The Queen of Blood: Book One of the Queens of Renthia

by Sarah Beth Durst
HarperCollins Publishers, L.L.C. © 2016
ISBN 978-0-06-241334-5
Print length 368 pages, $19.99

Renthia’s spirits want to create, according to their nature. Earth spirits wish to make things grow. Wood spirits build. Water spirits flow, and so on. But more than anything else, they long to destroy. Not just each other. Not just the very things they’ve built. Renthia’s spirits want to kill the humans. Every single one.

Humans can—and sometimes do—fight back in self-defense. But they can’t destroy all spirits, for life in Renthia cannot continue without them. No fire spirits means no way to cook or warm oneself. Take away the water spirits and there’ll be no clean water to drink. Without earth spirits, the forests and plants and all manner of growing things on which the humans feed would die.

And yet for centuries, the Queen maintains a delicate balance through her magical ability to sense and control the world’s spirits, and enforce the Queen’s law: Do No Harm. In every generation, girls who can sense the spirits are trained as potential heirs to the throne, for without a powerful queen, all of Renthia would surely perish.

But power can fade with age. And too much power can corrupt. And sometimes, power comes in strange and unexpected packages. Faith and tradition drive Renthian society, where balance between human and spirit teeters on the razor’s edge. One false step, and the whole will collapse.

The character of Daleina, who starts out as a young child and finishes as an adult, is believable and relatable. I enjoyed watching her grow into a strong, sensible young woman. The changes that take place in the heroine make perfect sense, given the experiences that befall her, and I had no trouble buying into the ending Durst writes for her. Ven, Daleina’s champion, works well as a somewhat tragic character who works tirelessly through his exile to serve the Queen, the people, and the land. I liked their pairing—not in a sexual or romantic way, but as a working team. I bought Ven’s sincerity, why he needed a rough style.

The setting was interesting; most of the land of Aratay, one of five regions in Renthia, is set in the boughs of trees. Humans don’t live on the ground; it’s too dangerous. Instead, wood spirits grow houses from the branches, and the people string ladders and bridges between them. Whole villages sit high above the tree roots, sometimes all in a single enormous tree. It took me a few chapters to really grasp that, and a few more to get accustomed to the fact that they didn’t do much of anything on the ground.

I started reading Queen of Blood believing it was written for young adults. It is not. Between ethical dilemmas, moral quandaries, vicious battle scenes and the occasional hint of sex, this is clearly an adult fantasy. Not every problem is resolved happily, and not every character you meet is safe. That said, I think the tale is more believable because of these less-than-ideal details. Life doesn’t always take the high road, and stories that insist it does seem less believable to me. Queen of Blood has a lot of fantasy sparkle, but underneath is a gritty foundation that I found immensely satisfying.

The only drawback I found with this book is that toward the end, I felt like Daleina’s modesty went a little overboard. While she is a humble character throughout the story, she’s also deeply pragmatic. Her overweening humility near the denouement felt false, forced.

Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed this tale and can’t wait for book two of the series, The Reluctant Queen to be released this summer. If you’re a fantasy fan, this series should be on your list of must-reads.

Arkwright

by Allen Steele
Tor Books/Tom Doherty Associates, LLC © 2016
ISBN 978-0-7653-8215-3 (Hardcover)
Print length 336 pages, $23.58

Nathan Arkwright, best-selling science fiction writer and wealthy philanthropist, dies without providing for his daughter Sylvia or granddaughter Kate. Instead, he leaves his entire considerable fortune to the Arkwright Foundation, a nonprofit organization to be established and operated toward the goal of real, honest-to-god space travel that might actually carry humans to the stars. It isn’t as though they were a close family. Kate’s known for years that there was some dark history between her mother and grandfather, but Sylvia refuses to discuss it and Grandpapa Nathan was never exactly a welcoming presence. Kate barely even knows him. No one even tells Kate he’s dead, so when she reads it in the paper, she doesn’t really know what to feel.

All that changes when Kate decides to go to the funeral. There, strangers approach her with a curious need to tell her about her grandfather. It isn’t until she learns what the Foundation has in mind as her role that she understands the full impact of Nathan Arkwright’s legacy.

Arkwright is hard sci-fi, sticking to the science of interstellar travel, delays in communications that would be a very realistic part of any such project, and what it would take to actually send a ship to another star system—not just the technical details, but the sociological, cultural and political ones. Not everyone is in favor of this project, and some will stop at nothing to bring the foundation to its knees. The narrative follows the various generations of the Arkwright family as they work toward manifesting the goal of the Foundation, overcoming one hurdle or setback after another. Throughout, and even after the ship leaves its orbital construction site to achieve its mission, we see the changes taking place here on Earth in both environmental and political climates.

The book is separated into four parts, the first of which is Nathan Arkwright’s story. Scenes move between Kate in the contemporary timeline and flashbacks, where we see through Nathan’s perspective how and why he became a writer and what led him to found his legacy. Along the way, famous science and science fiction personas like Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clark flit in and out of cameos, but only as an homage; never does Steele actually involve them in the storyline. And the names aren’t the only tributes. Readers will find many nuggets that hail back to science fiction classics of our own day. I have to admit, as a sci-fi fan, this tickled me, as I’m sure it was meant to do.

Parts two and three follow Nathan’s grandson and great-granddaughter, and dive into the nuances of family politics and the challenges that face them all on such an ambitious journey. Another famous author once said “Nothing worthwhile is ever easy,” and the Arkwrights get up close and personal with this truism. Throughout, the story is driven by its characters, by their strengths and foibles, their dreams and their nightmares. Behind it all is the firm belief that the Foundation’s goal is bigger than their personal dramas. Bigger than their entire family. Bigger than any attempt to stop it, despite the pettiness that creeps in via black sheep or politicians. The Arkwright Foundation’s mission is, in fact, undertaken on behalf of humankind. It cannot be allowed to fail.

As for part four…. Well. No spoilers here. You’ll have to read the book to find out, but it will definitely be time well spent. Steele’s intimate glimpse into the Arkwright family’s dream and the faith with which they carry it out is an inspiring read.

A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers

Harper Voyager, © 2016
ISBN 9780062569400
Print length 384 pages, $16.99

This stand-alone sequel to Becky Chambers’ debut novel, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, begins 28 minutes after a sentient AI personality has been transferred from the body of a ship to a human-like body. Nothing could have prepared her for such a drastic change—where she used to have wide-ranging vision and sensory input all through and outside the ship, now she is limited to input provided by her smaller body, her visual range reduced to a “cone” of visible space directly in front of her face. Not only is she completely unprepared for the adaptation and totally naïve in the ways of the world, she’s on the run from the authorities. Encasing an AI in a body kit is highly illegal. She has no idea how to navigate as a human through the colonial settlements without giving herself away, which could make things problematic. Except for her friend Pepper, she would never survive. At Pepper’s direction, she takes a human name (Sidra) and a job (working in Pepper’s junk shop), and begins learning what it means to be human.

In a second storyline, we meet Jane 23, a young slave child in a factory run by the Mothers, anonymous robots who keep the girl slaves in line and see that the quotas are met each day. 23’s simple thoughts range into dangerous territory, wondering about esoteric questions like the world beyond the factory until one night she finds herself outside the building and, when the Mothers discover her escape, running for her life. But 23 doesn’t know how to survive on her own. She’s hungry and cold and in fear of the wild dogs that roam in packs until she stumbles onto an old downed spacecraft whose AI, Owl, still functions. Together, Owl and 23 survive the harsh conditions on the planet until they can find a way out together.

Seemingly two separate tales, these stories collide in ways both subtle and direct. Chambers once again nails the interpersonal relationships in an intimate way that stirs the imagination and the heart equally. Rather than focus on war or crime or violence, the plot in both Chambers’ novels centers on the characters; but Closed and Common Orbit gets even closer to shine a warm light on their most vulnerable moments.

The story is told through the eyes of Sidra and Jane as each navigates her way toward salvation, contentment and safety. Though not directly connected to the initial book in the Wayfarer series, Common Orbit is set in the same universe and shares many details. If you loved the interaction with other species so prevalent in Long Way, you’ll find plenty more here. Sidra’s home with Pepper and Blue centers on an interplanetary market, of sorts, which is introduced in book one. It’s a place where almost anything can be bought.

Through Jane and Sidra, Chambers explores prejudice, personal rights, sentience, and what it means to be human. Once again, there’s no specific antagonist; instead the enemies are the Mothers, the dogs, failing equipment, the laws that would separate Sidra from her body and penalize Pepper for daring to help her in the first place. Sidra’s predicament forces others around her to see in new ways, and to realize that one’s own perspective is not so easily or comfortably thrust on another without consequences.

Common Orbit continues the feeling of Long Way in that it’s a moving, inspirational tale that takes an honest look at interpersonal relationships and challenges our authenticity—to ourselves and to each other. It was truly an enjoyable and uplifting read.

Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

HarperCollins Publishers © 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-233451-0
880 pages, $35.00

When the moon blows up for no apparent reason, people first wonder what happened. Then the fuzzy, expanding cluster of seven enormous boulders that once made up Earth’s sole satellite becomes a curiosity. But once the scientists realize what’s going to happen next, the novelty quickly turns to fear.

Dinah MacQuerie and Ivy Xiao, stationed aboard the International Space Station or “Izzy,” soon learn that they’ll never be able to set foot on land again. That they’ll spend the rest of their lives on Izzy, in weightless space. That the families they’d left behind are as good as dead. From the moment “Doc” Dubois understands that exponential collisions of moon debris will bring down a “hard rain” of bolides which will destroy all life on the surface of the Earth, the race is on. Experts predict humanity will have two years to find a way to live in space until it’s safe to return—at least five thousand years.

I’m not giving anything away by revealing these details. The moon’s demolition happens in the opening sentence. Understanding that the further degradation and spread of its remains will eventually render the surface of the Earth uninhabitable comes close on the heels of that first, almost unnoticed disaster. Seveneves isn’t about that destruction. It’s about the frantic plan to save as many humans as possible by getting them off the surface before it’s too late. It’s also about the strength—and weakness—inherent in all of us, and the price everyone pays for one person’s hubris.

So much of the story takes place on Izzy that she almost becomes a character in her own right. Stephenson does an excellent job of portraying life there, as well as the experience of weightlessness and the quirky problems and challenges it presents. As Izzy fills up and builds out, her residents new and old learn to handle crowded living conditions, safeguard their fragile and vulnerable habitat and now scarce resources, and shortening tempers. In most cases, those involved grow closer, more bonded. But human nature will not long be denied and when it surfaces in the survivors’ tenuous setting, it starts a chain of events that eventually lead to one of the major plot points of the book.

Seveneves is definitely hard sci-fi; Stephenson does a good job of explaining the physics of orbital mechanics and the technological details of living in space, most of which even I understood enough to follow. I must admit, however, that some of his explanations seemed to plumb unnecessary depths, and I skimmed past before I could fall asleep. Even so, the premise of the story is fascinating, delving into sociological as well as cultural obstacles and solutions, and I thoroughly enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book.

The last third jumps ahead 5,000 years. Humanity has created a complete habitat ring in space around the Earth, and evolved into very different and distinct races. Life as it was pre-zero is only a memory and an Epic taught to the children. I found Stephenson’s description of this new human society fascinating and, in many ways, relatable, but somehow in the shift, he lost me. Perhaps it is because, in my opinion, he told me what the characters were thinking and feeling instead of showing me through the characters themselves. The end could have been much more compelling. Plenty of exciting things take place. Still, I didn’t feel what I imagine the characters were supposed to feel. When the monumental twist came, it fell flat for me. I was left unsatisfied and unmoved.

I’ve read other reviews of this book that disagree with my opinion here, so perhaps it is only a matter of taste. As this is my first Stephenson read, I can’t say whether this is a normal part of his style. I do know I enjoyed it enough that I won’t let it stop me from reading another of his novels. I encourage you to read it, and decide for yourself.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

HarperCollins Publishers, LLC, © 2014
ISBN 9780062444134
Print length 467 pages, $10.81

When Rosemary’s feet leave Mars for the first time, it’s to take a cramped pod shuttle to rendezvous with her new employer, Captain Ashby Santoso, aboard the Wayfarer, a tunneling ship that digs passages through space, shortcuts for travel throughout the Galactic Commons. While Rosemary is running from family problems, she finds that she has run to a new home, one she won’t want to leave behind.

Long Way is character-driven space opera at its finest. The capable but quirky crew consists of Captain Ashby, pilot Sissix, algeist Corbin, techs Kizzy and Jenks, clerk Rosemary, medic and cook Doctor Chef, navigator Ohan, and the ship’s AI Lovey. Their ship, Wayfarer, is a hodge-podge of cobbled-together parts and equipment that somehow, through the expert ministrations of Kizzy and Jenks, functions at or near optimum. Still, its small stature and low-end tunneling equipment suit it only for small jobs. Ashby has occasionally dreamed of taking his ship and crew to the next level, but credits are tight and one does not just step operations up a notch without the proper equipment.

So when a prime new job practically lands in his lap—not just any job, but one that would significantly boost the crew’s and the ship’s credits, status and capabilities—Ashby says yes. Their assignment is to connect the Galactic Commons to a distant, newly opened territory. No problem, except that there’s no pre-established tunnel, nor any anchor in the new space toward which they can aim a new passage. The Wayfarer must travel to their destination without shortcuts. A year of close quarters, idle hands and potential risks all seem worthwhile—until they arrive.

But that’s not the point of the story. While the climax helps to drive the narrative, Long Way is really about the characters. En route to their goal, Wayfarer stops at various ports of call to make essential purchases, to relieve the long-haul boredom, or just to visit with friends and family. It’s these episodes that make the story more interesting as we learn more about the characters and their various species and cultural norms. The crew, inter-species though they may be, are indeed a family of the heart. Through good times and bad, they stick together and support one another as family should. More than once, I had tears in my eyes as I read moving emotional sequences.

Author Becky Chambers takes on a lot in this uplifting, hopeful tale. In a Galactic community, where species are as different from one another as it is possible to be, somehow the powers that be have managed to find and maintain a delicate balance. Humans are new to the mix, adding volatility that had been resolved long ago by the more traveled races; what’s important to note is that Long Way takes on issues critical to such a melting-pot social setting like ethical questions, moral quandaries, gender issues and cultural differences between species, the sorts of things that humans can’t seem to master in this world. Chambers clearly holds strong, positive opinions on these and similar topics, and they shine through in her narrative.

There is no one set protagonist or antagonist in this book. Instead, the reader sees through the eyes of each crewmember at one time or another, but for me this did not detract from my enjoyment of the story. I found myself cheering the crew as they prospered, or laughing at their hijinks, or holding my breath for their safety or resolution in tight situations. Although humans fill a small space in this larger tale, the other species also wrangled with issues that would be familiar to any of us. I had no trouble relating to non-human characters. My only criticism is that I would have liked to see more about the physical appearances of the various species so I could imagine them as I read. Chambers does a passable job in this area, but she so excels in the rest of the story I can forgive this small shortcoming.

Overall, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is the most enjoyable read I’ve experienced in a long time. Its positive attitude and the compassionate outlook of the characters truly lifted my spirit. I can’t recommend it enough.

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons

Spectra Publishing, © 1990
ISBN 978-0553283686
Mass Market Paperback, 481 pages, $6.82

In a dark and foreboding universe, Hyperion is only one among many terraformed human worlds, though it may well be the oddest. Home to the Time Tombs, which move backward through time, Hyperion is also home to the Shrike, a horrific monster said to guard the Tombs. Some hate the Shrike. Other worship it. All fear it. Yet legend has it that the monster grants audience to pilgrims who come on foot in groups of prime numbers, and that it hears all petitions and grants one wish. The catch—there’s always a catch—is that most people who encounter the Shrike die in unspeakable ways.

With humanity on the brink of war, and Hyperion a central focus for both sides, future pilgrimages are suspended. One last group makes its way against the tide of evacuations as the enemy draws nearer. Knowing they are likely marching to their deaths, each of these final pilgrims tells their tale of connection to the abandoned world, revealing bit by bit the connection between them all and what ties them to the Shrike.

Though this review only covers the first book in the series, the Hyperion Cantos is actually a four-book series. The first two volumes, Hyperion (1990) and The Fall of Hyperion (1995), take place in the same era. The last two, Endymion (1995) and The Rise of Endymion (1997), follow the story 272 years later. Further reviews on those books will follow as I read them.

There’s a lot to love in this book. The characters project rich backgrounds and unique personalities, especially with their stories, each rife with details that explain not only why they’ve come to the pilgrimage in the first place but why they are who they are. Some of the characters are easy to like. Personally, I loved Sol Weintraub’s tragic saga of his daughter. The Consul, too, caught my sympathy with his tale of a love carried out across time differences. Other characters—the poet, Martin Silenus, for example—left me cold. If I happened to meet Silenus in real time/space, I would want nothing to do with him. His tale, however, is intriguing, as are they all. In fact, the pilgrims’ accounts are both the strength and the weakness of Hyperion. They draw the reader in and snare her on the details, on wondering how this connects to the larger narrative; at the same time, just at the point where the reader is most engrossed, the pilgrim’s tale ends, and the reader is thrust back into the larger story of their trek. I found it a bit jarring, a la Canterbury Tales, but not enough to put down the novel, thank goodness. It was worth my time.

I will say that this book is not an easy read. Nor is it suitable for someone who enjoys only light sci-fi; Hyperion is a true space opera. Time-debts (differentials in the passage of time between those on a planetary surface and those engaged in space travel) play a key role in the story overall, which is a bit confusing at first. Technology in the Hegemony of Man is (no pun intended) light-years ahead of contemporary Earth civilization. Farcasters connect distant worlds through portals (WorldWeb) which I envisioned to be gates, similar to those in the old Stargate television series. Humans are allied with AIs, who inhabit and run the TechnoCore and control all mankind’s high tech. Some humans have data ports in their brains so that they can be plugged into the Web on a constant basis. And that’s just the basics. In most cases, Simmons offers no explanation for terminology such as “the hive” and “treeship,” leaving the reader to imagine it on her own. In addition, some characters are centuries old — due in part to available medical technology.

Readers who love such imagined futures in sci-fi will love this classic. But don’t just get the first book; get all four. I wish I had, since this is not a standalone book. If you want to know how it ends, you must read on.

Overall, I found this to be a most enjoyable read, and look forward to continuing the saga with The Fall of Hyperion.

Bad Blood, by Lucienne Diver

Samhain Publishing, © 2012
ISBN 978-1-60928-594-4
219 pages, $14.00

Any book that includes Apollo—the Apollo—hiding among humans as an adult film star is bound to grab my attention. And he isn’t alone; Circe, Poseidon, Hephaestus, Hermes, and other Big Names make appearances in this first book of the Latter Day Olympians series. Add in skeptical protagonist TORI KARACIS, a private investigator who may—or may not—have gorgon blood, her edgy relationship with Detective NICK ARMANI (no relation), and her overly dramatic assistant, Jesus, and you have a perfect recipe for a most unusual mystery.

The book opens with Tori on the job, tailing a high-powered Hollywood agent for a paying client. Things go to hell (or is that Hel?) almost immediately, and by the end of the first chapter, our P.I. is called into Detective Armani’s office for questioning. Pressure mounts in every scene as Tori begins asking the right questions and coming a little too close for comfort to uncovering the truth behind the mayhem. Soon Tori herself is a target and that’s when things really kick into high gear.

Tori, the main character and my favorite, portrays the classic strong-but-vulnerable heroine. Her personality comes through loud and clear in the first few pages, and remains consistent throughout the book; sarcasm is her native language, especially in her head, where we spend a good bit of time. More than once I laughed out loud at her private thoughts, and found myself cheering her snide comments, wishing I had the guts to speak my mind as fluently in tense situations. Her observations of people and situations reach the reader through the filter of Tori’s cynicism, which makes them even more amusing. I loved the fact that she could laugh at herself, as well as those around her.

Little by little, some of Tori’s background emerges and we get a glimpse into why she is so suspicious and (dare I say it) uptight. Her unique family members contribute, especially YiaYia, whose fantastic tales of family history Tori has never taken seriously—until now. Even Uncle Christos, whose investigative business she inherited, adds his two cents with quotes like “If you assume you know nothing, you’re going to be right a good part of the time.”

As a mystery, the book had me turning the pages to see if my guesses on the villain’s identity were correct. Diver threw in more than a few surprises, including a couple of steamy scenes that I did not expect. Overall the plot kept me guessing, which I found refreshing.

My only disappointment in Bad Blood was that it was more or less a surface romp. I prefer books that make me think. This one was entertainment, pure and simple. That’s not a bad thing; I enjoyed it, but for me it didn’t scratch my preference for intelligent stimulation, or make me dig down into my own principles to question whether I would have done things the same as Tori, or if I would have taken a different route. Even so, sometimes the last thing I want as a reader is an arduous journey into philosophy and ethics. Especially on days that demand a huge concentration of my attention and focus, a delightful modern-day urban fantasy is exactly what YiaYia might recommend.

With concise and consistent characterization and plot, Diver’s Bad Blood is a great start for a series that promises irreverent wit—and tumultuous relationships—throughout. If you’re looking for a fun read with fast-paced action and clever dialogue, Bad Blood should definitely be at the top of your list.