Book review: Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells

20 06 2018

Martha Wells is an American speculative fiction writer, with a number of fantasy and SF novel series and tie-in novels for Star Wars and Stargate: Atlantis. She has received numerous nominations and awards, including a recent Nebula ‘Best Novella’ award for All Systems Red, the first instalment in the ‘Murderbot Diaries’ series (which, as it happens, I have reviewed here).


Artificial Condition is the second ‘Murderbot’ novella. It sees the newly-liberated security cyborg seeking to make its way back to RaviHyral, a mining installation on a world set aside for minerals exploitation; in its former existence, Murderbot was one of several SecUnits charged with defending the human workers in one of RaviHyral’s corporate mines… until a mishap leads to an all-humans-have-been-killed situation. Murderbot’s involvement in this incident is unknown—its memories of the tragedy, and indeed, of its entire time at the mine, have been wiped—but it has always understood that it simply went rogue, slaughtering the humans because of some hardware or software glitch. Now, Murderbot has decided, it’s time to learn the truth of the incident. But human society is rather skittish on the subject of autonomous SecUnits—you know, the whole killing-machines-running-amok thing, as hyped up by the entertainment and news media—and so it’s important that Murderbot is able to travel incognito and unrecognised, and for that it’s going to require help…

The Murderbot series is not really as bloodthirsty as the name suggests. A large part of this novella is concerned with the cyborg’s exploration of issues such as trust and responsibility, and its attempts to define its own moral core. In the process, it learns (and illuminates) aspects of human behaviour. This perhaps makes the series sound dry and instructional, which it is not: it’s moderately-paced (because Murderbot, though notably paranoid in some respects, is not really prone to panic in any demonstrable fashion), intriguing in several ways, and quietly addictive. It helps, too, that Murderbot has a discrete personality (somewhere near the intersection of Star Trek: TNG‘s Data and Altered Carbon‘s Takeshi Kovacs, if that helps to clarify matters at all). If anything, I think I enjoyed this novella somewhat more than its Nebula-winning predecessor, which I felt was slightly let down by an overly-complicated and awkwardly-choreographed combat sequence. This time around, things are more pared back, and the story flows more assuredly. I’m not sure what comes next, but I’m looking forward to it.

Does it count as hard SF? I’m inclined to assess that it does: while there seems to be some nebulosity on the vexatious subject of interstellar propulsion, the laws of physics are otherwise treated with appropriate seriousness, and the processes of data transfer by which Murderbot communicates with other artificial intelligences and bots (and, on occasion, hacks into security systems) are credibly detailed. It’s thoughtful, it’s fun, and it’s serious: what more could you want?

(This is the fourteenth in my occasional ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)


Book review: What My Body Remembers, by Agnete Friis

17 06 2018

Agnete Friis is a Danish writer and journalist, best known as co-author (with Lene Kaaberbøl) of the ‘Nina Borg’ crime fiction series, of which I’ve reviewed the first book, The Boy in the Suitcase, here.


What My Body Remembers (Blitz, 2015, translated by Lindy Falk van Rooyen) would appear to be Friis’ crime-novel debut as a solo author, though I gather she has previously written children’s fiction and possibly other adult novels. WMBR is marketed as crime fiction—and in that capacity it was one of the six finalists in this years Petrona Award—but it’s as much a closely-observed study of privation, institutional care, and life on the margins as it is a mystery. Central to the story is Ella, a deeply-troubled single mother whose occasional unpredictable seizures are connected to childhood trauma: at age eight, she lost her mother, Anna, to a gunshot inflicted, the investigators decided, by her father, Helgi, who was found holding the gun. Ella has never seen fit to query this history, but has sought instead to escape it through every method available to her. It’s only when it appears likely that she’s about to lose her eleven-year-old son Alex for good, to a ‘respite’ care appointment that the authorities wish to make permanent, that she’s thrown back into the past with all its secrets: she needs a safe haven, beyond the authorities’ immediate reach, and the only bolthole available is her grandmother’s abandoned house on the outskirts of the North Sea fishing / tourist village Klitmøller, close by Ella’s own childhood home. She’s hoping for solitude for herself and her son—Ella’s coping strategy is to shut the world out (through abrasiveness and evasion) and lick her wounds in private, and to turn to vodka for its temporary amnesiac properties—but those in the area have long memories and curiosity, particularly about the two-decades-old murder that played out on the local dunes, and Ella’s habit of shoplifting from the few local merchants doesn’t do her any favours in an attempt to keep a low profile. Alone of those with whom she reluctantly has contact, her paternal grandmother still believes her son Helgi to be innocent of Anna’s death—but then, she would, wouldn’t she?

Still, what if the old woman is right?

What My Body Remembers is slow to unfold: possibly too slow, although the seamy details of Ella’s circumstances, her upbringing, and her underdog refusal to stay beaten by life (even as she attempts, as far as possible, to hold it at bay with alcohol and self-seclusion) are all impressively catalogued and sketched with far greater flair than that shown by Barbara, the aging hippie-artist who insinuates herself in Ella’s return to Klitmøller and who seeks to provide a buffer between Ella and the world while also covering the walls of her guest bedroom with bad art. There’s a clarity and an emotional depth to the text which make it a rewarding read: minor-key, and more accretive than eventful, but overall a highly effective example of character-driven crime fiction.

Book review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire

3 06 2018

Seanan McGuire is an American speculative fiction writer who would be prolific enough under her own name, but who also writes under the pen name of Mira Grant. She’s best known for her long-running ‘October Daye’, ‘InCriptid’ and ‘Newsflesh’ series, but has written much else besides. She’s received numerous award nominations, has won Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy and Locus Awards (and many others besides), and is also a noted filker.


Down Among the Sticks and Bones is McGuire’s second title in the ‘Wayward Children’ novella / short novel series; I’ve reviewed the first, Every Heart a Doorway, here. Down Among is a prequel of sorts to Every Heart, since it explores the backstory of troubled twins Jack and Jill who feature prominently in the first book. Twin daughters Jacqueline and Jillian are raised by their status-obsessed parents, Serena and Chester Wolcott, to be, respectively, the daughter and son they had always (sort of) wanted, as long as they don’t have to do any of that messy parenting—a task which, for the most part, falls to Chester’s mother Gemma Lou, until such time as she is bundled out of the family home for fear of exerting too substantial an influence on the growing girls. Trapped in their respective roles as pampered princess (Jacqueline) and loner tomboy (Jillian), it’s not too surprising that when an opportunity for escape arises, the girls take it. And so it is that a bored rainy-day exploration of their grandmother’s former bedroom results in their finding a Narnia-style magic door at the base of a chest of clothes. They descend a long flight of stairs to arrive, mysteriously, on a bleak moorland with a sky dominated by a super-large blood-red moon: it’s not, perhaps, the most salubrious of escapes, but they have no way back. The door has closed behind them.

Jack and Jill find themselves in the fabulously magical castle of a man known only as the Master who, it transpires, has a fear of sunlight and a near-insatiable taste for human blood. He would be happy to adopt both girls as his ‘daughters’, but a pact with Dr Bleak, who lives in a rickety hilltop windmill, requires that one of the girls must go to the windmill. Jack, tired of a childhood of pretty dresses, chooses the windmill; Jill, who has never been allowed to explore glamour, opts for the castle. They grow into their roles, as mad scientist’s apprentice and vampire’s understudy, and do not see each other for years. It seems as though this situation could endure indefinitely … except, of course, it cannot.

McGuire’s writing seems effortless, declarative, steeped in hidden or slow-unfolding meaning. Her play with the stereotypical tropes of B-grade horror, and with the deftly-drawn polar-opposite personalities of tomboy-to-princess Jill and princess-to-tomboy Jack, is both surprisingly effective and unexpectedly heartening: there’s a sense (illusory, as it transpires) that the scenario is so classic, so timeless, that nothing truly grim can happen. It’s an intriguing book, and one that expands in useful respects on the events in Every Heart a Doorway. (The connection between the two books is sufficiently tenuous that it would be entirely possible to read Down Among the Sticks and Bones first, but I think I’d still recommend beginning with Every Heart.) If you have any kind of affinity for portal fantasy, this is very definitely worth checking out.

Book review: Echoes of Understorey, by Thoraiya Dyer

28 05 2018

Thoraiya Dyer is an Australian speculative fiction writer whose work has won several Aurealis and Ditmar awards. I’ve previously reviewed her debut novel, last year’s Crossroads of Canopy, here.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should state that I’ve edited (or co-edited) two of Thoraiya’s stories: her novella ‘The Bird, the Bees, and the Thylacine’ in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine issue 51 and her short story ‘Faet’s Fire’ in Light Touch Paper Stand Clear, co-edited with Edwina Harvey. I also consider her a friend. I’ll endeavour, as always, to offer an unbiased assessment of the work reviewed here.


Echoes of Understorey is the second volume in ‘Titan’s Forest’, Dyer’s unfolding arboreal quest fantasy trilogy, following on from Crossroads of Canopy and set in the same height-stratified society within the outsize, magic-infused, gods-controlled forest of the earlier book. Though several of the characters from the first volume—Unar, Ylly, Bernreb, Aoun and others—recur here, the protagonist and viewpoint character in Echoes is different.

Imeris (or Imerissiremi, or Issi) is a young Understoreyan of (literally) Canopian descent, rescued as a child from a chimera and raised in the same extended, blended family that took in Unar in the preceding book. Imeris, trained as an Understoreyan commando to wreak summary justice on the lower reaches’ treetop overlords, and able with the divine intervention of her sister Ylly (now the goddess Audblayin) to enter and exit Canopian territory with comparative ease, is beset by problems both of identity—does she owe allegiance to Understorey, within which she was raised, or to Canopy, the realm of her birth—and of survival: how can she keep clear of the soul-stealing, body-swapping witch Kirrik who now wears the form of Issi’s childhood friend Nirrin? How can she slay a woman whose consciousness and motivations are capable of effortlessly hopping across to the nearest available warm body (which might, after all, be that of Imeris herself)?

Imeris hatches a plan, with her Oldest-Father (Esse) and her Youngest-Father (Marram), which they believe capable of destroying the witch Kirrik and providing her no opportunity to transfer to another. It’s a solid plan, but it requires everything to go right. Not everything does go right. Imeris, devastated and bereaved, has achieved nothing more than to ensure she has secured the enmity of an immensely powerful creature. For the safety of her loved ones, and to buy herself time while she skills up as the witchslayer she is apparently destined to become, she must leave home, and obtain whatever assistance, training, and experience she can from within both Understorey and Canopy. Which, as a fallback plan, would be a good one, if it weren’t that others within those realms appear also to have reason to want Imeris dead …

Echoes of Understorey, like its predecessor, is a busy, crowded novel with very impressive worldbuilding (Dyer, a trained veterinarian and keen conservationist, is excellent on the pithy description of both flora and fauna, with a strongly antipodean flavour to her novels’ supersized forest; there’s also a lot of imaginative and societally-appropriate engineering in her forests’ varied human settlements) and strong and intriguing characterisation. Though it adheres broadly to the form of the quest fantasy, it repeatedly and constructively subverts the expectations of that form in both structure and story arc. In doing so, it augments rather than merely mimeographs the world explored in its predecessor, and yields a story that resonates, surprises, and satisfies. I am looking forward to volume three.

Book review: Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor

13 05 2018

Nnedi Okorafor is an American speculative fiction writer, of Nigerian heritage, who has become one of the most well-known proponents of what is now termed ‘Afrofuturism’, a subgenre of speculative fiction which draws largely on African lore and culture. Okorafor has won numerous awards for her work, including the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award. I’ve previously reviewed the first ‘Binti’ novella, Binti, here.


In Binti: Home, master harmoniser Binti, whose studies at Oomza Uni are (for the most part) progressing well, is drawn to return to her homeland, so she can partake in the pilgrimage which is a rite-of-passage for her people, the Himba. But going home is not straightforward, for Binti has grown in ways that are highly atypical for her people: she has escaped off-planet, she has been exposed to a plethora of alien cultures on Oomza, she has become innately connected with Okwu, a member of the warfaring alien race, the Meduse, with which Binti has been pivotal in securing a truce. To the Khoush people, especially, who live alongside the Himba, the Meduse are murderous monsters: how will they perceive Binti’s decision to have Okwu accompany her to Earth? And for that matter, how will Binti herself cope with the flight back aboard Third Fish, the living ship aboard whom Binti had earlier been the only human survivor of a vicious assault by the Meduse on the flight to Oomza?

Binti: Home is a busy, fizzy, deeply-felt novella that explores the uneasy interaction between tradition, change, and personal growth. It frequently seems to be pulling in several directions at once, ensuring that the narrative is at times disorienting, but the end result is to convey a complicated world—indeed, a complicated universe—that is distinctly larger than the novella it contains. The worldbuilding is expansive and impressive, and Binti is a complex and sympathetic character, wearing her strengths alongside her vulnerabilities (and on occasion mistaking which is which). And Okorafor ensures that readers will want to find out what happens next, in the series’ concluding novella.

Book review: The Darkest Day, by Håkan Nesser

8 05 2018

Håkan Nesser is a Swedish writer, mostly of crime fiction, best known for his series of ten ‘Van Veeteren’ novels set in the fictional city of Maardam, the nationality of which is never specified though it combines predominantly Dutch nomenclature with a somewhat Scandinavian sensibility. He’s a three-time winner of the Best Swedish Crime Novel Award, a winner of the Gold Key Award, and is currently on the shortlist for this year’s Petrona Award. I’ve previously reviewed three of his books here, including two of the Van Veeteren series.


The Darkest Day (Människa utan hund, 2006, translated by Sarah Death) is the first of Nesser’s ‘Inspector Barbarossi’ series, although the Inspector himself does not feature at all until page 185, over a third of the way into the novel. The focus is on a family celebration gone disastrously wrong, as what should be a momentous and happy occasion turns into a slow-rolling train wreck of a reunion. Newly retired patriarch Karl-Erik Hermansson is celebrating his sixty-fifth birthday on the same day that his robustly businesslike elder daughter Ebba is turning forty; his outwardly-devoted wife Rosemarie Wunderlich Hermansson, a fellow newly-retired teacher, nurses a secret ambition to kill either herself or her husband over his ambition that they sell up their home of thirty-eight years in the (fictional) Swedish town of Kymlinge to relocate to Spain’s ‘Costa Geriatrica’; only son Robert has disgraced himself, some months previously, through an inebriated act of spectacularly public masturbation during filming of a lowest-common-denominator TV show in which he had been appearing. It’s the kind of setup which, in a lengthy and slow-moving novel, could well turn turgid, and yet Nesser’s characterisation and portrayal is a delight. There’s ample time given, in an introductory sequence that busies itself with the kind of skeweringly precise social observation that somehow the Van Veeteren novels (perhaps due to their deliberately muddled location) have not seemed to accommodate, to get to know the several principal members of the Hermansson clan, and therefore to feel genuinely invested in their welfare when first one and then another of those family members goes inexplicably missing within a 24-hour interval.

The novel is well-imbued with black humour, arising more from the character interaction than from the situations unfolding within the tale, and yet the tension of the last hundred pages or so is almost excruciating, as forces converge towards a chillingly disastrous finale. It is, I have to say, very well done.

Book review: I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land, by Connie Willis

4 05 2018

Connie Willis is an American SF / fantasy writer best known for a series of multiple-award-winning ‘time travel’ novels, but with a lengthy bibliography of other notable works. She’s won eleven Hugo and seven Nebula Awards.


I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land is a novella in which the protagonist, Jim, an author seeking refuge among the rain-swept streets of Manhattan following a deeply antagonistic radio interview, stumbles into the doorway of a hole-in-the-wall second-hand bookstore, Ozymandias Books. The bookstore’s shelving can best be described as ‘chaotic’, with obscure works by Herman Melville and Shakespeare placed cheek by jowl with various ephemera such as The Vagabond Boys Go To Carlsbad and a Tiger Beat picture bio of Leonardo DiCaprio, and the pricing on the books can safely be called nonexistent. As can the store’s customers: there’s just Jim and a sales clerk (he supposes) seated at a desk near the storefront. In short, it’s difficult to see how such an ostensibly anticommercial enterprise can endure in such a competitive and high-rent urban environment. And when Jim takes it upon himself to follow an employee back through the ‘Staff Only’ door, then down an improbably long sequence of staircases into a vast storage space, the mystery deepens … just what kind of operation is this Ozymandias Books?

There’s a strong subcurrent of portal fantasy to Willis’s novella, grounded though it is in the ostentisbly-recognisable world of the real. It’s a tale which, when assessed against some of Willis’s work over the years—I’m thinking here, especially, of such classic and groundbreaking stories as ‘All My Darling Daughters’ and ‘Even the Queen’—might seem slight, but it’s closely imagined (and full of the titles of unreachable books which sound, in various ways, as though they’d be fascinating) and leads to its conclusion with both inevitability and sadness, as seems appropriate for a story which is, at heart, both a paean and an elegy to the printed book.