Category: Fiction

Top 5 Fiction 2018

These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2018. You can click the titles for links to the full reviews. Check back on Thursday for my top non-fiction picks!

The Cruel Prince

Cover image for The Cruel Prince by Holly BlackThis was one of the first books that I read in 2018, but it has nevertheless held up as one of the best, and the sequel is just around the corner in January 2019! Seventeen-year-old Jude and her twin sister, Taryn, are mortals who have lived in Faerie since they were children, raised by the Faerie general who murdered their parents in order to retrieve his daughter, their half-sister Vivi. Despite this violent beginning, Jude longs to find her place in the High Court of King Eldred, and dreams of knighthood and acceptance. However, many of the high fey will never see a mortal as anything more than a servant, to be used and discarded at will. Worst among these is Prince Cardan, youngest of the High King’s sons, who seems to have a special hatred for Jude, and the way she was raised as if she were part of the Gentry. When the High King announces that he will abdicate his throne, and pass the Blood Crown to one of his six children, Jude is caught up in political intrigues and violent betrayals, and is quickly reminded why the Faerie Court is no place for humans. Holly Black is an acknowledged master of the faerie tale, and The Cruel Prince represents a particularly twisty example of her talent in this arena.

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy, Fairy Tales

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Cover image for The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky ChambersI 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. 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. There is plenty of science working beneath the premises Becky 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.

Categories: Science Fiction

The Poppy War

Cover image for The Poppy War by R. F. KuangDebut novelist R.F. Kuang hit it big this year with the gritty first installment of a planned trilogy about the Nikara Empire. A war orphan, Rin dreams of passing the Keju exam, and traveling north to study at one of the empire’s elite schools. But when her hard work pays off and she tests into Sinegard, the top military academy in the country, Rin discovers that her trials are only beginning. Sinegard’s military and political elite have little time or sympathy for a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south. Desperate to prove herself, Rin unlocks a supposedly mythical power that enables her to summon the strength of the gods. Even as she is further alienated from her teachers and classmates, she becomes the protégé of an eccentric master who has taken no other apprentices from her class. But Master Jiang wants Rin to learn to control and suppress her abilities, while Rin dreams of wielding them in battle for the glory of the Empire. And with the Empire constantly on the brink of the next war with the Mugen Federation, it becomes increasingly difficult to heed her Master’s advice and resist the call of the Phoenix, god of fire and vengeance. The Poppy War is a decidedly adult fantasy featuring a terrifyingly badass female protagonist on a worrisome trajectory towards darkness.

Categories: Fantasy

Strange the Dreamer

Cover image for Strange the Dreamer by Laini TaylorStrange the Dreamer is the kind of book where the author writes herself into difficult situations, but then makes bold choices with the consequences. From his childhood as an orphan in a monastery, to his young adulthood as a junior library apprentice, Lazlo Strange has been obsessed with the lost city of Weep. For thousands of years, magical goods crossed the Elmuthaleth desert to be traded, but no faranji was ever allowed to see the city from whence they came, on pain of death. But two hundred years ago, all trade suddenly ceased without explanation. Once, Weep had another name, but fifteen years ago it was snatched from the minds of the few who remembered the city at all, including Lazlo, whose obsession was only deepened by the loss. Now a hero from Weep, known as the Godslayer, has emerged from the Elmuthaleth, seeking the best scientists to join a delegation that will help the city solve the last remnant of the problem that halted trade for two hundred years. But what use could such a delegation have for a mere junior librarian who has studied Weep all his life, and yet undoubtedly knows less about it than anyone who was raised there? In beautiful prose that will be familiar to fans of her Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, Laini Taylor brings to life a vivid new fantasy world that didn’t so much capture my imagination as take it hostage, until I stayed up far too late to reach the last page, and find out what would become of Lazlo, Sarai, and the people of Weep.

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy

Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi EdugyanCanadian sensation Esi Edugyan received international attention this year, with her Giller prize winning novel also being named to the Man Book short-list. Born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Bardbados, George Washington Black has never known any other life. When his master dies, the slaves expect the estate to be broken up and sold off, but instead two brothers arrive, nephews of the old owner. Erasmus Wilde proves to be a cruel man who drives his slaves harder than the old owner ever did. But his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, is a man of science, and while the other slaves on Faith are doomed to a harder lot, Wash is selected to help Titch with his experiments, and his seemingly impossible dream to launch an airship called the Cloud Cutter. However, being selected as Titch’s assistant will come at a price Wash could never have expected, and their strange, uneven relationship will change the course of Wash’s life forever, for better and for worse. In her trademark exquisite prose, Edugyan tells the story of a slave who gains his freedom with nuance and complexity. Indeed it is the depth of the characters, and the nuance with which their situations are portrayed that really makes Washington Black unforgettable.

Categories: Canadian, Historical Fiction

Honourable mentions also go out to the rest of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, which I devoured, and found to be utterly delightful, though the first one was my favourite, and is thus listed here. That’s it for fiction, but check back later this week for my non-fiction selections!

What were your top fiction reads of 2018?

The Wangs vs the World

Cover image for The Wangs vs the World by Jade Chang by Jade Chang

ISBN 9780544734098

Charles Wang was mad at America. Actually, Charles Wang was mad at history.”

Charles Wang is a Chinese immigrant from Taiwan who came to America decades ago with nothing but a list of fertilizer manufacturers who might want to buy the urea produced in his family’s Taipei factories. Instead, he ended up building a cosmetics empire, which has come crashing down around him in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. With the factories shuttered, the house foreclosed, and the cars repossessed, Charles commandeers the vehicle belonging to his elderly Ama, and sets out with his second wife, Barbra, on the cross country trek to retrieve his younger children from their college and boarding schools, and join their eldest sister at her home in upstate New York. Along the way he plans to deliver Ama to her daughter in Nevada, drop off one last customer order in Alabama, and then find a way to return to China, and reclaim the land his family lost in the Communist Revolution.

The Wangs vs. the World is the ultimate dysfunctional family road trip, told in alternating perspectives among the Wang family members, and with a couple of vignettes from the point of view of the car they are driving, which once belonged to Charles first wife, and the mother of his children, May Lee, who died tragically in a helicopter crash at the Grand Canyon. Jade Chang approaches it all with a slightly crass sense of humour that starts right out from the fact Charles’ family essentially produces artificial chemical piss (urea) and carries on through such debacles as Andrew masturbating with a leftover ketchup packet. These jokes aside, the family dynamic has a tragi-comic flavour glossing over a deeper level of introspection, but some readers will probably find this tone off-putting.

On the surface, The Wangs vs. the World is a comic story about the shock of rich people who suddenly find themselves poor. Yet it also interrogates the American Dream, income inequality, and the bill of goods immigrants are sold about the possibilities of life in America. Tellingly, Charles goes bankrupt trying to keep afloat a line of cosmetics for non-white women, a huge untapped market that he believes will make his fortune. But skepticism among bankers about his social justice motives causes him to float a personal stake in the endeavour just as the market is about to collapse. Meanwhile, his son Andrew wants to be a comedian, but worries that he will only gain success in the American market by making fun of his own Asian heritage. They have all had to work out their role in a country that promised them everything, and delivered, but at a price they never expected.

While Charles and Barbra are mostly focused on money, and the loss of wealth, Saina, Andrew, and Gracie are also facing losses, not just of money, but the other things they have been taught to value as first generation Americans. The currency of the younger Wangs is mostly fame, though it comes in different forms. Andrew dreams of being a famous stand-up comedian, and asks his father to make stops in cities along the road that are hosting open mic nights. Gracie runs a successful fashion blog, with a currency in likes and followers. Meanwhile, the eldest sister, Saina, at first seems relatively untouched by the crisis, but as the story progresses we learn that after three critical successes, her latest art show was a controversial flop, and her reputation in New York City’s art scene is in ruins. She has fled to upstate New York to escape the fallout, and perhaps break it off with her cheating artist boyfriend once and for all.

(Content Warning: Rape) Another thing that is lost along the road is Andrew’s virginity, in a part of the plot that is perhaps one of the most confusing and disturbing aspects of the story. Having steadfastly refused to have sex until he is in love, twenty-one year old Andrew meets an older woman at a wedding in New Orleans, where the Wangs have stopped to visit an old friend of Charles’. Dorrie takes Andrew home, and proceeds to have penetrative sex with him, even after he tells her he wants to wait. Tied up and blindfolded, Andrew can’t resist her, and is profoundly confused about whether he wanted to. He never manages to tell anyone in his family about it after the fact, either. Andrew’s lingering virginity is an object of humour, and the way he loses his agency in the choice of when to give it up is passed over without much reflection about what was taken from him.

While the crasser side of Chang’s brand of humour wasn’t especially my thing, I think she has mastered the depiction of dysfunctional family dynamics, as well as the road trip narrative, and used the two together to reflect on the immigrant story in a new way, through the lens of the financial crisis. However, I enjoyed the more situational aspects of Chang’s sense of humour, and the odd predicaments the Wangs ended up in as a result, despite my reservations about how she handled Andrew’s story.

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

Cover image for Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robsonby Kelly Robson

ISBN 978-1-250-16385-1

People—especially bankers—had trouble thinking long-term, and nothing was more long-term than ecological restoration.”

After destroying the environment, humanity retreated below ground for centuries, living in hives and hells, eking out an existence. But a new generation dreamed of the sun, and returning to the surface. For six decades, Minh, an ecological restoration specialist, has worked in the Calgary hab, slowly coaxing the surrounding landscape back to life, trying to keep afloat a community that believes in life above ground. But since the discovery of time travel a decade ago, financial backing for ecological restoration has waned, and the younger generation seems less than committed to the dream Minh’s cohort fought so hard for. When the secretive company that controls time travel technology publishes a request for proposal for a multi-disciplinary team to visit Mesopotamia in the past to study the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Minh knows that it is project she cannot pass up, even as she seriously distrusts the agency in whose hands she will be placing her life, and the lives of her team.

In Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, Kelly Robson has conjured up an ecological dystopia in which “banks” are actually wealthy individuals who finance only the projects that interest or enrich them. Minh’s generation—the plague babies—cannot hope to achieve their aims without the necessary financial support, but the possibilities opened up by time travel technology would seem to make the slow, patient work of ecological restoration unnecessary. However, time travel is aggressively guarded by the intellectual property rights of the company that discovered it, making it difficult to know what is really possible. The company claims that they can only travel into the past, not the future, and that any changes occasioned by the visit occur in a separate timeline that collapses when the time travelers depart.

Robson’s novella is told through the perspective of Minh, an octogenarian scientist who was a pioneer in her field. A member of the plague generation, she lost her legs to disease, and wears prosthetics, opting for an adaptable six-legged model. Though in somewhat questionable health, she shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon, and her grouchy but determined personality drives the narrative. Although Minh carries the main plot, each chapter opens with a brief section centered on an ancient king, and a priestess who reads the stars to foretell the future. An entirely different set of events seem to play out through their eyes.

This is slow-paced work focused on interpersonal dynamics. The world is sketched out and interesting, but the format does not really leave room to develop it more fully. The main conflict does not take place until the last thirty pages, and the conclusion is open-ended. The balance is devoted to the dynamics between Minh, Kiki, Hamid, and Fabian, the team that travels to Mesopotamia. Kiki is an assistant at the environmental firm Minh works for in Calgary, but she will do whatever it takes be on the special project team. A member of the younger generation—known as the fat babies—she is starving for an opportunity to prove herself, and build a better future. However, she is torn between Minh’s vision for that future, and the possibilities offered by Fabian, the historian who takes them into the past.

Despite the slower pacing, I really enjoyed reading about an older protagonist and the nuanced portrayal of inter-generational dynamics between Minh and Kiki. Given the open-ended conclusion, I would not recommended this for those who hate cliff-hangers. I would also be excited to see what this author could do with a full-length novel in the future.

You might also like Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Time Was

Cover image from Time Was by Ian McDonaldby Ian McDonald

ISBN 978-0-7653-9146-9

Too many of the war loves I had followed did not survive. Peace killed them. People returned to their old lives and loves; quickly the old order reasserted itself, the very order for which they had fought.”

At the closing of London’s Golden Page book store, an online book dealer finds an anonymous book of poetry dating from shortly before the Second World War. Inside is a love letter from Tom to Ben. An online posting about the two men leads to a woman’s attic in the Fenlands, where her grandfather keeps an archive of his father’s war, including a photo of a group of British soldiers in Alexandria. But deep in the bowels of the Imperial War Museum’s photo archives, more images are waiting to be discovered. Because Tom and Ben’s story span’s time, from Crimea to the Rape of Nanking, to Bosnia, wherever there is a war, there seems to be a photo of the two lovers, caught in the midst of the conflict, and our bookseller becomes obsessed with how they got there.

Time Was is told in alternating chapters, one in the present timeline, and then one that follows Tom and Ben when they are stationed at a military project on the East Coast of England while the country prepares for a German invasion. Ben is a scientist, while Tom is an itinerant poet and messenger boy, but they secretly fall in love in the midst of the secretive chaos of the Uncertainty Squad’s classified undertaking. However, Tom and Ben are less important as characters themselves, than they are as the subject of the narrator’s obsession, and his trip down the rabbit hole into figuring out how two men who appear to age very little could appear in photos from wars more than a hundred years apart. As the narrator tracks down other copies of Time Was, we also get to read more letters from Tom and Ben, but they remain at a remove.

Our narrator has an old friend at the Imperial War Museum, who conveniently provides access to the photo archive, as well as a peek at information that is not officially for public consumption. Shahrzad also has a gift as a super-recognizer that speeds up the plot; there is no need to chronicle a long intensive search, as might be done in a novel, though to be sure, McDonald chronicles an obsession that spans years. Shahrzad’s skill, and the access provided by her job allows the narrator to be obsessed with the clues rather than the research itself, to the exclusion of almost everything else. While this speeds up the research, it also highlights a rather unappealing aspect of the narrator; he uses the women around him to further his quest, with no regard for them. In addition to using Shahrzad’s access, he also moves in with Thorn, the woman whose attic yielded the first clue in his search. (But we shouldn’t feel bad when he leaves her in the end, because it turns out that she was sleeping with a bunch of other men!)

Alongside the plot, Ian McDonald builds in a lament for the death of the brick and mortar book store. When they are separated across time, Ian and Ben leave copies of the anonymous book of poetry, Time Was, in independent bookstores across the world, with letters inside. Each bookstore holds special instructions not to sell the book, and to buy any copy of the book they find elsewhere. If a bookstore closes, the book should be sent to another. But as the modern era dawns, Ben and Tom’s messaging drops are dwindling, going out of business one by one.

As a story, Time Was is melancholy and slightly unsatisfying. It was pitched to me as a sad but romantic gay time travel story, and certainly that is what the cover copy, which focuses on Tom and Ben, and never mentions the narrator, would lead you to believe.  There are some good aspects to the story that McDonald has actually written, from beautiful prose, to cool science, and great use of epistolary elements, but the protagonist of this novella is the bookseller, and the story told here is his.

You might also like The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A.  Flynn

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.

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