Book Reviews, Mini Reviews, Monthly Updates, SciFiMonth, Wrap Up

SciFiMonth Wrap Up & Mini Reviews

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from

It’s the last day of November, which means my first SciFiMonth is coming to an end. Back in May, when doing Wyrd and Wonder, I said to myself I probably wouldn’t join in on the SF equivalent, because I’d only just read one or two SF novels and didn’t have enough lying around to be able to dedicate a month to the genre. But I had forgotten that I am an unstoppable force when it comes to buying books, and by the middle of the year I found myself in possession of quite a few SF books, as well as multiple NetGalley ARCs. And so, I have spent the last 30 days enjoying and discovering this genre, which is a great way to head towards the end of the year. I don’t have the time, sadly, to give each book the individual review they deserve, so I thought I’d do a SciFiMonth Mini Review roundup to look back on some of my latest reads!

Before I do, I wanted to say a massive thank you to Lisa at Dear Geek Place and Imyril at One More for organising everything – it has made this month of reading much more fun and community-based. So thank you – for the readalongs, the interactions, the giveaways, and the time spent putting it all together so the rest of us could seamlessly sail through it. I haven’t been as good this month at keeping up with everyone’s posts, but the ones I’ve seen have been great, so thanks to all the other participants for the recommendations and the entertainment! And now, to get to what I actually said this post would be about, here’s what I read, and what I thought of it:

Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky

The Sun is bloated, diseased, dying perhaps.

Beneath its baneful light, Shadrapar, last of all cities, harbours fewer than 100,000 human souls. Built on the ruins of countless civilisations, surviving on the debris of its long-dead progenitors, Shadrapar is a museum, a midden, an asylum, a prison on a world that is ever more alien to humanity.

Bearing witness to the desperate struggle for existence between life old and new, is Stefan Advani, rebel, outlaw, prisoner, survivor. This is his testament, an account of the journey that took him into the blazing desolation of the western deserts; that transported him east down the river and imprisoned him in verdant hell of the jungle’s darkest heart; that led him deep into the labyrinths and caverns of the underworld. He will treat with monsters, madman, mutants.

The question is, which one of them will inherit this Earth?

I couldn’t leave Adrian Tchaikovsky out during SciFiMonth! I’ve read four of his books this year, and I regret nothing – also, three of those are ones he brought out this year, so I am very much behind on getting through his works. As a very slow writer myself, it never ceases to amaze me the way he brings out stories so fast, and yet each of them is so phenomenal. Cage of Souls, unlike most of the other sci-fi I read this month, is set entirely on earth, in a bleak future in which only one human city remains, the rest of the world having become toxic oceans, harsh deserts, and deadly jungles. Shadrapar, the last city, is a place of opulence and full of humans trying to make the most of it all before the inevitable death of the sun. Nature, however, has other plans and evolution has sped up, the earth attempting to accelerate development of intelligent life in the hope something might stick. Nowhere is this more evident than in the jungle, where Shadrapar sends its prisoners and dissenters.

This is where the narrator, Stefan Advani, finds himself as he begins to tell his story. It has the feel of an old travel writing account, and though a lot happens, the narration gives it all a removed and slow feel for most of the time. Stefan, despite his current situation, is primarily a scholar, and this comes across. I loved his narrative voice, with its wit, its allusions to future events, its intelligence… it did mean I got through it a lot slower than I usually would, but it was no less enjoyable for that. It is a book that does fascinating things with the concept of climate, evolution, and hope in the face of total extinction and if you want something slow and powerful I really recommend it.

A Psalm for the Wild Built by Becky Chambers

It’s been centuries since the robots of Panga gained self-awareness and laid down their tools; centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again; centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend.

One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honor the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of “what do people need?” is answered.

But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how. They’re going to need to ask it a lot.

Becky Chambers’s new series asks: in a world where people have what they want, does having more matter?

Reader, if you want the literary equivalent of a hug, this is it. A Psalm for the Wild Built was my first Becky Chambers book and it certainly won’t be the last – I know it’s very different from her Wayfearers series, and in some way this was a less intimidating entry point into her writing, because The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is so hyped up in my mind I was worried I wouldn’t connect to it as others had. Plus, this book has an irresistible cover, an adorable title, and it was on the shelf at work, so I couldn’t resist buying it.

The story follows Sibling Dex as they decide to become a tea monk – someone who wanders the villages or the city, offering tea, comfort, and a sympathetic ear. The task brings them satisfaction, and they know they do it well, but Dex can’t help but feel they need more. In the midst of their inner turmoil they stumble upon a robot, the first to contact humanity in centuries, and the two begin to figure each other out, each learning from the other.

In a lot of ways, I found this to be the antithesis of Notes from the Burning Age by Claire North (which I reviewed earlier this year), and to other cli-fi books I’ve heard of recently – while cli-fi is powerful and eye-opening, it leaves a hopeless feeling within me, and this was exactly the opposite. Because it’s set in a world where robots gained sentience, and thus independence, the world moved away from machines and returned to agriculture, repurposing, and renewing technology. It was such a breath of fresh air to read, and I cannot wait for the next Monk and Robot book, coming next year.

Winter’s Orbit by Evarina Maxwell

The Iskat Empire rules its vassal planets through a system of treaties – so when Prince Taam, key figure in a political alliance, is killed, a replacement must be found. His widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with the disreputable aristocrat Kiem, in a bid to keep rising hostilities between two worlds under control.

But Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and when Jainan himself is a suspect, he and Kiem must navigate the perils of the Iskat court, solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war…

This was our readalong book, and mainly you can see my thoughts as we progressed through it week by week, if you’re not worried about spoilers:

  • Week One – Chapters One through Six
  • Week Two – Chapters Seven through Fifteen
  • Week Three – Chapters Sixteen through Twenty Two
  • Week Four – Chapters Twenty Three through to the end

I do find it interesting though, my thoughts while in the midst of the book and my thoughts having finished it over a week ago. I loved reading it, and found it really hard not to rush ahead to the next section week by week, but once finished it faded quite quickly from my thoughts. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think it’s because the world building wasn’t as concrete as others I’ve read, which tend to remain in my mind as if they were real places I’d been to. In Winter’s Orbit I could clearly visualise the characters but not their surroundings, and so the characters are mainly what I remember and think about whenever I remember the book.

Seven Devils by Elizabeth May & Laura Lam

Seven resistance fighters will free the galaxy from the ruthless Empire – or die trying.

After Eris faked her death, she thought she had left her old life as Princess Discordia – heir to the galaxy’s most ruthless empire – behind. But joining the Novantaen Resistance, an organisation opposed to the Empire’s voracious expansion, throws her right back into the fray.

Resistance fighter pilot Clo has been given a mission: infiltrate an Empire spaceship ferrying deadly cargo to gain vital intelligence. A task made all the more difficult when she’s forced to partner with an old enemy – Princess Discordia herself, Eris.

They discover more than they bargained for on the ship: fugitives with first-hand knowledge of the Empire’s inner workings. With this information, these women might just bring the Empire to its knees. But the clock is ticking: Eris’s brother Damocles, new heir to the throne, plans to disrupt a peace summit with the only remaining free alien people, ensuring the Empire’s total domination. Unless this band of unlikely rebels stops him, millions will die…

This was by far my favourite read of the month, and it wasn’t even on my initial TBR! I picked it up because I got approved to read its sequel on NetGalley, and thought to take advantage of the SF theme to get to it. I’m so glad I did, and even though I finished it last week I am still thinking about it and wishing I were still reading it. It’s definitely already on the ‘reread’ pile, because I know there will be more to gain from revisiting its pages a second time, but for now I’m going to try and bump the sequel, Seven Mercies, as far up my TBR list as it’ll go so that I can spend time with my favourite disaster rebels again. If you want to hear more gushing, and find out more about the world building, I wrote a full review for your perusal.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

In the future, instead of terraforming planets to sustain human life, explorers of the galaxy transform themselves.

At the turn of the twenty-second century, scientists make a breakthrough in human spaceflight. Through a revolutionary method known as somaforming, astronauts can survive in hostile environments off Earth using synthetic biological supplementations. They can produce antifreeze in sub-zero temperatures, absorb radiation and convert it for food, and conveniently adjust to the pull of different gravitational forces. With the fragility of the body no longer a limiting factor, human beings are at last able to explore neighbouring exoplanets long suspected to harbour life.

Ariadne is one such explorer. On a mission to ecologically survey four habitable worlds fifteen light-years from Earth, she and her fellow crewmates sleep while in transit, and wake each time with different features. But as they shift through both form and time, life back on Earth has also changed. Faced with the possibility of returning to a planet that has forgotten those who have left, Ariadne begins to chronicle the wonders and dangers of her journey, in the hope that someone back home might still be listening.

Yes, two Becky Chambers books in one month, and now that I’ve enjoyed two of her novellas, I’m definitely keen to read her other books. This was such a poignant little book, divided into four sections, each focused on one of the planets Ariadne and her team were sent to explore. It is structured as a report sent back to an earth they have not heard from in years, in the hopes someone might still be listening and dreaming of the stars. It is by turns heart-warming and sobering, and I loved all four of the characters, this little family so far away from home. I think To Be Taught, if Fortunate had the perfect combination of scientific information and literary prose, enough to make it feel real while keeping me engaged and not lost in jargon. Ariadne is a brilliant narrator, and I felt her joy at discovering new life, her despair in less ideal settings, her belief in the mission, her love of her team. It’s a short book, but it had great impact and I recommend it to anyone only just venturing into the genre.

Still to be finished: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

Kira Navárez dreamed of life on new worlds. Now she’s awakened a nightmare.

During a routine survey mission on an uncolonized planet, Kira finds an alien relic. At first she’s delighted, but elation turns to terror when the ancient dust around her begins to move.

As war erupts among the stars, Kira is launched into a galaxy-spanning odyssey of discovery and transformation. First contact isn’t at all what she imagined, and events push her to the very limits of what it means to be human. 

While Kira faces her own horrors, Earth and its colonies stand upon the brink of annihilation. Now, Kira might be humanity’s greatest and final hope . . .

I’ve been listening to the audiobook of To Sleep in a Sea of Stars for a couple of weeks now – it’s the big ol’ length of 32.5 hours and I can’t listening to books for as long as I can sit and read them (which can easily be all day, if left to my own devises) so I’ve still got about 10 hours left on it. I do own the hardback, and I know I could get through it faster if I just picked it up (I started the audiobook to give my eyes a rest) but, to be completely honest, the narrator is the only thing still keeping me interested. Though I still have quite a way to go before coming to the end, I wanted to talk a bit about it, because I don’t really think I’ll write a full review when I do finish it.

This is a big book. I love a big book. However, the further along in the story I get, the more I feel as if this didn’t really need to be a big book. Sure, there’s a lot of backstory to give, and it’s a standalone by an author who has just come out of writing a big, four-part epic fantasy series, but I just feel that someone along the line should have said, “Hey Christopher, maybe we can cut this bit.” I think it doesn’t help that this is Paolini’s first venture into writing sci-fi, and maybe if I hadn’t read so many great sci-fi books this year I would be kinder to it. I also try not to compare authors to each other, but how can I enjoy the sudden and disastrous first contact with alien life when Miles Cameron does is so much better in Artifact Space? How can I enjoy the concepts of branching off evolutions when they could never go to the levels Adrain Tchaikovsky does (yes, I’m mentioning him again)? How can I appreciate the ‘small band of heroes versus the galaxy’ when I’ve just read Seven Devils and all Paolini’s group seem to do is fly somewhere, things go wrong, and then they fly somewhere else?

Part of the problem, I think, is that Paolini is still in the epic fantasy quest mentality: one person makes contact with something both new and ancient, and after a tragic incident they are the only ones able to save the world (or universe, in this case). A lot of the terminology feels very fantasy as well – the Knot of Minds, the Staff of Blue, etc… it all just doesn’t quite fit with the science-heavy style he’s given the rest of the story. Okay, sorry that turned into a bit of a rant. I have considered DNFing To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, but the narrator of this audiobook is truly brilliant. She has given each character – even minor ones – an individual voice and accent, and I am constantly forgetting it’s only one person speaking. So, Jennifer Hale, whatever you read I shall listen to!

Those are all the SF books I got through in November! I did read a few books in other genres, but I’m happy that the majority of my adventures this month took place among the stars. I’ll probably swing back to fantasy, mostly, but I’m about to start Golden Son by Pierce Brown, and if I start it tonight it still counts as SciFiMonth, so it’ll be like an extension of it. And, of course, I’m still working through the audiobook I just ranted about. But I am sure that 2022 will see me pick up a lot more SF, with a few anticipated books already on the horizon and many more backlist books to discover!

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