The Seventh Victim

by Mary Burton
Kensington Publishing, Inc. © 2013
ISBN 978-1-4201-2505-4
Mass Market Paperback, 362 pages, $7.99

When Texas Ranger JAMES BECK arrives at the crime scene, the details—victim clad in a home-made white dress, blonde hair fanned out around her head, and a penny clutched in one hand—seem familiar somehow. It’s only after Beck begins to investigate that he suspects the Seattle Strangler, who was never caught but who has been MIA with no further attacks for seven years, is once again on the prowl.

Questions abound: the Strangler? In Austin? Why now, after so long a silence? The biggest unknowns surround the Strangler’s last Seattle victim, LARA CHURCH, the only one who survived. Beck knows the key to catching the killer is to find out why the Strangler left her alive and why, after six prior victims, the Strangler’s modus operandi changed. Surely she carries some clue that might stop the killer from striking again, and now that Lara’s living in Austin, Beck’s determined to find out what she knows.

The problem is that Lara can’t remember a thing. Oh she’s tried; Seattle police, certain she could be pressured into recalling details that would help them catch the killer, put her through the wringer again and again until she finally says, “No more.” Seattle detective MIKE RAINES, the lead investigator in the series of murders, didn’t believe her then. And he doesn’t believe her now. He’s as determined as Beck to find out what she remembers and to catch the murderer. But Lara’s just starting to build a new life. She wants nothing to do with the police or their investigation, and she’s not about to allow them to order her around, even if it is for her own good.

Author Mary Burton weaves a good tale, drawing the reader into the minds of her characters, then taking them along for the ride. Palpable tension hangs on every word in the exchanges between Raines, who travels to Austin to help solve the crimes, and Beck, who bristles at the outsider’s intrusion into “his” investigation. Lara’s interactions with Beck aren’t exactly friendly either—at least, not at first. She’s no shrinking violet; I’ve always liked strong female characters, and I think I would like Lara Church in real life.

Burton also does a decent job of writing young women and characters who haven’t had the easiest life and are a bit jaded as a result. One young female character, DANNI, plays a key role, especially later in the book at about the same time the last plot twist is taking shape. It’s her action that turns the tide in the end.

I have to point out that in my opinion, The Seventh Victim is tried-and-true formula. I figured out both the killer’s identity and the final twist long before the end; but that did not stop it from being an entertaining read, and sometimes that’s just what I’m looking for. Burton’s got a plethora of other mystery titles. I’m sure I’ll be checking those out too.

Just Fall, by Nina Sadowsky

Ballantine Books, © 2016
ISBN 978055394863
304 pages, $26.00

Looks can be deceiving. That’s what ELLIE LARRABEE finds out moments after saying “I do” when the man of her dreams reveals in one shocking sentence a truth that shakes her world. Everything she has taken for granted is built on shifting sands and suddenly her vision of a happy future is in grave peril.

The book opens in an idyllic scene: beautiful blonde in a swank hotel on an island paradise. Behind her on the bed is a man, one drunken hand thrown over his forehead, sheet drawn over his naked torso. From there, the reader is drawn deeper and deeper into this twisted tale of betrayal and violence, secrets and intrigue, as Ellie attempts to salvage her dreams—as well as her life and her husband’s—and finds herself wondering just how far she will go to have her happily-ever-after.

Just Fall is a mesmerizing thriller woven between present-day scenes and flashbacks, meting out clues in just the right measure. At first I found the flashbacks confusing, since they don’t appear in chronological order; but their seemingly random revelation is cleverly done. I was quickly captivated by Sadowksi’s method, which made it less predictable, though not one whit less captivating.

With every twist, I found myself more mystified as to what was actually going on. It doesn’t take long to figure out who the bad guys are (or so I thought), but everything here is not as it seems. When the big reveal came near the end, I was unprepared. This masterful plot, deliciously executed, kept me riveted, turning the pages through to the last.

Settings and scenery come to life in Sadowksy’s descriptive turns of phrase. I could feel the ocean breeze, see the colorful island buildings, smell the salt air. Every character felt real: Ellie’s trusting vulnerability, Rob’s reticence, Lucien’s integrity. As the true extent of Ellie’s dilemma is slowly revealed, it grew easier to believe her actions matched her persona, for who among us knows what we might be capable of under such dire circumstances? There is no absolute in this story. Every ethical decision is a shade of grey, and Ellie’s choices will keep you thinking long after you finish the book.

Though Sadowsky has worked as an entertainment lawyer, a producer, a screenwriter, and a director, Just Fall is her debut novel, a real treat for anyone who loves good suspense. I am definitely hooked on her style, and will be on the lookout for her next literary contribution!

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

by Stephen King
Pocket Books © 1999, 2002
ISBN 9780743455961
Mass Market Paperback, 320 pages, $11.19

The “King” of horror fiction got his start just like most other writers: trial and error and a lot of persistence. Growing up in Maine, surviving high school, thriving in college, then working a day job, raising a family, and writing in his office-slash-laundry room, he nonetheless found time to pen and submit numerous tales. For years, he worked limited success until Carrie stormed the wall of rejections and came away victorious. Since then, he has made quite a name for himself and, after decades of roaring success, he has a few tips to offer up-and-coming writers.

King’s own writing process is almost pure “pantser”. He eschews plotting. In fact, he feels plotting interferes with the creative process and kills the excitement a writer feels for the story when it’s fresh and new in her mind. Oddly, reading this bit struck home for me. About a month before reading On Writing, I’d had a great idea for a literary tale of an old, old man, shortly before his death, remembering his life in a full-circle way. But I wanted to make it as realistic as possible, so I spent a whole month creating his family tree, lining up his ancestors and where they all lived and what life was like there, so that the “history” could ring true even for people who today live in that small town. By the time I read King’s book, my enthusiasm for the old man’s tale had waned somewhat. I’ll still write it, but I’m wishing now I’d done it when it was still a bright flame in my imagination.

There is so much to recommend this book I can’t begin to share it all. If you’ve ever read anything by King, you know his style is distinct. Personally I find it comfortable, accessible, believable, and this one is no exception. There is a clear theme throughout the narrative, which is full of applicable anecdotes. My favorite bit was perhaps his treatment of rejections. As a young writer, he put a nail in the wall of his bedroom, onto which he impaled each “no thanks” form letter. So many accumulated over time that the nail would no longer support their weight, and he had to move the whole setup to his desktop. I loved the idea so much I may adopt it for myself!

King does make a handful of very helpful suggestions, but for the most part he does not tell the writer “how to do it.” Instead, he encourages her to find her own process. I found this very refreshing, especially since I’ve tried others’ processes and find that they don’t always work as I’d hoped. Of his few “mandates,” one is that an aspiring writer must use (or at least know and understand) proper grammar. He even recommends excellent sources for reference.

Part memoire and part craft book, this is King’s own story. From childhood all the way through the auto-pedestrian accident that nearly took his life, he talks about the obstacles he overcame, the weak points he had to work through, and how writing enriched his life. To get a peek inside this creative master’s mindset on writing, to see where his ideas came from or what sparked breakthroughs during writer’s block or even how he edits his own work was truly inspiring. I first read On Writing as a library loan. Long before I finished it, I knew I wanted—no, needed—my own copy; I purchased it before the loan even ran out.

This is a book I will read again and again, not just because I enjoy King’s style, but because as an aspiring writer, it will serve as an excellent learning tool.

The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman

Pan Publishing © 2014
ISBN 1101988649
Mass Market Paperback, 354 pages,
$36.99 hardcover

Imagine a reality where librarians live forever (or near enough), a truly magical place that intersects with other worlds and other timelines through hidden doors and a secret language. This is the world of The Library, an enormous secret world where agents collect books from all the other worlds—stealing them, where necessary—in order to preserve their knowledge. The Library is top secret, a place that must be protected from outsiders lest their treasury of the written word be spoilt or the secrets hidden within the tomes used to evil purposes.

Enter Irene, a secret-agent type librarian, who is sent on what seems to be a boringly routine job, until someone else beats her to the book she’s after, and unknown enemies begin trying to kill her and her assistant. Irene must dig deep to find the resources for survival as the job goes more and more wrong.

The Invisible Library is the first in a series, and features magic, fairies, werewolves, vampires and more in a twisty, fast-paced fantasy. Cogman does a good job with the tale. Irene’s adventure is anything but boring, with plot twists ‘round every corner.

Although I believe Cogman intended the tale for adults, I felt it was rather more suited to the YA crowd. There’s plenty to attract a younger reader—interpersonal drama between competing librarians, repartee, possible love interest with a mystery guy, and the kind of ever-present fluctuation between self-doubt and bravado that goes along with approaching adulthood. It’s a good, clean, inspiring read.

Personally, I prefer my fiction a little more mature; however, I’m not sorry I read The Invisible Library. If you enjoy a quick, light read, or if a young adult in your life does, I recommend this book.

Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer

Tor Books, © May 2016
ISBN 9780765378002
Hardcover, 432 pages, $11.42

Several hundred years in the future, Earth—and human civilization—is completely unrecognizable. Religion has been outlawed. Gender pronouns are eradicated, as is a binary gender system. Select criminals are no longer imprisoned. Instead, they are put to work as Servicers in whatever capacity best benefits society. Cars fly. In fact so many cars fly at breakneck speed through Earth’s skies that they have to be controlled by overarching tracker systems to eliminate the crashes; but this technology allows humans to live in one land and work in another even halfway around the world, and commute every day. Countries and nationalities are gone, replaced by Hives. People’s homes are communal. In this global culture, royalty has returned, and politics reign supreme.

But there’s one individual in this setting that doesn’t fit the mold, a young child who possesses the ability to bring things to life—toys, pictures, the dead. His very presence holds the potential to upset the precarious balance of culture and society. Only a few know of his existence, and they intend to keep it that way for as long as possible.

The worldbuilding in Lightning is extraordinary, the prose outstanding, the characterizations compelling. Palmer has woven a mighty, complex web here and absolutely deserves the Hugo nomination her tale received.

However, I did not finish the book. There are a number of issues that confused me as a reader (such as the fact that the narrator adds back in gender associations in random fashion, even though the rest of the story does not use them). But I think it was the political convolutions that did me in on the plot. Which is weird. I adored Dune and all the books that followed in that saga (at least the eight or ten I read). However, I couldn’t follow Lightning’s Gordian thread. At 51% of the way through the novel, I still had no clue what the heck was going on. I wanted to understand it. I tried to understand it. But in the end, I have a very limited amount of time to dedicate to reading, and this just wasn’t worth it to me—especially when I read in another review (trying to find out if was just me) that this is book one in The Terra Ignota series, and that nothing really gets resolved in Lightning. It’s all set-up.

So at slightly more than half-way through, I set it aside and moved on to something else. I am clearly not a member of its intended audience, but that takes nothing away from its merit.

Now. All that said, please please don’t give this book a pass based solely on my opinion. Look at other reviews before you decide (here’s one; here’s another) or, better yet, borrow it from the library and try it out yourself. Plenty of other readers rave about this story, although not one I’ve seen will say it’s an easy read. It’s work. This is a heavy story, laden with meaning that is building to something massive. Hence the weighty narrative. And if that’s your thing, Lightning might be right up your alley.

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.