Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

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 Before I begin, thank you to Tammy for prompting me to read this – it was exactly what I needed while our house was full of plasterers and dust and mess. Good call!

 

Worst line in the book: “I told you I’d give you the moon one day. You only had to be patient with me.” (Firstly, bleugh! Secondly, epic fail! Thirdly, the most ridiculous thing to say to anyone … ever.)

Best line in the book: “Dr Lennox, release the dolphins!” (*maniacal laughter*)

 

I am a huge wimp when it comes to horror. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy reading or watching it, just that I have three unbendable rules: one, always in daylight; two, never in a cinema; and three, with a cuddly toy on standby. I read this only on my bus rides into work and with my smallest toy, Dink, on hand in my bag.

Into the Drowning Deep is the full-length follow up to Grant’s novella Rolling in the Deep. I didn’t know this going in, and it makes me a tad twitchy not to have read the novella first, but as the fate of the first ship, the Atargatis, is pretty neatly summarised at the beginning of the novel and I don’t have any means of getting hold of the novella I am letting it go.

In terms of pacing Drowning Deep reminded me a lot of Jaws. After a brief hint of the danger to come Grant takes her time introducing the reader to a variety of characters and manoeuvring them into place before cutting them off from civilisation and giving her Big Bad free rein. There’s also a similar reflection on humanity’s relationship with the sea – where Jaws focuses on our love of beaches and the sunny shoreline, in Drowning Deep it’s whale-watching trips and yachting, but both that movie and this book show what happens when we forget just how deep and wide the sea is and how little we know about what’s down there. I might be reading too much into it, but I felt that Grant might be suggesting that man-eating mermaids were humanity’s comeuppance for our exploitation and poisoning of the ocean. Certainly she goes to some lengths to point out just how much damage has been done to the planet by 2022, the year in which the book is set, and how that has impacted the big blue.

If I have any criticism to make it’s that perhaps the set-up was a smidge overlong. Grant’s a good writer and I was interested enough in everything she had to say, but as it went on I did begin to get confused about what was relevant information and what was just scene setting. That said, I was both amused and impressed by how many times she managed to work sea-related things into her descriptions of the characters during this introductory section. (I wish I’d written them all down now because I’ve just tried to skim through the first few chapters to find some examples and can’t see any … grrr).

Once the Melusine gets underway however, the long wait proves totally worth it. The first sighting of a mermaid is so perfectly done I was holding my breath while reading it. I’m happier than most to suspend my disbelief in the interests of hearing a good story (I mean, that goes with the SFF territory, no?), and I was really into Grant’s grey-skinned, saucer-eyed, eel-like mermaids. For the duration of the novel they felt like something that could be real. And Thumbs and I watch more than our fair share of documentaries on sea life and there’s some pretty weird stuff out there already, so heck, why not mermaids too? Especially Ultimate Predator we-eat-whales-for-breakfast type mermaids – so much fun!

I was less believing when it came to the passengers and the arrangements aboard of the Melusine. Even if you are an entertainment network, if you’ve previously sent out a boat to encounter mermaids that is not only lost with all hands but also leaves you with footage of creatures devouring the crew, and you then decide to send out a second course, the absolute least you would do (and maybe I’m being unreasonable here) is make sure strong, working defences were provided and that your security team was actually capable as well as good-looking. Sure, you want to prove to the world that that previous footage wasn’t a hoax, but since you already know you didn’t fake it, surely you’d do all you could to ensure the safety of the people entrusted with bringing home proof for the world to see. No? Just me then.

And I know it’s standard practice for most characters in horror scenarios to make stupid decisions that lead to their up-close-and-with-extra-blood-spatter deaths, but there are some especially stupid decisions made in Drowning Deep that made me just a little bit cross. First prize in this category goes, appropriately enough, to the first person to die in the book. I’m pretty sure a scientist with extensive experience in submersibles would know that “please remain calm and return to the surface” was not a negotiable request. But then I was also reasonably sure that in the event of an ex-boyfriend’s unexplained and clearly unusual death on a ship under attack from clearly unusual predators the ex-girlfriend wouldn’t be hauled up in front of the ship’s captain to prove her innocence – just shows what I know.

There are a couple of silly characters that feel a bit unnecessary in an otherwise pretty cool cast. Yes, Jason, Dr Lyons, I’m referring to the both of you, you spiteful and utterly selfish individuals. Maybe you’re there just to prove that not all smart people are reasonable, but I knew that already so you are superfluous, and ridiculous human beings to boot. Theo’s a bit of a jerk too, but in a much more understandable fashion, and he’s completely eclipsed by his wife Dr Jillian Toth anyhow. I want to be Dr Toth – she’s got style. A woman who’s been ridiculed for much of her professional life for her insistence on the existence of mermaids, she doesn’t once crow about it when she’s proved right. And she’s got nearly all the best lines. Tory and Olivia are the on-board romance, which I hate to say I found kinda sweet and not at all over done, and they’re both cool characters in their own right, even if I remain completely unconvinced by Tory’s reasons for being on the trip. Ray was briefly awesome; Luis also and for longer; Heather, Holly and Hallie were interesting; Daryl and Gregory were bland; and Michi and Jacques downright troubling.

All in all, I enjoyed this a lot. As much for the good stuff as for the bad. After all, what’s the point of a scary story if you can’t shout ‘idiot!’ and ‘don’t open that door!’ at the oblivious, soon-to-be-dead characters doing all manner of stupid things? I get the impression that there may be a sequel. Certainly there were a couple of pretty big things not really tied up in any satisfactory way. And I wouldn’t be averse to seeing how Dr Toth, Tory, Olivia and company are doing down the line in a world that has learned that mermaids are real. And all kinds of terrifying.

 

 

 

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To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer

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I know I’m cutting it a bit fine with only three days to go until the end of Vintage Science Fiction Month, but here I am *waves*. I was really looking forward to this month, and while I knew I wasn’t going to be able to read or post loads, I definitely wanted to take part. And I wanted to read something awesome. So I picked 1972 Hugo Award winner To Your Scattered Bodies Go by a new-to-me-author and with a truly awful cover because if you’re going to do something it’s worth doing well …

What happened next went a little something like this:

Settling down to read: “Ho ho, what a cover! I’m in for a treat.”

Upon reaching chapter five: “Erm, this seems mighty sexist, but hey, it won the Hugo, it’ll be worth it …”

By chapter nine: “Burton is an arsehole! … Farmer is an arsehole!”

… increasingly disgruntled silence until …

Chapter fifteen: “Hermann Göring?!! You’re kidding me!”

… more silence occasionally punctuated with expletives until the end when …

“There’s going to be more of this crap?! No, absolutely not! No fricking way!” *throws book across room*

(Well, ok, I didn’t actually throw it, I’m not an arsehole, but I did scoot it forcefully across the floor).

That was nearly two weeks ago. Having collected my thoughts, I shall now deliver my considered opinion on To Your Scattered Bodies Go. It won’t take long.

 

First, let’s really appreciate that cover art in all its glory:

Isn’t it fabulous? I bought a nice little stack of older scifi while Thumbs and I were in Hay-on-Wye one weekend, merrily collecting up the most lurid book jackets I could find, and this is far and away my favourite.

 

So, Scattered Bodies won the Hugo Award. The other nominees were The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin, Dragonquest by Anne McCaffrey, Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny and A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg. Go figure. I think I need to go find out a bit more about how the Hugo works, who nominates and who votes and such like, because I can’t understand why Farmer’s book won.

The story is fairly straightforward. Richard Francis Burton (best known for translating One Thousand and One Nights in 1885), wakes after his death on the planet that comes to be known as Riverworld along with every other person who ever lived on earth (plus the alien Monat Grrautut). It is a seeming paradise, temperate and unspoiled, in which most of humanity’s needs are met. Humanity therefore proceeds to ruin this second chance by fighting, enslaving and discriminating against one another. A number of historic personages make cameo appearances, including Hermann Göring who gets a repeat performance. Burton decides to find the source of the great River and learn the reason for humanity’s mass resurrection.

I grew up with books like The Swiss Family Robinson and The Coral Island, and later Walkabout and The Lord of the Flies, and I used to make my own spears and stone knives and build dens out in the woods in the belief that disaster was definitely headed my way and I was going to need to know how to look after myself. By the time I was a teenager I had an emergency bag hung by my bed filled with fire-starting paraphernalia, a decent knife and whet stone, and some basic first aid equipment because the nuclear holocaust seemed very real and extremely likely. I always had a plan for how to get out of the house in case of fire or break-in, which I would run over in my mind before going to sleep each night. I was a tense kid. And while I’m way more relaxed now, I do still love stories of survival and ingenuity in a challenging environment.

This is the only reason I can think of for why I read through to the end of Scattered Bodies. I enjoyed the stone knapping at the beginning, and the hut making, and I liked the Neanderthal Kazz. I even enjoyed the boat building. Burton is an arsehole from beginning to end with no saving grace, but some of the survival elements of the story were interesting and the mystery of why everyone is on Riverworld was compelling. In a parallel universe Tim Powers has written this book and I love it. Ooo, in another Farmer has written it from Kazz’s POV, and I love that too.

However, in this universe I was too frustrated by other elements of the book to really appreciate it. I’ve mentioned the sexism already. There’s a lot of info-dumping, time expands and contracts annoyingly, most of the characters are flat and the ending didn’t feel like a satisfying payoff after all the travelling and dying that goes on. And if you’ve given yourself the whole of humanity as your cast you could surely dig up some more interesting and diverse characters than a handful of Victorians, a Nazi and a thinly veiled version of yourself (Peter Jairus Frigate? Really?). I know Farmer is a big name in Science Fiction. I can see that the idea behind Riverworld is really pretty cool, that bringing all of the different cultures and beliefs of humanity into direct contact should make for a fascinating story. Unfortunately, I didn’t find it fascinating. This just wasn’t a book written for me. 

Therefore, this was both my first and probably my last Philip José Farmer novel. I mean, I’m not saying I’ll never read another, but it’s going to take a compelling and well-argued case and a PowerPoint presentation to get me to read something else by him. Ha! And I’m looking forward to that presentation!

 

 

Guest Post: How to Survive Blogger Burnout by Little Red Reviewer

 

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I am super excited to host today one of my favourite bloggers Andrea Johnson a.k.a. Little Red Reviewer. Andrea has run her book review blog since 2010 and has published over 400 reviews covering all sorts of science fiction, fantasy, and everything in between. She is also the creator of #VintageSciFiMonth which happens every January (do it do it do it!!! … no pressure), and has organized read-alongs and blog tours. She was a contributor to SFSignal and is currently the author interviewer at Apex Magazine.

Andrea lives with her husband in a college town in Michigan and their home looks like a library that exploded, which is the best kind of home.

And the really, really exciting thing is that in January 2019 Andrea will be running a Kickstarter to print a book The Best of Little Red Reviewer. Squeeeeeeeeee!!!

So, without further ado (and I’ve always wanted to say this!) let me hand over to Andrea:

 

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How to Survive Blogger Burnout

The biggest pitfall a book blogger will ever face is burnout. It looks a little like this:

I don’t want to write a blog post. I don’t even want to look at my blog! Starting a blog was a terrible idea!

Have you ever said those words? If yes, you’ve experienced blogger burnout. It happens to all of us. I’m not sure if there is a way to avoid it, but I can give you some tips on surviving it. You know why you have to survive it? Because if you don’t get through it your blog will die.

Lots of bloggers talk about blogger burnout, and it’s an important discussion to have. It’s a real thing, it happens to everyone. Don’t be in denial, learn the signs, and think ahead about how you’ll deal with it.

Feeling like you’re on the horizon of blogger burnout? Here are some tips to get you in a better direction?

1. Read a comfort read. What book always makes you smile and makes you feel good about the world? Read it, and don’t review it. Take some time to read for pleasure without the pressure of thinking about a review.

2. Write some blog posts that a different format than your usual. Do you usually post book reviews? Change it up! Post about other interesting things in your life – your garden, what you’re studying at school, music you like, recipes you like, your cute dog, a neat store in your town. You’ll be happily surprised to read in your comments that your readers are also taking classes, or have a cute dog, or like the same kind of music, or are growing those same plants in their garden.

3. Announce a hiatus. Do a blog post that you’re taking a 2 week blogging break to refresh and regroup. Your readers will support you because they don’t want you to get burned out.

4. It’s really, really easy to get burned out on super long books. 700 pages takes me a week at least to read! Novellas are a wonderful, wonderful thing! All the adventure and fun of a doorstopper, in only 120 pages!

5. Do a meme, or three! It’s Monday what are you reading, Teaser Tuesday, Waiting on Wednesday, Mailbox Mondays. There are tons of super fun book blogger memes that can be just the thing when you’re on the edge of burnout. Do a meme post, and use meme links to network with new bloggers and get excited about blogging all over again.

6. It’s ok to do a post that you are feeling burned out. It’s ok to change up the format of your blog to make blogging easier. It’s ok to post less often if that will help you feel less burned out.

7. I hate to end on this sad note, but it’s ok to let intense blogger burnout be the signpost that it is: that maybe it’s time for your blog to die. Blogs aren’t forever, and you’ve got another exciting project right around the corner!

 

I’ve experienced my share of blogger burnout. Sometimes it was caused to trying to do too much on the blog, sometimes it was caused by life getting in the way and I was afraid I’d never have time to blog again. One day the burn out will be so intense that I’ll know it’s time to let the blog die.

I want my best work to live longer than my blog. That’s why I’m Kickstarting The Best of Little Red Reviewer, a print book that will showcase my best reviews, the blog posts I’m most proud of. My work will survive blogger burnout, it will survive if WordPress as a platform doesn’t, it will survive if the internet evolves into who knows what.

Wanna know more about the Kickstarter? Click here for more info, and follow me on twitter for daily updates.

 

 

 

Advice needed … (is it too dramatic to say this may be the end of the world?!)

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This may well be the bloggy equivalent of drunk-calling a friend after a bad date, but as I’ve never done that I figure I’m allowed this one.

 

I am hoping for some advice.

 

I had a panic attack earlier this evening. Or a heart attack. It was hard to tell at the time, but since I find myself still standing now, if a bit shaky, I figure it was the former. Ok, ok, if I’m being honest, and serious, and without getting too touchy-feely-sharey, I had a whole string of panic attacks a few years back so I know that’s what this was.

 

Because … and this is where you all laugh your arses off at me … I’m in a reading funk. I just can’t. December is a busy month for most people, I know, and ours has been no exception. We’ve had our fair share of extra-curricular activity: errands to run, people to see, parcels to deliver, meals to make … yaddah yaddah yaddah. And since the beginning of the month I’ve not picked up anything I could get into. China Mieville’s The Scar currently lies waiting on my desk upstairs where I left it at page 125. Bird Box by Josh Malerman has been abandoned by the fireplace. Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda is on the bedroom windowsill, along with Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus and Peter Ackroyd’s Tudors. I tried to start a children’s book this morning on the bus ride to work in the hope that something easier would grab me, but nope. I read the first two chapters, but I don’t know what I read. Nothing went in.

 

And I really need reading. I mean, I love it, I get a kick out of it, but I also need to be able to leave the real world behind and lose myself in the pages of a book.

 

It’s starting to wig me out that I can’t do that at the moment. If I were to write out exactly what’s going through my mind right now it goes something like this: What the hell is going on? I love to read and need to read and I need it now and I don’t want to relax and wait and see what happens because there are so many books and so little time as it is and January is Vintage SciFi Month and I already had a rough plan of what I was going to read for that and I had plans for the rest of the year and I have a tantalising pile of books that should all be making me feel bubbly and excited and are instead making me feel panicky/despairing in about equal measure.

 

So that’s what’s going on with me. How’re you doing?

 

Please … please, if you have any sort of advice I’d really appreciate it. I know I haven’t been around much the last couple of months and that I’ve not caught up on all your awesome posts and that I’ve no right to expect advice therefore, but I’d be grateful for anything right now. Has anyone had reading-block before? Does anyone get what I’m on about?

 

Arghhhhhh …

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

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This is a very cool locked room murder mystery in space. As such, anything I really want to say about it will be a spoiler.

Dagnabbit.

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I enjoyed Mur Lafferty’s Shambling Guide to New York City earlier this year, but that in no way prepared me for Six Wakes, which is in a whole different league – tense, fast-paced and un-put-down-able. Whereas upon finishing Shambling Guide I was feeling both impressed and a little disappointed, after reading Six Wakes I am nothing but captivated.

The basic set up is as follows: The six clones that make up the crew of the generational starship Dormire (an Italian word meaning ‘to sleep’ – d’you see what she did there?) awake simultaneously in their vats to find their previous selves have all died in violent ways. The ships logs have been wiped and the clones have no memories beyond their initial launch, which they soon discover was twenty-five years ago. All that is really obvious to them is that one of them must be the killer. But who? And how? And what on earth for?

The story is then structured around six ‘awakenings’, as Maria, Katrina, Joanna, Hiro, Wolfgang and Paul try to piece together what has happened to them, both in their present situation and in their past lives. As you’d expect from any murder mystery lots of secrets are revealed and opinions and allegiances change as discoveries are made, but all the characters are brilliantly written and the plot is very satisfying. Cloning and how it has both divided and changed society is at the crux of the story, and I would have read this for Lafferty’s vision of that future alone even without its gooey mystery centre, (I’ve made a note-to-self to seek out more scifi dealing with cloning, so if anyone has any suggestions please let me know).

And having reached the limit of what I can say without giving any of the good stuff away, here, instead, is a blow-by-blow account of how reading this book went for me:

 

Pages 1 to 22 – dead bodies in zero-g     messy and gross, but I like Hiro from the get go

Page 59 – Maria keeps an old kettle, tea and honey for emergencies    now I like Maria too

Page 76 – Maria finds her video     uh-oh

Page 78 – Hiro finds his video     double uh-oh

Page 84 – Paul     I’m watching you Paul. I don’t like you Paul.

Page 112 – IAN     Hmmm, are you a HAL? Or a GERTY?

Page 151 – Aunt Lucia     WTF???

Page 179 – Hiro has some sort of mental break     No, no! I like Hiro! Also, it can’t be that simple can it? We’re not even halfway yet 

Page 228 – Paul     Boo! Hiss!

Page 240 – Wolfgang’s backstory     Oh man! That is f***ed up!

Page 271 to 287 – Maria     And it’s all starting to make sense now – this is bad bad bad *rocking back and forth* But also the Mrs Perkins thing is pretty AWESOME

Page 298     Oh crap!

Page 302     Oh double crap!

Page 314     crapcrapcrapcrapcrap…

Page 344    …crapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrap

Page 353 – Bebe      and breathe again *lying down on floor while heartrate returns to baseline* 

 

In conclusion, read this book. It’ll only take a couple of hours of your life. If you hate it, fine, that’s just a couple of hours lost and it’ll make you a better person (adversity is supposed to do that). But if you love it … well, then we can grab a cuppa and some cake and have a chat about cloning as a method of attaining immortality, and the limits of culpability. And you’re welcome!

Alien Earth by Megan Lindholm

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I don’t know how long I’m going to manage coherency here, before this just becomes one long gush of everything I loved about this book, but I’ll give it a go.

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Megan Lindholm (A.K.A. Robin Hobb), writes characters and the tensions between them so, so well that I found myself gnawing at my knuckles and completely unable to disengage over the two days it took me to read this book. I got angry, I got frustrated, I chuckled, I nearly cried, I sighed a huge, heartfelt sigh of relief at one point … man, it was a great ride! For good or ill, I am now firmly aboard the Lindholm/Hobb train. (And not likely to run out of reading material anytime soon, therefore).

What it comes down to is that I really admire her skill with characters. In Alien Earth she focuses on a small cast of five, but they are five distinct personalities, three human, two alien, and they all experience their own full character arcs over the course of the book. John and Connie, Conservancy-era humans born and bred, are both quite difficult to like at the beginning (John gets described as a “prick” numerous times in the first few chapters, and Connie just hunches her shoulders whenever she’s spoken to), but they both improve upon further acquaintance. Raef, an Earth-born human deemed unworthy of a new life under the Conservancy, at first seems a bit redundant within the story except as a tool for comparison, but as his story unspooled I think I came to love him best of all the humans. Then there’s the hateful, spiteful, manipulative, patronising, self-important representative of the Arthroplana, Tug (I wasn’t fond of him – the first note I made about him while reading was “not sure I like Tug”), who sneers at humans while also being fascinated by them. And there is Evangeline the Beastship. Evangeline is … awesome … in the full sense of the word.

The basic outline of the story is that centuries ago humanity was rescued from a dying Earth by the Arthroplana in their Beastships and bought to the twin planets of Castor and Pollux. Having damaged its home planet so completely, humanity must now make amends by making as little impact as possible on their new worlds. Castor and Pollux both have cooperative ecologies very different to Earth’s competitive one, and humanity is becoming less and less recognisable as the Human Conservancy and the Arthroplana implement changes to keep the species “in harmony” with the world around it. Humans are smaller, have a much longer lifespan, remain in a prepubescent state for nearly the first hundred years of their lives, and can no longer reproduce without intervention. However, there are some who believe that Earth may not be as thoroughly dead as the Conservancy insists it is, and so John, captain of the Beastship Evangeline, is hired to return to Earth and find out how she’s doing.

The journey through space isn’t anywhere as near as important as the personal journey each character then embarks upon. And this is probably where I’m going to lose my shit, so be warned. (Also, SPOILERS).

For John and Connie, who have both been branded as “unadjusted” (that is having undesirable and inharmonious characteristics) in their pasts, Earth is both a potential refuge and a horror, a planet they are unequipped to survive on even if it is still habitable. But in going there they are given the opportunity to look at how they have been labelled and decide for themselves, outside of the rather claustrophobic atmosphere of the Conservancy, how just or unjust those labels were. Connie’s healing is particularly poignant (and was incredibly personal for me). For Raef, rejected a place in the new world because of a physical weakness (he has cancer) and a stowaway in one of the Waitsleep wombs deep within Evangeline where he dreams his slowed-down life away, the journey doesn’t matter at all, but his developing relationship with Evangeline does, very much. And for Tug the journey involves a number of well-deserved rude awakenings and a lovely big comeuppance, although of all the characters he’s the least changed in heart and mind.

Evangeline’s journey is the most momentous though. The Arthroplana see Beastships much in the way that we perhaps see dogs. They’re individuals, they have some intelligence, they are eager to please and desirous of companionship – all of which makes them eminently trainable to our will. The Arthroplana are wrong. Evangeline has been cowed into a small and boring existence of servitude by her training. She is utterly charming from the get go, desperately trying to be a good Beast, greedily lapping up any small attention she receives from her owner Tug, taking his paltry offering of the game of Tic-Tac-Toe and rendering it “harmonious” by eliminating all the Os so that Xs win, always and forever. But Raef’s vivid dreams tickle her interest and she learns through him how to exercise her imagination. A dangerous thing, as she chooses to imagine her life without Tug’s control. Evangeline’s subsequent meteoric rise out of slavery is beautiful to behold. And her friendship with Raef is likewise beautiful. He gives her the language and images to become more fully what she should always have been, and in return she enables him to finally put his overwhelming anger in its rightful place. Labelled, bullied and belittled as a child Raef’s healing is as important as Evageline’s. As important as Connie’s. And they all come about through connection. Tug, physically connected to Evangeline, encysted within her, feeding via her, not a symbiont so much as a parasite, is the only character who proves unable to really connect or empathise with any other character, and because of that he cannot be saved.

Raef’s childhood friend Jeffrey says “the only real pain is when you can’t be who you really are”, which sort of sums up Alien Earth pretty neatly. Away from our home planet, undergoing more and more adaptations to try to fit into worlds we were not originally evolved for, humanity is becoming less and less viable. I loved the almost throwaway scene where Connie goes to the area of Delta Station where the elderly live. Here there is graffiti against the Conservancy and “Timely Terminations”, public benches are overturned and people have real barriers up at the entrances to their homes (a punishable offence). Later on in the book it’s mentioned that the number of Adjustments is on the rise. John loves his life as a Mariner for its long periods of Waitsleep, lost in dreams and well away from the society that has denied him the right to ever stand upon a planet’s surface. Waitsleep appeals just as much to Raef, who dreams his life over and over the way he’d have liked it to have gone. And Evangeline learns to dream, to “pretence”, as her first step towards becoming who she really is.

Being who we really are is something I think we all struggle with at some point in our lives. This is a wonderfully hopeful book about the benefits to be gained from being so.

 

P.S.

Oh man, there’s so much more to love that I haven’t mentioned!

The layers of descriptions of Tug throughout the book that slowly build up our mental picture of him, beginning with his foreshortened arms and his feelers, building with his “fluke-like” midsection, his scolex and his nematocysts, his back plates, recessive mandibles and gas bladders, before Raef finally sums him up as “a huge pink earwig”.

The descriptions of Evangeline in all her tendrilled, fanned glory, in comparison.

The Conservancy’s slow but sure eradication of all of humanity’s literature (horror of horrors), and the pirate trade in books and poetry.

John and Connie’s first reactions to Earth. Particularly Connie’s. How they revise their opinions. Lindholm’s beautiful descriptions of a truly alien Earth.

Tug’s obsession with and Great Study of Humanity’s Mysteries – that is our detective novels. Another Arthroplana is equally absorbed in a study of the “nok-nok joke”. These are the aliens denying Humanity access to space travel for goodness’ sake.

Raef’s room at the end of the book. All the feels.

Beholder’s Eye by Julie E Czerneda

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I bought Beholder’s Eye earlier this year, in April in fact, right after Little Red Reviewer had Julie E Czerneda as a guest on her blog to promote her latest Web Shifters book. (It’s a really good post, which you can read here if you’re interested).

Hmmm, you don’t seem as impressed as you should be. I’ll say that again with more emphasis: this book I’ve just read was bought this year. I just read something in the same year that I bought it! This never happens! Be impressed (you can pretend – I’ll not know)!! J It normally takes me a good five years, at least, to dig out and read something I was extremely excited about at the time of purchase. Heck, if you’re not impressed I am!

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And this book was just the kind of scifi I like most too. It had some great ideas, fabulous aliens, daring escapes, humour and a big, warm, beating heart. And there’s more where it came from, so right now I have that lovely feeling of anticipation for the next Web Shifters adventure as well as the satisfaction I got from reading this one. Mmmm …

Esen-alit-Quar is the 500-year-young shapeshifter heroine of Beholder’s Eye. She is impetuous and brave, affectionate and curious, and quite unlike the five other much, much older members of her Web (or biological family). On her very first assignment she breaks one of the Web’s cardinal rules by revealing her true nature to a human, a First Contact officer called Paul Ragem, and the book is as much about the calamitous consequences of this as it is about the beginnings of their extraordinary friendship. Both the book, and Esen, are an absolute blast.

Because being an extremely long-lived shapeshifter opens up the universe for you like nothing else, so what do you do with yourself? Esen’s Web, under the guidance of their oldest member/sort-of-mother Ersh, seeks out and preserves intelligence. They learn both the fundamental biological structure of (and how to shapeshift into) a species, and everything they can of its culture, primarily by living as one of the observed species for a loooong time. The Web is, in effect, a living library of species knowledge and everything learned by an individual is periodically shared between all members (by simultaneously eating and being eaten by each other – so cool! Who needs flash drives and clouds, eh? Hmm, or books for that matter … OK, I see a problem …). Reading a book from the point of view of a being that can perfectly become another species, and take on that species’ characteristics and instincts but still retain a core self was just the most fun. With a brilliant imagination and a background in biology Czerneda’s aliens are so much more than conveniently humanoid beings with extra appendages. Esen experiences life as a canine-like Lanivarian (able to comfortably walk on both four legs and two), an amorphous Ycl, a giant, furry and vocally-challenged Crougk, an extremely tactile, long-limbed Ket, and, my absolute favourite, a bovine Ganthor, with an incredibly strong herd instinct and a very smelly method of communication.

That’s perhaps what has left the most lasting impression on me after reading this, that each of the alien species Czerneda creates feels like the product of a completely different set of rules to those of humanity. They feel alien. They can be analogous to something on Earth – the Panacians, for example, are insect-like, and their culture and outlook reflects that quite vividly – or they can be utterly unrecognisable, like the Web itself, in all its blue teardrop-shaped glory. But either way, through Esen we get to see what it might be like to be something other than ourselves.

She casually remarks when in Ket form that there are parts of the spectrum she cannot see, and food is pretty tasteless, but the texture of a fabric seat cover beneath her extremely sensitive hands envelopes her almost entirely in sensual delight. As a tiny Quebit she is absorbed by the finest details, like loose panel fittings and badly laid carpet, and no longer feels fear or any kind of concern over the future. As a Ganthor that smelly, rowdy group of mercenaries over there becomes her herd, efficiently and eloquently reasoning via their language of chemical signals that she should rejoin them for safety and strength, occasionally punctuating their argument with pushing, shoving and stamping. It’s funny and clever and thought-provoking all at the same time.

It’s a book that also explores relationships – two in particular. Esen’s child-parent (for want of a better descriptor) relationship with Ersh is important to the whole movement of the story. Like a child, which she is to the others of her Web, she fears Ersh’s anger when she does something wrong, and yet still backchats her elder quite happily. She clearly looks up to and respects Ersh, and later in the story is discomforted to discover her elder is not as peerless as she had believed. She essentially moves from childhood (or rather her teenage years, I suppose) to adulthood over the course of the story, learning that even Ersh is fallible and coming to trust her own judgement. Without really giving anything away, I really liked Esen’s decision about her Web’s purpose at the end and how it reflected her nature, more active and curious (and outward-looking?) than her Web-sisters.

The other great relationship here is between Esen and Paul. Linguistics and Alien Culture Specialist Paul Ragem is just about as Star Trek as they come. He’s good-hearted, open-minded, brave, endlessly curious, respectful of other cultures and species (naturally), and a tenacious friend. His knack for recognising Esen no matter her exterior is pretty impressive, and a sure sign that he can be trusted, which is just as well since he already knows the one secret Esen’s not supposed to tell anyone. They make a great pair, mutually interested and interesting, both ready to step outside their comfort zones and make sacrifices to preserve their friendship. And, huge plus, this friendship doesn’t go romance-shaped at any point. They seem to be equally fascinated by each other, and certainly there is the beginnings of a real and abiding affection, but Czerneda neatly shuts down the possibility of that becoming anything more. For that alone I’d read books two and three, but I genuinely want to know how things will pan out for them. Will they remain friends (the blink of an eye – assuming she has one at the time – for her, a lifetime for him)? What scrapes could they possibly get into next that would top what they’ve already been through? And how might their dynamic change over Paul’s lifetime?

 

I can’t wait to find out.