobots), or by getting a clone in case of a fatality, Holly wakes up in a recently cloned body. She soon finds out that her husband had been killed. Furthermore, she is but a mere Provisional Replica only alive for four days, enough time to find her “Original” and kill her for the murder of her/their husband. For this purpose, the replica was enhanced with deduction and combat skills, but is missing all the AR features of Holly’s old life/body.

Holly now has to come to terms with being a replica under control of the authorities. Getting around in an augmented world in a body that cannot opt in to see the themes. She has to find out where her Original is hiding, why and if she truly killed her husband, and what all this has to do with the community of Check-outs, people who have opted out of using nanites and the AR enhancements they offer.

This book is an audiobook only. Julia Wheelan’s narration is spot on. She manages to admirably convey Holly’s history with her husband – in flashback scenes – as well as Holly’s underlying feeling of running out of time, having to come to terms with the whole situation, and finding her identity as a clone. The sound effects that were added to the narration enhance story and narration even more.

I enjoyed unravelling the mystery of Holly’s husband with her replica. The short story made me wish it had been longer. I would have liked to stay in this world for a few more pages, or rather a few more minutes.

4/5 Harpy Eagles

Which side are you on?

Tochi Onyebuchi’s War Girls, published 15 October 2019.

In this highly technological war, set in a dystopian world, we see Onyii and Ify fight on either side of the civil divide. Having grown up as sisters they end up on enemy sides. How much does their past influence their actions? How does war and propaganda influence their relationship? Their love for each other? Those might be the imminent questions. Far more important are the bigger questions. Is it ethical to have child soldiers? Is it ethical to enslave people to fight in your war? Should every technological advancement be weaponized? Who has the moral high ground? And, most of all, is it all worth the outcome?

War Girls is based on the civil war between Biafra and Nigeria from the 1960s, but the reimagining is set in the 22nd century. I’m going to thank one of my lecturers here for broadening my general knowledge in her class on African history of the 20th century. I knew I was rooting for the wrong side early on, but that made the whole story even more interesting.

The world-building was excellent. From the catastrophic state Earth is in, to the war zones and especially the technology of augments, ‘battle mechs’ and cyborgs. It was stunningly well thought through and written.

Which brings me to why I did not give the book five Harpy Eagles. I thought the characters weren’t fleshed out well, at least not as well as some of the tech described. Also, the book is divided into three parts and this novella style didn’t really work for me. The first part, though, really stands out. I was rooting for both MCs and was turning the pages fast. The second part felt like starting all over, and the vignettes didn’t help. The third part was mostly boring; a lot of characters died, other characters acted out of character, and the end came too fast.

Since this is the first book in a series, it might have been better to move part three to the second book. Or it could have worked as a standalone, provided a slightly less abrupt ending.

3/5 Harpy Eagles

Life’s a lottery

Sophie Mackintosh’s Blue Ticket, published 30 June 2020.

In Mackintosh’s dystopian novel girls can’t wait to enter puberty and have their first period. Their menses are a joyous event. Girls dress up and are taken to the lottery where they will draw either a blue ticket or a white ticket.

Calla grew up without her mother. She grew up being regularly measured at the clinic. She grew up knowing that her mother would want her to get a blue ticket.

A blue ticket means, you get a career and freedom. Or in other words, you don’t get to have children. You are destined to become a loose woman. Not necessarily a prostitute, but men still like to take advantage of you. Whereas a white ticket means, you’ll be a wife and mother. You’ll be cherished.

Calla is a blue ticket who wants to be a mother. Hence, she takes her fate into her own hands. She removes the IUD that was planted in her on lottery day and finds herself a nice man to start a family with. Of course it’s not going to be so easy. She has to conceal her pregnancy from everyone, even her doctor. But once the cat is out of the bag, Calla has to flee from her home. At that point she’s five months pregnant. She begins a trek north, first at random. When she meets other women, other pregnant blue tickets, they band together; protection in numbers. They know, beyond the border in the north they will be free.

The story’s morale compass shouts 1950/60s. Women are either devout mothers, or sluts. Sluts, by the way, like to party hard. They like to go out a lot. Have sex with multiple partners. They drink lots of alcohol and smoke like chimneys. Nearly everyone who’s not a white ticket smokes and drinks, it seems. At first I thought this was because this was some sort of control mechanism, but that was not the case. It’s not explained at all.

Blue ticketed women seem to know only the basics about how their bodies work. They know they have periods, and have to report back about their periods at their weekly meetings with their doctors, who seem to be shrink and GP in one. They know that they cannot have children, know how to get pregnant, but have absolutely zilch knowledge about pregnancy; they don’t know anything about food restrictions, gestation stages, or birth – didn’t they go to school? Is this an alternate history?

Babies are a rarity. Seems logical, when you think that at Calla’s lottery there was only one girl from among a group of girls that got a white ticket. So there are probably more blue ticket women out there. Made me wonder whether this ticket lottery is some sort of control mechanism to prevent overpopulation. Anyway, apparently mothers, white ticketed women, are something so special, you’ll never see them outside with their children. It’s the fathers who can be seen with large prams. It’s the fathers who get gifts when they are perambulating their child around; gifts can be baby clothing, money, baby care products. People might ask for a glimpse at the baby, after giving the fathers a gift.

So, we’re back to women being used for casual – sometimes very brutal – sex. Or women being hidden at home where they are baby factories and home makers. Men being in control of women and their reproductive organs; being the ones slapped on the back for a job well done.

Yes, we can make an argument that this book is ‘[a]n urgent inquiry into free will, social expectation, and the fraught space of motherhood’. Maybe in the 1950s. But in the early 21st century? I’d say we have come a lot further than how women are but a sliver above farm animals. I want to see female empowerment, not oppression.

1/5 Harpy Eagles

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