Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

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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

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

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

Palate Cleansers

Novellas and short stories are a great way to read something new and refreshing in between the chunksters. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have depth. Here are a few I’ve recently finished.

Hard Reboot by Django Wexler, publishing day 25 May 2021. Kas is on a fact-finding mission to old Earth. She’s drawn to the battle-bot fights for scholarly interest, which then leads to her being drawn in much deeper – literally and figuratively. A sci-fi novella about friendship, diplomacy, love, and well-choreographed robot-fights. It’s amazing to see how well Wexler manages this story in only 150 pages! Also, great cover! 4/5 Harpies

The Quest for the Holy Hummus by James Allison is the first book in The Chickpea Chronicles, publishing day 12 March 2021. When vegan dragon George goes to Peopleville to get his beloved hummus from Julian Pinkerton Smith’s organic food store, things go foreseeably wrong. It’s a short witty introduction (think Pratchett, Atkinson, Monty Python) to the two characters and the world the following six stories are set in. 3/5 Harpies

The Past is Red by Catherynne M Valente, publishing day 20 July 2021. Tetley loves the world. Tetley tells the truth. Both these things get her in so much trouble. This is the story of a very optimistic girl that embraced its dystopian home, Garbagetown, and eventually ended up learning one secret too many and becoming a jaded outlaw. Still, she doesn’t give up hope. A very optimistic, yet also slightly disturbing novella that makes you think. My one point of criticism, it was sometimes hard to follow the timeline. 4/5 Harpies

Nophek what?

Well, Nophek Gloss. Written by Essa Hansen, this book has been on my TBR since before its release. If you have absolutely no idea what the title means, don’t be afraid, it’s intentional and you find out soon enough.

Prepare for an action-filled ride through space and emotions, though. This book starts strong, and has difficulty letting you take a pause during the 400 pages.

Somehow, it also takes every step on the hero’s journey without becoming boring. I don’t know if this was intended as a standalone novel at first and then evolved into a series, but it feels like it. But you can certainly read it as a standalone novel. I note this only because it is my only point of criticism: the book feels a tad too filled, there is so much in it. So many topics are discussed, and there are so many steps in the journey of the main character, and this at barely 400 pages. So you might feel a bit overwhelmed.

4/5 duckies, and big recommendation, and I will for sure pick up the next one.

Skyward Inn Review

This month’s buddyread Skyward Inn by Aliya Whitely was read much faster by us than initially planned. The other two had it devoured in days and only me, the LadyDuckofDoom, lingered because I recently moved and had to pack a ton of books into a ton of boxes.

The book is supposed to be a retelling of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, which I haven’t read, and probably never will. So I can not tell you anything about the connection between the two books.

What I can tell you about is how the book reminded me some of Ursula LeGuin’s works. Whitely’s work reads much faster than LeGuin’s, but in the end, I got a similiar feeling from Skyward Inn as I got from some books of the Hainish Circle.

The story focuses on one family in the Western Protectorate, a region that has turned its back on technology. The rest of the world seems to be obsessed with trading and slowly colonizing Qita, a planet with sentient life. The path to Qita was mysteriously opened by the so called Kissing Gate. The mother of the family, Jem, runs the Skyward Inn with the only other Quitan, Isley, in the Western Protectorate. Her son Fosse was raised by her brother while she was away, signed up many years to deliver peace messages all over Qita. Telling more would spoil the story.

The unfolding book is as much a family drama as a speculative mystery, the many layers of the story working very well together. Some of us sci-fi nerds can guess the defining key elements the story is working towards, but that does not prevent the enjoyment of it. At a bit over 300 pages, the book is not that long, either. I would recommend some time to think about the ending, though. It would make a lovely pick for a larger bookclub, too.

April Buddyread Reveal

Our next buddyread book has arrived, and it is Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley. Just look at that gorgeous cover!

The blurb and the line “This is a place where we can be alone, together” on the cover give you a kind of peaceful, found family vibe. After the year we’ve had, this seems like something we all need – although a past war between Earth and Qita also seems to play a major role in the story and resulting conflicts may disrupt the peace.

The space inn setting alone seems like a nice palate cleanser after our last buddyread, and I’m very much looking forward to start reading it.

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