Category: Speculative Fiction

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!

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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.

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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

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.

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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

Strange the Dreamer

Cover image for Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylorby Laini Taylor

ISBN 978-0-316-34168-4

His books were not his dream. Moreover, he had tucked his dream into their pages like a bookmark, and been content to leave it there for too long. The fact was: Nothing he might ever do or read or find inside the Great Library of Zosma was going to bring him one step closer to Weep. Only a journey would do that.”

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. Taylor opens with Lazlo, the orphan who will take us on our journey into the unknown. After spending his childhood in a monastery, Lazlo escapes to the Great Library of Zosma, and a career as a librarian. In his world, librarians are the mere servants of the aristocratic scholars, expected to keep knowledge, but never to discover it. But Lazlo is forever tripping over that line, particularly in his somewhat antagonistic relationship with Thyon Nero, golden son of Zosma, and the only alchemist who has ever produced gold. The other perspective belongs to Sarai, a girl who lives a strange secluded life with four other children, but dreams of the city of Weep every night.

To say too much more is to spoil Taylor’s careful parsing out of information, which kept me on the edge of my seat trying to figure out how it all fit together. Some have described this as a slow start to Strange the Dreamer, but I was intent on soaking up her beautiful world-building and getting to know the various characters. The Godslayer refuses to tell the delegation what problem they will be charged with solving when they arrive in Weep, and so the chapters that are introduced from the perspective of Sarai and her sisters have a foreshadowing quality, revealing intriguing information, and yet remaining maddeningly coy and removed. As the delegation crosses the Elmuthaleth, the climber and acrobat Calixte starts a wager about the problem that awaits their combined skills in Weep, and I found myself placing similar bets as Taylor slowly unspools her story.

Strange the Dreamer is the kind of book where the author writes herself into difficult situations, but makes bold choices with the consequences. While originally planned as a standalone, it is now a duology, so the book ends with a twist that leaves the protagonists in a seemingly impossible situation. If I have one reservation, it is that I don’t see how Taylor can write herself out of this one without jumping the shark. But perhaps I have too little faith. Whatever Muse of Nightmares delivers, Strange the Dreamer is magnificent in its own right. I’d be mad at myself for waiting this long to read it, if not for the fact that I can now go read the sequel immediately.

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Planetside

Cover image for Planetside by Michael Mammayby ISBN 978-0-06-269466-9

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

I needed to pound my head against a wall where nobody could see me. The stench around Mallot’s disappearance was getting stronger. A high councilor’s kid had disappeared into nowhere, and somebody wanted it covered up.”

Colonel Carl Butler is working a semi-retirement post at Student Command, only a year from finishing his service, when his old friend General Serata calls in a favour. The son of a High Councilor is Missing in Action on Cappa, one of the highest conflict zones in the universe. But Lieutenant Mallot isn’t just missing; he disappeared off a medical transport enroute back to Cappa Base, and hasn’t been seen since. Worse, no one on Cappa Base seems to want to cooperate with the investigation into his disappearance. Butler arrives on Cappa Base to find tensions running high. Medical Command doesn’t want him in the hospital questioning their personnel. The Spec Ops colonel who has been stationed on Cappa for over two years never leaves the planet, and won’t return Butler’s calls. Something is seriously wrong, but figuring out what may come at price Butler isn’t prepared to pay.

Planetside is narrated in the first person by Butler, who has the kind of narrative voice you might expect in a hard-boiled mystery or military sci-fi. So I was understandably expecting a hard-drinking, womanizing, fairly unlikeable narrator who would probably cheat on the wife he left behind on their home planet. I was therefore pleasantly surprised that while Butler is indeed hard-drinking—he flouts military rules to transport a case of his favourite whiskey to Cappa Base—none of the women we encounter are set up as flimsy love interests or sex objects. I was particularly worried on first meeting Alenda, who is assigned to assist Butler when he arrives on Cappa. Alenda, however, is a thoroughly competent aide, though it takes her a while to earn Butler’s trust. She also has a wife and kids back home. Butler is a bit protective of her in a way that is kind of annoying, but which makes sense for his character. Mammay’s space is also not pasty white, with characters from Alenda to Xiang, Patel, and Chu.

The planet Cappa has strong parallels to the Middle East. It is a desert planet, and Spec Ops intel says that while most of the locals are friendly, there is small but powerful insurgency that continues to fight occupation. Cappa is one of the few planets humans have discovered inhabited by sentient, humanoid life forms, but the desire to mine the silver that is key to many of their technologies overrides any better intentions that might have argued against occupying the planet. Space Command has been fighting there for more than eighteen years, with no end in sight. Mammay doesn’t do a lot of world-building outside of the situation on Cappa, and we don’t know a lot about how humans expanded across the universe. But we do know that it has been a ruthless and imperialist resource-driven expansion that has wiped out lifeforms on planets not habitable by humans in order to facilitate mining. While the lack of sexism and homophobia is refreshing, the military and political structure of this universe is rife with its own issues, mirroring on a universal level the problems that are currently destroying our planet.

Butler spends much of the book trying to get a meeting with Spec Ops chief Colonel Karikov, who has a distinct Kurtz/Heart of Darkness thing going. He hasn’t been up to Cappa Base in over two years, and when Butler digs deeper into the situation, he can’t find anyone who has spoken directly to the Colonel anytime recently. The early part of the book has a vibe that is more mystery than military, but when Butler heads down to the surface, things get more tactical, as obstacles are thrown in the way of his getting to Karikov’s base. These parts were a bit slower going for me, but I was engaged enough in the mystery to push through the descriptive military engagements which I found less interesting, but which would no doubt appeal to the military sc-fi fans who are the more likely audience for this book.

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Barren

by Peter V. Brett

ISBN 978-0-06-274056-4

Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher.

The rush of magic was addictive, as many folk were discovering. Even Selia was caught in its grip. It did more than strengthen the body; it heighted passion as well.”

Selia Square has been the Speaker for the small community of Tibbet’s Brook on and off for decades. She is a respected leader despite the mean-spirited nickname that has followed her into her seventh decade: Barren. Using warding spells and militia, Selia has helped lead the forces that protect the Brook from the hordes of demons that appear without fail at nightfall. But lately its seems as if the demons have become more powerful and cunning, and Selia worries about what the dark of the moon will bring, when the demons are at the height of their powers. But Selia has more than demons to worry about. The puritanical Jeorje Watch has slowly been gaining followers, and working to undermine her authority as Speaker. She knows it is only a matter of time before he challenges her for the Speaker’s gavel.

This novella landed on my doorstep courtesy of the publisher, and I decided to give it a try despite the fact that I hadn’t read any of the other Demon Cycle books. Clocking in at 135 pages, it seemed like an easy way to get a taste of a fantasy world that I have heard a lot about from other speculative fiction fans. One caution I had previously been given about Brett’s books is that they contain rape. Barren does not require that content warning, but it does depict other forms of domestic violence, as well as homophobia. A female character is also killed in order to provide a tragic backstory for her lover.

Brett no doubt did a lot of world building and explained his magic system more thoroughly in the main volumes of his series, and probably most readers of this novella will be existing fans. I had to pick things up as I went along, and I suspect I missed plenty of references and foreshadowing that will have resonance for Demon Cycle fans. One interesting thing about his magic system is that it appears to be reversing the aging of the characters who spill demon blood. This includes Selia, who should be entering old age, but is instead experiencing a renewed vigour for life. However, her long-time enemy Jeorje Watch, the oldest man in the Brook, has also benefitted from the magic. Jeorje should have been dead decades ago, along with the secrets he carries about Selia’s past. Jeorje has a long memory, and his isn’t about to forget what was once between Selia and his granddaughter.

Structurally, the novella moves back and forth between Selia’s past, where she lives with her parents, and helps her mother run the local school, and the present where she serves as Speaker, and lives alone, but risks exposure to the community by taking up with a woman five decades her junior. Given the short length of the book, Selia is the only character who feels significantly developed, though by the end I felt I had somewhat of a sense of Jeorje as well. Based on reading synopses for other books in the main series, it does not seem that Selia is a significant character there, so I am not sure if I will continue reading. I am a bit curious to learn more about the magic system based on the small taste I got in Barren.

Have you read the main Demon Cycle novels? Weigh in below in the comments section and let me know if you think it is worth continuing!