Category: Science Fiction

Canada Reads Along: Radicalized

Cover image for Radicalized by Cory Doctorowby Cory Doctorow

ISBN 978-1-250-22858-1

Content Warnings: Racism, xenophobia, medical horror, police brutality.

 “They’re kids. If they understood risks, they wouldn’t join uprisings and march in the streets and the world would be a simpler place. Not a better one, of course. But simpler.”

Radicalized is a collection of four novellas by author, editor, and technology activist Cory Doctorow, a Canadian-born writer who lives in the United States. His fiction is typically set in the U.S. and deals with issues through an American lens, but with nods and references to Canada. The featured works deal with issues including the circumvention of copyright controls, racial bias in predictive policing software, healthcare insurance loopholes, and survivalist billionaires with more money than they know what to do with. That last story takes on a particular new resonance in the age of COVID-19.

The first novella, “Unauthorized Bread” is an Internet-of-Things horror story about a young immigrant who finds herself on the wrong side of copyright law after jailbreaking her internet-connected toaster, which will only toast bread made by authorized bakeries. This story can be read online for free at Ars Technica if you want to get a taste of Radicalized, and is currently under development as both a graphic novel and a television show. It is a story about the small inconveniences and humiliations of poverty, and being controlled by the technology we supposedly own.

Although these are works of fiction, Doctorow’s subjects generally find their inspiration in real life. The most speculative of the stories is “Model Minority,” a sort of Superman fan fiction about a super hero known as the American Eagle. He has a billionaire playboy defense contractor frenemy named Bruce, and an investigative reporter paramour named Lois. However, the story gets very real when the American Eagle decides to take a stand against a group of racist cops who give a Black man a paralyzing beating, enabled by the justification of predictive policing software. An alien among humans, the Eagle is forced to confront human xenophobia, and consider what price he is willing to pay if he draws this line in the sand.

The darkest story in the collection might be the titular Radicalized, which follows a career man named Joe who learns that his wife is dying of cancer on his 36th birthday. He becomes angry and sullen, especially when their insurance refuses to pay for a treatment the company deems too experimental. Soon he finds an internet message board full of other angry men who have lost wives and children despite being insured. Doctorow’s stories typically feature citizens using privacy technologies to empower themselves against overreaching corporations and governments, but this story follows a plotline whereby the Tor privacy browser and the dark web enable aggrieved citizens to plan acts of terrorism under the cloak of anonymity.

The collection closes with “The Masque of the Red Death,” a post-apocalyptic dystopian short about a billionaire who builds a doomsday bunker in the wilds of Arizona for his chosen few. The central character is Martin, a decidedly unlikeable protagonist who comes to hold the power of life and death over the people he has taken under his dubious protection when a pandemic strikes. Unwilling to contribute to rebuilding, Martin instead focuses on hoarding and protecting resources, fancying that this makes him a good leader. When I read this story in early February, I had little idea how relevant it would soon feel. The tagline of the collection, “Dystopia is now” could hardly be more accurate.

Overall, the stories are less than subtle, and often fairly didactic. For example, in “Unauthorized Bread,” Wye gives Salima an impromptu two page tutorial on public-key cryptography while the two women are riding the train. This is a pet issue of Doctorow’s that also feature prominently in his YA novel Little Brother, and if you want to contact him securely, you can find his public key in his Twitter bio.  In “Model Minority,” Lois delivers a two and a half page diatribe about racial bias in predictive policing, which the author even has her acknowledge as such in the text. The only justification for this is that, while didactic, there are certainly people who will find it more palatable to learn these concepts via fiction, which they might not otherwise seek out or consider. However, many science fiction fans will already be thinking about these issues.

After being postponed in March due to COVID-19, the Canada Reads debates began today in a near-empty Toronto studio with host Ali Hassan and defenders Akil Augustine, Kaniehtiio Horn, and Amanda Brugel on-site, while George Canyon and Alayna Fender joined via video link from their homes in Calgary and Vancouver respectively. Radicalized was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by host and producer Akil Augustine, who is known for his work with the Toronto Raptors.

Radicalized was unique at the table in being a collection of novellas, facing off against two memoirs and two novels. Augustine seemed to anticipate that this might be an issue for his book, arguing in his opening statement that one singular story cannot tie together all the many necessary perspectives in the way that a collection can. However, this did not prove to be the focus of his opponent’s arguments. Actor Amanda Brugel brought the first critique, pointing out that three of the four stories in Radicalized were told through the perspectives of angry men, while the one woman of colour protagonist seemed less central to her own story than the toaster (see “Unauthorized Bread”). Indeed, the issue of gender became a flashpoint in the debate, with Augustine arguing that the men in Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club were not well-written and felt flat to him.

The theme for Canada Reads 2020 is “One book to bring Canada into focus,” and host Ali Hassan’s Day One questions focused on asking the defenders how well their books exemplified that theme, and which book at the table was least successful in their opinion. Once again, the debate quickly homed in on Radicalized and Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, while the other three books were much less the center of discussion. Skating under the radar on Day One and avoiding an early elimination can be just as critical as a successful defense. Unsurprisingly, the question of whether Radicalized was sufficiently Canadian came up, a common critique in past Canada Reads debates. While Augustine argued that his book helped us to see how the issues we are facing in Canada are part of broader global issues to which we are connected in the modern world, both Alayna Fender and Kaniehtiio Horn argued that the book was not successful at bringing Canada into focus.

When the time came to cast the ballots, the panel split along gender lines, with Akil Augustine and George Canyon voting against Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, while Alayna Fender, Kaniehtiio Horn, and Amanda Brugel voted together against Radicalized, making it the first book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2020. Akil Augustine remains at the table as this year’s first free agent. 

Full Excerpt: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Thanks for joining me yesterday for the unveiling of part three of the To Sleep in a Sea of Stars sneak peek series. Christopher Paolini’s new science fiction novel is coming September 15, 2020. Part one was revealed by Tor.com on Tuesday, and part two was unleashed by The Mary Sue on Wednesday. Now, if you want to read the full excerpt all in one place, here it is!

Cover image for To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher PaoliniCold fear shot through Kira’s gut.

Together, she and Alan scrambled into their clothes. Kira spared a second of thought for her strange dream—everything felt strange at the moment—and then they hurried out of the cabin and rushed over toward Neghar’s quarters.

As they approached, Kira heard hacking: a deep, wet, ripping sound that made her imagine raw flesh going through a shredder. She shuddered.

Neghar was standing in the middle of the hallway with the others gathered around her, doubled over, hands on her knees, coughing so hard Kira could hear her vocal cords fraying. Fizel was next to her, hand on her back. “Keep breathing,” he said. “We’ll get you to sickbay. Jenan! Alan! Grab her arms, help carry her. Quickly now, qu—”

Neghar heaved, and Kira heard a loud, distinct snap from inside the woman’s narrow chest.

Black blood sprayed from Neghar’s mouth, painting the deck in a wide fan.

Marie-Élise shrieked, and several people retched. The fear from Kira’s dream returned, intensified. This was bad. This was dangerous. “We have to go,” she said, and tugged on Alan’s sleeve. But he wasn’t listening.

“Back!” Fizel shouted. “Everyone back! Someone get the Extenuating Circumstances on the horn. Now!”

“Clear the way!” Mendoza bellowed.

More blood sprayed from Neghar’s mouth, and she dropped to one knee. The whites of her eyes were freakishly wide. Her face was crimson, and her throat worked as if she were choking.

“Alan,” said Kira. Too late; he was moving to help Fizel.

She took a step back. Then another. No one noticed; they were all looking at Neghar, trying to figure out what to do while staying out of the way of the blood flying from her mouth.

Kira felt like screaming at them to leave, to run, to escape.

She shook her head and pressed her fists against her mouth, scared blood was going to erupt out of her as well. Her head felt as if it were about to burst, and her skin was crawling with horror: a thousand ants skittering over every centimeter. Her whole body itched with revulsion.

Jenan and Alan tried to lift Neghar back to her feet. She shook her head and gagged. Once. Twice. And then she spat a clot of something onto the deck. It was too dark to be blood. Too liquid to be metal.

Kira dug her fingers into her arm, scrubbing at it as a scream of revulsion threatened to erupt out of her.

Neghar collapsed backwards. Then the clot moved. It twitched like a clump of muscle hit with an electrical current.

People shouted and jumped away. Alan retreated toward Kira, never taking his eyes off the unformed lump.

Kira dry-heaved. She took another step back. Her arm was burning: thin lines of fire squirming across her skin.

She looked down.

Her nails had carved furrows in her flesh, crimson gashes that ended with crumpled strips of skin. And within the furrows, she saw another something twitch.

 Kira fell to the floor, screaming. The pain was all-consuming. That much she was aware of. It was the only thing she was aware of.

She arched her back and thrashed, clawing at the floor, desperate to escape the onslaught of agony. She screamed again; she screamed so hard her voice broke and a slick of hot blood coated her throat.

She couldn’t breathe. The pain was too intense. Her skin was burning, and it felt as if her veins were filled with acid and her flesh was tearing itself from her limbs.

Dark shapes blocked the light overhead as people moved around her. Alan’s face appeared next to her. She thrashed again, and she was on her stomach, her cheek pressed flat against the hard surface.

Her body relaxed for a second, and she took a single, gasping breath before going rigid and loosing a silent howl. The muscles of her face cramped with the force of her rictus, and tears leaked from the corners of her eyes.

Hands turned her over. They gripped her arms and legs, holding them in place. It did nothing to stop the pain.

“Kira!”

She forced her eyes open and, with blurry vision, saw Alan and, behind him, Fizel leaning toward her with a hypo. Farther back, Jenan, Yugo, and Seppo were pinning her legs to the floor, while Ivanova and Marie-Élise helped Neghar away from the clot on the deck.

“Kira! Look at me! Look at me!”

She tried to reply, but all she succeeded in doing was uttering a strangled whimper.

Then Fizel pressed the hypo against her shoulder. Whatever he injected didn’t seem to have any effect. Her heels drummed against the floor, and she felt her head slam against the deck, again and again.

“Jesus, someone help her,” Alan cried.

“Watch out!” shouted Seppo. “That thing on the floor is moving! Shi—”

“Sickbay,” said Fizel. “Get her to sickbay. Now! Pick her up. Pick—”

The walls swam around her as they lifted her. Kira felt like she was being strangled. She tried to inhale, but her muscles were too cramped. Red sparks gathered around the edges of her vision as Alan and the others carried her down the hallway. She felt as if she were floating; everything seemed insubstantial except the pain and her fear.

A jolt as they dropped her onto Fizel’s exam table. Her abdomen relaxed for a second, just long enough for Kira to steal a breath before her muscles locked back up.

“Close the door! Keep that thing out!” A thunk as the sickbay pressure lock engaged.

“What’s happening?” said Alan. “Is—”

“Move!” shouted Fizel. Another hypo pressed against Kira’s neck.

As if in response, the pain tripled, something she wouldn’t have believed possible. A low groan escaped her, and she jerked, unable to control the motion. She could feel foam gathering in her mouth, clogging her throat. She gagged and convulsed.

“Shit. Get me an injector. Other drawer. No, other drawer!”

“Doc—”

“Not now!”

“Doc, she isn’t breathing!”

Equipment clattered, and then fingers forced Kira’s jaw apart, and someone jammed a tube into her mouth, down her throat. She gagged again. A moment later, sweet, precious air poured into her lungs, sweeping aside the curtain darkening her vision.

Alan was hovering over her, his face contorted with worry.

Kira tried to talk. But the only sound she could make was an inarticulate groan.

“You’re going to be okay,” said Alan. “Just hold on. Fizel’s going to help you.” He looked as if he were about to cry.

Kira had never been so afraid. Something was wrong inside her, and it was getting worse.

Run, she thought. Run! Get away from here before—

Dark lines shot across her skin: black lightning bolts that twisted and squirmed as if alive. Then they froze in place, and where each one lay, her skin split and tore, like the carapace of a molting insect.

Kira’s fear overflowed, filling her with a feeling of utter and inescapable doom. If she could have screamed, her cry would have reached the stars.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars will be published by Tor on September 15, 2020. Can’t wait? Check out interviews, excerpts, wallpapers and more right now!

Excerpt: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Kira Navárez dreamed of finding life on new worlds. Now she has awakened a nightmare.

Author photo Christopher Paolini
Christopher Paolini was born in Southern California, and has lived most of his life in Paradise Valley, Montana.

Have you heard? Christopher Paolini, author of Eragon, has a new science fiction novel for adults dropping September 15, 2020! Given that Paolini might be described as the first SFF author of my own generation, I was pretty excited to hear this news from Tor. For those not in the know, Paolini published his first novel in 2003 at the age of 19, and quickly became a publishing phenomenon. His Inheritance Cycle—Eragon and its three sequels—have sold nearly 40 million copies worldwide. It’s been nearly a decade since Inheritance was published, so I’m thrilled to feature the final installment of a teaser excerpt from To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. You can find part one of the excerpt at Tor.com and part two at The Mary Sue. So what is the new novel about? 

According to the publisher, this epic novel follows Kira Navárez, who, during a routine survey mission on an uncolonized planet, finds an alien relic that thrusts her into the wonders and the nightmares of first contact. Epic space battles for the fate of humanity take her to the farthest reaches of the galaxy and, in the process, transform not only her ― but the entire course of history.

One woman. The will to survive. The hope of humanity.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Cover image for To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini“Jesus, someone help her,” Alan cried.

“Watch out!” shouted Seppo. “That thing on the floor is moving! Shi—”

“Sickbay,” said Fizel. “Get her to sickbay. Now! Pick her up. Pick—”

The walls swam around her as they lifted her. Kira felt like she was being strangled. She tried to inhale, but her muscles were too cramped. Red sparks gathered around the edges of her vision as Alan and the others carried her down the hallway. She felt as if she were floating; everything seemed insubstantial except the pain and her fear.

A jolt as they dropped her onto Fizel’s exam table. Her abdomen relaxed for a second, just long enough for Kira to steal a breath before her muscles locked back up.

“Close the door! Keep that thing out!” A thunk as the sickbay pressure lock engaged.

“What’s happening?” said Alan. “Is—”

“Move!” shouted Fizel. Another hypo pressed against Kira’s neck.

As if in response, the pain tripled, something she wouldn’t have believed possible. A low groan escaped her, and she jerked, unable to control the motion. She could feel foam gathering in her mouth, clogging her throat. She gagged and convulsed.

“Shit. Get me an injector. Other drawer. No, other drawer!”

“Doc—”

“Not now!”

“Doc, she isn’t breathing!”

Equipment clattered, and then fingers forced Kira’s jaw apart, and someone jammed a tube into her mouth, down her throat. She gagged again. A moment later, sweet, precious air poured into her lungs, sweeping aside the curtain darkening her vision.

Alan was hovering over her, his face contorted with worry.

Kira tried to talk. But the only sound she could make was an inarticulate groan.

“You’re going to be okay,” said Alan. “Just hold on. Fizel’s going to help you.” He looked as if he were about to cry.

Kira had never been so afraid. Something was wrong inside her, and it was getting worse.

Run, she thought. Run! Get away from here before—

Dark lines shot across her skin: black lightning bolts that twisted and squirmed as if alive. Then they froze in place, and where each one lay, her skin split and tore, like the carapace of a molting insect.

Kira’s fear overflowed, filling her with a feeling of utter and inescapable doom. If she could have screamed, her cry would have reached the stars.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars will be published by Tor on September 15, 2020. Can’t wait? Check out interviews, excerpts, wallpapers and more right now! Or check back tomorrow for the full excerpt!

Chaos Reigning (Consortium Rebellion #3)

Cover image for Chaos Reigning by Jessie Mihalikby Jessie Mihalik

ISBN 978-0-06-280242-2

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

“I dared to dream of more.”

With all her siblings out fighting or spying in the war between House von Hasenburg and House Rockhurst, youngest sister Catarina is stuck at home on Earth, serving as a political surrogate for her conniving parents. Protected and beloved by her older siblings, Cat longs to make a more substantial contribution, but her carefully constructed public mask as a vapid socialite means that all she can really do for House von Hasenburg is marry someone who will back them in the war. But then an invitation from House James to a particularly exclusive party offers Cat the chance to find out if House James was responsible for her brother Ferdinand’s kidnapping. But her older sister Bianca is on to her maneuvering, and she insists on sending two mercenaries, Aoife and Alex, to guard Cat’s back. Only, in order to get Alex into the heart of House James, Cat will have to pretend he is her date, not her body guard.

Like Bianca in Aurora Blazing, Cat has a secret, only in addition to being afraid of being used by their ruthless father, she owes her life to illegal genetic modifications that would make her very existence criminal under Royal Consortium law. Despite the efforts of her older siblings to protect her, Cat has had to become a ruthless dissembler, using social power as a pointed weapon. But the events of Chaos Reigning call for Cat to tear down her carefully crafted public façade, and reveal the intelligence and competence she has been hiding. No doubt the really interesting part of her story comes later, when she has irrevocably revealed the truth, and has to carve a new path forward alongside her ambitious best friend, Ying Yamado.

As a love interest, Alex is more in the tradition of Aurora Blazing’s Ian than Polaris Rising’s Marcus. In fact his main weakness might be that he isn’t sufficiently distinguished, and the fact that he and Cat are keeping secrets from one another means that we don’t really get to know him better. The reader actually knows more about him from his side role in Aurora Blazing than Cat does, and that is still precious little to go on in terms of character development. His main appeal is that he is handsome, and that he will back Cat’s manoeuvres even when they are dangerous. Luckily, I’m a bit of a sucker for a fake dating trope, so I put aside my skepticism and went along for the ride, which was slower burn on the romance, and rollicking in the adventure department.

Consortium Rebellion is a trilogy, making this the final installment in the series. Honestly, it seems like it could go for another book, in order to resolve the Syndicate plotline, not to mention the final fate of the faster than light technology that started the war to begin with. I know I would definitely read a team up novel where the von Hasenberg sisters take on the galaxy together! But it seems that instead Jessie Mihalik will return with a new series about intergalactic bounty hunters, due out in 2022.

You might also like Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes

A Pale Light in the Black

Cover image for A Pale Light in the Dark by K. B. Wagers by K.B. Wagers

ISBN 978-0-06-288778-5

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

 “Look. You’ve stumbled into trouble beyond recall. You can’t run far enough away from this. I could give the lot of you more money to just walk away right now—more than you’ll see in your entire military career. You don’t know what you’re messing with.”

After a narrow loss at the 100th Boarding Games, Commander Rosa Martín Rivas and the crew of Zuma’s Ghost head back to Jupiter Station, where they are posted as part of the Near-Earth Orbital Guard, or NeoG, the solar system’s Coast Guard. The crew is still smarting from their loss at the Boarding Games, when Nika, their lieutenant, receives a promotion which means they will lose their best swordsman in exchange for a new officer they are worried will be more status than substance. Maxine Carmichael is a brand new officer in the NeoG. After defying her influential family’s tradition of entering the Navy—which focuses on science and space exploration—Max is determined to make her own choices, and find her own place in the universe. But she will have a hard task proving herself and winning over the crew of Zuma’s Ghost, especially Nika’s adopted sister Jenks.

The crew is comprised of a variety of interesting characters headed by Commander Rosa, a member of the Earth-Bound Church who has received a dispensation from her pastor to serve off of God’s Green Earth—provided she doesn’t leave the solar system. She has left a wife and two daughters behind at home, along with her extremely orthodox mother. Her Master Chief is Ma Léi, a retired Navy officer who also happens to be a friend of Max’s father. Instead of taking his retirement, Ma signed up for second career in the NeoG, fully enjoying the long life and health afforded by LifeEx, the revolutionary medical treatment invented by Max’s great-great-grandfather, Alexander Carmichael. They are joined by master hacker Ensign Nell Zika aka Sapphi, and Petty Officer Uchida Tamashini aka Tamago (they/them), and of course, Petty Officer Altandai Khan, aka Jenks, the brash but undefeated fighter and brilliant mechanic who loves fiercely but doesn’t trust easily. For future installments, I’d like to see more development for Sapphi and Tamago, who get short shrift in this volume.

Although not positioned as the main character, a lot of the heart of this story revolves around Jenks. One of the highlights is the slowly warming relationship between Jenks and Max, as Max figures out how to be the kind of officer and teammate a firebrand like Jenks needs. Meanwhile, Jenks has a longstanding friends with benefits arrangement with Luis Armstrong, a widow who is stationed back on Earth with his two young sons. They are positioned on the edge of something more, if only Jenks could stop trying to run away. While not the protagonist as such, Jenks is definitely the life of the party, and the heart of the crew.

I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by this story, which takes military sci-fi in an unexpected direction. Far from focusing on closely described battles and military expansionism, A Pale Light in the Dark is instead tightly focused on the crew of Zuma’s Ghost, their found family relationship, and their commitment to being the best crew in the service so that they can fulfill their mission to help those who become lost or stranded in space. The timeline of the story is built around the countdown to the next Boarding Games, which Rosa is desperate to have NeoG win for the first time. There is also a slow-burning mystery surrounding a long-missing freighter that the crew reclaims from a mysterious band of smugglers. After simmering throughout the novel, this plot thread comes to a slightly rushed conclusion, but I think there is room to further explore the ramifications later in the series. I’d love a deeper dive into the economics and morality of LifeEx, which must either be paid for, or earned through military service.

You might also like:

Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Aurora Blazing (Consortium Rebellion #2)

Cover image for Aurora Blazing by Jessie Mihalik by Jessie Mihalik

ISBN 978-0-06-28241-5

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

 “I would personally storm the gates of hell for any of my brothers or sisters. To claim otherwise was to fundamentally misunderstand me as a person.”

With House von Hasenberg at war with House Rockhurst over the rare mineral called alcubium that will revolutionize faster than light travel, tensions are running high, even in the neutral territory of Serenity. When Bianca, daughter of House von Hasenberg, is attacked, and her brother, Ferdinand, heir to the House is kidnapped, the Rockhursts seem like the natural suspects, but something more complicated seems to be afoot. Bianca deals in information, and thanks to a cruel experiment conducted by her dead husband, she has unique code cracking abilities that no one can know about, not even Ian Bishop, Director of Security for House von Hasenberg. Bianca knows that together they would be an unstoppable force, if only she could convince Ian to stop protecting her, and start working with her to find Ferdinand and bring him home before it is too late.

In the second volume of the Consortium Rebellion trilogy, Jessie Mihalik shifts her attention to the recently widowed Bianca, who is still recovering from the abuse she endured at the hands of her husband in an unhappy political marriage. Bianca is back home in House von Hasenberg, quietly working intelligence for her family, while rumours fly through Consortium society that she murdered her husband. Bianca pretends to mourn, when in fact she is guarding a deadly secret; Gregory was using her as a guinea pig in a science experiment. Thanks to his work, she can pick up and decrypt electronic signals, though the barrage often leaves her head pounding, and her guts churning with nausea. Even her father cannot be let in on the secret, because the ruthless Albrecht von Hasenberg has already demonstrated that he will use his daughters to gain an edge, however small, and the technology implanted in Bianca’s body is priceless. Her time trapped in Gregory’s lab has left her physically weakened, but those limitations only make her a more compelling heroine. What she lacks in physical stamina she more than makes up for with wits and poise.

Like Polaris Rising, Aurora Blazing is as much romance as sci-fi adventure, and will appeal most to readers who enjoy both. Bianca’s love interest is Ian, the mysterious Head of Security. Seven years ago, he was her bodyguard, but back then he spurned her advances to further his determination to rise quickly through the ranks. Ian is somewhat less of an alpha love interest than Marcus Loch was in the first volume, which I found more appealing, though his insistence on ignoring Bianca’s wishes was still infuriating. After being spurned seven years earlier, establishing trust is key if Bianca and Ian are ever to have a relationship, and this is made more difficult by the fact that he technically works for her conniving father, who decidedly does not have her best interests at heart. The tension between them is a slow, cautious burn that lasts through the book.

The first volume of the series focused on Bianca’s younger sister, Ada, and her love interest, Marcus, a supersoldier who escaped a secret government experiment. Ada, Marcus and their allies have a role to play in Aurora Blazing, though Bianca and Ian take center stage. I enjoyed the sibling relationships portrayed between the von Hasenbergs in Polaris Rising, and that continues to be a strong feature in Aurora Blazing. Ada provides critical support to Bianca in her mission to save their oldest brother, and Bianca’s twin Benedict also features, though not as much as I would have hoped. The most interesting glimpse is Catarina, the youngest von Hasenberg, who all the older siblings have strived to protect from their parents’ brutal machinations. But Catarina is beginning to chafe at being constantly sheltered and sidelined, despite her obvious smarts and resourcefulness. She will not be content to sit by for long. The final installment of the trilogy will follow Catarina’s adventures, as her father determines to make her a political match that will solidify their House’s position in the war with the Rockhursts—but Catarina has other plans. Look for Chaos Reigning in May 2020.

You might also like Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep

Chilling Effect

Cover image for Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes by Valerie Valdes

ISBN 978-0-06-2877239

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

 “I’m not working for you filthy bastards. I won’t even work for my own father, and he’s a saint compared to you.”

As captain of La Sirena Negra, Eva Innocente does her best to find honest work for her crew of misfits, human and alien alike. After finally getting out from under the thumb of her dishonest father, and her manipulative first employer due to a job gone disastrously wrong, she finally has a chance to deal fairly, on her own terms. But when Eva’s sister, Mari, is kidnapped by a mysterious crime syndicate known as The Fridge, she has no choice but to take on some shady deals. Can someone as rash and accident prone as Eva really pull off a rescue, especially when she is trying to keep it a secret from her crew? And if that wasn’t bad enough, Eva has attracted the ire of an egomaniacal alien emperor by refusing his amorous advances. Plus, she has a cargo hold full of troublesome psychic cats, and no buyer in sight.

In many space operas, the ship is as much a character as any of the people or aliens. This is certainly how Eva feels about La Sirena Negra, a ship she got from her father after a job gone particularly badly, and the vehicle for her new life where she can set her own rules. However, La Sirena Negra is part and parcel with Min, the pilot who is so jacked into the ship’s systems that she regards it as an extension of her own body. Also on board are the ship’s medic, and Eva’s long-time best friend, Pink, and Leroy, a damaged ex-merc who was used as “meat puppet” in a remotely controlled army. The engineer, and Eva’s love interest, is the charmingly literal Vakar, a quennian with a mysterious past who can’t help but share his emotions through his ever-shifting scent signals. Eva herself is a pretty salty character, fully of punchy dialogue in both English and Spanish. The unitalicized, untranslated Spanish is peppered throughout, and while it isn’t necessary to translate to get the gist, pop a few words into your favourite translator if you want to learn some interesting new insults.

Valerie Valdes clearly likes to play with tropes, of which women in refrigerators is the most central. Usually, this refers to a male protagonist’s female love interest being murdered to serve as motivation for a revenge storyline. In Chilling Effect, the woman in a refrigerator is Eva’s sister, Mari, except that Mari isn’t dead; she’s being held in cryostasis to ensure that Eva submits to the demands of the shadowy crime syndicate that has taken her sister hostage. While Eva’s found family is comprised of a compelling cast of characters, her biological family is a little less likeable. Unfortunately, we don’t meet Mari, or know much about their sibling relationship before her sister is turned into leverage.

I was a bit disappointed that the cats didn’t play a more central role in the story, because everyone knows that if you introduce psychic space cats in act one, you should make good use of them by act three. But they do add to the atmosphere of La Sirena Negra, and I can hope that they will feature more prominently as the series continues. The trade paperback includes a preview chapter for the next installment, Prime Deception, which will deal with the fall out of Eva’s misadventures in Chilling Effect.

You might also like:
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

The Winds of Marque by Bennett R. Coles

Spaceside (Planetside #2)

Cover image for Spaceside by Michael Mammayby Michael Mammay

ISBN 978-0-06-269468-3

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

 “You seem to think of Cappans as a homogenous group… I would suggest to you that they’re as diverse in their thinking as humans.”

Having walked free despite his decision to annihilate much of the population of Cappa, Colonel Carl Butler has started a new life on Talca Four, home to the galaxy’s military bureaucracy. Forced into retirement, Butler now has a nominal civilian title as Deputy VP of Corporate Security at a tech firm that mostly keeps him around for the optics. Divorced and living alone, Butler continues to grapple with his guilt, his infamy, and what the future holds for a man known as the Scourge of Cappa. Then his boss entrusts him with a secret assignment to investigate a rumoured security breach at a rival firm that holds important military contracts. Soon Butler’s sources are turning up dead, and he realizes that what he has gotten himself into is more than a simple hack, and that the stolen information may cost him his life.

Spaceside picks up about two years after the events of Planetside, when Colonel Butler found himself maneuvered between a rock and a hard place, and chose to take the fate of Cappa and its people into his own hands. He thought his decision would eliminate the hybrid super soldiers that were the result of secret military experiments on Cappa, but now, on the streets of Talca Four, he keeps thinking he sees humans with Cappan eyes. Is he finally succumbing to the guilt of all the murders he committed, or just losing his mind? A hero to some, and a pariah to others, Butler has few people he can trust to help him unravel the mystery, and find out whether any of the hybrids made it off Cappa.

Spaceside leans more towards sci-fi mystery or spy novel than military fiction, with only a couple of prolonged tactical engagements, one of which actually takes place in the context of a VR game. Most of the military elements of this installment come in the final pages, when Butler unexpectedly finds himself deployed with a private mercenary corps. Although two years have passed since the events on Cappa, it is clear that they still continue to profoundly affect Butler’s mental health, and cause him to question himself. While we do not land in the immediate aftermath of the mental health consequences of such a deployment, the reverberations are felt as he chooses a path forward, and ponders whether any kind of atonement is even possible in such a situation.

It is a tricky thing to keep a reader’s sympathy with a character who is arguably a war criminal. Butler has charisma, but he also continues to use people to get what he wants, even when that puts them in danger. That he begins to think about atonement, and to see the Cappans in a more nuanced light is small consolation for the continued casualties, even though Butler is merely a cog in an overall corrupt system. If Planetside showed the military in that light, Spaceside turns its attention to how corporate interests perpetuate and profit from the problems of imperialism. A third as yet untitled Carl Butler story is slated for a likely 2020 release.

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