Book Review: AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS by Rivers Solomon

 

 

Odd-mannered, obsessive, withdrawn, Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, as they accuse, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remained of her world, save for stories told around the cookfire.

Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.

When the autopsy of Matilda‘s sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother’s suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother’s footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she’s willing to fight for it.

 

“All that was left were the taunts, and the crack of Scar’s knee, and the past swooping in, an unkindness of ghosts. Her old life had possessed her, strengthening her, but like everything else, used her up and then was done.”

Well I thought this book was pretty great!

The setting is one thing that didn’t work all that well for me, as I never could grasp the details of the spaceship Matilda – its size and layout, the population aboard, how it sustained…well, everything. It runs on autopilot and (almost) no one is paying attention to its trajectory. We also never know how exactly it came to be that a society capable of launching a generation ship into space and sustaining its population for centuries had also managed to backtrack to the point of organizing society in a way just like that of the antebellum South.

But I was able to look past that and very much enjoyed the story set within those parameters. Aster, a black intersex autistic alchematician, is such a great character. Taking everything at face value, her authenticity is a delight. Her relationship with the Surgeon/the Hands of the Heavens/the queer ascetic bastard child of the former Sovereign and one of the black lowdeckers, is nothing short of wonderful. The plot of this story revolves around Aster following the clues left behind by the mother who died shortly after birthing her, the mechanic who may have found a way to leave Matilda behind and make it to a better world.

“A scientist, Aster had learned something Giselle had not: decoding the past was like decoding the physical world. The best that could be hoped for was a working model. A reasonable approximation. That was to say, no matter what Aster learned of Lune, there was no piecing together the full mystery of her life. There was no hearing her laugh or feeling her embrace. A ghost was not a person.”

This book was troubling to read at times, as it deals with abuses of nearly every kind. I actually choked up when Aster broke down, saying, ‘”Nobody is allowed to touch me. Nobody’s allowed to call me names. I’m alive,” she sobbed out. “I’m alive.”‘ This in reference to her recent line of thinking about every living thing being owed the same basic respect.

“People like this guard tried so hard to make Aster feel lesser, but some days, like today, it didn’t work, because she saw clearly how superior she was.”

If you can suspend disbelief about the details of the setting, and you can stomach the non-gratuitous but plentiful scenes of violence and implied sexual assault, I recommend taking this journey with Aster. You might be surprised at where you wind up.

Advertisements

Book Review: IRON GOLD by Pierce Brown

Iron Gold

A decade ago, Darrow was the hero of the revolution he believed would break the chains of the Society. But the Rising has shattered everything: Instead of peace and freedom, it has brought endless war. Now he must risk everything he has fought for on one last desperate mission. Darrow still believes he can save everyone, but can he save himself?

And throughout the worlds, other destinies entwine with Darrow’s to change his fate forever:

A young Red girl flees tragedy in her refugee camp and achieves for herself a new life she could never have imagined.

An ex-soldier broken by grief is forced to steal the most valuable thing in the galaxy—or pay with his life.

And Lysander au Lune, the heir in exile to the sovereign, wanders the stars with his mentor, Cassius, haunted by the loss of the world that Darrow transformed, and dreaming of what will rise from its ashes.

Red Rising was the story of the end of one universe, and Iron Gold is the story of the creation of a new one. Witness the beginning of a stunning new saga of tragedy and triumph from masterly New York Times bestselling author Pierce Brown.

A thrilling and action-packed book that sets us up for a new branch of Red Rising story to tell.

Brown does a good job at the multiple-narrator thing, the POV switching with each chapter. We follow along with Darrow, Lysander au Lune (grandson of the Sovereign whose regime was toppled in the revolution), Lyria of Lagalos (a Red released from the mines when the Society crumbled at Mustang and Darrow’s feet), and Ephraim ti Horn (a Gray thief who was once engaged to marry a character familiar to readers of Morning Star). We see more of those we’ve come to know in the previous three books, such as Sevro, Victra, Sefi, Cassius, and the wonderful character of Romulus au Raa.

They planted us in stones, watered us with pain, and now marvel how we have thorns.

I’ve seen the writing in this book compared to that of George R.R. Martin in ASOIAF, but I take one exception to that – our heroes fall on hard times here, and yes, it sets us up for the new trilogy, but what Martin does differently that works so well is to throw the protagonists a bone every once in a while as well. Sure, he usually lifts them up just so they can crash down all the harder, but here we didn’t even get those instances to feel good about the way things were going for once. The more to invest you in reading on in the series, I suppose, but I think Martin’s method is more effective.

Still, Brown knows how to spin an exciting tale. In addition to his storytelling, he has a beautiful way with words.

Love is the stars, and its light carries on long after death.

If you were a fan of the original Red Rising trilogy, I fail to see how you could be disappointed with Iron Gold.

Book Review: BORNE by Jeff Vandermeer

 

Borne
“Am I a person?” Borne asked me.

“Yes, you are a person,” I told him. “But like a person, you can be a weapon, too.”

This was a wild dystopian speculative fiction story that asks some important questions and is quite touching at times. The land has been laid to waste by drought, conflict, and loosed biotech from the now-defunct Company. Rachel and Wick team up to take a stab at survival in this newly arranged city, and a real sense of tension is conveyed. Wick tries to maintain a hold on their territory through the dealing of information as well as his own psychoactive biotech, while Rachel scavenges for salvage off of which they can live. It’s during one of her outings that she finds something rather extraordinary.

This book left me bit confused as to the details of some of the science fiction elements. The who, what and why of the Company was never made clear, nor were specifics of some of the biotech it turned out. I think this was mostly a conscious choice by the author, but it did leave me a bit unsatisfied. Near the end I realized that the character of Mord had once been human, and it seemed like that fact had been revealed much earlier but I had somehow managed to either miss it or else forget it completely. The fact that the giant and vicious flying bear used to be human, and a former coworker of Wick’s at that, seems like a point that should be too significant to be missed/forgotten.

The story does many things right, though, and the best part by far was Borne himself – sweet and innocent and endlessly amusing.

“Those are three dead skeletons on the wall, Borne.”

“Yes, Rachel. I took them from the crossroads. I thought they would look nice in here.”

And yes, I maintain a belief in Borne’s inherent innocence. (And as it says in the book’s blurb, “in a world so broken that innocence is a precious thing.”) Borne simply does what he was designed to do, but because Rachel raises him with a human’s sensibilities, he feels great guilt and shame about his own nature. Which gives me all the feels!

“We all just want to be people, and none of us knows what that really means.”

And I sincerely hope to be able to subscribe to a book box someday(when I’m not so broke), because it turns out Quarterly’s most recent fiction Literary Box was curated by Vandermeer and included some of his own drawings of just what Borne looks like in some of his many forms. How fun is that?!

 

If you like science fiction of the speculative and dystopian variety, amusing plant/animal/salvage/biotech thingies, and The Feels, then give this one a read!