Books

Elizabeth Bear: Ancestral Night

Not too long ago, I was writing about a book co-written by Elizabeth Bear and bemoaning the lack of pirates therein. Now, just two months later, I am writing about her most recent novel, and you know what? It not only has pirates in it, but they’re space pirates! To paraphrase Goethe, some days one feels seriously tempted to believe that there may exist a benevolent God after all.

Ancestral Night is, I think, Elizabeth Bear’s first straightforward Science Fiction novel since her Jacob’s Ladder trilogy and appears to be set in the same universe as that one (I have not read the trilogy yet, but Ancestral Night openly references it at one stage). It is space opera, but not in the over-the-top vein practiced by E.E. Smith and his successors but rather in the low-key, both scientifically and psychologically realistic vein introduced by C.J. Cherryh with her genre-changing Downbelow Station but with some added super tech, which in, which in turn is somewhat reminiscent of the late great Iain M. Banks (it even got me wondering whether Bear may not have intended the Synarche (the galactic civilization she describes here) as a kind of proto-Culture). And it is, by far more obviously than The Cobbler’s Boy was, a riff off Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It even has a Long John Silver analogue in Sexy Pirate Zanya Farweather, who may not quite live up to the original (but then, seriously, who does?) but comes very close indeed.

For its first half, the novel seems quite linear – our first person protagonist Haimey Dz and her two team members (one of them an AI) attempt to salvage a stranded alien star ship, are attacked by pirates and then hunted through half the galaxy. Then there is a sudden and quite sharp turn of events, Haimey finds out that she is not who we (or indeed, she herself) thought she was, and the novel switches to introspection and psychodrama, only for the narrative to change direction again and culminate in a treasure hunt. And ongoing through all of this are discussions about politics, identity, freedom and several other big concepts, making this an adventure novel of ideas; and in the tradition of the very best Science Fiction the debates are just as adventurous as the action. at about 500 pages, the novel is not even that huge, but it is crammed full with enough action and ideas to easily have filled a thousand pages under the pen of a lesser writer. Bear, however manages to juggle both her action apples and her concept coconuts so well that she not only never drops any of them but also creates an interwoven pattern in which they enhance and emphasize each other.
Every time the action pauses to let the reader catch their breath, there is some pertinent political debate, a fascinating philosophical point or just some scintillating piece of world building to delight in. It’s all brilliantly constructed (but of course, one would not expect anything else from Elizabeth Bear) and a lot of fun to read (which, again, is no surprise with this particular author). Ancestral Night is both thought-provoking and an enjoyable romp and strongly recommended. Apparently, Bear is currently writing on a not-quite-a-sequel novel which will be set in the same universe and while not being a direct continuation will share some links with Ancestral Nights – needless to say, I am very much looking forward to that.

Oh, and I’d totally read a novel about space mantis cop investigating crime.

Patrick Gale: Notes from an Exhibition

Patrick Gale is quite a well-known author in the UK, but, as far as I can tell, appears to be mostly unknown outside of Britain. Going by Notes from an Exhibition – the first of his novels I have read – I am certain why this would be the case: While there certainly is a good amount of Britishness to the novel, it is not to a greater degree or more offensively than in, say, the Harry Potter novels – and those blatantly had no issues with being popular outside of the UK.

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Rachel Aaron: Last Dragon Standing

I have been a fan of Rachel Aaron pretty much from the first page of her first book, The Spirit Thief. With Last Dragon Standing, she has released her thirteenth novel and finished her third series, and she is still going as strong as ever. It is the fifth volume in her Heartstriker series, detailing the adventures of Julius, the Nice Dragon and Marci, his human mage. It  has been quite a ride since the first novel appeared in 2014, and the conclusion this final instalment offers is nothing if not triumphant. I’ll try to avoid spoilers for Last Dragon Standing, but there will be (very slight ones) for the previous volumes of the series.

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Stuart Turton: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a book in which twists and revelations play a large part; and while it undoubtedly will be great fun to re-read with the solution in mind in order to see how Stuart Turton placed all of his numerous puzzle pieces, for a first reading the less you know about what to expect, the better. The novel is an intricately crafted puzzle wrapped in a mystery story pervaded by a dense, creepy atmosphere and some elements of the supernatural or SFnal (we never really find out which). If this is something that appeals to you, I’d recommend you to skip this blog posts, skip reading any reviews of the book altogether, and, if at all possible, even avoid reading the back cover description, and instead that just grab the book and start reading. Chances are, you’ll be enjoying the experience a lot.

With that out of the way, I’m not going to hold back on spoilers in what follows, so if you have not read the novel yet, turn back now. The post will also very likely not make much sense to you unless you are somewhat familiar with the novel. You have been warned.

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Rick Riordan: The Last King of Texas

Rick Riordan is best known for his Percy Jackson series of Young Adult novels which is apparently quite popular. His first couple of novels before he started writing YA however, are a series of crime novels centered around private investigator Tres Navarre. I was not aware of that either until i stumbled across them when the e-books were on sale. The Last King of Texas is the third novel in the series (and the third one I’ve read) and so far it has been rather a lot of fun.

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