Read/reading a few books recently:
The Empire’s Ruin by Brian Staveley.
Dark epic fantasy
So Brian Staveley wrote a really strong trilogy of books known as The Unhewn Throne a few years ago, about a crumbling empire with external and internal threats, ancient conspiracies, elite special forces riding giant birds, questionable religions and all sorts of fun stuff.
This is the first in a sequel trilogy to those, and whilst there’s nothing exactly wrong with it, and a lot of cool ideas, well-executed plot-twists (indeed the actual plot is pretty hard to predict in detail), cool fight scenes and so on, it’s just very hard to actually care about anyone (even the Mad Max 2-esque child), because everyone is such a fucking downer, and every civilization seems to suck, and all the heroic characters of the previous novels are basically dead or MIA (and remain MIA).
I’ll probably read the next one because the setup is sufficiently compelling, but honestly I couldn’t remotely recommend it like I recommended the originals.
Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky finally turns his hand to “normal” space opera, and, predictably, is already better at it than most practiced exponents of that genre, simply because he’s much better at delivering lore in amusing, intriguing and brief ways, and better at creating groups of likeable characters who you actually care about.
I will avoid spoilers and just say the story is “Mass Effect-ish” in terms of elements (rag-tag crew on an unusual ship, various weirdos including a warrior from an all-female race, a potentially looming threat to the galaxy, various distinct and engaging factions with their own goals, etc.), and well-told and engaging, with some highly unusual characters including a “disabled” character who actually lives up to “differently abled” for once, without the writing about her ever seeming preachy.
It’s an easy recommendation if you like any of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s work, or if you like space opera at all, or just “fun” sci-fi novels. Start of a trilogy and it’s a very strong start.
Beneath The Rising by Premee Mohammed
Weird modern fantasy
I wanted to like this more than I actually did, I mean, slight spoilers but it’s basically Cthulhu Mythos-esque SF/horror (more SF than horror), about a pair of kids, a poor-ish (but not really) 18-year old boy, and a 17-year-old super-genius girl who has already massively changed the world, who are linked by past events - it’s set in 2002 but it’s a rather different 2002 (9/11 missed, for example), and then things go downhill.
It’s quite playful and charming at times, and it’s clear that the writer is very talented in certain ways (describing sensations and impressions particularly) but it’s got three major problems:
Firstly, the author expects us to suspend belief in kind of weird ways, like to believe characters wouldn’t realize something was wrong for a really extended period, and it just doesn’t quite work, and she stretches stuff out for too long on this basis. I’ll avoid spoilers on this, because there are some major plot points here, but I spent like 1/4-1/3 of the book going “If X isn’t shown to the case soon, I’m done with this book…” - X was shown to the case but it was a boring wind-up that it took so long.
Secondly, the main character and only POV character, Nick Prasad, is, with all due respect a judge-y, small-hearted, hypocritical little wanker of a man who has basically close to no ability to “rise to the occasion” personality-wise (a trait I particularly loathe in male POV characters, because as flawed as someone like me may be, I don’t have that issue and can’t really empathize/sympathize about it), and who blames other people for everything that goes wrong (he’s only half-wrong technically in this but it’s still gross because he doesn’t know that). He’s 18 so so allowances can be made. But the man whilst he’s not quite a creep has no redeeming characteristics except filial piety, and I’m sorry, I feel like you need more than basic bitch filial piety. Also his family isn’t as poor as he seems to think they are (and I’m not sure the author understands this).
Thirdly, and this is hard to explain, but for the plot of the book to work, and to not think Nick is a fucking wanker, we have to go along with treating a three year old child (yes a normal three-year-old) as fully morally culpable for their “decisions” and a six-year-old likewise. I think most people would find this abhorrent in the extreme. Even right-wing lunatics tend to draw the line a bit higher than that. But for literally 92% of the book, Nick doesn’t. And even when he does, he’s like “Well I guess it’s not full culpable-ness, but still some” and it’s like, Nick, dude, I want to smash your face in with a wrench for being a despicable shit, and would only not because you’re just 18 and thus dumb-as-fuck. But I feel like the author thinks it’s fine (and to be fair, I believe she wrote most of this when she was a similar age, and perhaps also dumb-as-fuck), and that’s disgusting. Like actually disgusting - that attitude alone is more horrifying than a lot of the mythos monsters.
It’s a pity because it’s a really huge problem with the main arc of the book and utterly ruins the main character for a portion of it. The book is so well-written in a lot of other ways that it’s somehow survivable, but damn. I have mixed feelings as to whether to read the sequel (written a lot of years later, I think), because Nick Prasad is still the sole POV character and honestly fuck that guy in particular unless he grew the hell up.
Iron Truth - Primaterre book 1 - SA Tholin
I might write about this more some other time, it was recommended by someone here, but it is one of the goddamn weirdest books, especially attitude-wise, I’ve ever read. Not in a good way. It’s basically a sort of fascist space marines encounter an tricky foe deal, but like, jammed right in the middle of this is the least-plausible and least-sexy romance I’ve ever read in a book (which is saying something), where a boring archaeologist-lady with brother-issues is super-fucking-horny for a personality-free space fascist incel (I feel like I’m only being slightly unfair here). She’s basically humping his leg (in a non-sexual-way but romantic sense) for like half the book and it’s just really off-putting. Especially as we have to deal with several overwrought descriptions of how “beautiful” she is (she’s basically just a short redhead in her 20s), which just makes it feel very “author insert character”. And it’s like they’re telling this COMPLETELY HORRIFIC story about space fascists who place basically no value on human life unless you’re rich people living in harmony with nature - literally this is explained at length by one space fascist - it’s alright to slaughter and ethnically-cleanse or permanently push people into rape-filled dead-end refugee camps (again literally the camps are explained to be this way) if they lived in a city and had a low standard of living, but not if they were living healthy lives which only rich people could afford. It’s like the eco-fascist version of 40K Space Marines or something.
And what’s really wack is, whilst basically no-one gets to contradict these guys seriously (just some wacky dumbass terrorists, with, I shit you not, Irish accents), and the author fetishizes the hell out the space-fascist and their weapons/armour, I get the vague feeling, from stuff being brought up (and not addressed), and the titles of the rest of the books in the series, that actually the space-fascists will turn out to be in the wrong.
But goddamn this book is just space-fascists slaughtering poor people, mind-controlled people and so on left, right and centre. And talking about how they’ve done it before and will do it again. There’s also a lot of power armour, heavy weapons, and generally fairly decent action scenes.
It’s so weird.
What I’m reading right now is:
The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
This is a really delightful book so far despite a kind of depressing setup. The main idea is that the post-apocalyptic-but-stable future, a company finds away to send people to very similar alternate Earths (only really close ones). But the catch is, only people who are dead on those worlds can go to them, because of a fatal feedback effect. The book is about one of those people, who is dead on all but like 8 of 372 known worlds.
But it’s about a whole lot more than that, and it’s written a way that’s quite engaging and understands some stuff that other authors don’t, necessarily (like that people accept the world they’re born into, so unlike most post-apocalyptic novels there’s no “Oh I wish we could get back to the good times!” stuff really).
It’s very character-driven and the alternate-worlds setting works extremely well for that.
My only criticism so far would be that early on, they explain how the world-travel stuff works and what happens with it, and that is followed until suddenly, and plot-conveniently it doesn’t seem to work quite that way. It’s not a major issue but it is weird.
I’m also still reading:
A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine
Banksian Space Opera
Which is so good I keep reading it a little bit at a time because I don’t want to “waste” it! There’s a bit more action this time, but this is still fundamentally a book where an argument about whose jacket to use to wipe up some vomit can be more dramatic than a gunfight in in a lot of books. Lovely characters and you empathize with both the main ones even when they’re arguing. Only real flaw for me is I find the B-plot involving a child-heir-to-the-throne POV rather boring.