Wednesday, July 19, 2017

After Atlas - Emma Newman

After Atlas
A Planetfall Novel
Emma Newman


Carlos Moreno has been famous since infancy.  His mother was one of the people (inspired or insane, depending on your view) who left on the ship called Atlas.  The ship was built in secret, by a well-funded cult, in an effort to find/follow God, at the behest of their charismatic leader.  Only so many people could travel on the ship, so most had to leave family members behind on Earth.  One of those was Carlos’ mother.  There was a famous documentary called “After Atlas” that detailed all of this.  Ever since, Carlos has been periodically approached by reporters of one kind or another for statements and follow-ups.  These encounters have been steadily escalating recently.  Atlas left behind a capsule that can only be opened in 40 years’ time.  That time is rapidly approaching, re-igniting interest in Atlas and those left behind.

Carlos has no use for journos.  His life, as it turned out, was not particularly happy.  But that’s no one else’s business.  He eventually found his way to a job as a gov-corp detective.  In this future Earth, governments and huge corporations have largely merged, to keep the money and the power consolidated.  He’s very good at what he does.  He never leaves a puzzle unsolved.  This case is different.  The murder victim is Alejandro Casales, the leader of the Circle cults.  Carlos spent some years in that cult with his father, and, at one time, looked up to Alejandro as a substitute father.  That all ended some years ago.  Now Carlos must put his personal feelings, good and bad, aside, and figure out exactly what happened here, and why.

On one level, this is a futuristic murder mystery.  The forensic and crime scene techniques are very advanced, but the detective work is familiar.  As a counterpoint to the new tech, the scene of the crime is a very upscale hotel.  It provides amenities like real food.  Food in this society is usually cheaply produced using organic substrates and printers.  Purchasing real food is a luxury only the rich can afford.  Carlos takes the job, in part, because he’ll be able to take meals at the hotel.  This is science fiction, but it’s very much character-driven.

It’s clear early on that Alejandro’s death is not exactly what it seems.  The obvious conclusion is suicide, but Carlos knows that self-harm contradicts all of Alejandro’s beliefs and teachings.  He’s being pressured to make the call, and, like all good detectives, that puts him on edge.  If he’s being pushed in one direction, he should probably look in another.  The single crime widens into a world-wide issue.  The characters presented are all three-dimensional and organic to the setting.  This author excels at scene-setting.  The world here is mostly like ours, but the differences are both surprising and understandable.  As the investigation widens, we’re introduced to some of the big players in gov-corps.  These people are absolutely believable, especially if you’ve been following current events at all. 

This is the second novel in this series.  If you haven’t yet read PLANETFALL, it’s not necessary for enjoying this novel.  If you have, it will give you a deeper understanding of some aspects of the story here.  I would recommend reading it for the sheer pleasure of it.  These two books are flip sides of a coin.  PLANETFALL tells the story (part of it) of those who left.  This one tells about those left on Earth.  I’m hoping there’s more to this series.  I know I’ll be following this author, wherever she decides to take me next.

Rating: 9
November 2018

ISBN# 978-0-425-28240-3 (trade paperback)

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Sleeping Giants - Sylvain Neuvel

Sleeping Giants
The Themis Files, Book 1
Sylvain Neuvel
Del Rey

Science Fiction

As a child, Rose Franklin fell into a hole… and landed in an enormous metal hand.  The powers-that-be unearthed and pored over the hand, determining only that it was buried several thousands of years ago; and that it is made of a metal or alloy unknown to modern science.  The hand was contained in a sort of chamber, with each wall made of the same unknown metal, and covered with unknown, glowing symbols.  To avoid mass panic, those same powers-that-be kept all of this as quiet as possible.

Many years later, Rose, now a physicist, is delighted to be a part of the project that is studying the hand and the symbols.  And she’s amazed to see that, all this time later, the symbols on the walls are still glowing, even though they have no visible energy source.  It stands to reason that a hand must need an arm.  An arm must need a body.  And, with some searching, the research group led by Rose is able to find several more pieces.  It’s fairly clear that, eventually, they will be able to assemble an entire humanoid figure that stands many stories tall and is made of some apparently indestructible stuff.

The obvious questions arise.  What is this thing?  Why was it constructed?  Why was it deconstructed?  Why were the pieces buried?  And, most interesting/frightening of all:  Who did all of this, several thousand years ago, when humans were essentially inventing the wheel?  The small, assembled study has only the best, most basic scientific goals in mind.  They want to put the thing together and figure out what it does.  And, someday, who made it.

You don’t have to be much of a cynic to realize that there are lots of other people who would have much less pure motives to possessing something like this.  Rose eventually realizes that it’s potentially a weapon, but that epiphany comes a bit too late.  The story unfolds in a series of reports and interviews with various participants in and around the study of the figure.  It seems like a clunky way to tell a story, but it works beautifully here.  Each character has ample opportunity to put forth his/her viewpoints, hopes, and fears.  Regardless of their overall aims, each person comes across as very, very human.

It shouldn’t be a spoiler to say that things don’t quite go as planned in the study.  But, by that time, there’s really no going back on this project.  As a reader, I found myself second-guessing what had gone before, in ‘if only’ terms.  Even if you don’t consider yourself a ‘scifi reader,’ give this book a try.  It is, above all else, a story about people and how they deal with advances and setbacks that most of us can’t imagine.  I’m already looking forward to getting my hands on the second book.  I have to know what happens next!

Rating: 9
May 2016

ISBN# 978-1-101-88671-7 (paperback)

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Darkest Corners - Kara Thomas

The Darkest Corners
Kara Thomas

YA Thriller

Tessa and Callie were best friends who did everything together as children.  Then, one night, everything changed.  Callie’s college-aged cousin disappeared in the middle of the night while babysitting the two young girls.  Her body was later found in circumstances that led the police to believe that she’d been the most recent victim of a serial killer active in the area.  The two little girls were questioned by their parents, the police, and, eventually, lawyers.  They both knew that the bad man needed to go to jail.  He did, largely on the strength of their testimony.

Their lives diverged widely after that night.  They were kept apart, for reasons the adults never really explained to them.  Tessa ended up moving to Florida to live with her grandmother.  Callie stayed in their Pennsylvania hometown with her parents.  Ten years later, they’re both ready to graduate from high school.  Both have tried to put the trial behind them.  But now that’s impossible.  The convicted man still insists that he’s innocent, and is asking for a new trial based on new evidence.  Tessa returns to try to reconnect with Callie, and to put the ghosts of her past to rest.  The problem is that Callie doesn’t seem interested at all in reliving the past, or in reviving their friendship.

This story is fairly intense.  Tessa has some added family drama (since she left PA, she hasn’t seen or spoken to her mother at all) to add to the mix.  She wants to track down her mom and maybe even find the older sister who left the family soon after the murder.  She feels certain that it’s all connected; but how sure can you really be about your perceptions at age nine?  The same goes for what the girls did/didn’t witness of events leading up to the murder.  Could you recall every detail of your day today?  How about every single detail of the average Tuesday you had three weeks ago?  And how much more stressful to have your parents, the police, and lawyers asking the same questions over and over again.  The stakes get considerably higher when, not long after Tessa arrives back in town, one of her other childhood friends turns up dead.

There’s the story of the mystery, which is fascinating and very twisty.  There’s the mystery of what happened to Tessa’s family after the murder, and her attempts to track down clues and follow leads.  Then there’s the very human story of Tessa and Callie, who were once inseparable, but now feel like complete strangers to each other.  Both have put up some walls, and that makes sense.  Hoping for the walls to come down is only the beginning.  Finding out the truth is the only way the girls – and the rest of the town – are going to have peace about this.  The novel is so fast-paced that I read it in two sittings.  It’s almost impossible to put this one down once you’ve started it.

Rating: 8
May 2017

ISBN# 978-0-553-52148-1 (trade paperback)

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Climate Of Fear - Fred Vargas

A Climate of Fear
A Commissaire Adamsberg Mystery
Fred Vargas
Translated from the French by Sian Reynolds
Penguin Books


The story begins with an infirm woman desperately counting the distance to the nearest post box.  For the first time in ages, Alice is out alone, without her nurse.  She must post this letter.  Sadly, she collapses mere meters from the box.  Fortunately for her, a Good Samaritan finds the letter and posts it for her.  Or perhaps it wasn’t so fortunate, since days later, Alice is found, dead, an apparent suicide.  The police who investigate aren’t quite sure about the cause of death, though.  And there’s the matter of a strange symbol drawn near the body.

After tracing the letter to its recipient – which is a tale, in itself – the police, led by Commissaire Adamsberg, travel to the countryside to speak with the man.  They arrive at his horse farm to discover that this man also committed suicide.  This can’t be a coincidence.  Nor can it be chance that the same strange symbol is found near the site of the death.  The immediate question is how these two people are connected, and why they both are dead.  The answer involves a trip to an island off of Iceland and a terrible incident that left two people dead there.  Eventually, the investigation widens (or contracts?) to include a Parisian group dedicated to the writings of Robespierre.

To say that all these disparate events comprise a single case may strain credulity.  But I can attest that it all works out, and makes a certain strange sense in the end.  This is the latest installment in a long-running series.  It’s very clear that the group of detectives and gendarmes have been established for some time.  Even the neighbors and families of various characters feel like real people.   Far from being frustrating, that very comraderie, that familiarity with their eccentricities, makes even a new reader, like me, feel comfortable with them.  As a side note, it might be helpful to have a very basic familiarity with Robespierre and the French Revolution, but it’s not strictly necessary.  The author manages to convey the essentials without a break in the story. 

Even the strangest theories of the case are carefully considered by this group, because getting to the truth is paramount.  No matter how odd or uncomfortable that truth might be.  It’s easy to see why the author has won four international awards for mystery fiction.  This is a mystery unlike any other I have ever read.  It was completely fascinating, from beginning to end.  The settings, the characters, every detail is expertly drawn.  I highly recommend this author, and will be searching out previous novels in this series.

Rating: 9
March 2017

ISBN# 978-0-143-10945-7 (trade paperback)

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Ink and Bone - Rachel Caine

Ink and Bone
The Great Library, Book One
Rachel Caine
New American Library

Alternate History/Fantasy

Jess Brightwell lives in London.  Not our London, but a London that’s a bit of the past, and a bit of the future.  In this reality, the Great Library of Alexandria was never burned.  It still stands, as a beacon of knowledge and learning.  There are Daughter Libraries all over the world, all controlled by the Great Library, and run by a highly-trained group of people.  It’s an honor to be a Scholar.  There are those who do the day-to-day running of the Libraries; there are others who conduct research; and there’s the High Guard, an entire dedicated security force whose job is it to make sure that the Libraries, the books, and the Scholars.

Jess’ childhood was a bit different than most who long to be Scholars.  His father was a dealer in antique books.  In this London, paper-and-ink books are extremely rare, and extremely illegal to possess.  The Great Library holds the original copies of all works, and is able to copy those works to ‘blank’ books upon request.  Owning a real book is a luxury and a crime.  And Jess’ father became rich by catering to those wealthy enough to meet his prices.  Now, he’d like to send Jess to study to become a Scholar.  Not because of Jess’ real love of books and knowledge, but so that Jess can be a spy placed inside the Library.

Joining the new class of hopefuls, who come from all over the world, Jess travels to Egypt by train.  There, they’re met by the Scholar who will be teaching them, and the High Guard member who will be making sure they make the grade, physically.  Some of the lessons border on the cruel.  The students must take part in a raid on a local house, looking for contraband books.  It’s a part of the job that isn’t pretty, but has to be done.  Some of the students will be dismissed because of poor (or merely, less than stellar) performance; some will be dismissed by a seemingly-random lottery system.  No matter how many students begin, there are only six places to be filled from this class. 

This alternate future is, in many respects, a sort of steampunk future.  It’s a catchall term by now, but it fits.  Scientific advancements exist side-by-side with steam engines and even a bit of magic.  Each of the students comes across as a real individual.  That’s a real feat in a story like this.  While Jess is clearly the central figure, we learn enough about the other core students to feel that they could be real people.  Over the course of this story, Jess has to make some serious decisions about exactly where his loyalties lie.  He also finds that everything is not quite as black-and-white as he thought:  In short, he grows up a lot.  It’s all handled in ways both subtle and overt.  There are at least two more books in this series, and I’m looking forward to them.

Rating: 8.5
July 2015

ISBN# 978-0-451-47239-7 (hardcover)

Monday, June 12, 2017

Planetfall - Emma Newman

Emma Newman


This is a science fiction novel for readers who don’t like ‘hard science fiction.’   Like the best science fiction, it’s very much character-driven; the entire story depends on the relationships among the people who inhabit the pages.  It’s also very much a thriller, with a central secret/mystery that drives the plot.  The fact that these characters are on a distant planet is really almost secondary to the rest of the plot.  Readers who enjoy mystery/thriller stories will be very pleased with this one.

The main character is Renata (Ren.) She’s part of a group of people who left Earth decades ago, in search of (among other things) a better place to live.  The Earth of this story is overcrowded, and run by huge outfits that merge the government with corporations.  The gulf between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen.  It’s not really hard to see why they might have wanted to leave.  This group built a ship to take them to another planet.  Their leader was Suh, a woman who had the vision and the drive to make it all happen.  They called her the Pathfinder.  This group believed in her enough to leave their families and lives behind, in search of something more.

As we meet Ren, she and the rest have been living in a colony at the base of what they call “God’s city.”  It’s a construct they still don’t fully understand.  It seems to have been built by an unknown people, but it’s also clearly a living thing.  As the story begins, Mack, the de facto leader of the group, calls Ren in a panic.  Looking out from the colony, he sees someone moving across the countryside toward them.  This is huge.  During planetfall, some pods containing colonists were lost.  Although the main group searched for them, no survivors were ever found.  The young man, Sung-Soo, says that he’s the grandson of Suh.  His arrival, naturally, causes a huge stir within the colony.  Almost everyone welcomes him with open arms.  Ren and Mack, however, are more reserved.  They’re worried that Sung-Soo will discover the secret they’ve been hiding for years. 

Ren is a fascinating character.  She’s a scientist, she’s a colonist.  She’s a daughter who left her parents back on Earth.  She’s a mother who lost a young child.  She’s a friend; she’s a co-conspirator.  She’s deeply flawed.  She’s a woman who is clearly tormented by the secret she shares with Mack.  She’s someone who feels as if she could step off the page and into real life.  Her emotional life is very much at the heart of this novel.  Her journey is what we follow.  We might have made different choices, but we can see (once we know the truth) why she chose to act in the way that she did.  The story unfolds in a very organic way.  If you’re at all on the fence about scifi, please give this one a try.  You’ll be so glad you did!

Rating: 8
November 2015

ISBN# 978-0-425-28239-7 (trade paperback)

Friday, May 26, 2017

Magic Burns - Ilona Andrews

Magic Burns
A Kate Daniels Novel
Ilona Andrews
Ace Books

Urban Fantasy/Dark Fantasy

Not long after the events detailed in MAGIC BITES, the first book in this ongoing series, Kate Daniels is working steadily as the liaison between the Guild and the Order.  Not a bad gig for a magical mercenary.  But there are still moment of adrenaline rush, like hunting a magical arsonist in a parking garage that’s pitch black because of a power outage.  Kate and her partner, Jim, almost have the guy cornered when a crossbow bolt comes flying in from nowhere, killing him.  Kate can’t find the shooter, which puts her in a fairly bad mood.  Later that day, she hears that Robin Hood showed up again, shot Jim several times within seconds, then disappeared.
Jim will survive physically, but his pride may have taken a fatal blow.   The merry man not only got away clean; he got away with the Pack’s very detailed maps of the area.  It’s hard to evade a member of the shapeshifter Pack.  They can follow a scent trail.  But, when the quarry disappears – literally, vanishes into thin air – it makes it tough to follow him.  Curran, the local leader of the Pack, asks Kate to retrieve the maps.  From a crazy archer who can pop in and out of reality like he’s got a transporter.  No problem. 

While the first book in the series introduced this world and laid the groundwork, this one expands on it in a very entertaining way.  In this reality, magic phases in and out of the world.  When the magic is high, technical things don’t work well.  When the magic is low, tech comes back to life.  There are always swings, but now they’re coming closer and closer together.  Clearly, something huge is in the near future.

If you have any kind of background in Celtic mythology, you’ll have a deeper appreciation of this storyline.  If not, don’t worry; the author lays it all out without getting bogged down in background.  The issues and enemies here are things you don’t see too often in urban fantasy.   I was completely caught up in it, and flew through this story. Through all the danger and black humor, the characters continue to develop organically.  And, even with all the chaos, I admit that I was moved by the outcome of things.  I’m looking forward to more of this series, but trying to pace myself.  It’s not easy!    

Rating: 8.5
April 2008

ISBN# 978-0-441-01583-2  (paperback)