Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers #3)

Cover image for Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers by Becky Chambers

ISBN 978-0-06-269922-0

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher as part of the Harper Voyager Super Reader program.

She thought of the Asteria, orbiting endlessly with its siblings around an alien sun, around and around and around. Holding steady. Searching no more. How long would it stay like that?”

Long ago, the Fleet left behind the dying Earth, tearing down cities to build generation ships that headed for the stars in search of new worlds. The Exodans also left behind the systems and values that destroyed their home world, creating a new culture of sharing, equality, and responsible resource use aboard the homesteaders, a culture that would enable them to survive together in the generations it would take to reach their destination. Now, the Fleet orbits an alien sun, and many of its sons and daughters have left the ships behind for lives on new planets, among the Harmagians, or the Aandrisk, or other peoples of the Galactic Commons that have welcomed Humans into their cultures to varying degrees. But many still live aboard the ancient homesteaders, still repairing and reusing everything, and living in a communal culture of values that were designed to serve a temporary purpose, but have instead become a way of life. But what will become of the Exodan culture now that the Fleet has served its purpose?

The third volume of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series is set aboard the Fleet, home of the Exodan culture from which the Wayfarer’s Captain Ashby hailed. The main events of this installment take place in the aftermath of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which would make them roughly concurrent with A Closed and Common Orbit. Likewise, it follows a new cast of characters.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is composed of many disconnected points-of-view belonging to various people who live aboard the Asteria, one of the many ships of the Fleet. Isabel is the head archivist, responsible for keeping records, conducting ceremonies, and maintaining the memory and purpose of the Fleet. Kip is a teenager struggling to find his purpose, going from one job-trial to another as Exodan culture demands, but really dreaming of leaving the Fleet to see the galaxy. Sawyer is a stranger who grew up on a Harmagian world, but is finally fulfilling the dream of seeing the Fleet from whence his ancestors hailed. Tessa is Ashby’s sister, the child who stayed behind when her brother left for the stars. Now she has children of her own, including a daughter who has been traumatized by the explosion of another Fleet ship four years earlier. Eyas is a caretaker, responsible for the Exodan death rites, and returning the people the Asteria to the soil which grows their food, completing the life cycle. But her highly respected ceremonial role leaves her feeling lonely and disconnected. The final perspective belongs to Ghuh’loloan, a Harmagian scholar who is visiting her colleague Isabel aboard the Asteria to study Exodan culture. Her point-of-view is indirect, coming in the form of blog posts she is making about her trip for the Reskit Institute of Interstellar Migration.

One of my favourite things about the Wayfarers series is the world and culture building, and seeing how all of the different alien cultures interact with another. So it was cool to finally see the Fleet where the Exodans come from, and think about how it developed over time, changing from its original purpose of sustaining Humans to the stars, to an independent culture of its own. However, I felt disconnected from the characters, possibly because they have very little relationship to one another. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet also had a large cast, but I came to care about them all partly through their relationships to one another. By contrast, the characters in Record of a Spaceborn Few are only passingly connected. Kip completes a job-trial with Tessa as his supervisor. Eyas and Sawyer have a fleeting conversation in a public corridor. For the most part, they do not know one another. Yet these indirect relationships are undoubtedly significant. Ghuh’loloan and Tessa never meet or interact, but Ghuh’loloan’s mere presence aboard the Asteria ends up changing the course of Tessa’s life. Sawyer knows no one when he arrives on the Fleet, but he too will impact the lives of everyone aboard. This is the nature of a introducing something new into a closed, interdependent system. The narrative follows this ripple effect.

Despite this perhaps being my least favourite of the Wayfarers books, I am still sad to leave this universe behind, and I look forward to Becky Chambers potentially returning to it in the future. I’d love to see more of the Aandrisk culture, or the conflict between the Exodans of the Fleet and the Solan humans who remained on Mars. So many possibilities still remain!

You might also like Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2)

Cover image for A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambersby Becky Chambers

ISBN 978-0-062569424

As Jane headed back home, she decided something, and she knew it better than she’d ever known anything. She would die someday—no getting around that. But nobody would find her bones in the scrapyard. She wasn’t going to leave them there.”

The new installation of the AI known as Lovelace has left the Wayfarer and her crew behind to mourn, and joined Pepper and Blue on Port Coriol to build a new life for herself. Away from the Wayfarer, she is free of the expectations and grief of her old installation’s friends, and she can begin to adjust to life in a body kit, rather than a ship. But the code that governs her comes with some protocols that threaten to expose the truth about her origins. She cannot lie, she cannot alter her own code, and she must respond to direct commands. While she and Pepper search for a solution, she must carefully hide her true nature, while also learning how to live in a body, without constant access to the Linkings, or the ability to see from multiple cameras at all times. Throughout it all, she has to wonder, is it really worth having a body? Or would she be better off back in a ship, as her designers intended?

After really enjoying The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, I was both excited and hesitant to read this follow up. I became surprisingly invested in the romance between Jenks and Lovey, and their plan to get Lovey a body kit, so I wasn’t sure how I felt about following a character who was Lovelace, but was decidedly not Lovey. Lovey is dead, and this new AI has no relationship to the crew of the Wayfarer, and finds herself in a body that she agreed to inhabit, but did not choose for herself, so that she can leave the Wayfarer and its crew to grieve in peace. However, I found that once Lovelace chooses a new name for herself, and becomes Sidra, I was able to settle into the story of her life on Port Coriol, and her new friendships with Pepper and Blue. That said, Becky Chambers still managed to punch me in the gut a few times by having Sidra write, and then delete, several emails to Jenks.

In contrast to the multiple shifting perspectives of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit is told from two alternating perspectives, in two timelines. The main events pick up right after the end of the previous book in Sidra’s point-of-view. The alternate chapters take place in the past, and are told from the perspective of Jane 23, a young girl who escapes from a life of factory slave labour sorting scrap and trash on a world inhabited by a group of humans known as the Enhanced. Out in the junkyard, where the Mothers cannot follow, she takes refuge aboard an abandoned, derelict ship, which is still semi-functional thanks to its solar panels. With help from the ship’s AI, Owl, Jane begins to make plans to escape the only world she has ever known. Through these two points of view, Chambers creates two different but complementary narratives about how a human might come to regard an artificial intelligence as a person deserving of the same rights they themselves enjoy.

Indeed, one of the striking things about the Wayfarer books is how Chambers really succeeds in creating emotional investment in AIs as characters. I was devastated by Lovey’s fate in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, and this in turn gave me complicated feels about Sidra going into book two. However, in this volume, I become most invested in Owl, the AI who raises Jane, slowly teaching her everything the Mothers deliberately keep from their charges, and helping her develop the skills she will need to repair the ship and escape the planet. After what happened to Lovey in the first book, I desperately needed for Owl to be okay. In as much as I enjoy a good, dark, gritty science fiction, fantasy, or dystopia, this series has really reminded me how much I also enjoy hopeful speculative fiction, which doesn’t deny the darkness in the universe, but dares to imagine a bright future anyway.

You might also like Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

Cover image for The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambersby Becky Chambers

ISBN 978-0-06-244413-4

Living in space was anything but quiet. Grounders never expected that. For anyone who had grown up planetside, it took some time to get used to the clicks and hums of a ship, the ever-present ambience that came with living inside a piece of machinery… Silence belonged to the vacuum outside.”

When Rosemary Harper abandons her privileged life on Mars for a new identity, and takes a job as a clerk aboard the Wayfarer, her only expectation is to get away from the past. Aboard the ship is a motley inter-species crew that makes their living by building wormholes for interstellar travel, and Rosemary has been brought aboard to keep their permits and paperwork in order, so they don’t lose their license. Their latest job begins when a new species is welcomed into the Galactic Commons, which will necessitate building new tunnels to facilitate travel and trade. But the Toremi Ka are only one clan of a warring, nomadic species, Hedra Ka is their newly claimed territory, and the Wayfarer and her crew may be flying into a war zone.

The plot setup led me to believe that the main thrust story would involve the crew getting into trouble at Hedra Ka, where Galactic politics would enter into the equation, and the desire for the resources to be mined in Toremi territory would lead to problems for the Wayfarer. However, much of the story actually takes place aboard the Wayfarer on the journey out to Hedra Ka. They must travel there the long way, since there are no existing wormholes to speed their trip. From there they will punch a tunnel to a marker that will be placed at the other end by another crew. There is plenty of science working beneath the premises Chambers puts forth, but her story is character-driven, and technology is decidedly not the focus. Rather it is the development of the relationships among the crew on this journey that take center stage.

The long journey means that the book is heavy on world-building and character development. Chambers dedicates much of her energy to fleshing out the various species that can be found aboard the Wayfarer, and beyond. The captain, Ashby, is a fellow human, but while Rosemary grew up on Mars, Ashby is an Exodan, raised aboard a multi-generational space ship that fled the dying Earth. His lover, Pei, does not live on the Wayfarer, and because she is an Aeluon, their relationship must be kept secret. Pacifist, tolerant Ashby is a sharp contrast to the algaeist, Corbin, who provides the ship’s fuel, but not much else. The techs, Kizzy and Jenks, are also human, but have their own unique histories as well. Jenks is in love with Lovey, the AI who monitors the ship, and returns his affection. The pilot, Sissix, is an Aandrisk, a free-loving reptilian species, but when they punch a new wormhole, she is guided by Ohan, a Sianat Pair. Their species is infected by a virus that enables them to perceive space-time differently. They are all fed and cared for by Dr. Chef, who hails from a dying species that fought itself to the edge of extinction. I am a sucker for a found family narrative, and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is great exemplar of a sci-fi take on this trope.

Chambers frequently changes point-of-view between the various characters, who all have their own unique perspective on things. Humanity is not the default, and many key insights and perspectives come from the non-human characters. However, these frequent changes weren’t always well delineated in my Kindle edition, and I often had to backtrack when I realized there had been a jump. Nevertheless, I enjoyed getting to hear from all of the different characters, and seeing the various situations that arose through each unique cultural lens. I really appreciated the attention Chambers put into the inter-species relationships, and the accommodation of differences. If you’d asked me in advance if I could ship a romance between a human and an AI, I probably would not have been into it, but she easily managed to get me on Jenks and Lovey’s side. One benefit of having put off delving into this series for so long is that I can immediately go read the other books in this series, although the follow-ups focus on different characters. But I am excited to get more of this universe, and the unique sensibility Chambers has developed for it.

You might also like: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Little White Lies

Cover image for Little White Lies by Jennifer Lynn Barnesby Jennifer Lynn Barnes

ISBN 978-1-368-01413-7

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

This isn’t a fairy tale, sister dear…This is a revenge story, and it’s going to be epic.”

Sawyer Taft has never known her father. All she knows is that he knocked up her teenage mother, and abandoned her. Then her grandparents kicked her mother out of the house, and the two of them have been on their own ever since. So when family matriarch Lillian Taft shows up on her doorstep, Sawyer isn’t disposed to trust her grandmother, but she may be able to make Sawyer an offer that is too good to refuse. In exchange for one season as a debutante, Sawyer will receive a half-million dollar trust fund that could put her through any college she wanted. And she might even be able to figure out who her father is in the bargain. But the high society her mother left behind is a cut-throat place, where skeletons are best left in their closets.

Sawyer is a tough smartmouth who has helped keep her family afloat by working in a garage, where she regularly has to fend off the ignorance and condescension of the male clientele. She forms a sharp contrast to her mother, Ellie, who is flighty and unreliable, apt to throw over her waitressing job on a moment’s notice in order to spend the weekend with her latest fling. So while Sawyer inherently distrusts her mother’s family, there is something in her that longs for a connection beyond what she has to a mother who feels less like a parent than someone Sawyer has to take care of all the time. It is this vulnerable longing that brings Sawyer into the world of debutantes and country clubs, though she tries to focus on the financial incentive of finally having a guaranteed way to pay for college. I really enjoyed these conflicting aspects of her character, as well as her outsider perspective.

As Sawyer is drawn into the world of debutante traditions, life becomes increasingly complicated. Her relationship with her own mother is complex, but her cousin and her other new friends have their own fraught family dynamics to cope with. I was expecting a lot of mean girl behaviour, but Sawyer actually begins to form a genuine connection with her cousin Lily, and their neighbour Sadie-Grace, although there is one frenemy in the form of Campbell Ames. As Sawyer traces the family connections between her new friends, and the people her mother left behind, she soon realizes that her biological father must be among their close connections. Every one of these men is married and has a family, and probably has no desire to have an illegitimate daughter exposed to the world. One of them is a Senator, after all, and certainly isn’t looking for a scandal.

Little White Lies is told with alternating timeline chapters, plus a series of anonymous blog posts called “Secrets On My Skin.” In the flash forward snippets, a group of debutantes have been arrested, and left in the hands of an incompetent and confused rookie cop who must try to figure out what to do with them. These jumps are interesting because you get to see where the characters’ relationships are going to end up, and often it is a sharp contrast to what is going on in the main timeline of the story. The anonymous blog further reveals the darkness hiding beneath the surface of the Taft’s polished, country club world.

If you’re a fan of Barnes’ Naturals series, or The Fixer, Little White Lies offers more in that same vein, fully of twisty mysteries, interesting characters, and punchy dialogue. Honestly, for the most part Little White Lies felt like it worked well as a standalone, so I am curious to see how the planned series will continue from this point, though there are a couple of obvious loose threads to work with. There was one final reveal that didn’t sit particularly well with me, and I’ll have to decide if it is a deal breaker for continuing to read, or if I want to see how Barnes revisits this plot point going forward. When it comes to Barnes, I know that nothing is really settled until the final book, and everything you think you know can turn out to be wrong.

You might also like Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts) by L.C. Rosen

The Underground Railroad

Cover image for The Underground Railroad by Colson Whiteheadby Colson Whitehead

ISBN 978-0-385-54236-4

“Once Mabel ran, Cora thought of her as little as possible. After landing in South Carolina, she realized that she had banished her mother not from sadness but from rage. She hated her. Having tasted freedom’s bounty, it was incomprehensible to Cora that Mabel had abandoned her to that hell.”      

Cora is a third-generation slave born on the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia. She has been a stray since the age of ten, when her mother became the only slave to ever escape the plantation, evading an infamous bounty hunter in the process. Since then, Cora has lived in Hob, the cabin for outcast slaves rejected even by their own people. So when Caesar approaches her about running North, Cora assumes it is a joke, or worse, a trap. The punishment for even discussing escape could be death. But Caesar has a connection to the Underground Railroad, and when the balance of power on the Randall plantation shifts, running starts to seem like an option worthy of consideration. Via the lines of the Underground Railroad, Cora will live many lives after she escapes Randall, but the shadow of slavery will pursue her wherever she goes.

In Colson Whitehead’s imagining, the railroad that spirits Cora and Caesar to freedom is real and literal, rather than metaphorical. However, this is as far as Whitehead takes it; the railroad is a tool that enables him to transport Cora easily from place to place, through the different incarnations of the Black experience of America. He does not spend his time developing the premise of the railroad, or linger on the journey, though there is a nod to the fact that building and ventilating such a network would be a mighty feat of engineering. Rather, the railroad is a curious detail that adds atmosphere to the story, and facilitates Cora’s development as a character in the various chapters of her life. Whitehead delivers his fantastic additions in a matter-of-fact tone that causes them to blend seamlessly into the more factual aspects of the narrative, as he presents the horrors of slavery with equal directness.

The Underground Railroad is divided into episodes punctuated by the steps of Cora’s journey towards the promised freedom of the North. It is not a story delineated by strict notions of time; Whitehead freely borrows episodes and details from later periods to create amalgams. The trip from Georgia to South Carolina is not just a crossing of a state line, but in many ways takes Cora and Caesar into the concerns of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century free Blacks, confronted with the eugenics movement and  medical experimentation on non-consenting parties. Across the border again, into North Carolina, Whitehead conjures a white supremacist separatist state where Blacks can be executed on sight. Here we find echoes of the Holocaust, and Anne Frank’s sojourn in her Amsterdam attic, as well as Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Although Whitehead plays fast and loose with the facts, he does so in a way that condensed the impact of the real events that inspired his fictions and elaborations. After South Carolina, there is a sense of dread that hangs over the book. Freedom feels elusive, perhaps even delusional, with each new fresh start less hopeful than the last. While starting over from each new location and perspective was occasionally tiresome, the technique was effective in building that sense of dread, and the niggling question about whether Cora can ever truly be free in a country built on the back of slave labour. When we leave Cora on the road, her next destination and chapter unwritten ahead of her, I wanted to believe she might still find true freedom, but could no longer quite bring myself to believe it could be true. In this way, The Underground Railroad has haunted me long past the final page.

You might also like Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts)

Cover image for Jack of Hearts by L. C. Rosenby L.C. Rosen

ISBN 978-0-316-48053-6

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

“My sex life has always been out there, talked about, but now I’m talking about it, too. I don’t know if it’s just going to make the rumors and stories worse. I want to douse the fire, not throw gasoline on it.”

Jack Rothman is an out and proud gay white boy in liberal New York City, attending an elite private school. He knows he has it easy compared to gay kids in rural areas, or even compared to his best friend Ben, who is black and fat, in addition to being gay. But his ostensibly liberal school doesn’t quite know how to handle Jack, a boy who wears make up and has a reputation for sleeping around. So when Jack decides to lean into his reputation, and starts writing a sex and relationship advice column for his friend Jenna’s website, it is no surprise when the administration is displeased. But the sex advice column also prompts a turn for the disturbing, when a secret admirer begins leaving creepy notes in Jack’s locker. Soon stalking turns to blackmail, as the letter writer tries to force Jack back into the closet and curb his sexual behaviour. With no help from the school administration, it is up to Jack and his friends to figure out who is blackmailing him before his stalker gets what they want.

Jack is refreshing character in that his coming out is long behind him. He has friends both gay and straight, and a supportive if somewhat harried single mother. But the world he lives in has certain ideas about how gay people should behave, as exemplified in the character of Jeremy, President of the school GSA, and Jack’s first boyfriend, who is constantly striving after the straight ideal of masculinity in everything except who he dates. Jack’s refusal to be bound by these strictures results in him becoming the object of gossip in his school, where everyone feels free to talk about his sexual exploits, and even make up stories about him. In this respect, Rosen’s fun YA mystery full of parties and teen romance is also a serious conversation about the ways straight people, including young women, objectify gay men for their own pleasure or entertainment.

As a fan of the advice column format, I loved the way Rosen incorporated the Jack of Hearts letters into the story, posing them as advice, commentary, and even plot development in various scenarios, while also reinforcing the book’s emphatically sex-positive tone. Jack, of course, gives remarkably good, carefully crafted advice for a seventeen-year old, coming across as mature and worldly. But these character traits also prove complicated burdens as he tries to solve the problem of his stalker without involving the police, or his mom. As the harassment intensifies, he even begins to pull away from his friends, believing that he can solve everything himself, without worrying anyone else, and it is this belief that takes the book to its darkest place. Although I figured out who Jack’s stalker was early in the book, the intensifying situation still managed to hold me on edge until the very end.

If there was one place Jack of Hearts fell down for me, it was in the relatively abrupt wrap-up, after the stalker is revealed. I couldn’t help but feel that the implications of what Jack and his friends went through were overlooked for a simplistic conclusion. The result is a weirdly anti-climactic let down from an intense situation. After the deliberate intention and care with which the author addressed complex issues like consent and homophobia, this breezy conclusion to a legitimately traumatic experience felt out of place. With a more developed conclusion, this book would have been a real stand-out.

You might also like When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid.

Reader, Come Home

Cover image for Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolfby Maryanne Wolf

ISBN 978-0-06-238878-0

Unlike in the past, we possess both the science and the technology to identify potential changes in how we read—and thus how we think—before such changes are fully entrenched in the population and accepted without our comprehension of the consequences.”

I was introduced to the work of Maryanne Wolf in grad school, in a course about multimedia literacies that examined perspectives on information literacy in an evolving technological landscape that requires new readers to acquire multiple skill sets. I read Proust and the Squid in 2012, five years after its initial publication, but by then Wolf was already deep at work on this new venture, examining how the principles she laid out in her first book had begun to shift in the evolving digital landscape, where babies can be soothed to sleep with iPhones, and some toddlers know how to work an iPad but don’t understand why a print book doesn’t respond to touch commands. Reader, Come Home seeks to examine what we risk losing if we fail to approach the new literacy landscape with eyes wide open, as well as what we stand to gain from an evidence based approach to the future of reading.

What drew me to Wolf’s perspective in grad school remains true of her approach to Reader, Come Home. While some critics raise an almost hysterical ballyhoo about the perils of the digital age, Wolf takes a more balanced and pragmatic attitude. She frequently references Socrates, who was an adamant opponent of the shift from an oral, dialectic method of learning, to one that relied on the written word. He was worried that students would never truly master a concept if they could look it up, rather than having to commit it firmly to memory. Sound familiar? Many a similar argument is raised about the digital shift, and while Wolf points out that Socrates was right that reading has changed the way we operate in the world, it has proved an invaluable tool for civilization. Her approach to digital technologies is much the same. What she is arguing for is essentially mindfulness, an observant approach to the changes that have already begun to subtly shape our reading lives, and will only more profoundly affect the reading lives of children who are just beginning their journey into literacy. Only by studying the evidence about what reading is doing for us, and how that is changing, can we make informed decisions about how we want to read, and how we want to teach future generations of children to read.

Doing our best by future generations of readers is a daunting prospect by all accounts. We have only just begun to understand the neuroscience of the reading brain, and how that landscape shifts when the reading occurs on digital rather than physical platforms. Furthermore, we can only guess at the future we are preparing children for; many of the jobs that they will hold as adults do not exist yet, after all. It is even possible that some of them will benefit from growing up constantly switching and navigating between multiple platforms and inputs near simultaneously. But while it is difficult to know the precise skills that they will need, Wolf argues that we cannot go wrong by preserving the development of the reading brain circuit that ultimately leads to deep analytic and critical thinking skills. To allow this development to be fractured by the near constant interruptions of the digital world as it is currently designed, would be a mistake in her reckoning.

Wolf divides her book into letters, addressed to the reader, and signed by herself, though this conceit can be easily forgotten in between. In the early chapters, she delves into the neuroscience of the reading brain, using the metaphor of the three ring circus. As she points out, reading is not a natural, hardwired skillset of the human brain. Rather, it is neuroplasticity that enables the brain to adapt a variety of brain regions originally developed for other purposes to this human invention. But the flip side of neuroplasticity is that we must use our skills, or risk losing them. A digital media consumption style that sees consumers change sources of information twenty-seven times per hour, and picking up their phones nearly two hundred times per day inevitably affects our focus. This fracturing of our attention affects memory, which in turn affects comprehension, and our ability to critically assess the information we consume, or draw inferences between disparate sources.

But if Wolf is concerned about how the reading lives of adults with fully formed prefrontal cortices and well-developed reading circuits, the heart of her worry is clearly much more focused on new readers—perhaps unsurprising in someone who studies reading acquisition. Several of the letters are dedicated to her ideas about how to teach children multiple literacies in an evolving environment, modelled on the best studies about teaching bilingual children. Her suggestions come with the caveat that we must continue to study and change these recommendations as we learn more about reading in multiple mediums. She specifically warns against forbidding screens, arguing that this will render them into tantalizing forbidden fruit.

Undoubtedly, these digitally native readers will grow up to have their own ideas about how they wish to interact with information. As a cuspy millennial, born before the digital revolution but growing up alongside it, I have some inherent wariness of how older people view my generation, and I have no doubt that younger people will come to feel the same about us. But when it comes to the relative merits of the digital versus physical reading, I think Wolf, overall, puts it well: “The stakes are far too high to cling to one side or the other. The reality is that we cannot and should not go back; nor should we move ahead thoughtlessly.”

Muse of Nightmares (Strange the Dreamer #2)

Cover image for Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor by Laini Taylor

ISBN 978-0-316-34171-4

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

“There comes a certain point with a hope or a dream, when you either give it up or give up everything else. And if you choose the dream, if you keep on going, then you can never quit, because it’s all you are.”

Following the discovery of Lazlo’s strange origin, and Sarai’s fall from the citadel, the fate of Weep rests in the hands of the vengeful Minya. True, Lazlo can command the citadel, but only Minya’s power holds Sarai’s soul in this world. Given form and substance by her sister’s ability, it is almost as if Sarai never died. But Minya wants to take her ghost army into the city of Weep to exact the vengeance she has dreamed of for so long, and she vows that she will let Sarai’s soul evanesce if Lazlo does not comply, leaving him with a terrible choice between saving Sarai, and saving the people of Weep who have welcomed him as if he was one of their own. So many doors to the future, even to other worlds, have opened with Lazlo’s return, but with Minya still trapped in the past, there can be no moving forward without a reckoning.

Between the chapters about our old friends from Strange the Dreamer, Laini Taylor interweaves a new perspective, following sisters Nova and Kora. Living in an icy wasteland where women do most of the hard labour, and it is only a matter of time before their father sells them off in marriage, they dream of the only way out they know. Perhaps, like their mother before them, they will be chosen by the Servants of the Empire. Because everyone has a talent, and the Servants can find it. And if their talents are good enough, and powerful enough, maybe they too will be taken away, never to return. But serving the Empire comes with its own price.

Muse of Nightmares is a seamless continuation from the events of Strange the Dreamer. The first book ended in a tight corner, with Lazlo trapped between Minya’s will for vengeance, and his desire to save Sarai. Getting out of this bind is a bit of a tightrope act, and one that is not without its slips. The perspectives of Kora and Nova seem to have little immediate connection to the situation in Weep, though it is relatively easy to make the connection to the multiple worlds theory revealed by the origins of the Mesarthim given in Strange the Dreamer. While the first volume left these possibilities as a tantalizing backstory, they become more explicit in Muse of Nightmares, peering behind the curtain of the worlds. This was satisfying in some ways, but felt a bit like seeing how the magic trick is performed in others.

To break the deadlock between the original characters, Taylor relies on the strategy of introducing a new, more formidable villain who poses a common problem for the residents of the citadel. Given the godlike powers already possessed by Sarai and her sisters, this is naturally a bit over the top, an almost literal deus ex machina, if you will. Taylor ratchets up the tension in a conflict where the stakes were already impossibly high, and in doing so flattens some of the emotional impact of her tale. Muse of Nightmares provides revelations and closure, but doesn’t quite manage to recapture the magic of Strange the Dreamer.

You might also like City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty