Nova (Spectre War Book 1) by Margaret Fortune
The clock activates so suddenly in my mind, my head involuntarily jerks a bit to the side. The fog vanishes, dissipated in an instant as though it never was. Memories come slotting into place, their edges sharp enough to leave furrows, and suddenly I know. I know exactly who I am.
My name is Lia Johansen, and I was named for a prisoner of war. She lived in the Tiersten Internment Colony for two years, and when they negotiated the return of the prisoners, I was given her memories and sent back in her place.
And I am a genetically engineered human bomb.”
Lia Johansen was created for only one purpose: to slip onto the strategically placed New Sol Space Station and explode.
But her mission goes to hell when her clock malfunctions, freezing her countdown with just two minutes to go. With no Plan B, no memories of her past, and no identity besides a name stolen from a dead POW, Lia has no idea what to do next. Her life gets even more complicated when she meets Michael Sorenson, the real Lia’s childhood best friend.
Drawn to Michael and his family against her better judgment, Lia starts learning what it means to live and love, and to be human. It is only when her countdown clock begins sporadically losing time that she realizes even duds can still blow up.
If she wants any chance at a future, she must find a way to unlock the secrets of her past and stop her clock. But as Lia digs into her origins, she begins to suspect there’s far more to her mission and to this war, than meets the eye. With the fate of not just a space station but an entire empire hanging in the balance, Lia races to find the truth before her time—literally—runs out.
This made my list of top ten sci-fi and fantasy books. It has the drive and tone of YA novel, but all the critical detail-work of George R. R. Martin and a twist to rival M. Night Shyamalan.
One of the strongest points of the book is Lia’s character development. She starts off so cold, having no memories and no purpose but to blow up and kill everyone around her. She even meets Michael, one of the sweetest guys on the station and eventual love interest, before the bomb in her head turns out to be a dud, and she just doesn’t care. She starts out very unlikeable.
But then the bomb fails and she goes through a week of oh shit, now what? That’s when she starts to become a person, getting to know Michael (and the standard romantic subplot that goes with him), his family, the other POWs (who aren’t bombs) that are with her, and a bunch of other characters. She faces the desire to want to be Lia and have her life warring with the guilt of deceiving everyone around her.
At the same time, it has a bit of a Bourne Identity storyline. There's a war going on: humans have expanded throughout the universe and have divided into two massive empires that are now fighting over a new planet ripe for colonization. Lia was sent by one side to strike a blow to the other, but she has no idea why. Why is this station so important? Why hasn’t anyone tried to contact her when the mission fails?
Lia eventually figures everything out, though by the time she does, it’s almost too late. She’s smart and capable, but she’s not a genius, she’s not Wonder Woman, she’s a sixteen-year-old kid in way over her head.
If anyone is into mystery and/or sci-fi, I highly recommend this book. It’s one of the best you’re going to read.
"Death and the stillness of death are the only things certain and common to all in this future."
Rose is dying. Her body is wasted and skeletal. She is too sick and weak to move. Every day is an agony and her only hope is that death will find her swiftly before the pain grows too great to bear.
She is sixteen years old.
Rose has made peace with her fate, but her younger sister, Koren, certainly has not. Though all hope appears lost, Koren convinces Rose to make one final attempt at saving her life after a mysterious man in a white lab coat approaches their family about an unorthodox and experimental procedure. A copy of Rose’s radiant mind is uploaded to a massive supercomputer called Aaru – a virtual paradise where the great and the righteous might live forever in an arcadian world free from pain, illness, and death. Elysian Industries is set to begin offering the service to those who can afford it and hires Koren to be their spokes-model.
Within a matter of weeks, the sisters’ faces are nationally ubiquitous, but they soon discover that neither celebrity nor immortality is as utopian as they think. Not everyone is pleased with the idea of life everlasting for sale.
What unfolds is a whirlwind of controversy, sabotage, obsession, and danger. Rose and Koren must struggle to find meaning in their chaotic new lives and at the same time hold true to each other as Aaru challenges all they ever knew about life, love, death, and everything they thought they really believed.
This book was hit-and-miss on the score sheet. For one thing, David Meredith needs to find a better editor. I have read fanfictions with neater punctuation. (May I recommend Jeff Ford, the editor for this blog. He specializes in speculative fiction.)
Grammar aside, this was a very interesting story. A corporation called Elysian Industries finds a way to “save” a person’s consciousness (kind of like Altered Carbon, which I reviewed a few weeks ago), and download on a digital space that’s basically artificial Heaven, called Aaru. They then start advertising it to make a profit. Thirteen-year-old Koren becomes Aaru’s main spokesperson after her sister Rose physically dies of cancer but is digitally saved in Aaru.
What I really appreciate about the story is its focus on Koren and Rose. You guys have heard me complain about the lack of proper roles for girls and women in speculative fiction for a long time, and while both Koren and Rose each have a (frankly unnecessary) romantic interest, the focus is on their relationship as sisters and the greater issues of their lives.
Of the two, Koren’s story is far more interesting, with Rose spending the majority of her time in Aaru and having little to no real conflict until at least three quarters through the story. Although considering the fact that she spends a hundred pages in literal heaven, Meredith does a great job of ramping up dread and tension, of this feeling that something’s not quite right with Rose and Aaru.
Meanwhile, something is definitely not right with Koren. She becomes a highly sexualized child star, complete with zero privacy, tons of stress, and a crazy stalker. While her (living) family reaps the rewards of fame and fortune, their personal lives take a sharp downward turn. Even worse, and what I found to be one of the creepiest aspects of the whole thing, is that Koren’s parents sign a contract that allows Elysian Industries to put hidden cameras all over Koren’s house, including her bedroom, and they do this without her consent or knowledge. It’s just gross.
In the bigger picture, the world is caught in a moral dilemma of digital immortality. What happens if a bad person gets into Aaru? Who decides who is “good and righteous”? If it’s not natural, is it not right? Et cetera. What’s interesting is that the ultra-religious groups (unsurprisingly) reject Aaru as going against God’s will, and yet Rose and Koren’s mother, who is as religious as it gets, embraces it. So it’s not okay until your child dies and needs Aaru to “live.”
There are a couple of issues that bug me about Aaru. The biggest is that the climax of the story is anti-climactic. Meredith spends the whole book building up this subtle sense of dread, of showing us Koren’s naivete and the insanity of her stalker. But when it gets to the point where these players meet, it’s very rushed. It’s almost as if Meredith ran out of patience while writing one of the most important scenes in the book.
The other, more troubling problem I have is Koren’s attempted rape by her teen crush: it’s never acknowledged. He manipulates and comes inches away from assaulting her, is stopped only by the convenient timing of Koren’s father, and yet within a few chapters it’s like nothing happened. Koren doesn’t bring it up or think about it, and her crush never apologizes for it. Koren is in fact far more worried about her father being drunk and souring her crush’s opinion of her than the fact that she narrowly avoided being raped.
That is an incredibly dangerous precedent to set. When a teen girl reads this, she’s going to assume that her boyfriend ignoring her fear, intoxication, and “no” is normal and acceptable. When a teen boy reads this, he’s going to assume that pushing for sex without any kind of consent is no big deal, that she might even be grateful for it.
The good news is this is the first book of a series (The Aaru Cycle), which means Meredith is going to have multiple opportunities to address these loose ends. With any luck, the next book will include Koren smacking her ex-crush upside the head for his appalling behavior. Having read his earlier novel The Reflections of Queen Snow White--which wasn’t terrible, but had its own host of issues--I can say that David Meredith is definitely improving as a writer. This series has potential.
Let the hunt begin.
"Don’t get caught in the streets when the hunt starts.
Life in Homestead is a struggle and a revolution is stirring. With the resistance growing stronger, the people of this abandoned Mega City reassess their roles."
The eighth installment of the Earth's Final Chapter series, Homestead Hunts is the story of a cannibal society tearing itself apart. Mutants are common, thievery and corruption are the norm, and a violent revolution has begun.
This is an illustrated novella, with art done by the amazing John Hawkins. No judgement if you just want to flip through and look at the pictures; they are awesome.
Click here to get your copy!
Sorry everyone for skipping out last week. The last month has really been trying my sanity. But the good news is that my book Homestead Hunts (cover on the left) comes out next week!
For those who don’t know, Homestead is the eighth installment in the Earth’s Final Chapter graphic novella series, which is created by a dozen different writers and illustrators all around the world and published by Endless Ink Publishing House. It’s a mixture of futuristic sci-fi, dystopia, action/adventure, political intrigue, space exploration, etc. I asked one of those writers and the creator of the EFC universe, Julian Fernandes, to be interviewed on my blog.
Me: What cool and exciting things have been happening in your life recently?
Julian: In my personal life, I would say the coolest thing that has happened to me this year is my daughter was born last month (October). I have always wanted to be a father and it has been amazing to finally be one, even if my wife deserves most of the credit here.
For my career, the launch of the first ten books of Earth’s Final Chapter in paperback is huge. It has been over a year since we started Endless Ink Publishing House, having the retail product in-hand is surreal.
Congrats on being a dad! We demand baby pictures. Everyone knows you can’t claim to be a parent until you smother the internet with your kid’s cuteness.
Can you tell us about what you’re currently working on?
J: Currently I am working on a few things in tandem. I am almost finished with the eleventh book in the Earth’s Final Chapter series, titled "Sparrows."
A world building book that goes through the process of building an illustrated novella series with a spotlight on the first ten books of Earth’s Final Chapter. It will shed light on the business side along with the creative work. It will also show the concept design process for some of the characters, unreleased pages and a few things that haven’t made it into the series.
On top of that I have a biographic comedy about my time working as a gas-station manager, it will also be geared to adult reader.
I also have a few early stage projects.
Busy bee! I know we have a grand total of twenty-five EFC books either out or planned, and that’s just with volume one. Good thing none of us are working at a gas station anymore, huh?
Where did the idea of your story come from?
J: The idea of Earth’s Final Chapter had been following me since the early 2000’s. I always wanted to create a world that had the potential to be the next big universe. I wanted it to be a mix between some of the franchises I hold very dear, but with a richness that makes it hard to fit into a box.
I always wanted it to be an illustrated series, but not a comic, just comic/graphic novel influence. The idea to make it a collaboration didn’t really hit me until I started planning out the first volume of the series. The workload and story itself were overwhelming and I wanted to add another layer that the reader might like.
Initially Volume 1 was going to be 15 books, but now it is capped at 25 books with a few more that are collections of short stories. At the pace we are going Volume 2 will start to be released in the fall of 2019 and the authors involved could potentially be writing this series for many years. I have ten volumes planned loosely.
Well, good! Because I have many sinister plans involved for the poor schmucks at Homestead. *evil laugh*
Are you an early bird writer or night owl? And do you have any must-haves like coffee, chocolates, wine, music or something else?
J: I am most productive in the morning, but that is usually doing publisher’s duties: marketing, conversations with authors and illustrators, work-checking, etc. But at night my creativity awakens and that is when I do my best writing, or at the wee hours of the morning when it is still dark out. Coffee can sometimes be my lifeline, especially during late night writing runs.
Ew, you actually do stuff in the morning? I’m lucky if half of my brain is online before noon. Though that might be because I regularly stay up until 3am…
Do you have complete control over your characters, or do they ever control you?
J: I always have a plan for my stories and points that I like to hit, but I leave everything up to the flow, nothing is set in stone. My characters can grow naturally this way and take me places I had not thought of previously. I take the same approach when building the future of Earth’s Final Chapter. It’s always fun to see where the other authors of the series take it that wasn’t planned.
That’s why we like playing in your sandbox! It’s like we’re kids playing a game that has only a handful of rules, which we end up breaking half the time, but the referee lets us do it until there’s, like, blood and screaming. Can’t say I envy you as the ref, but we’re having a blast!
Who in your life has truly inspired you?
J: I would say currently my wife is my biggest inspiration. She is amazing, not only the lead editor of Earth’s Final Chapter, but one of the most compassionate people I have ever known. Every day I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. She has made my work better as well as me as a person. We are also a great partnership/team. She will be trying her hand at writing in Earth’s Final Chapter for Book 17 of the series and I couldn’t be prouder as a husband, or more grateful.
A family of writers? Hey, that’s like my parents! Your kid’s either going to jump head-first into spec-fic writing (like me), or run away from it screaming (like my brother).
What impact do you want your books to have on the readers?
J: I want the readers of Earth’s Final Chapter to have a fun place to escape their day, go on an adventure within a rich world, giving them an experience that helps them connect with my characters or the other authors’ characters. Also, an underlining push for diversity. It is a global story and that makes it special.
I don’t know if I’d call our vicious, post-apocalyptic world a “fun place,” anymore than I think Westeros is a prime vacation spot. But hey, to each their own.
Speaking of worlds, if you could go to any fictional world, where would you go?
J: I would love to be inserted into the world of Krynn (Dragonlance) or in my world of Earth’s Final Chapter. Both are very colorful worlds with wonders and magic, but a third choice would be the Never Ending Story, the book is fantastic, and the first movie is one of my favorites of all time.
Really? I wouldn’t touch our world with a ten-foot pole. I agree it’s a colorful, fascinating thing, but so is a tiger. I don't plan on getting close to either.
What about if you could have any meal with a fiction character? Who would you invite to dinner?
J: If I could have a meal with a fictional character it would probably be someone from the Dragonlance companions. Raistlin is one of my favorite characters of all time. Dragonlance was my favorite series growing up and I love these characters. I don’t think I would be an author if it weren’t for that series. I am currently reading Dragons of Autumn Twilight to my newborn.
That’s so cool that you're reading these books to your baby! My dad read J. R. R. Tolkien to me when I was little. Fairytales are overrated.
What might we be surprised to know about you?
J: A surprise about me would probably be the theatrical and film career I had for a short time. From ages 15-23 I was a professional actor and did stage shows in Colorado and Arizona, as well as indie films and even a spot on Animal Planet at one point. It was my first passion.
Well, heck! If EFC ever gets a movie deal, we’ll know who to call.
Any advice you have for new authors?
J: New authors should always keep in mind that you need more eyes. You can’t make a book without help. Seek help from those that like what you are trying to do and feed off your excitement, but find people that will be honest about the quality. This will save you on many levels in the long run. Don’t be afraid. Also, as you grow as a writer, don’t lament your initial work. It won’t be as good and that’s okay, it shows your growth.
Last question. Which creature is better: dragons, zombies, or aliens?
J: Personally, I love aliens. There are countless reasons, but primarily because of the possibility and the unlimited potential of an extraterrestrial. Dragons are the most popular items in stories though, hands-down, they have been a fascination throughout history, and we have them in Earth’s Final Chapter!
Wait, we have dragons?!
I take it back. I totally want to go into the world of Earth’s Final Chapter.
You can find Julian at the Endless Ink Publishing House's website. He's also on Twitter.
The next wave of Earth's Final Chapter books--including Homestead Hunts--will be released on November 16th! Available at Endless Ink.
This week I'd like to try something a little different. Instead of me yakking away on your computer screen, complaining about and mocking the worst of the horror movie sludge pile, I'm going to ask you to do it.
Most if not all horror geeks have this guilty pleasure. Everyone loves a good movie, but we also love watching the bad movies. The ones that have every trope and cliche in the book. That make no sense. That have characters whose IQ wouldn't let them pass a third grade math test. Phones have dead batteries and/or no service. Screaming, mostly naked young women run into closets instead of out of the house. Actual plot is replaced with boobs and blood.
Grab a handful from this pile of crap, a bunch of friends, and several bowls of popcorn, and you've got an excellent Halloween planned.
My personal favorite bad horror movie is Sorority Row, in part because I was actually in a sorority. It happened every October (and several other times throughout the year): we'd cram into the living room of our tiny house barely big enough for eight people to live in, share several packages of Oreos, and laugh at everything so wrong in this awful movie. Especially the opening scene: who in their right mind keeps a trampoline in their living room for the sole purpose of half-naked pillow fights?
So what's your favorite bad horror movie? Let us know in the comments!
‘Tis the season to binge-watch horror movies! I don’t know about you guys, but October is one of my favorite months of the year for just this reason (It’s narrowly surpassed by December. Because, you know, Christmas). A Halloween tradition in my family is to record/rent a handful of horror movies and binge them all night, stopping only to answer the call of trick ‘r treaters.
In preparation for this, we consult the Almighty Google for good horror movies. Don’t get me wrong, bad horror movies have a hallowed place in the Halloween tradition. Next week’s post will be dedicated to just that. But as much as we like making fun of bad horror movies, we prefer being scared shitless--or at least genuinely freaked out--by good horror movies.
Now, if we wanted to play it safe, we could just go back to the ‘80s and hit all the classics: Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, etc. But there’s only so many times you can watch a movie before you start to hate it, no matter how good it is. And there are a ton of really good, underrated horror movies that have come out in the last few years. They’re buried amid all the crappy remakes and unnecessary sequels, but they do exist. And I have a list of my personal favorites for you lovelies right here:
1. Blair Witch
The Blair Witch Project is a 1990s masterpiece. To this day it holds the record for earning the most money off of a minimal budget. Very simple: three college students set out for a weekend camping in the creepy woods to do a documentary on the legendary Blair Witch. They're never seen again.
Blair Witch is the sequel that came out last year, though it stands on its own merits (re: you don’t have to watch Project to follow along). It got mixed reviews, as sequels and remakes often do. The best way to describe Blair Witch is that it is what Blair Witch Project would have looked like if it had been done in 2016 instead of the ‘90s, which is both a good thing and a bad thing.
I loved Blair Witch. I loved the throwbacks to the original, the special effects and body horror, the witch herself...it’s a terrifying film with few flaws. Definitely worth seeing if you haven’t already.
2. Cabin in the Woods
This will always be one of my favorite horror movies. It toes the line between straight-up horror and horror comedy (which is what you get when you hire Joss Whedon as a screenwriter) and presents a very grey, simple-yet-complex dilemma rarely seen in most horror movies. In order to prevent the world from being destroyed by the all-powerful, horrible Ancient Ones, there must be a human sacrifice of at least five young people every year. The more gruesome the deaths, the better.
You feel bad for the five protagonists that are getting murdered. You feel bad for the men pulling the strings and orchestrating the murders. And you’re laughing your ass off because not only are the characters charming and funny, the movie takes every single horror trope (dumb blond, ill-advised sex scene, stupid decisions, etc) and mercilessly mocks them. It’s beautiful.
4. The Grudge
One of the few foreign films remade in America that’s actually good, The Grudge is based off of Japan’s Ju-on. Basically, it’s a haunted house in Japan. Starring Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Sarah Michelle Gellar, it’s the story of the ghost of a mother and son who were murdered in their home, which they continue to haunt. Every single person who enters the house--or even leaves a friggin’ voicemail on the landline--ends up dying in a horrible, gruesome manner. It’s awesome. Even better: the two sequels are also good. For a horror movie franchise to pull that off is nothing short of a miracle.
You wouldn’t think a movie about an evil mirror would be any good (“why don’t they just smash the damn thing?”) but this one is very good.
One of the best features is the dual timeline: you get two stories at once. We see siblings Kaylie and Tim growing up with the evil enchanted mirror that’s slowly driving their parents insane, while at the same time watching their adult counterparts try to destroy that mirror ten years later.
Another great feature: the main characters are very intelligent. Even the mirror is smart. As adults, Tim has spent the last ten years convincing himself that what they experienced as kids was nothing but an elaborate fantasy to cope with their murdered parents, while Kaylie has spent those ten years researching the shit out of the mirror and planning on how to take it down. As a result, there are no annoying Horror Movie Mistakes™. Yay!
6. Ouija: Origin of Evil
It’s a very rare prequel that surpasses the original film. But that was an easy task in this case; Ouija sucked balls. Its prequel, Ouija: Origin of Evil, blew it out of the water. Most of it boils down to the stellar acting of Lulu Wilson (Doris). She spends the first half of the movie all innocent and fun and genuinely trying to help people by connecting with their dead loved ones, and then, when she gets possessed, becomes the stuff of nightmares.
7. Lights Out
I need to see this movie again, because the first time I saw it I was cowering and looking away from the screen. It was very hard to get to sleep that night. And the next night. And the night after that...
Our protagonists are haunted by a spirit that only appears in the dark. Despite opening with a gruesome murder, the body count is quite low. That doesn’t make it any less terrifying. I can’t say much more due to spoilers, but if you’re looking for good ol’ fashioned jump scares that break a few horror tropes along the way, this is the movie for you. Just...maybe keep the lights on while you watch it.
8. The Visit
M. Night Shyamalan’s movies have been hit-or-miss the last few years. The Visit is a resounding success, almost enough for us to forgive The Happening and The Last Airbender. Very low budget, very simple: two kids spend the week with their grandparents. The first few days of creepiness and strange behavior is casually explained away as old people being weird. But as the story ramps up, the kids--and by extension, the audience--become more and more nervous until The Big Reveal.
It’s one of those movies that’s good because it’s weird. The writers and actors take the raw, everyday material from people’s lives and puts it on the screen. The boy is an amateur rapper (who surprisingly doesn’t suck), the girl is a wannabe film director, and the grandparents are, as previously stated, strange and getting stranger. So it makes for some awkward moments that family members could find in their kitchen, and the movie is all the better for it.
9. Get Out
You know that horror movie about racism your PC-obsessed friend was raving about back in February? This is the movie. And it’s terrific. Like The Visit, it’s less about jump scares and gore and is instead fueled by creepiness, that itch under your skin that blares NOT RIGHT NOT RIGHT GET OUT (pun intended).
Chris--a black man dating a white woman--goes to visit his girlfriend’s family for the first time. At first, there’s the usual awkwardness that comes from a white family trying way too hard to reassure the black guy that they are definitely not racist, no sir. But as Chris spends more time with them and the neighbors, things quickly turn pear-shaped.
If nothing else, watch this movie for Chris’s TSA friend Rod. He’s hilarious.
10. The Witch
Another movie that makes a statement about society (although one much less obvious than Get Out), this is a historical horror that satisfied both my inner horror geek and history nerd. Even the dialogue is taken straight from colonial documents, but modern audiences can still understand it and follow along.
A colonial family is kicked out of town for their religious beliefs and so build a secluded farm on the edge of a forest. Unbeknownst to them, there is a witch living in the forest, one whose powers and evil is exactly aligned with what people believed witches did at the time. So the crops go bad, the baby goes missing, the son is seduced, the animals go crazy, the cows give blood instead of milk, etc.
Critics compared this moving to The Crucible, a 1950’s play about the Salem witch trials. (One that set my teeth on edge because half of that story is so so wrong, none of that happened, she was nine not a seductress!) It’s obvious why: both stories are making a point about group paranoia, both use fear of witchcraft as their big metaphor, and both stories feature innocent women who get blamed and punished for crimes they didn’t commit. The difference is that there is no witch in The Crucible. As the name implies, The Witch does indeed have an evil witch targeting this family, but the parents don’t know that and instead blame their daughter. It doesn’t turn out well for anyone.
Know any movies I missed? Let me know in the comments!
Finn Gramaraye was framed for the crime of dark necromancy at the age of 15, and exiled to the Other Realm for twenty five years. But now that he's free, someone―probably the same someone―is trying to get him sent back. Finn has only a few days to discover who is so desperate to keep him out of the mortal world, and find evidence to prove it to the Arcane Enforcers. They are going to be very hard to convince, since he's already been convicted of trying to kill someone with dark magic.
But Finn has his family: his brother Mort who is running the family necrotorium business now, his brother Pete who believes he's a werewolf, though he is not, and his sister Samantha who is, unfortunately, allergic to magic. And he's got Zeke, a fellow exile and former enforcer, who doesn't really believe in Finn's innocence but is willing to follow along in hopes of getting his old job back.
,Ah, ye olde "Framed-And-Must-Prove-Innocence-Before-Bad-Things-Happen" storyline. With necromancy! And humor!
This book was seriously funny. Finn is a such a smart-ass. Although half of his references went over my head (all of his jokes are prior to 1985, and I'm a shallow millennial), I still greatly enjoyed it. And even better, he's in the center of an incredible world of magic and a heart-pounding mystery. The only thing I could think of while reading this was It's like Rick Riordan for adults! That, and Gosh, I really hope nobody calls the cops while I'm lurking in my car, because I was sitting in my car on a dark street after work frantically finishing the last two chapters of the book. I didn't want to wait the thirty minutes it would take to drive home.
There were very few "well, duh" moments in this story. I've read and seen so many mysteries that I can usually tell within the first quarter who the bad guy is, in addition to all the usual cliches and tropes. Randy Henderson did fall into a couple (such as "it's not the first suspect," like a Law & Order episode, and the "traitorous dame" trope), but while a couple of characters were predictable, everything else was not. Like why Finn was framed in the first place. Or how Dungeons & Dragons will play a crucial role in the good guys' plan. That cemented my love for this character; D&D FTW!
Overall, I give it a 7.5 out of 10. It lost a few points with (surprise!) it's treatment of women characters. The love triangle between Finn and two past flames toes the line between funny and annoying a little too closely--because, really? These two adult, intelligent women have nothing better to do than bitch at each other over the guy they like? And then there was the scene where literally every single female in Finn's group is taken hostage at once. It's a plethora of Damsels in Distress.
However, the women were well-rounded characters and were used for more than just ornamentation, which is why I didn't scrap the book entirely. That, and most of the focus of Finn's relationships are that of his family, particularly his brothers. Mort is a bitch and Pete is a sweetie with a BAMF streak. Glorious.
It's got two sequels, both already out. Which is good, because remember how I likened it to Rick Riordan? Well, it's not only similar in terms of humor. Henderson--the jerk--is also a fan of six-hundred-foot cliffhangers. So I wouldn't invest the time and money in book one unless you're willing to grab books two and three as well.
Four hundred years from now mankind is strung out across a region of interstellar space inherited from an ancient civilization discovered on Mars. The colonies are linked together by the occasional sublight colony ship voyages and hyperspatial data-casting. Human consciousness is digitally freighted between the stars and downloaded into bodies as a matter of course.
But some things never change. So when ex-envoy, now-convict Takeshi Kovacs has his consciousness and skills downloaded into the body of a nicotine-addicted ex-thug and presented with a catch-22 offer, he really shouldn’t be surprised. Contracted by a billionaire to discover who murdered his last body, Kovacs is drawn into a terrifying conspiracy that stretches across known space and to the very top of society.
Altered Carbon is an action-packed futuristic sci-fi novel that really should’ve been a Michael Bay movie. I’m not surprised Netflix is turning it into a series. I was surprised that something with this much testosterone and so little character development had the patience to be a book.
The concept is really cool. Several hundred years from now, human consciousness can be downloaded into any human body, both real and synthetic. So basically, nobody dies. It’s called “sleeving,” with bodies considered nothing more than sleeves for the human consciousness. The super-rich live for hundreds of years, jumping from body to body, while those who can’t afford that are stuck in storage for all eternity after death, their souls chilling on a USB drive.
The world-building here is great, especially when we get into the personal dynamics with sleeving. Some people get re-sleeved so much it’s rarely a big deal, but for others it’s huge. Especially when you consider the fact that while you’re running around in a stranger’s body, another stranger is running around in your body.
Takeshi Kovacs, our star, is an Envoy. Essentially, he is a supersoldier + detective who was born a couple centuries ago, but thanks to being in storage for so long he’s only truly lived for about thirty years. He’s hired (well, okay, blackmailed) to find the cause of a rich man’s “suicide,” which is all kinds of weird and cool because the guy is alive and well, he just doesn’t remember the two days leading up to his most recent “death.” The whole book is a murder mystery wrapped in fistfights, shootouts, and explosions.
So naturally there’s a ton of gore, explicit sex scenes, glorification of drugs and alcohol, promotion of police brutality, and a whole chapter dedicated to torture.
One of my biggest (and most usual) complaints about this book is the portrayal of women. Altered Carbon has it all: the shady wife of the client who seduces Kovacs to try to get him to stop investigating, a female villain who’s so much worse than all the other bad guys, the Strong Female Character who’s mostly there for unnecessary romantic tension, and a couple of damsels in distress.
It’s those last two that really get to me. Our SFC is Kirstin Ortega, a police officer who initially butts heads (and then later butts genitals) with Kovacs over the suicide case, which she had declared open and shut, in part because of her prejudice against rich people. She showed a lot of promise: smart, complex motives, flawed, she seemed really cool. But ultimately she’s defined by her relationship to Kovacs and her previous boyfriend, which was incredibly disappointing. The romantic subplot was unnecessary. Others may disagree, because she had a strong emotional connection to Kovacs’ current “sleeve,” but that didn’t have to be romantic. It could just as easily have been a family member, say, a brother.
And of course, she doubles as one of the DIDs. Because while she’s tough and smart and gritty and “don’t need no man” (except when she does), she’s no match for the big bad guy and needs a dashing (male) protagonist to heroically sacrifice himself so she may live. (Uh, spoiler alert? Does it count if you see it coming a mile away?)
The other DID is a woman we only ever see in the prologue: Kovacs’ friend, Sarah, who’s killed, put in storage, and then later held hostage while in storage. Other than the fact that she’s a good friend of Kovacs’ and has some martial background, we know nothing about her. She never physically shows up after the prologue. And that’s yet another wasted opportunity because, like Ortega, she showed a lot of promise. I want to know more about her.
Come to think of it, I also want to know more about Kovacs. We know very little about him, which is unusual in a main character. We’re told he had a crappy relationship with his dad, he’s from another planet, and he somehow went from street gangs to soldier to Envoy.
And...that’s it. We don’t know about his mother or if he had any siblings. We don’t know why he decided to enlist as a soldier, or, for that matter, as an Envoy, which is weird because he doesn’t seem to like his job very much. It’s hard to be certain because, like most male action heroes, he shows very little emotion. We get anger, curiosity, and occasional smug satisfaction with a little bit of quickly-suppressed guilt. As a result, I was not emotionally invested in Kovacs at all, not until the very end. If the mystery plot hadn’t been so intriguing I never would’ve made it twenty pages.
The only other character I was emotionally invested in also appeared at the very end: Mrs. Elliott. I liked her because, while she was in the story very briefly and for a minor role in Kovacs’ Let’s-Take-Down-The-Villain-In-A-Last-Minute-Crazy-Scheme deal, she had very clear motives, heart-wrenching emotions, and a backstory. In a sense, she had all the promise of Ortega reduced to a very minor role. So forget Kovacs. I want more Sarah and Mrs. Elliott.
My final major issue with this book was the treatment of Catholics. Richard Morgan does not like them. They’re treated as crazy, backwards fanatics trying to pull the plug on progress. Which, yeah, they do have that reputation. As does every other religion on the planet. I get that Morgan needed a large religious/political group to serve an important role in the greater plot, but it didn’t have to be a real religious/political group. This story takes place hundreds of years in the future and includes a dozen colonial planets. He couldn’t make something up? All this did was promote unnecessary hate.
None of this is to say that Altered Carbon is a bad book. I don’t regret reading it. But I can say with confidence that I will not be picking it up again.
Have you read Altered Carbon or other books written by Richard K. Morgan? What did you think?
This week I went to see the new movie Flatliners. Next weekend I'll be seeing it again, this time with my mom. Yes, it is definitely good enough to pay to see twice.
Not everyone agrees. A lot of those who saw the original saw the remake as a disappointment. Apparently, it doesn't bring any newness to the story. I will not be comparing this movie to the original. Mostly because I never saw the original (it came out five years before I was born), but also because I want to judge the movie on its own merits.
Med student Courtney (or as I refer to her, Dr. Juno) gets into a car crash that kills her sister, and as a result becomes obsessed with death and reaching the other side. She ropes in a handful of other medical students into an experiment that involves stopping her heart, then reviving her. After seeing how flatlining has "improved" her (she has perfect memory recall, which is a huge advantage in the medical field), all but one of the other students takes a turn.
Of course, what Courtney neglects to mention before everyone else jumps in is that, in addition to awesome Limitless-style memory, she also starts experiencing not-so-awesome hallucinations of her dead sister. Everyone else soon gets the same problem: Jamie keeps seeing the girlfriend he abandoned, Sophia sees the girl she bullied in high school, and Marlo gets creepy blood-notes painted across the walls.
My only complaint about the movie was that the climatic scene at the end was a little underwhelming. The story does a great job of ramping up tension as the hallucinations get worse and characters start dying. But then that tension doesn't really go anywhere, or rather it gets interrupted. One of the characters flatlines herself in what was probably an attempted suicide to face her guilt, but this is after the other characters face their guilt in a much more mature, less dangerous manner and take responsibility for their actions. As a result, that character that had until now come across as rather intelligent (if a bit bitchy) looks incredibly stupid. The two sequences should've been reversed: near-death guilt trip, then heart-warming real-world forgiveness.
I also wish that they'd gone deeper into Ray's character. He's the logic/moral compass of the group, being the only one who doesn't flatline but sticks around because he's the most competent and experienced. We get a hint of a tragic backstory when he mentions being a firefighter, but nothing else. Having a scene with him sharing some gut-wrenching story with the other characters in an attempt to convince them to own up to their mistakes would've added an excellent emotional layer.
Other than that, it was a great movie. James Norton (Jamie) was what I would argue the best actor of the group, although they were all fantastic. In the span of a single scene--the one where Courtney convinces her friends to legally kill her before bringing her back--he goes from "Sure, whatever, you wanna kill yourself I'll help you, mostly because I'm just pissed that I'm not getting laid tonight" to "This is more nerve-wracking than I'd thought it be, you sure you wanna do this?" to "#^%^#$%%#!" freak-out.
And there are very few horror movie mistakes. Most people would argue that flatlining in the name of science, especially when you aren't actually a medical professional, is a pretty stupid thing to do. But when you consider Courtney's obsession, along with the academic edge she receives in this extraordinarily stressful, fast-paced environment, their decisions do make sense.
So I'll definitely be seeing this movie again next week. And if you haven't seen Flatliners yet, then I hope to see you there.
A few weeks ago I read and reviewed The Guns Above, a military sci-fi novel featuring airships. Author Robyn Bennis then agreed to an interview!
Thank you for doing this interview! Let's start by asking how you got into writing science fiction. Were you "born into it" or was it something that you discovered later in life?
I came to it pretty early. My first short story was a Star Trek knockoff, and almost everything I wrote as a teenager had at least one robot in it. I liked SF because it gave me so much more to play with as a writer. You can tell human stories in any setting, so why not one with a robot? Or, for that matter, an airship.
Can you tell us a bit about your day job? I hear you're a biologist.
I’m a molecular biology bench scientist, which means I concoct arcane mixtures from components which are forged in fire, dredged from deep below the Earth, or even stolen from the bodies of tiny monsters. Once my potions are complete, I imbue them with the vital energies of life itself and command invisible amino-machines dwelling within to do my bidding.
In other words, I add colorless liquids together all day.
What got you into biology?
I blame The Discovery Channel. I used to come home from school, turn it on, and watch nature shows all afternoon and surgery shows all evening. This was back in the days before reality television, when you could still learn something on a cable learning channel, and I just drank it in. By 9 or 10 years old, I knew I was going to pursue a career in biology.
I considered a similar career around the same age, except I wanted to study wolves. Didn't pan out, mostly because I was unwilling to give up wi-fi for weeks if not months of field study and/or lug my library with me across the Canadian wilderness. So, kudos to you.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Both! It’s funny how the things and people you love can be such a paradox, isn’t it? At the end of a long writing day, I’m so mentally exhausted I can barely think well enough to decide on dinner. And yet, I wake up the next morning, my head buzzing with ideas, so eager to get back to it that I have to force myself to stop for a second and brush my teeth. Life just isn’t the same if I’m not writing something. I get grumpy, mopey, and tired, and it doesn’t stop until I have another writing project to work on.
I think one of the coolest things about The Guns Above is Bernat and Josette's relationship. Almost every other action story like yours would include a romantic subplot between these two main characters. You didn't. Did you consciously put them in a platonic rather than romantic story or did it just happen?
It wasn’t only conscious, it was present from the earliest versions of the characters. That said, I wasn’t trying to make a statement or anything. I just knew the sort of relationship I wanted them to have, and I didn’t want romance to spoil that. I mean, even as buddies, they’re rather abusive to each other. As a couple, you’d want to call the police to separate them.
The Guns Above tackles gender issues and sexism head-on. You're a woman. What would you say is the hardest thing about writing the male characters in the society you've created?
Making them funny. Almost all of the horrible sexism in the book is based on actual behaviors and incidents I’ve either witnessed or been on the pointy end of during my career. It wasn’t easy to pour those incidents into characters and still have them bring the laughs. Writing Bernat, in particular, felt like walking a tightrope. However, it was also strangely thrilling, and he’s easily my favorite character to write. Yeah, I know, I’m a weirdo.
What did you edit out of this book?
Wow, if you only saw the amount of technical jargon I cut out, you would never again think that the published version of the book has a lot of tech in it. An early chapter was originally 6000 words worth of airship description, with frequent tangents about the value of one structural material against another, methods of purifying lifting gases, and the relative merits of various rigging schemes. It was an absolute disaster of literature, interesting only to the most hardcore of technophiles, and it was not alone. Most of that was ripped out over subsequent drafts. I forced myself to convey only the vital information, and to convey it organically whenever possible.
Thank you for not making us read a textbook. :)
How do you handle negative book reviews?
Easy. The only negative book reviews I get are from people who have poor taste—as evidenced by the fact that they didn’t like my book. QED, I can safely ignore them.
What advice do you have for young authors?
Stick with it. That’s the most vital and relevant piece of writing advice you’ll ever get. People who can write a great story the first time are so rare, your chances of being one are hardly worth mentioning. For the rest of us, we just have to write trash until we get better.
Robyn, thank you so much for coming onto Dragons, Zombies and Aliens! I look forward to reading your next book.
Where to find Robyn:
-on her website
-and on Goodreads
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!