In my last book bingo reviews, I was optimistic that my next bingo would be coming soon. That did not happen. We’re halfway through September and I have just gotten my second bingo. I am quite proud of myself. This is going to be an interesting post, because this row contains two books that I liked a lot, and two that I hated. There is also a free square in the middle of this row, which for this post will be a bonus review.
Title Starts with Q
by Carrie Vaughn
Published June 2021 (Mariner Books)
Questland is about Addie Cox, a literature professor, getting recruited along with a team of mercenaries by a genius billionaire to save his secret magical island from his rebellious development team. By magic island, I mean an island theme park full of cyborg fantasy creatures and experimental technology made to resemble magical items. For example, there are invisibility cloaks and healing herbs on this magical island that work perfectly. The in universe description of the island emphasizes that a big draw for the eventual tourists is the ability to go on quests. The goal is a real life Dungeons and Dragons game.
I really wanted to read about modern soldiers stuck playing a real life D&D game. That didn’t happen. Which, could have still been fun, but the book still tries to feel like we’re in a game. There are a lot of role-playing references that feel forced, and Addie’s insistence on collecting items and investigating areas as if she was in a game come across as her being too dumb to live rather than as her being a savvy gamer. On the other hand, there are just enough instances of quest logic or Addie’s collecting to be necessary that this story doesn’t work as a deconstruction of LitRPG stories. The result is a plot and a world that doesn’t make sense, and characters that don’t feel like real people.
The worldbuilding fell flat for me here. Vaughn’s descriptions went out of the way to stress how ‘real’ everything they came across was, but there were enough mentions of flames being LED lights or unicorn movement being janky, along with a need to talk about how everything was made, that the island felt more like a theme park to me. I never pictured the places as the epic, real places that Addie fell in love with. I saw theme park settings. This still sounds like a great theme park that I would love to visit, but the descriptions informed the characterisation. The reason anything happens in this plot is because the magic island is so realistic that dozens of successful people want to live out a fantasy life there and professor Cox is so drawn into this world that she keeps running into danger just to check out the newest wonder. With the way Vaughn has described the setting, it was not believable for the characters to act the way they do in this book.
Though, even if the island had come across as vivid and magical as Vaughn wanted, I still think the plot would be unbelievable. The only reason the story isn’t a straightforward trek to the main castle is because Addie keeps running off to look at stuff. She insists on playing with a Cthulhu-inspired monolith, and they end up in a spider maze. She runs into a village of tiny woodland critters despite the squad leader ordering everyone to stay away. They end up getting attacked. And just because that scene is awesome doesn’t make it any less stupid. She slips away from everyone to investigate the HQ of the development team they’ve met. That seems pretty smar… oh wait, the squad leader has caught up with her just as she finds a Narnia-inspired wardrobe and she ignores him to go inside it. Great. And of course, the whole trip to the incel-elvish realm only happens because she saw a unicorn in the woods while everyone else was working on their anti-forcefield device and just had to run off and see it. Even though she knew her crazy ex had been watching the group and wanted her.
All this running into danger and disregarding orders endears her to the military team she’s travelling with. Or maybe it’s more that they’re impressed with the way she uses her PhD to solve puzzles and provide valuable information; such as answering the Sphinx’s riddle (which is the same as it is in the original myth) or informing the team that the archer wearing green and followed by a band of rangers is Robin Hood. It’s a shame because I really wanted to like Addie. She is the survivor of a school shooting, and just being around soldiers with guns is a struggle for her due to PTSD. The way she talks about breaking up with her crazy ex also suggests a lot of depth to her character. But once all the cool things about her are introduced, she spends the rest of the story being a complete Mary Sue who can’t think when anything shiny shows up. The soldiers putting up with her shit could be seen as nuance to the standard military squad trope, except they don’t really have much other characterization.
The dumbest part of the book however isn’t Addie’s extreme inability to sit still and not put everyone in danger. I just cannot believe that dozens of people – regular, but highly successful people with lives outside their work – would just happily settle in and live in a continuous LARP once they realised they were trapped on the island and cut off from the outside world. Maybe it makes sense with Crazy Ex’s Elvish team, since he has a pretty intense cult leader thing going, but even then, the motivations of the development team make no sense. Why would anyone be content to be an extra in someone else’s Lord of the Rings fantasy?
This book failed for me on so many different levels. And I am still disappointed because I want to see this concept done properly.
by Django Wexler
Published May 2021 (Tor.com)
“Giant. Freakin’. Robots.”
– Sylvain Neuvel
Sylvain Neuvel’s brief review of this novella sums up the concept and the feel of this book quite nicely. Hard Reboot follows Kas, a junior researcher from the lower caste of Spacer society, who has given everything she has for a chance to go to Earth and further her career. Unfortunately once she lands on Earth, a mech pilot named Zhi scams her out of a huge sum of money, and Kas ends up getting dragged into the seedy underworld of Earth and its brutal robot fighting circuit.
This story is just fun. A gritty story about preparing for a high-stakes fight in a lawless slum. There is a budding romance between Zhi and Kas which came about quite organically. I expected to hate the romance, since they start out as enemies and this is a shorter story, but every interaction they have feels natural. They are also both badass women fighting in their own ways against unfair, corrupt forces much larger than they are. They are both characters who I found myself cheering on all throughout the story; even when they were at odds with each other.
I really liked the worldbuilding here too. On the surface, it seems like a standard ‘Earth has fallen into ruin’ setting. And it is, very much, but it has its own unique elements. The idea of a corrupted datasphere all over the planet was cool. There being so much malware on all frequencies that any device would just get killed by ads was funny whilst also being quite morbid. There are also a lot of cool details Kas drops about the wider universe. A lot of this information does relate to the plot and the mech design, but some crazy things are just dropped on us randomly. Like, when Kas makes a mistake and ends up wishing that a previous Emperor hadn’t made time travel impossible. We only see a very small, impoverished part of Earth directly, but Wexler has given us enough extra information to let us imagine a crazy, full universe.
In a romp like this, the main draw is the mech fights. We have two big fights, and they were pretty cool. Lots of tension, a lot of interesting robots and weapons, and were really well described. They were fun, but writing this review almost a month after reading the book, nothing really stands out as being particularly awesome. That pretty much describes the whole book to be honest. I really enjoyed it, and would happily read more in this universe, but it doesn’t seem like something I’ll be looking back on and wanting to revisit.
Still, this story is a lot of fun, and I’d highly recommend it.
Project Hail Mary
by Andy Weir
Published May 2021 (Ballentine Books)
For my bonus FREE SQUARE review, I just want to gush about how awesome Project Hail Mary is. Andy Weir’s debate novel The Martian was quite a sensation. Became a big movie staring Matt Damon and launched Weir’s writing career. This becomes even more impressive when you realise that The Martian was self published for free, chapter by chapter on Weir’s website. The only reason Weir even started selling it on Kindle was because fans wanted to buy a book version.
Project Hail Mary feels very similar to the Martian. It is a hard science fiction story about an isolated astronaut in danger, and it has a similar sense of humour as The Martian. Maybe it was a bit too similar; I did refer to protagonist Ryland Grace as ‘Mark Watney’ a couple of times. Despite that I could not stop reading Hail Mary. Really good book. I’ll try and keep this review brief, since this is a bonus review for a story that I think is better the less you know going in.
This story starts with a man waking up strapped to a bed with robot arms prodding him, tubes sticking in him, and a computer interrogating him. Also, he has no memory of who he is or where he is. After gradual experimentation he manages to find out more about his environment and how to trigger some of his memories. He learns that he is alone out in space on a mission to save the entire planet, and he learns all that just in time for an alien spaceship to show up. We get a sarcasm-filled, problem-solving space buddy adventure alongside the compelling story of scientific investigation that led to Ryland Grace ending up on this mission. This is a really fun ride, and with a lot of big ideas, and some really emotional gut-punches.
I listened to this as an audiobook narrated by Ray Porter. The narration is excellent, and the production quality is quite solid. When buying the audiobook, there was a little tag at the end of the product description that noted some changes had been made with the author’s permission to better accommodate the audio version. I’m not 100% sure what was changed, but I am assuming the changes relate to alien speech. In the audiobook, untranslated alien speech is rendered as musical notes, and even when alien speech is expressed as English, filters and sound effects are used to convey the same feeling. It works really well.
Project Hail Mary is one of my favourite books of the year, and if you are interested in audiobooks, this story works very well in that format.
Translated From French
Snowpiecer: The Escape (original title; Transperceneige: L’Echappé)
by Jacques Lob (Writer), Jean-Marc Rochette (Illustrator)
Published 2014 (Titan Comics). Originally published 1982
Snowpiercer is a generation ship story.
I know that may be a controversial take for people, since this story is set on Earth and features zero spaceships, but I stand by it. The Snowpiercer is a generation ship by every definition of the term; it is a vehicle designed to keep a population of humans alive for generations, with everything the population will ever need contained within it while they travel through an inhospitable wasteland where humans cannot survive outside without a spacesuit of some type. It also tells a typical generation ship type story, where social and cultural elements are squeezed into a small closed area that allows pressure to build. Where resource distribution is the driving force behind plot and characterization, and where moral decisions are made with the threat of extinction looming over everyone’s heads. The only difference between Snowpiercer and every other generation ship story is that the Snowpiercer is a train rather than a spaceship.
Snowpiercer the movie was pretty cool. Seeing class warfare and revolution play out on a claustrophobic train is interesting. The Netflix adaptation starring Daveed Diggs I found really good. It tells a different story to the movie, and has more time to flesh out the characters, and adds complexity to the uprising and the social struggles. The TV show is in my opinion the best iteration of this story for showcasing the worldbuilding that makes this story so powerful.
In every version of Snowpiercer I have seen, the worldbuilding has been the star. The world is pretty much a train in a barren icy wasteland, doing the same loop every year. Seeing the necessities of life, and the ugly baggage of human society packed into narrow train carriages is super interesting and unsettling. The way the world has been designed also makes the story feel more grounded than your average post-apocalyptic generation ship story, since luxury trains are more familiar and realistic to us than spaceships.
This original Snowpiercer also shines with it’s worldbuilding. The artwork shows just how little space there is, and the story is a simple walk from one end of the train to the other, allowing us to see how food is made, and how laws are enforced (and ignored.) I liked the worldbuilding in the comic. It goes without saying that it has good worldbuilding, as the setting and tone are what has given this story the power it needed to be adapted into so many other mediums.
I hated pretty much everything else in the comic.
The trek to the front of the train is a slow march… until all of a sudden everything goes to shit for pretty out of the blue reasons and it’s a mad violent dash. We get to see some good old instalove, and it is the only meaningful relationship we have. Also, the artwork makes the wide cast of military dudes look pretty similar, so I found it hard to keep track of who was who. For a story that features an entire social order breaking down, it’s hard to keep track of who all the players in this social order are.
I won’t be continuing this book series. I will however keep watching the show.
Title Starts with F
by Nino Cipri
Published 2020 (Tor.com)
When talking about this story with people, I call it the ‘Evil IKEA’ story. I don’t think that’s too accurate though; maybe the ‘Evil Trans-Dimensional Wormhole IKEA’ story would work better.
This is a story about Jules and Ava, who work at a big mazelike furniture store called LitenVärld and who broke up the other day. They’ve been hoping to avoid each other. Then a wormhole opens up in the store and an elderly customer wanders through. Store policy is if no-one volunteers to venture into the wormhole to save the customer, the two employees with the least seniority are sent. (Yes, the store has a wormhole policy. Don’t all stores?) This leads to Jules and Ava being sent out together on a deadly quest.
I loved this a lot. Whilst kids that get sucked into other worlds for adventures can come from anywhere, adults that go on such adventures usually aren’t minimum wage retail workers. The fact that Finna is about retail workers appeals to me greatly because I am also an “unskilled” worker without a university education. I’m not in the retail industry and don’t have to deal with customers, but I still found myself identifying strongly with Jules and Ava.
Also, I just loved how strange this concept was, and the humour inherit in seeing normal people have to go through an IKEA wormhole and fighting carnivorous chairs and zombie hive-mind store assistants. This is the sort of weirdness that I can never get enough of. That combined with great characters and a big fuck you to capitalism and corporate America make this book a winner to me.
The only problem is that it is way too short. Not in an ‘I didn’t want it to end’ way, but in a ‘not enough pages to fully take advantage of the adventure’ type way. We have two characters trying to navigate some complicated changes in their relationship, a critique of the way capitalism treats employees and customers, and an adventure through a multiverse of furniture stores all packed into 92 pages. That’s not enough time to do justice to everything, and I think the multiverse side of things suffers. We only get to see three alternate LitenVärlds, and as cool as they were (especially the ship) I wanted some more crazy adventure.
A sequel/companion to this novella called Defekt was released earlier this year. There are no wormholes in Defekt, but it was another crazy ride. It picks up the day after Finna, but follows Derek, a character who called in sick the day Finna is set, which forced Ava to go through the wormhole. When Derek returns to work, his managers take issue with him calling in sick, and put him on a special audit shift later that night. He ends up fighting living furniture in a dark shop with a team of other Dereks.
This series is weird, whacky, yet has very poignant criticism of capitalism and corporate culture. It is also very queer. Jules is non-binary, and a couple of Derek’s teammates are trans or non-binary. I really want more Litenvarld stories. It doesn’t appear that there are any more planned, but I hope one day we get some more. I love this series.
That was a pretty mixed bag of reviews. Some real high points, and some of the lower points in my year in books. The important thing though is that I am still reading, and still having fun. I only have 8 squares left on this bingo challenge, so the wait until the next batch of reviews shouldn’t be as long.