I was thinking of doing NaNoWriMo this year, but a combination of busy start to November, no new ideas, and getting back into my long-neglected novel have shot that. To make up for that, I’m going to try and read as many books as I can this month so I can give my readers a lot of reviews.
Until then though, here are three very different, and very interesting novels I read in October.
By Sue Burke
Published February 2018
Semiosis is the debut novel by Sue Burke, and wow, what a debut. Of course, I have a thing for sentient plants, so this was always going to be a hit for me. Though even without the fun I always get reading about plants or machines thinking, this book still has so much to dig into. Semiosis is colony science fiction at its best.
In Semiosis, we follow the first seven generations of a colony on a planet called Pax. The original colonists founded Pax with the intention to create a society based on pacifism and harmony with nature. This didn’t really go as well as planned, and the following generations struggle to uphold these ideals as they encounter signs of other sentient life, including a glass city and a grove of strange rainbow bamboo.
The relationship the humans have with the native plant life is fascinating. There are many cases in real life Earth nature where plants control animals. Some of this control can be simple, like plants releasing a scent that attracts predators to deal with offending grazers, or plants shaping their flowers to fit only their desired pollinator. If we want to see even more intricate plant/animal relations, we need to examine the Myrmecophytes (literally ‘ant-trees’) which provide a colony of ants with everything it needs in exchange for services such as pollination, seed dispersal, gathering of nutrients, and defence.
The relationship between the Myrmecophytes and their ants is called mutualism. In biological terms, mutualism is described as two organisms of different species existing in a relationship where each individual fitness benefits the other. In Semiosis, the humans of Pax find themselves becoming the ants to a sentient native plant and as time passes human and plant must establish just what mutualism looks like when both parties are intelligent enough to discuss their situation and long for more from life than just survival. Is mutualism really compatible with human ideas on equality and pacifism? Does being the ants of this relationship mean giving up freedom? And before this discussion can even take place, communication must be established, which given how different humans and plants are is quite an undertaking.
As fascinating as the subject is, there are a few issues with the story. The multi-generational nature of the story means that you don’t spend a lot of time with most of the characters. It also leads to long time jumps, which in turn means some important character and social development happens ‘off-screen’. The story does seem to change direction halfway through, which can also be off-putting. None of these issues took away too much of my enjoyment of the book, but they are things that I can see annoying some readers.
Seven Ancient Wonders
(Published as Seven Deadly Wonders in the US)
By Matthew Reilly
Published December 2005
I don’t dislike this book. When I score things, I think of five as the ‘meh’ point. A six is alright, and I bumped this score up to 6.5 because I did enjoy reading this book. Or at least, most parts. Seven Ancient Wonders is pure tomb-robbing, ancient Egyptian fun, which I liked despite some flaws.
Before we learn anything else about the plot and world of Ancient Wonders, we are introduced to a team of badarse soldiers/tomb raiders with their special little girl as they are dropped into a forgotten Ptolemaic Egyptian mine full of crocodiles and fire and rolling boulders and baddies with guns. One good thing I noticed right away is that Ancient Wonders provides handy maps and diagrams of nearly every new tomb and trap, so it is very easy to follow along with the action. Seven Wonders is a fun action story with cool gadgets and magic, starring Awesome Aussie Jack West Jr. and a hunt for pieces of the magical top of the Great Pyramid.
So, a fun story, but why only a six? Well, the tone of the story made a lot of things forgivable, but the history side of things annoyed me a bit. Saying Alexander the Great conquered the world is a bit of a stretch, and Hatshepsut was not the only woman Pharaoh, which both Reilly and Jack West knew, since they talked about Cleopatra VII. There were also a few other lines that didn’t make sense, and some unbelievable things (like how a 2000+ year old trap that requires a live crocodile falling down a pipe teeth first still works), and a few dumb actions by certain characters, such as a villain making an important MacGuffin accessible by the heroes in order to ‘lure them out’, when the heroes would have no idea if the item was legit until they had already been ‘lured out’.
So, these are all nitpicky problems that didn’t ruin the book for me, but there were enough of them to pull me out of the story. There’s also the fact that this is a long story, over 500 pages. The strength of this book is the intense action scenes, and it can be hard to maintain that moment for such a long story. I thought Reilly pulled it off, but if you are unable to suspend your disbelief, this could be a very long read.
Seven Ancient Wonders was a fun read that I enjoyed, but it’s something you have to try not to think about too hard.
The Consuming Fire (Interdependency #2)
By John Scalzi
Narrated by Wil Wheaton
Published October 2018
I reviewed the first book in Scalzi’s Interdependency series here earlier this year. One of my complaints about The Collapsing Empire was that it felt like a set-up to the rest of the series, but after reading The Consuming Fire I’m not sure how I feel about that comment. Consuming Fire at times felt like it was setting up things, but we got more pay-offs than in Collapsing Empire. In fact, that ending was so satisfying, even if there was a slight ass-pull element to it. I won’t talk too much about the story as a whole, since I summed up the plot of the series pretty well in the last review. I’ll just mention a few highlights, and some disappointments.
First, something I didn’t like; the amount of exposition and repetition. Yes, I know, it’s the second book in a series so there’s going to be some recapping, but everyone brought up the attempted space-shuttle assassination thing way more than necessary. Also, some things were way over-explained.
I did like that the climate change denial parallels were more obvious. I know that message fiction can be a real turn off to some people, but I still think Scalzi avoids bashing us over the head too much with it, whilst still taking a jab at leaders who try to deny, minimise, or use the coming changes for their own benefit.
Scalzi’s humour in this book was great. Scalzi humour relies on a lot of snark, sarcasm, and unexpected profanity, which is a perfect fit for narrator Wil Wheaton. I actually read The Collapsing Empire, so this was my first time experiencing a Scalzi story as an audio book. It was also my first time listening to an audiobook narrated by someone I’ve listened to in other media, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. There were times when I pictured some characters as Wil Wheaton, but besides that I enjoyed the narration. Made me laugh a lot.
Now that that’s done, time to get busy. I’ll see you all next month. Or maybe even earlier.