Category Archives: Sci Fi

Velocity Weapon by Megan O’Keefe

Orbit | 2019 (13 June) | 507p | Review copy | Buy the book

Velocity Weapon by Megan E O'KeefeWhen Sergeant Sanda Greeve’s gunship blew up in the devastating Battle of Dralee in space above the planet of Ada Prime, nobody thinks she can have survived. Only her brother, Biran, had any hope at all. Helpfully, Biran has just graduated as a Keeper, one of Prime System’s elite, one of its Protectorate. He has a voice that must be heard but what he has to say brings him into conflict with his fellow Keepers. What nobody on Ada Prime can possibly know is that Sanda’s evacuation pod survived and she has been rescued by an isolated vessel, whose AI, Bero, tells her a terrible tale, of a war lost, of millions slaughtered, an entire star system dead. Bero and Sanda are alone in the darkness of empty, black space.

And that is all I have to tell you of the story behind Velocity Weapon, a hugely entertaining space opera and the beginning, I believe, of a new series. This substantial novel tells a gloriously twisty tale. It is full of surprises and shocks and we spend much of it in the company of Sanda Greeve, a young woman, barely in one piece, who is suddenly faced with such a grim future. But this is a character who will not let anything get her down. Sanda is resilient, resourceful and hopeful – at least on the surface. She has much to contend with and what she discovers will shock us all.

Sanda is such a fun character! She feels very real. She’s fully developed and has so much sparkle about her. This is such a well-written novel. It’s witty throughout, occasionally light, and often punchy. And Sanda fills it with life. She’s military but there’s much more to her character than that. While Sanda is the most fully developed character in the novel, there are others who are worth our time, including her brother and, in another thread, a smuggler called Jules who is about to discover something she shouldn’t. But the other main character of the book that really leaves their mark is the ship AI Bero. We’re used to starship personalities but Megan O’Keefe has achieved the remarkable by created an original and memorable ship voice. Bero has so many human personality traits. I don’t want to say too much about him but his relationship with Sanda is key to the pleasure this novel gives.

Velocity Weapon is a novel packed with action and mystery. It is an adventure in space and the pages fly by. But there is something really special in its worldbuilding – I love the idea of the Keepers and the mysteries that they almost literally embody. The Prime System itself raises many questions in this first book which one hopes will receive attention in future novels. There is also a tantalising hint of something that happened on Earth in a time not too far from our own. There’s a sense of something incredible waiting for us somewhere among the stars.

Prime society is beautifully and subtly created and depicted. This is a place of rules and strong government or domination, a place of war and rivalry, but there is a surprising ease concerning social roles. Notions of gender, race and sexuality are fluid and subtly integrated into the novel.

Velocity Weapon is a complete and satisfying novel in its own right but it tantalises about what may lie in store. Megan O’Keefe has created a large universe with so much potential. I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

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Across the Void by S.K. Vaughn

Sphere | 2019 (6 June) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Across the Void by SK VaughnThe spaceship Hawking II is returning to Earth after a successful manned mission to Europa. But on the way back all hell breaks loose. Captain Maryann (May) Knox wakes up in sickbay from a coma. She is seriously dehydrated and malnourished. She has no short term memory of what happened. And, even worse, she’s entirely alone. Her crew is gone. The only company May has is the AI, renamed Eve by May after her mother. Eve also seems glad of the company but ‘she’ is damaged, also without short term memory, and barely in control of a ship that is failing by the hour. May has no choice but to try to fix Eve and the ship on her own. It will be a deadly challenge and it will also be a frightening one. Where is the crew? Perhaps May isn’t alone after all. Perhaps the mission was never intended to reach home.

But there is someone who wants more than anything to help Eve – her husband, Stephen, the scientist behind the mission. Fixing communications will be no easy thing and that’s only the start of it. How on earth could Stephen possibly help? And what if May remembers that she and Stephen are not as in love as she thinks, that actually she had left him behind in more ways than one when Hawking II began its journey to Europa? But all of that could be an irrelevance. The ship is falling apart. May must fight for every hour she stays alive, with only Eve to keep her sane along with memories she can no longer trust. Space is a lonely place and it can kill in a million ways.

Across the Void is such a fun read! I was drawn to it immediately. Its premise is perfect. Much is being made of its appeal to fans of The Martian and I think the comparison is deserved. Instead of a man stuck on a planet, we have a woman stuck on a spaceship, both have disasters to overcome. May isn’t quite the scientist, though. She is a pilot and she needs others to science her way out of this mess. Across the Void also has such a strong cinematic blockbuster appeal. It’s ambitious and so visual. It’s no surprise to learn that S.K. Vaughn is the pseudonym of a successful Hollywood writer and director (whoever it may be – and I really want to know!).

There is much to enjoy, quite apart from the thrilling action which builds and builds. There is the mood of a deserted damaged spaceship. Hawking II is a frightening place, that’s for sure, particularly when the lights are off. There is also the thriller element – where is the crew? – and what is going on back on Earth? Something very sinister is going on. And then there’s the love element – there’s the relationship between May and Stephen, which we experience through flashbacks, and there’s also the very touching friendship between May and Eve. May needs Eve for the technical and emotional support she provides. We sense that Eve needs May just as much.

I did have slight issues. I wish we were told more about what happened on Europa. We’re given tantalising glimpses but I wanted much more and wished it had been more significant. My other issue was with the state of affairs back on Earth. This felt quite preposterous and so, rather unexpectedly, I found the sections on the spaceship (which form the majority of the book) far more believable and involving.

May is a marvellous character. I liked Stephen very much, too, but May is the star of Across the Void. I felt completely behind her, wishing for all to go well, and admiring her for what she must endure when she must be so afraid and alone. Despite the tension, there is plenty of humour and wit, predominantly from May. Across the Void is such an entertaining and exciting space disaster adventure.

Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Tor | 2019 (16 May) | 576p | Review copy | Buy the book

Children of Ruin by Adrian TchaikovskyChildren of Ruin is the sequel novel to Children of Time and so you really need to have read the earlier novel first. In fact, if you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so. Science fiction, in my opinion, doesn’t get any better than Children of Time. It was one of my two top books of 2015 and remains one of my favourite books that I’ve ever read. I couldn’t wait to read Children of Ruin! This review assumes that you’ve read Children of Time and don’t mind hearing a little about what has happened before.

A crew has left Kern’s World and it’s a curious mix of human beings, descended from those who arrived on the Gilgamesh, and a number of the planet’s dominant species – spiders. They work closely together, each involved in experiments to improve communication between human and spider. And overseeing them all on their journey to seek out other life among the stars is Kern, a curious mix of human thought and ship technology. Once a scientist and terraformer, Kern is now an AI of sorts, whose chief concern is the care for the spiders she helped to evolve. But now, with humans aboard her ship, Kern is reminded of the humanity she’s lost, of the human vision and perspective she misses. But their expedition is put in jeopardy when they discover another form of life in another solar system. This species is at war with one another but their attention soon turns to the new arrivals and their reaction is hostile.

Another terraforming vessel has arrived in a system with a large planet, orbited by a moon covered in ocean. The planet, which they name Nod, is covered in mysterious life forms while the moon, Damascus, looks ripe for terraforming. And so, while one team studies Nod, the other sets to work on Damascus, evolving another species from Earth to help with the process. But it is on Nod that the greatest threat can be found, something that puts everything in peril. As one life evolves, another, humanity, might have reached its end.

Children of Ruin is a worthy sequel to Children of Time. I don’t think that anything can equal the first novel’s depiction of the extraordinary evolution of life on Kern’s World, but in Children of Ruin we are treated to some similar themes, as now it is the turn of the octopus to rise beyond its perimeters. The relationship of the octopus or octopi (the term is a topic for debate in the novel) to their ‘maker’ is so well drawn, while the character of the octopus is very different to that of the spiders. Again, Adrian Tchaikovsky explores some big themes about the nature of identity, memory, exploration, consciousness and self-awareness, the fate of Earth and humans, and the nature of life itself – what it means to be alive.

As the novel moves between its two strands, one set in the past and one in the present, we are taken to new worlds and there we encounter wonder but also terror. There are some genuinely frightening scenes here. Life isn’t always beautiful and the struggle to survive can be desperate. This drives the book on, giving it thrills, extreme action, horror, as well as moments of reflection and plenty of fascinating science.

This is engrossing storytelling and incredible worldbuilding. It may even alter the way in which you view life around you. The mix of science and drama is well balanced, engaging both the reader’s heart and mind. This is science fiction of the highest order, taking us to new worlds while illuminating the human condition. A stunning and rewarding read.

Other reviews
Children of Time
With C.B. Harvey and Malcolm Cross – Journal of the Plague Year

Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Rock the Boat | 2019 (7 May) | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book

Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay KristoffIt is 2380 and Tylor Jones is top cadet at the Aurora Academy. Training is over, crews are about to be formed, missions handed out – it’s time for the Draft, something that Tylor Jones has longed for. But he misses it. If only he hadn’t gone out for a joy ride into the Fold, the sub-space that enables impossibly fast travel between planets. If only he hadn’t have come across the distress signal from the Hadfield, a ship filled with sleeping colonists on their way to a distant planet. Except now they’re not sleeping, they’re dead and only one has survived – Aurora, a teenage girl who left Earth two centuries before and must now wake up lost into a world that is alien to her, with everyone she loved long dead.

Because of Aurora, Tylor misses the draft and comes back to the Academy only to be given the dregs for his crew that nobody else would pick. One of them appears to be a homicidal maniac, while another is an alien warrior with anger issues (and very attractive eyes). Then there’s Tylor’s twin sister who keeps calling him Bee-Bro. And then there are the others… Luckily, they’re given a mission that may well kill them before they can manage to kill themselves. Aurora isn’t going to be easy to shake off, either. But the mission sounded so simple, just to deliver relief aid to some refugees. Unfortunately, word is out of Aurora’s survival. People (and I use the word loosely) are after her.

I was so excited to read Aurora Rising! The Illuminae Files is, with no doubt, at all my favourite Young Adult trilogy, although I’d argue that it’s made to be loved by anyone of any age. And now we have the beginnings of a new trilogy. It is different as, I think, it had to be. It still features young adults in deadly peril in outer space but now we have a universe that is also populated by fascinating alien species who live alongside humans in varying degrees of harmony, although it is true to say that some species detest human beings and you have to watch out for those. There’s something of a Star Trek feel about Aurora Rising and I really liked that. This novel doesn’t have the epistolary structure and appearance of The Illuminae Files (and I couldn’t help but miss that at the beginning) and instead has a much more conventional structure but there is so much going on in this fantastic story of peril in space.

The premise is great! I love the idea of Aurora waking up after over two hundred years and finding herself in the centre of some terrible conspiracy that could have huge ramifications for all of life in space. This is exciting stuff and the action kicks off right at the very beginning in a fabulous first chapter and it doesn’t let up one little bit. But the stars of this novel are Tylor and his crew. Each is wonderfully distinct with a fantastic character of their own, a good mix of male, female and alien, and the interaction between them is brilliant. The chapters alternate between them. Some have a lot to say, others can barely spit out a coherent sentence, but we get to know them all and, as you’d expect, Tylor is just the man to turn a ragtag crew of dregs into a cohesive crew of dregs. There is sexual tension, plenty of sparks fly and a fair few fists, too. The dialogue is so funny. These characters shine. You’ll have fun getting to know them.

The world building is fabulous and the descriptions flood this universe with colour – except when travelling in the Fold, of course, when colour is lost. I loved the World Ship – a haven for outcasts – and a highlight is the absolutely ghastly great ultrasaur, surely the most disgusting creature in the entire universe.

This is great storytelling and, along with the humour, there is also emotion. Aurora is going through her own personal hell. There are some jaw dropping moments as the plot develops in its deliciously twisty way. Aurora Rising has it all – great story, characters and banter, some amusingly awkward relationships and lots and lots of thrills as well as a particularly nasty alien monster thing. Here we have the start of another great trilogy, which can be enjoyed by all ages, from this fantastic pair of writers. I can’t wait for book two and to get back into the Fold.

Other reviews
Illuminae 1
Gemina (Illuminae Files 2)
Obsidio (Illuminae Files 3)

Emily Eternal by M.G. Wheaton

Hodder & Stoughton | 2019 (23 April) | 294p | Review copy | Buy the book

Emily Eternal by MG WheatonThe demise of the Sun was believed to be billions of years safely in the future but now, just a few years from the present day, the Earth is far darker than it should be. The forces that power the Sun are failing, resulting in the so-called Helios Event and the imminent extinction of life on Earth, including humanity. In just a few weeks radiation and severe cold and ceaseless night will end life. This tragedy is felt keenly by Emily. Emily is an Artificial Consciousness. She feels intensely and is able to move through transmitters into the consciousness of others, reliving their memories, taking their experiences as her own. She also has the mind of a computer and she is determined to do all in her extraordinary power to save the species she loves.

But these last days are dangerous as people try to deal with their imminent destruction in ways that they can handle – or not. A disaster puts Emily’s existence in jeopardy and she must run for her life alongside two human beings who have more to teach Emily about humanity and what it would mean were it to be completely lost.

I’m a big fan of speculative fiction, apocalyptic novels and techno thrillers and Emily Eternal has an irresistible premise. It largely succeeds because the whole novel is filled with the spirit of Emily, who is such a wonderful, memorable creation. The story is told in Emily’s own words and she tells two stories – of the approaching apocalypse, which is darkly fascinating, and of her own personal tragedy – that she is becoming fulfilled at a time when it’s too late. But her voice is never gloomy, even if it can be sad, because she is on a journey to learn all she can about the human race and be as close to them as possible.

I loved the descriptions of Emily’s exactly patterned daily routines. She lives as a virtual human and she has learned human emotions. As a result, Emily Eternal is perhaps even more of a romance than it is speculative or science fiction. Emily falls in love and these feelings are almost consuming. The depiction of her relationship with Jason is beautifully drawn, even if it did feel a little unlikely.

The novel is thrilling and very exciting. It’s also poignant and reflective as the world faces its end – the sadness of parents with newly born children, for instance, is just one situation brushed upon. There is a good mix of future technology, science and human emotion. But, fundamentally, Emily Eternal is a novel about what it means to be a human by someone who wants so desperately to be one. As a result of this, there is a sense of hope because humans, for all their many faults, are shown to be worth the saving.

I have my issues with the ending of the novel, which becomes rather muddied. All sorts of science fiction ideas are thrown into the mix, rather too rapidly to make as much sense as they could. It all goes a bit mad! But, nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed Emily Eternal. I loved Emily and she’s a joy to have in a novel that could have felt bleak and gloomy but instead she makes it sad yet hopeful. It’s as a science fiction apocalyptic romance that Emily Eternal succeeds the most. Emily will be very difficult to forget.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Tor | 2019 (4 April) | 462p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady MartineAmbassador Mahit Dzmare from Lsel space station is sent to the City, the glittering capital of the Texicalaanli world and its empire. Her mission is to prevent Texicalaan from taking over her planetless world, which is positioned in such a strategic place beside two gates. Beyond one is unknown space and Texicalaan is hungry for it. But Mahit faces an uphill struggle. To the people of Texicalaan, even though she is every bit as human as they are, Mahit is a barbarian. Her habits, even the way she smiles, are mocked by the Texicalaanli who pride themselves on their refinement and exquisite culture. Mahit craves this foreign world. She grew up immersed in it and now she can live it. But first there is the matter of her predecessor to deal with. Ambassador Yskandr, who had lived on Texicalaan for decades, is dead, presumed murdered, and Mahit suspects she knows why. Yskandr was in possession of a secret technology that the Texicalaanli would kill to own. Mahit has it, too. She doesn’t rate her chances of survival.

I love a good space opera and A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine’s debut novel, is a fine one. Its worldbuilding is superb, so richly layered and brilliantly thought through. The depth of this is indicated by the fact that the novel includes a brief essay on the pronunciation and writing system of the Texicalaanli language. Language is at the heart of Texicalaanli culture. Names are elaborate and very significant – and humorous at times – while people, the government, its institutions, rituals, all express themselves with poetry. People are supposed to learn vast tracts of verse off by heart and be ready to quote an edifying chunk of it at appropriate moments. Mahit prides herself on knowing vast reams of it. Yet she is still reminded repeatedly of her barbarian status. But this is a seductive place to be. The City is gorgeous, its people are beautiful, its food is delicious – although not to be trusted – its gatherings are luxurious and their readiness to love is generous. But then there’s the other side. This is an empire that believes itself superior, that knows it, that wants to be in control and it will walk over any barbarian in its way. In some ways the Texicalaanli remind me of the Romans with their complicated, symbolic names, their confidence in their superiority, their dismissal of others as barbarian and their hunger for conquest.

I loved Mahit, who is caught in the middle between her world and this beguiling place in which she finds herself. This is intensified by her feelings for her Texicalaanli liaison officer Three Seagrass, which are reciprocated. This friendship is beautifully depicted. The characterisation equals the worldbuilding – we meet so many fascinating, well-developed characters. The dead ambassador Yskandr overshadows events, as does the Lsel technology that unites Mahit with her predecessor. It’s all thoroughly engrossing.

It’s also action-packed. The novel takes place over just a few days and Mahit barely has time to draw breath when she arrives on the planet. It all explodes around her, sometimes literally. And because Arkady Martine makes us so invested in these characters, we’re caught up in it all from the beginning. The danger is very real. Not only on Texicalaan but also beyond. We’re given hints of something alien that menaces beyond the gate by Lsel Station, something that destroys everything that approaches it, that steals the essence of what makes the Lsel inhabitants unique. The emphasis in A Memory Called Empire is very much on Texicalaanli but I suspect that the next novel will reveal more about this intriguing darkness beyond the gate. I’m excited to read it!

The Passengers by John Marrs

Ebury/Del Ray | 2019 (ebook: 1 April; Pb: 30 May) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book: Kindle; Pb

The Passengers by John MarrsOne morning a number of individuals think nothing of the journeys they’re about to undertake. They each get into their cars and set off. None of them will get to their destination. Each of the cars is fully automated, without steering wheels or controls, the driver is no longer a driver. He or she is just a passenger driven by an AI. Having control of the radio or tv screen is about the only power that the passengers have, but these people are about to lose even that. A few minutes into the journey they hear a voice and it tells them something that some of them believe must be a hoax – or even a reality TV show game. Their journey will take two and a half hours and at the end of that time, they will probably be dead. And it will all be filmed and projected into TVs and social media streams across the land. Viewers will be asked to make a choice.

Meanwhile, watching on is Libby. Libby is the civilian member of a curious jury that meets to decide who is liable in the event of an accident involving driverless cars. Is it the fault of the victim or the car? But their heated discussions are interrupted by the display of the drama playing out in front of an increasingly large and opinionated audience. As Libby and everyone else meets the helpless, panicked passenger, Libby realises with a shock that one of them looks very familiar to her indeed.

The Passengers is a book that I had to read the moment I was fortunate enough to obtain an advance copy. The premise is, undeniably, a little ridiculous but it is absolutely riveting! Set in the near future, this is a world in which social media is king and when people have got more time to spend on it due to the luxury of being driven around in cars by AI systems. There are sinister connotations to both of these concepts and John Marrs explores them to the full and I was hanging onto every single word.

The passengers are a fascinating and varied bunch, including a young pregnant woman, a suicidal man, an ageing movie and TV star, an unhappily married couple (each in their separate cars), a refugee, a woman escaping an abusive husband, an old soldier, and so on. It’s up to the public, and Libby’s jury, to save them, and social media will be shown at its very worst as it uses preconceptions about colour, gender, morality, religion, age to condemn the innocent – or the guilty. It is so gripping! We see the world at its worst.

One of the (many) things that kept me so hooked on the book is the author’s incredible talent for ending many of the chapters with such a shocking revelation or cliff hanger that at times I was utterly gobsmacked! I even had to mute a squeal when I was reading an especially jawdropping moment on the bus. But these moments aren’t rare. They happen time after time and I was left in utter awe of their creator’s skill.

I’m quite good at identifying the villain in thrillers and crime novels but The Passengers kept me in complete and happy ignorance until the very end. That is such a treat in itself. But this was more than equalled by the brilliant storytelling, the tension that is maintained from the very first page, the shocks that jolted me upright at regular and yet unexpected intervals, and the sheer entertainment of enjoying a sensational, slightly preposterous, story, made so real and thrilling. If you want a fun read, look no further!