Serena’s Review: “A Desolation Called Peace”

Book: “A Desolation Called Peace” by Arkady Martine

Publishing Info: Tor Books, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher and Edelweiss+!

Book Description: An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.

Previously Reviewed: “A Memory Called Empire”

Review: I made the mistake of waiting over a year after “A Memory Called Empire” was published before reading it. Not this time! The second I saw the sequel pop up on Edelweiss I requested it. And then I had to diligently wait to read it so that I could cover more recent books in a timely fashion. That took some self-control, let me tell you. But the time finally came, and the payoff was definitely worth it! I think I may have enjoyed this book even more than the first.

The war that Mahit started to save her station has begun. Back home at Lsel Station, however, she thinks her part in this story is over, even with the reminder of what she’s done flying past in the form of Teixcalaan war ships. But soon enough, she’s called back into action. Three Seagrass arrives with a request: join her in making first contact with these strange aliens. With no coherent language and the mysterious ability to appear suddenly, these creatures are nothing like the Teixcalaan Empire has faced before. Maybe a barbarian is the only one who will understand them?

In the way of good second novels, “A Desolation Called Peace” is bigger than “A Memory Called Empire” in pretty much every way. Not only does the story expand outwards from the single city/planet that it was localize within in the first book, but the narrative itself expands to encompass not only Mahit’s storyline, but also Three Seagrass’s and several other new (and familiar) characters. These efforts to broaden the scope of the story result in an expansion that feels leaps and bounds ahead of the first book. And this is particularly impressive given how detailed and precise the world-building was there, already.

The culture, language, history, etc., of Teixcalaan felt fully realized in all of the little ways one doesn’t think about but that stand-out when you really step back to appreciate an author’s work. From its emphasis on poetry and literature in its speech and protocol, to the cloudhook technology that seems a natural extension from where our own smartphones are headed. And here, Martine takes that strong foundation, and blows it up to add not only a more detailed look at Mahit’s home, Lsel Station, but adds in an entire new species/culture of the aliens our main characters are interacting with. All while still exploring the ins and outs of the Empire itself, with a closer look at the different religions within it and at the inner workings (both technological and political) of Teixcalaan’s powerful military. Frankly, it’s incredible.

The expansion of character POVs was also really impactful. I loved Mahit in the first book, but in this one, she was probably the least interesting character. Now, don’t read that wrong! I still loved her and her arc, it’s more to say that the additional characters were just that interesting that the more familiar Mahit faded a bit into the background in comparison. I particularly enjoyed getting to see into Three Seagrass’s mind. She was a huge character in the first book, so getting to see finally through her eyes was amazing. Beyond her own interesting story, I was particularly impressed by the duel views that Mahit and Three Seagrass brought to similar issues. Three Seagrass is clearly not a malicious character, but being in her head was a great opportunity to witness a character recognizing and confronting their own privilege and biases.

Beyond Three Seagrass, we also had chapters from the leader of the military front, a powerful, female general, and from Three Antidote, the young partial clone of the previous emperor who we met in the first book. I won’t go into much regarding either of their stories as there are some spoilers there, but, needless to say at this point, I really loved them both. Perhaps, particularly, Three Antidote’s chapters were impressive for how well they capture the thinking of a young boy approaching maturity but still a child at heart. With all the complicated, fleshed out adults, it can be hard to write a compelling child character alongside them, but Martine perfectly captured the thinking and actions of a kid in Three Antidote’s unique position. Again, incredible.

I also really loved the twisty way the story unfurled, with pieces that you didn’t even realize were pieces falling together in the end to resolve many mysteries all at once and illuminate themes you thought were only brought up as passing anecdotes. This review is already long, but if I let myself, I could probably go on and on. Fans of the first book are sure to love this one, too, and any sci-fi reader who hasn’t jumped on board this train, really needs to!

Rating 10: A masterpiece of a space opera! All the more impressive for expanding so effortlessly from the highs of the first novel.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Desolation Called Peace” is on these Goodreads lists: Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021 and 2020/21 Space Opera.

Find “A Desolation Called Peace” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Monsters of Men”

Book: “Monsters of Men” by Patrick Ness

Publishing Info: Candlewick, May 2010

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: As a world-ending war surges to life around them, Todd and Viola face monstrous decisions. The indigenous Spackle, thinking and acting as one, have mobilized to avenge their murdered people. Ruthless human leaders prepare to defend their factions at all costs, even as a convoy of new settlers approaches. And as the ceaseless Noise lays all thoughts bare, the projected will of the few threatens to overwhelm the desperate desire of the many. The consequences of each action, each word, are unspeakably vast: To follow a tyrant or a terrorist? To save the life of the one you love most or thousands of strangers? To believe in redemption or assume it is lost? Becoming adults amid the turmoil, Todd and Viola question all they have known, racing through horror and outrage toward a shocking finale.

Previously Reviewed: “The Knife of Never Letting Go” and “The Ask and the Answer”

Review: So remember how I was all whiny about the cliffhanger ending in the first book? Yeaaaah, Ness definitely leaned into that inclination with the end of “The Ask and the Answer” with both the arrival of another ship from Viola’s fleet and an army of Spackle marching in on New Prentisstown full of righteous vengeance. Betwen all of that, you’ll understand why my reviews for these books came on after another. I simply never put down the series and blew through all there in a matter of days!

Todd and Viola have finally managed to reunite only to be immediately set off on separate missions. For Todd, his victory over the Mayor is fleeting as the Spackle army marches down upon the town and the Mayor’s army still recognizes only one leader. For Viola, two more of her people have finally arrived only to find themselves in the midst of an ongoing war with terrible choices all around. To engage in a war against a wronged native people? To side with a terrorist group? To side with the maniacal Mayor whose cruelty sparked much of the violence? With no good choices, once again, both Todd and Viola must face just how far they will go to save one another. And at what cost to the greater good?

Following the path set in the first two books, Ness expands even further on the questions he presents his characters (and the readers) regarding violence, justice, and priorities. The first book was a very insular look at one boy’s, Todd’s, struggles to cope with one-on-one violence in his efforts to protect himself and those around him. In second book, we see Viola confronted with a terrorist organization that is working against a truly evil man but which is operating within its own questionable morality. And in the third book, we see the righteous fury of the native Spackle as they finally bring the Mayor’s great war to fruition. And we experience the horror of Viola, Todd, and, importantly, the two new comers as they are forced to pick sides in a volatile situation that seems to have no good outcomes.

The book jumps right into things with the first battle playing out between the Spackle, equipped with new powerful weaponry, and the Mayor’s army. There is no glory or exciting action here. Ness, through Todd’s eyes, is committed to presenting the horrors of war. Even from the Spackle whose mistreatment at the hands of the humans would justify much. It is all death, pain, and misery, as brought to home most poignantly in Todd’s eyes as he witness the death of a random man in the army whose Noise is projecting fear and longing for his wife and small son right up until the end. There’s no escaping the sheer nightmare of war as described in this battle scene. It’s powerful and painful and an excellent precursor to much of the rest of the book.

In the second book, we were given an extra POV through Viola’s eyes. Here, we get a third and begin to learn more about the Spackle themselves. I can’t talk to much about this without some fairly big spoilers. But I can’t emphasize how pleased I was with this addition. The first two books show a people who have been forcibly silenced by colonizers. All that is known of them is what the humans around them have projected upon them, with the original war and memories of what the Spackle were like before their enslavement all but gone in people’s memories. There were so many intriguing aspects of this portion of the story. I particularly liked the way Ness handled Noise and how, for the Spackle who are natives of this world, it is seen in a completely different light than it is by the humans who have torn themselves apart because of it.

Todd and Viola, for their part, are still excellent characters. We see each of them struggle with the choices before them, making missteps that are driven by what seems like the right choice at the time but that has lasting implications for everyone around them. Each has grown so much from the first book, but we almost get that much character growth all again in this single, last book. As a whole, their journeys are each spectacular and even more wonderful as a pair.

This entire trilogy is so very, very good. It challenges readers at every turn to evaluate the price of every action or reaction, regardless of how righteous the cause. Ness is smart enough to leave many of the conclusions left unsaid but obvious enough. It’s always nice to see an author trust his readers like that. The ending was rough, but so was the entire series. Sad, but hopeful. I think that’s how I’d sum up the the trilogy anyways. If you’ve enjoyed the first two books, I think it’s a given that you’re already planning on reading this given (yet again!) the massive cliffhanger at the end of that book. But I will reassure you all that Ness stick the landing perfectly.

Rating 10: Heartbreaking in the best way possible.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Monsters of Men” is on these Goodreads lists: Most Interesting World and Best War Novels.

Find “Monsters of Men” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Ask and the Answer”

Book: “The Ask and the Answer” by Patrick Ness

Publishing Info: Candlewick, May 2009

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: We were in the square, in the square where I’d run, holding her, carrying her, telling her to stay alive, stay alive till we got safe, till we got to Haven so I could save her – But there weren’t no safety, no safety at all, there was just him and his men…

Fleeing before a relentless army, Todd has carried a desperately wounded Viola right into the hands of their worst enemy, Mayor Prentiss. Immediately separated from Viola and imprisoned, Todd is forced to learn the ways of the Mayor’s new order. But what secrets are hiding just outside of town? And where is Viola? Is she even still alive? And who are the mysterious Answer? And then, one day, the bombs begin to explode…

Previously Reviewed: “The Knife of Never Letting Go”

Review: Keeping on my read of Patrick Ness’s “Chaos Walking” trilogy, I was eager to pick up this next book after the massive cliffhanger we were left with in the first book! Warning, there will be spoilers for the first book in this review as it’s almost impossible to talk about this book without revealing some of the reveals we had there.

After desperately fleeing the Mayor and his growing army, Todd and a grievously injured Viola finally reach Haven to discover it is really nothing of the sort. Without even putting up a fight, the people of Haven have already surrendered to the Mayor, and it is he who now controls the town and Todd and Viola’s fate. The division between men and women, with men’s Noise and women’s lack of Noise at the heart of it, grows daily. Like all of the other men and women, Todd and Viola are separated and life is very different under the control of the Mayor (now the President.) But a resistance quickly emerges calling itself the Answer and waging a terrifying guerilla war against the Mayor and his men. No one knows when the next bomb will go off or how the Answer is even doing what its doing. Todd and Viola separately with the cruel decisions put before them, desperately trying to find their way back to one another at the same time.

I feel like this series is systematically expanding a central thought at its core: is violence ever justified? In the first book, we see Todd’s struggles with what he has been told makes a man, the ability to kill. Again and again he fails to kill even when it would spare his life. But then in a fit of anger and fear, he kills a Spackle violently and suddenly. And then we see this decision haunt him throughout the remainder of the book. By the end, Todd has come to his own decisions about what does and does not make a man and cold-blooded murder decidedly does not.

Here, however, the question of violence is expanded outwards. On one hand, we have the Mayor who insists that his army and tactics are necessary for dealing with the rising threat of the Spackle and to create a unified force for when Viola’s people arrive in their ships. The Answer, on the other hand, violently opposes the Mayor’s brutal tactics and cruel treatment of women and Spackle. For them, the “answer” is to fight back with everything they have, waging a terrorist bombing campaign against the town itself. They try to avoid casualties, but any accidental hits are simply put down to necessary losses in the grander scheme. And from a third perspective, Viola, who spends much of the first half of the book in a House of Healing, meets a healer woman who’s firm line that saving a life must always come first demonstrates just how hard this approach is, watching cruelty unfold but not responding other than to treat those who are injured, both friend and foe alike.

There is no clear “right” choice in any of it, other than the Mayor himself who is pretty clearly bad. Viola and Todd each have to tackle incredibly challenging situations that really make the reader stop and think about what they would do if presented these options in the circumstances. I was never really sure, other than to be glad I was reading about it and not experiencing it myself. But I find this type of story that really challenges its readers to be the best kind. It’s definitely not an easy book. There’s darkness throughout and some really terrible things happen, but it’s also one that shows the resilience of the spirit to go on through even the most impossible feeling events.

For his part, the Mayor is an excellent villain. Ness doesn’t overplay his hand here with any mustache-twirling or silly excess. Instead, the Mayor’s oozing manipulation is all to easy to understand. We see how even Todd can be influenced by it, a young many who has tackled more than many of the other men who fall under the Mayor’s sway. I also really liked that we got to see more from Davy, the Mayor’s son. His character is really rounded out here and shines a different light on the Mayor as well.

The narrative is also now split between chapters from Todd’s perspective and Viola’s. This is, of course, necessary to tell each of their stories as they spend so much of the book apart. But it’s also great to finally see into Viola’s head. In the first book, it was clear that even though Todd has grown up on this planet, he still had very little understanding of his own people’s history. But Viola is coming from a completely different life experience. She grew up on a colony ship with this planet as its destination. And then to be suddenly thrust into this situation after her parents die in the crash…It’s inevitable that she would see the decisions before her and the events around her through a very different lens than Todd.

I really enjoyed this book. Like I said, it’s not a light, fluffy read, but it’s darkness and challenge is what makes it stand-out. Ness doesn’t pull any punches when pushing his reader to tackle these tough topics. If you enjoyed the first book, I’m sure this is already on your radar (again, that ending!) So rest assured that while the pedal might have felt like it was to the metal in the first book, this is where it really gets started!

Rating 9: Tackling some really tough questions about violence and the rights and wrongs therein, this book is kept from being too dark by its incredibly compelling two main leads.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Ask and the Answer” is on these Goodreads lists: Fast-paced books with Redeeming social value to read in one-sitting and Deep Underrated YA.

Find “The Ask and the Answer” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Knife of Never Letting Go”

Book: “The Knife of Never Letting Go” by Patrick Ness

Publishing Info: Walker, May 2008

Where Did I Get this Book: own it

Book Description: Prentisstown isn’t like other towns. Everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts in an overwhelming, never-ending stream of Noise. Just a month away from the birthday that will make him a man, Todd and his dog, Manchee—whose thoughts Todd can hear too, whether he wants to or not—stumble upon an area of complete silence. They find that in a town where privacy is impossible, something terrible has been hidden—a secret so awful that Todd and Manchee must run for their lives.

Review: I read this book way back when it first came out, but given that the movie adaptation, “Chaos Walking,” is coming out soon, I thought now was the perfect time for a revisit. As it has been over ten years since my first read, I only remembered a few very basic things about the overall plot and style of the book. So really, it was almost like an entirely new experience this go around! One thing stayed the same, however: I really like this book.

Todd’s world is one filled with Noise. Where animals speak their simple animal words and men project their every thought in blasts of emotion, there is no escape from the barrage. But so has life always been for Todd, the youngest member of a town of settlers who came to this planet hoping for a new life. Instead, what they found was tragedy and challenge. Or so Todd has been told. But only weeks before Todd is set to become a man and join the rest of the town as a full-fledged adult, he discovers something that shouldn’t exist: a spot of silence in a chaotic world. And with that discovery, his entire understanding of his world, his people, and his history is blown wide open, and he finds himself running for his life.

The first thing that stands out when reading this book is the style of writing. It’s first person perspective, which is unique enough, though less so in YA. But more notably, the narration is very much written in a stream of conscience style. Todd’s thoughts are hectic, incomplete, with short bursts of feeling, sprinkled with hints of description only when needed. It’s definitely the sort of style that takes a bit of time to get used to. By necessity, the world-building and history of the story comes out in small tidbits seemingly dropped in at random. Todd’s habit of often starting sentences only to stop them can be frustrating at times. But this also all adds to the tension and chaos that is inherent to this world. All on its own, this style of writing does more to convey what life would be like on this strange planet where men’s thoughts are projected out for all to see than any elaborate description ever could.

The short, quick style of writing also effectively illustrates the tension and drive that is at the heart of this story. Todd spends the majority of the book fleeing, and the hectic style of the sentences almost makes it read as if he is panting out these lines as he tries to catch his breath while running, always running. The story is a fast read, though, and I blew through the entire thing in almost a day.

It’s hard to talk about much in this book without revealing one secret or another. There are a few reveals that I think were projected well-enough that many readers will pick up on them. But there were others that served as legitimate surprises. By the end, there also seemed to be a decent about of history and reveals that were simply left to be discussed in the next book. Ness really doesn’t make much of an effort to even pretend that this book could be read as a standalone story, and it definitely ends on a big cliffhanger, so be warned that if you start it, you’re pretty much committing to the entire trilogy!

Todd is an excellent character in his own right. He can be just as frustrating as he is endearingly naïve. And alongside the reactions to extraordinary circumstances, we also see the fact that he’s just a teenage boy, with all of the conflicting motivations and emotions that come with that. Much of Todd’s narration is fixated on the fact that he will become a man, according to the traditions of his colony, in about a month’s time. So, too, then the story is focused on the messy, painful process of Todd actually making this transition in the story.

As I said, this story is definitely written as the first in a trilogy. It’s a fast read, full of action and heart-break, and I already have the next two books purchased and downloaded onto my Kindle. I’m also really excited to see what the movie version has to offer, and I think Tom Holland is perfectly cast (though what isn’t he amazing in??)

Rating 9: A deceptively action-packed story hides a emotional wallop behind its unique style of writing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Knife of Never Letting Go” is on these Goodreads lists Books that should get more attention and Teenagers . . . IN SPACE!

Find “The Knife of Never Letting Go” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “A Memory Called Empire”

Book: “A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine

Publishing Info: Tor, March 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.

Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.

Review: I feel like I’ve been on the audiobook holds list for this title for…forever. The wait made worse by the fact that I was continuously being barraged by stellar reviews, recommendations, and notifications of the awards it was sweeping in. But, finally, my time has come! Time to, belatedly, say pretty much the same thing every one else has been saying for over a year now!

Teixcalaan is both the wonder of many galaxies as well as a persist threat: an empire that is the heart of culture, but that is also an ever-hungry beast looking for the next part of space to absorb. As such, Ambassador Mahit has always balanced a strange love for the very empire she is sent to protect her independent Station from. But what is already a delicate balancing act is made all the more challenging when she’s called to duty by the mysterious death of her former Ambassador. Upon arrival, Mahit quickly discovers that her predecessor has been into things much deeper than she could possibly have imagined. And now, not knowing who to trust in this polished world, Mahit must begin untangling a knot of intrigue and politics that will determine not only the future of her own Station but perhaps the future of Teixcalaan itself.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a sci-fi novel, but man, did I choose the right one to jump back in with! Like I said earlier, it’s a bit hard to review a book like this, one that’s been out for over a year and has been very popular in its genre. And unlike the hype for many YA fantasy novels that I often feel is undeserved and more pushed on readers by hopeful publishers than anything else, sci-fi still has a comparatively smaller readership, so if a book is popular in the genre, it’s usually for good reason. And that’s definitely true here!

The world-building alone make this book an excellent read. Teixcalaan and the idea of empire as a whole is immediately appealing. It’s easy to see the comparison to the Roman empire or the British empire or any culture that swept across our own world seemingly unstoppable in the way it centered the entire planet around itself. I loved the deep dive this story took into the complicated nature of empire, how it is at once a destructive, violent force, but also one that holds a strange appeal to even those potential new conquests quivering in its path. How it can be like a shining sun of culture and sophistication while also overshadowing and consuming others that may have their own lights to add. It’s really fascinating while also not coming across as preachy. The book allows the reader to view Teixcalaan through their own eyes and form their own opinions.

Mahit is also an excellent character to take this journey with. As a scholar of Teixcalaan from an early age, she’s always struggled with her fascination and love for this empire that views her and her people as barbarians. And while there, she’s clever with her use of this knowledge, both in how others view her and how her actions are interpreted. But, at the same time, she still feels herself drawn to the language and poetry of this culture and longs to belong as one of them. This tension is at the heart of all of her decisions, and it’s supremely relatable.

And even with all of this reflection and grander commentary, the story itself feels action-packed and fast-moving. The mystery surrounding Mahit’s predecessor is compelling and trying to untangle the political maneuverings of everyone Mahit comes in contact with was definitely a challenge. I also really liked that this book wraps up its main storyline while also leaving a sufficient number of clues and shadowy threats to spur interest in the next book that comes out this spring. I’ll definitely be checking it out!

Rating 10: Succeeds in every way and introduces a fantastic new sci-fi world.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Memory Called Empire” is on these Goodreads lists: Hugo Awards 2020 Finalists and Excellent Space Opera.

Find “A Memory Called Empire” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Driftwood”

9781616963460_b1ce2Book: “Driftwood” by Marie Brennan

Publishing Info: Tachyon Publications, August 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Who is Last?

Fame is rare in Driftwood- it’s hard to get famous if you don’t stick around long enough for people to know you. But many know the guide, Last, a one-blooded survivor who has seen his world end many lifetimes ago. For Driftwood is a strange place of slow apocalypses, where continents eventually crumble into mere neighborhoods, pulled inexorably towards the center in the Crush. Cultures clash, countries fall, and everything eventually disintegrates.

Within the Shreds, a rumor goes around that Last has died. Drifters come together to commemorate him. But who really was Last?

Review: I requested this book mostly on the premise that I have enjoyed the two books by Marie Brennan I had read before. Both were in some way part of her “Lady Trent” dragon fantasy series. This….sounded different. But as I felt that her strong writing was one of the biggest pluses for both of those other books, I was curious to see how this skill set would apply to a completely different story, one that seemed to much more science fiction and post-apocalyptic than high fantasy. And boy was I pleased!

It turns out that even worlds have a place to go when they die. Or, more accurately, when they’re still in the process of dying. After whatever sort of apocalypse suits any particular world, it makes its way to Driftwood, a place made up of many different worlds slowly shrinking and moving inwards towards the Crush where the last bits of them and their people will disappear for good. But there is one being who seems to have been around forever, Last. No one remembers his world or his people, but many remember stories of ways that Last touched their lives. Now, when he has disappeared, maybe for good, they gather to share those stories.

I wasn’t aware of this from the book description, but it turns out that this book is more of an anthology-like story than a plot-driven storyline about any specific character. I guess it’s there enough in the blurb, but I didn’t pick up on it. But it turned out to be a really nice surprise and a perfect way of creating such a unique, creative world. As much as this book is about Last and the influence he had on many people’s lives, it’s also about Driftwood. And by telling the story through these smaller narratives, we get to dip our toes into not only a bunch of really interesting new worlds, but into a variety of ideas and coping mechanisms that people have for dealing with death, the end of the world, and inevitability as a whole.

I also read the author’s blurb at the back and discovered that the author was trained as an anthropologist. This all makes so much sense. Not only for this book, but now in hindsight looking at the way the Lady Trent books were written and their focus. But here, we can really see those skill sets shine. When describing all of these different worlds and peoples, it’s not as simple as describing different ecosystems or different body types. No, Brennan creates religions, cultures, hierarchies, ways of speaking, all of the little things that really go into forming a “people.”

Last was a great character in and of himself. But he is also the type of character that we know so little about (even by the end of the book), that it quickly becomes clear that what we do “know” about him are only impressions left by those telling their unique stories of him. But through them we can parse together a really interesting character who has existed in a space that, by definition, operates to undue existence. To be the only one of his kind. To not be “known” by anyone. To go on while the “world” is shifting constantly around you. Learning new things, but also constantly losing what you know. I really liked the brief insights we got into the kind of mentality that Last had to develop to survive. And that, while bleak at times, we’re left with a character who values hope and love above everything.

The only real ding I have for this book was the ending. It felt like it came out of nowhere, was very sudden, and left me with a bunch of questions. On one hand, I’m ok with there still being secrets hidden in this world and about Last. Indeed, that’s half of what makes the book so intriguing, the feeling that you’ve only scratched the surface. But there were a few “reveals,” for lack of a better word, toward the end that left me scratching my head. I couldn’t figure out whether I was missing some grand point or not. Part of me really feels like I am. But I re-read it several times and…I still don’t really know what point the author was trying to come to, if any. Maybe others will have more success.

If you’re a fan of this author, than this is definitely another of hers to check out. But, overall, if you’re a fan of anthologies, science fiction, and stories that explore what “humanity” really is, this is an excellent read. If I had the “Beach Reads” list to do over, this is definitely the kind of book that I’d throw on there.

Rating 9: Beautifully written and incredibly unique. This is definitely a book to check out this summer!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Driftwood” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Hugo 2021 Eligible Novels.”

 

Kate’s Review: “The Book of Koli”

51285749Book: “The Book of Koli” by M.R. Carey

Publishing Info: Orbit, April 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I was sent a copy by the publisher.

Book Description: Beyond the walls of the small village of Mythen Rood lies an unrecognizable world. A world where overgrown forests are filled with choker trees and deadly vines and seeds that will kill you where you stand. And if they don’t get you, one of the dangerous shunned men will.

Koli has lived in Mythen Rood his entire life. He knows the first rule of survival is that you don’t venture beyond the walls.

What he doesn’t know is – what happens when you aren’t given a choice?

The first in a gripping new trilogy, The Book of Koli charts the journey of one unforgettable young boy struggling to find his place in a chilling post-apocalyptic world. Perfect for readers of Station Eleven and Annihilation.

Review: Thanks to Orbit for sending me a copy of this novel!

I requested to read “The Book of Koli” in early March. The plot of a post-apocalyptic ravaged world overrun by killer plants sounded both wholly unique and super intriguing, Given that, in general, post-apocalyptic wasteland dystopias are my jam, I was excited to get a book not only about that very subject, but by M.R. Carey, whose works I have mostly enjoyed.

And then the COVID-19 shit hit the fan and it started to feel like we were living in an actual precursor to a post-apocalyptic world.

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The timing…. wasn’t great. (source)

I honestly cannot get on board the ‘let’s read all the apocalyptic fiction!’ train that I’ve seen as of late. My husband joked about starting to read our baby “The Stand” and I pretty much yelled at him that he wasn’t and has never been funny. So yeah, the idea of reading this book had me a bit wound up. Anxieties off the charts, I knew that I needed to read this book so I jumped in trying not to think of the doom and gloom of the real world. And what happened next was not at all “The Book of Koli”‘s fault. Extenuating circumstances like whoa made it so I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I thought I would.

But there is a lot that this book has going for it, and I’m going to really focus on that. Because the fact this book didn’t connect as much with me at this moment in time probably has very little to do with the actual content. The first thing that struck me was how Carey was toying with the idea of language, and how the language in this world (a future set England) has changed and evolved over time. It’s not as slang driven as “A Clockwork Orange” does with it’s dystopia, but it tweaks things enough that it’s slightly off, but you know what the characters are trying to say. There is also a bit of toying with the idea of technology and what can happen when it is lost to us, which is implied to have happened with the plants (genetically altered and then out of control) overtook civilization and drove humanity into heavily protected clusters (and allowed some to consolidate power). The first half of this book is the heavy world building to create this world, and to let us as readers get to know Koli as a character and who he is as a character. After he snags some tech from the Ramparts (aka those in charge of the tech) in the town he lives in, he meets Monono Aware, the AI within the tech he takes. Monono and Koli have a fun banter, and through him meeting her he discovers that tech can be wielded by anyone… which would be bad for the Ramparts if that secret got out. Sometimes this section dragged, but overall Carey used his time very well to show us what kind of society/dystopia we are dealing with. And I liked Monono a lot, even if she sometimes felt a little twee.

The second half of the book is after Koli has been banished into the wilderness, in danger of being killed by either killer plants, or roving bands of ‘shunned men’. This is where the book really started to build upon the action and the tension, and this was the part that I enjoyed most even if it was the part that stressed me out the most as well. Carey is no stranger to post-apocalyptic scenarios, and this one feels like he’s thinking outside of the box. He creates enough here that I can definitely see how he’s going to be able to pull enough material from this world and its characters to make a complex and well paced trilogy. I especially liked Ursala, a doctor who Koli meets while he’s still at Mythen Rood. She is the key to Koli starting to learn the truth of things, and her place in the story becomes even more apparent once Koli is out in the wilderness.

As I mentioned above, I had a hard time dealing with a post-apocalyptic story when it feels like we are at the start of our own. I think that it’s really just a matter of timing, as were we not in the middle of COVID-19 I truly believe that I would have been able to get into this story more. So while “The Book of Koli” didn’t connect with me as much as I thought I would, I really do think that that’s on me and not on Carey at all. So if you are one of those people who has been reading “The Stand” or watching “Contagion” in these trying times, and you also like dystopian fiction, “The Book of Koli” will fit the bill SO well. Once all of this is over, I will probably go on to the next book in the series, as I recognize that any of my apprehensions are solely on me during a literal global traumatic event.

Rating 7: While I had a hard time enjoying it as much as I could have in the moment of global pandemic, “The Book of Koli” is fresh and deep dystopic fiction.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Book of Koli” is included on the Goodreads lists “Sword and Laser Sci-Fi List”, and “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2020”.

Find “The Book of Koli” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet”

22733729Book: “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers

Publishing Info: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, July 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Rosemary Harper doesn’t expect much when she joins the crew of the aging Wayfarer. While the patched-up ship has seen better days, it offers her a bed, a chance to explore the far-off corners of the galaxy, and most importantly, some distance from her past. An introspective young woman who learned early to keep to herself, she’s never met anyone remotely like the ship’s diverse crew, including Sissix, the exotic reptilian pilot, chatty engineers Kizzy and Jenks who keep the ship running, and Ashby, their noble captain.

Life aboard the Wayfarer is chaotic and crazy—exactly what Rosemary wants. It’s also about to get extremely dangerous when the crew is offered the job of a lifetime. Tunneling wormholes through space to a distant planet is definitely lucrative and will keep them comfortable for years. But risking her life wasn’t part of the plan. In the far reaches of deep space, the tiny Wayfarer crew will confront a host of unexpected mishaps and thrilling adventures that force them to depend on each other. To survive, Rosemary’s got to learn how to rely on this assortment of oddballs—an experience that teaches her about love and trust, and that having a family isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the universe.

Review:  One of my librarian friends recommended this book a few years ago, so I had dutifully added it to my TBR list. And there it sat. But recently I was finding myself in the mood of a sci fi read, realizing I hadn’t read and reviewed a book in that genre for quite a while, and while browsing, there it was! I was able to nab an audiobook copy from the library, and I was off!

Rosemary is running from her past. And what better place to forget where she came from than a ship that travels to the outer reaches of space itself. Staffed by an odd assortment of crew made up of a diverse species and peoples, Rosemary soon learns that life on this ship is not like ordinary space travel. There is more danger to be sure, but she also finds that through these adventures and close calls, the bonds that form between this oddball family can be stronger than anything she’s known before.

I’ll admit to having a hard time with this book, but it’s for a reason that is pretty new to me. For all that every book is different and each reading experience offers something new, I can definitely point to some typical things that throw me out of a story: nonsense characters, love triangles, predictable plots trying to be pretentious. But this was a new one for me. This book was just too…nice. Obviously, with a complaint like that, there are also a lot of pros to talk about, too, so let me cover those first before trying to explain myself.

First things first, the story largely depends on its cast of characters that make up the crew. I appreciated the diversity that the author brought to this group. Not only did she create original alien species who are all physically unique from humans, but they each had distinct cultures with differing approaches to communication, relationships, food, and many other aspects of life. One of the more interesting aspects of the book was exploring the ins and outs of each of these distinct characters and learning more about how their species differs from humanity. Several of them were simply entertaining, with quippy dialogue and fun interactions. However, these fun characters did ultimately end up washing out Rosemary herself. She quickly felt more like the readers point of entrance into the story and very little else.

The problems with the “niceness” start here, too. In some ways, this book reminds me of what “Star Trek” set out to do: to show an idealized future where most of humanity’s internal conflict has been set to rest and exploration and understanding are the sole mission. Here, while humanity as a whole does not have its act together, the crew largely does. It’s a weird thing to complain about, but there simply wasn’t enough conflict. I don’t need tons of drama or in-fighting or anything, but the story seemed to lack tension.

The crew fly in and out of a variety of adventures, and while some aspects of these were thrilling enough on their own, the crew’s seemingly perfect “woke” attitude about it all became almost tiring. It was hard to continue to read them all as fully realized characters when there were very few, if any, flaws in sight. This leaves the characters with very few emotional arcs of their own. The quippy-ness, while fun at the beginning, quickly began to feel cutesy and disingenuous.

This book has been compared to “Firefly” and I would add “Star Trek” to that mix. But what both of those shows got right was that these tight knit families of crew members were pulled together in spite of their ongoing flaws, not because they simply didn’t have any. Like I said, it’s a weird complaint. In the end, I guess I was just looking for a bit more of a serious sci-fi read and this one was too light for my own taste. Readers who want a fun, beach-read-style sci-fi story might enjoy this more.

Rating 6: While fun enough at times, there simply wasn’t enough real conflict or tension to really sink my teeth into the book.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” is on these Goodreads lists: “Optimistic Space Scifi” and “Alien Diplomacy and Interspecies Friendship.”

Find “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” at your library using WorldCat!

The Great Animorphs Re-Read #54: “The Beginning”

125344._SX318_Animorphs #54: “The Beginning”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, May 2001

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: This is it! Yeerk ships are pouring in from all ends of the galaxy. An all-out war for the planet has finally begun. The winner will control Earth. The loser will perish. The President of the United States is a Controller, and the Animorphs have been forced to rally their own military force of 5,000. Will this be enough to defeat the seemingly endless onslaught of Yeerks? Rachel has always prepared for the final battle. But is she too eager? It’s her moment…and this time there will be no compromise!

Narrator: All

Plot: I again don’t have a quippy intro for this book. I will say that while I remember the major events at the beginning and end, I had very little memory of the details in between. Pretty sure it’s because as a kid I was completely traumatized by both of those events and blocked out the rest of the book.

So. Many. Tears.

Rachel is on the Blade ship. She knows what she has to do, and she’s afraid. But there was a reason she was picked for this mission and so she continues. She demorphs and remorphs grizzly, raining terror down on the Blade ship crew. But with all of the Yeerks having morphing abilities, she is critically injured, just shy of her mission. Tobias, watching through the view screen from the Pool ship, navigates a now-blinded Rachel to cobra!Tom who she finally kills. She demorphs to her vulnerable human self. Looking back at her friends on the other ship, she tells Tobias she loves him and is killed with one blow by a polar bear!Yeerk. The Blade ships speeds away, lost to space.

Back on the main ship, the Animorphs are all in various states of shock. Toby arrives to let them know that the remaining Yeerks want to surrender. Cassie and Marco manage to prod Jake back into action who meets with the Yeerks’ temporary leader who says they will surrender if given the ability to morph into another form permanently. Jake agrees, though Ax reminds him that the Andalites may feel differently and now that they’ve lost their blue box with the Blade ship, they don’t have many options.

Jake orders Ax to open a communication portal to the Andalite fleet and one to the public channel on the Andalite home world. He also forces Visser One to leave Alloran and be trapped in a carrying case. The Andalite commander is gruff as expected, distrustful that the whole thing isn’t a Yeerk trick. But with the Andalite world viewing them, they have to agree to meet peaceably. Once on the Pool ship, the Andalite War Prince informs Jake that they absolutely will not abide by the deals Jake has struck with the surrendered Yeerks and Taxxons. With nothing left to bargain, they are in a bind, until Ax steps up and calls a challenge. He needs the support of a Prince to do this, however, but Alloran throws his weight behind him.

The other Animorphs learn that a challenge allows a soldier to confront a leadership decision that they feel is against the common interests of the Andalite people as a whole. The consequences are dire if the judging is ruled against them. But it is also noted that the Andalites are wary and conservative when it comes to these things, so a challenge is only likely to go forward fully if the Andalite leadership think they have a strong case to win. Turns out they don’t think this, and the Animorphs are given 4 morphing cubes to fulfill the peace agreements with the Yeerks and Taxxons.

They then land in D.C. and the truth comes out to everyone. Speeches are made, and at some point Tobias flies off. A few days later, the Andalites bring in the body of a human girl they found floating in space. It’s Rachel. There is a massive funeral held for her and a monument built. Tobias shows up and flies away with the ashes.

One year later. Tobias has not been seen since Rachel’s funeral. Ax has been made a Prince and is the diplomat between Earth and the Andalites. Marco has found fame as the one Animorph who is capable of talking about the war experience in a way the public appreciates (Jake is too weighed down by it all still and Cassie moralizes too much about the ethics of fighting defensively). Cassie is helping work with the free Hork Bajir as they are set up in Yellowstone. She also helped the Taxxons all morphs large snakes and be relocated to the rain forest. Jake is struggling with depression and PTSD. Marco, who has been spying on him in his spare time, thinks that he hasn’t morphed since the war ended but has been heading to Rachel’s monument and spending a lot of time just sitting there, staring off. They theorize that he might be hoping Tobias will show up.

It all comes to a head at the trial for Visser One. Jake is called onto the stand and crumbles after the defense attorney calls him a war criminal and mass murderer himself for what he did to the Yeerks in the pool he flushed into space. When a break is called, the other three Animorphs capture Jake and dump him into the freezing ocean, forcing him to morph dolphin. He finally releases a bit and plays in the water. Back on shore, the other three confront him. Cassie tells him that they are all complicit and have had to come up with ways to manage it, and that the victim is not the same as the perpetrator. Marco says it doesn’t matter how vicious Jake’s thoughts were when flushing the Yeerks, he was still operating as a victim defending his home. Jake is unsure about any of this, but begins to work through it somewhat. The trial ends and Visser One is sentenced to hundreds of years in prison.

Two years after this. Cassie has moved into a subcabinet role with the federal government and continues to work with the free Hork Bajir. She has also begun dating someone, knowing that her relationship with Jake is over. Marco is thriving in his fame, though also showing signs of boredom (morphing lobster to retrieve keys from the bottom of his pool). And Jake has written a book (Marco and Cassie did earlier as well) which he sees as a way of bringing in the stories of the “lost Animorphs,” Rachel and Tobias, more. He’s also secretly training a select group of military personnel from a bunch of different governments to deal with the increasing terrorism that has come from aliens showing up on earth (all sorts of conspiracies, ranging from religious fanaticism to species-ism, etc.) Ax has been patrolling the galaxy as the Prince of his own ship. He comes across a strange, abandoned space craft and leads a crew aboard.

Jake is approached secretly by a group from the Andalite high command. They report that an Andalite has returned from Ax’s ship. The ship had been destroyed and Ax is missing. When he boarded the strange vessel, they found animal DNA and polar bear hairs. Jake immediately connects this with the Yeerk who killed Rachel on the Blade ship. The Blade ship itself then appeared in the wreckage and destroyed the Andalite vessel and shot away. The sole Andalite survivor claims that he heard a fragment of thought speak from Ax and all he said was “Jake.” But Ax has gone missing in a part of space that is home to a hostile race of aliens with whom the Andalites have agreed to not interact; they leave the Andalites alone if the Andalites leave them alone. Enter in humans and a stolen Yeerk craft.

Jake first approaches Cassie. But he’s come to tell her that she’s off the hook. She’s serving an important role, helping the free Hork Bajir, and she’s created a new life for herself. Instead, he knows that she must know where Tobias is and wants directions. He then finds Tobias in a meadow. He’s been camped out for years, living a solitary life as a hawk and mourning Rachel. Tobias’s first instinct is to blow off Jake, but when he hears that Ax is missing, he signs on. Marco is the last to be approached. He points out what’s really going on for Jake: that this is the life line that Jake was waiting for. And that Jake has been internalizing and doubting his every decision that was made during the war with the Yeerks and that this is dangerous. He points out that the only reason they won, 6 kids against an alien empire, is because Jake didn’t flinch and made the reckless, brave, and ruthless decisions. If he tries to fight a “perfect” fight or correct past wrongs, that’s what will get them all killed this go around. Jake doesn’t seem to have an answer for this, but Marco signs on anyways.

Jake enlists two of his students to round out their numbers and they steal the Yeerk ship (it has been oddly modified for humans and stashed with supplies; the Andalites’ work though they will never claim it). They name the ship “Rachel” and head off into space. It’s a long journey, and they’re out there for 6 months before they finally are approached by the Blade ship itself.

The polar bear!Controller opens the communication portal to them. They claim to be Yeerk refugees who have been looking for the Blade ship for the past 3 years. The leader seems to be falling for it, but says he has to check with with The One who is running things now. His image goes blurry and he seems to be suddenly spiced together with a bunch of other beings, including one that looks like Ax. A new voice emerges and he says he knows who they are and that Jake should reveal himself. He says that he has “absorbed” Ax and that they are next. Their ship clearly out-powers the Rachel, so Jake looks at Marco and asks if he’s ready for a reckless decision. He then orders them to ram the Blade ship. THE END.

Our Fearless Leader: While this is technically a book featuring all of the characters as narrators, at its core, this is a Jake book. Which is really only right and necessary, all things considered. He has had the biggest arc throughout the series, and he’s the one to come out of this all with the greatest burden. And we really see all stages of things for Jake as this book plays out.

The initial moments after Rachel’s death, you can tell that things are a bit surreal for Jake. Marco and Cassie have to pull him back into things and we see Jake’s amazing leadership on display once again when he deals with the Andalites (though Marco also has to keep pushing him through it to some extent, as the exhaustion of finally winning is also setting in).

And then afterwards…Through the other characters we see how far Jake falls. It’s an excellent portrayal of depression and PTSD, especially given how little page time is devoted to it. He withdrawn, doesn’t morph, doesn’t keep in touch with his friends. And then during the trial for Visser One, he is almost overpowered with flashbacks after being called a war criminal and mass murder himself. Even after he morphs dolphin and talks to his friends, it’s clear that the burden hasn’t been lifted. He’s again more capable of shouldering it, but it’s still there and he’s still just able to keep moving.

During the next two years, we see him settle in somewhat with the new role teaching others to morph. He also notes that writing his autobiography is helpful as he feels able to give a better voice to Rachel and Tobias, the two Animorphs that public knows little about. But the most striking thing is the notable difference that even the reader can perceive between the Jake we see throughout most of the book, and the Jake who seems to re-emerge after he’s given the mission to find Ax. Cassie and Marco both note that it’s a lifeline for Jake, to be called back to war. For all the talk about Rachel’s inability to live without it, it’s pretty clear that it was a family trait (Cassie even remarks that he has a smirk just like Rachel’s). And then it’s incredibly gratifying to see him back in his element on the Rachel making the typical, foolishly brave, quintessential Animorphs game call to ram the Blade ship.

Xena, Warrior Princess: Man, these first Rachel chapters are just as rough as I remember. Let’s face it, I think I probably cried even more this go around than as a kid. Sorry, not sorry. The parts about how she knows that this was the role she was born to play, and yet even so, she’s scared. And then when blinded how she asks Tobias for help, and he at first confuses it for help out of the situation. But then realizes that she just wants help to finish, to kill Tom before she goes out. And her last moments looking back at her friends, telling Tobias that she loves him.

The replay of the scene with the Ellimist is just as striking a second go-around. Like I said when I re-read “The Ellimist Chronicles,” I’m not sure whether kid-me put two-and-two together that it was Rachel, but on this re-read I clearly knew it was her. So the first read of that scene, it’s powerful knowing that it’s Rachel. But this one is all the stronger as it plays out immediately after this ultimate act of bravery and sacrifice. I’m can’t help it, I have to quote it again. This has to be one of the best quotes in the entire series:

“Answer this, Ellimist: Did I .. . did I make a difference? My life, and my .. . my death . . . was I worth it? Did my life really matter?”

“Yes,” he said. “You were brave. You were strong. You were good. You mattered.”

“Yeah. Okay, then. Okay, then.”

A Hawk’s Life: Probably one of my biggest critiques of this book is the lack of Tobias chapters. I think we get only one at the very end when Jake comes looking for him. This is a shame on so many fronts. The first being that Tobias arguably has the most solid collection of books in the series out of all of the characters, so there’s clearly something particularly compelling about him and his narrative. And then second, we never get to see his immediate reaction and feelings to Rachel’s death. We know he demorphs to be human when she sees him the last time and so that he can cry. We know he takes her ashes. And we know that to some extent he’s kept up with Cassie enough for her to know how to direct Jake to him. But by the time we actually hear from him, it’s been three years. It’s good stuff, but I feel like even one more chapter, perhaps set during the “one year after” section would have rounded it out a bit better.

Also, in the re-read, I caught a very dark line that I didn’t notice before. When they’re all at Rachel’s funeral, Cassie mentions looking to the sky to see if Tobias was there, noting that “if he was still alive, he’d come.” What. If he was still alive?! In one throw away line it seems to be saying that at least Cassie thought that there was a chance Tobias would return to his semi-suicidal ways and off himself after Rachel’s death. This is so, so dark. And I didn’t even notice it the first time around. But there is is. IF he was still alive.

Peace, Love, and Animals: Marco considers himself and Cassie as the two “survivors” of the war. Ax is pulled back away. Jake doesn’t seem to recover. Tobias disappears. And Rachel died. These two are the only ones who seem to thrive and find places for themselves in the world. And it doesn’t take a genius to see that Cassie’s is a more stable, healthy version of a life. She is able to use her fame to further the cause of the free Hork Bajir, the Yeerk rebels, and the Taxxons. She ties this all together with her love of animals and conservation by helping set up homes for them in Yellowstone and the rain forest. She’s healthy enough to recognize that her relationship with Jake is doomed and to move on to find a new, seemingly solid, relationship. She even goes to school to pursue her dream of being a veterinarian. All this adds up to Jake making the call for her to stay behind. She immediately offers to go with him, but also doesn’t fight him much on staying back. He notes that she is needed; that the free Hork Bajir was their only clear win and she needed to protect it.

It’s all well and good, and it makes sense. But again, I was left feeling a bit underwhelmed by her role. All and all, she felt too passive in this last book. We only get a few lines about the loss of Rachel, and Cassie being her best friend, I would have liked more from her with this. And then her relationship with Jake just…fades away. I get why Jake wouldn’t call her; he’s falling apart. But Cassie, the girl who gave up the morphing cube to “save” Jake…she just lets him fade away completely? To the point that she’s asking Marco how he’s doing?? And Marco is the one who has been morphing and spying on him? It seems out of character that she would step back this far.

And, even if I just said how it makes sense for her to stay behind, a part of me still wishes that she would have went. That as an adult she would have recognized more than ever the important role that she played and  how needed she is as a member of the team to balance the others out. And, like Applegate says in her afterword, she wanted the Animorphs to go out as they came in: fighting. I wanted that for all of the Animorphs, no matter how much sense it made for Cassie to stay behind.

The Comic Relief: Marco ends up with quite a few chapters, almost serving as the primary narrator it seems after the war is over. But amidst all of the glam, cars (nice call back here, that he buys a bunch of fancy cars), TV shows, and such, it was great to finally see a return to the clever Marco of old. In the first negotiations with the Andalites, for example, he’s the one to keep pushing Jake through, knowing that if they come off as weak in this exchange, humanity will always be under the thumb of the Andalites going forward. It’s nice to see a return to his good comedic lines too:

“I guess we won, Ax.”

<Yes.>

“Shouldn’t someone be singing ‘God Bless America’?”

And as I pointed out in Cassie’s section, it is Marco who keeps an eye on Jake and works to keep up his friendship with him. Spying on Jake seems exactly up his alley. He’s also the one not to mince words when Jake finally approaches him at the end. He’s quick to tell Jake that the public has it wrong: Marco was the tactician of the group, not Jake. What Jake had going for him was his determination, bravery, and willingness to just move forward with the options he had, not second guessing himself. Marco is pretty frank about the fact that Jake’s habit now of looking back on the war and over-analyzing all of his mistakes is the trait that will get the group killed going forward.

I think Marco’s life after the war is one of the more interesting representations. On the surface, it could seem very shallow, silly, and almost like a caricature of the character. But at one point in his narrative, Marco himself says that he expects the reader is waiting for him to say his life was meaningless and he was just filling a hole with all of these superficial things. But no, he says he was happy. I think this is a good balance to Jake, Cassie, and Ax. They all show different ways of coming out of the war. And Marco’s makes sense. One of the reasons he was successful with his strategies and ruthlessness was his ability to compartmentalize things. That same trait it seems could allow him to come out of a war like this and be able to hop into a celebrity life like this and enjoy it. Everything is in its own tidy box. Though we do see, after three years, that he is at least somewhat bored, what with morphing lobster for no really good reason. And it’s not like that was a favorite morph of his or anything.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Without paging back through my book, I seem to remember only one chapter from Ax’s perspective as well, which is a shame. We don’t get anything from him immediately after Rachel’s death when he is negotiating with the Andalites or during the trial for Visser One, both of which seem like huge missed opportunities. I really liked the concept of the “challenge” and the way it played out, especially with Alloran stepping in to support them. It would have been great to get into Ax’s head during all of that. There’s a bit where they Andalites go off to confer and it seems like that would have been a perfect place to cut to Ax so that we could see some of his reflections on everything.

And then the one chapter we do get is many years later when he’s operating his own ship. It’s pretty brief even then. Though it was particularly nice to see how his experiences on Earth changed him as a commander. He regularly explains why he makes the decisions he does, something that Andalite Princes don’t do, but is clearly a reflection of his time fighting a war in a more democratic, small team where their missions were always discussed. We also see him lead the boarding mission, wanting to take a more active role in the missions he assigns.

As for the end, I’ve got to say, it doesn’t look too good for Ax. We don’t know much about The One, but I can’t imagine it’s ever a good thing to be “absorbed” into another being. Regardless of the outcome of the ship ramming, it seems like there is a fairly decent chance that poor Ax-man is out of it for good.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: For all that it’s the last book, there isn’t necessarily a lot of body horror in this book. I mean, definitely don’t think too hard about Rachel’s death and the fact that she was flushed into space (also don’t think about the odds of her body being found). It’s not so much body horror, but the fact that Arbron gets killed by poachers down in the rain forest is almost too real. Of course that’s what happened. Never underestimate the stupidity and cruelty of people. There’s a throwaway line about how maybe Arbron was relieved. And, maybe. But I really doubt that being killed by a poacher looking for bragging rights is anyone’s preferred way to go.

Couples Watch!: For me, it seemed like Jake and Cassie’s relationship was doomed ever since she gave up the blue box. There was a weird moment in Jake’s next book where he mentioned getting married after the war is over, but, to me, that read more out of character than anything at that point. Even if Jake forgave her, that moment was pivotal and not something that could be simply brushed past easily.

To go even further back though for Cassie, the writing was probably on the wall for her ever since she  went to Australia and caught herself being drawn to a nice, regular boy. Understandably, as the war became more intense, Jake became more and more singularly focused and was bearing a greater load on his shoulders than ever before. It seemed like he simply didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to be there for Cassie, too. And in some ways, Cassie herself seemed to recognize this and her decision with the blue box could be read as a last, frantic attempt to save the Jake she knows she’s already losing (not just romantically, but Jake is slowly turning into a different person than the boy she had a crush on in the beginning of the series).

I won’t rehash how strange I found it that Cassie just let Jake slip away after the war ended, but I do like that they showed a healthy end to that relationship, at least for her. That Cassie knew when to let him go and move forward herself. However, she does make a mention of the challenge it must be to be the boyfriend to come after Jake, pretty much having to compete with a guy who, in the public’s eye, is a combination of George Washington and Batman.

And then there’s Tobias and Rachel. Their last moments are about as tragic as you can imagine, especially the asking for help line.

<Rachel!> Tobias cried.

<Help me, Tobias,> I pleaded.

<l can’t. . . I . . .>

He didn’t understand. <Help me get him. Help me get him!>

And the fact that Tobias morphs human so that’s the last version of him that Rachel sees and so that he can cry. And her telling him she loves him. And then he steals her urn and disappears. And man, it’s all just a lot of sadness. These two have definitely had the more stable relationship throughout the series. They seemed to “be together” much earlier than Jake and Cassie. And then that “togetherness” was pretty solid. Cassie and Jake were pretty much tip-toeing around each other the entire time. Not to get super nerdy and everything, but it’s kind of like how in “Friends” Rachel and Ross were set up as the major romance of the show. But then after season after season of drama and will they/won’t they, the Monica/Chandler relationship, with all of its solid, normalcy kind of ended up overshadowing it at the end. I think Jake and Cassie were set up to be the big romance, but in the end, I think Rachel and Tobias were. You can’t beat the tragedy, sweetness, and uniqueness of it.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: We don’t have a whole lot from our villains in this book given that, well, they all lose pretty early on. Visser One had a few good quips, but we didn’t get to hear anything from him  during his trial. I’m pretty sure I would definitely have been down for an entire book of the trial of Visser One.

Tom’s death is also pretty quick in the coming and the event itself and the after effects are, rightly, much more focused on Rachel and her death. He only really showed up as a player in the last few books, so it’s not a huge loss really. Though you do have to question his decision to morph cobra there in the last fight. Kind of opened himself up for an easy take-down. Rachel was already on her way out, why even chance it with a morph that can be killed pretty easily by an even 90% out of it grizzly bear? She didn’t even need her eye sight to pull it off! But they did talk again about the difference between the Animorphs who are familiar with their morphs and the strengths that go with that knowledge as compared to the Yeerks who still don’t have much experience, so maybe that’s all it was.

The One, again, shows up only briefly at the end. I have mixed feelings on this. As a kid, I was pretty mad through this entire book over Rachel dying so didn’t spend too much time thinking about the rest of the story. The description of The One is terrifying for sure and definitely sets up a compelling new villain. But it’s almost too good. After an entire book filled with depressing scenes about Jake’s downfall, the loss of Rachel, Tobias’s potentially suicidal depression, Cassie pretty much checking out of the story, and Marco doing his own thing, the brief few chapters at the end where they’re teamed up again are so thrilling that you’re just left kind wanting more there at the end. You build the reader right back up, and then bam, the end. And there are just so many mysteries. Who is The One? Is Ax dead? Do they survive the ramming of the ship? One mystery, sure. But that many made it more frustrating than I would have liked for the end of the series.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Wow, so the entire book? Obviously, Rachel’s death is the worst of it. I do find it kind of funny that the tag line on the cover and the book description itself is trying to be all secretive about which Animorph dies. But then you open the cover and…bam!

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Yeah, not too subtle there. Plus, anyone who had read the previous book knew which one it would be. Anyone who read “The Ellimist Chronicles” and Megamorphs #4 closely knew who it would be.

Obviously, the one line about Tobias being potentially suicidal again is pretty bad. Marco and Cassie both address why this loss was so much worse for him than anyone else. Marco says:

I knew why Jake had sent Rachel to Tom. I agreed with his thinking. But then, I wasn’t in love with Rachel. I wasn’t some lonely kid trapped in a hawk’s body, half in one world, half in another with only Rachel’s love tying me to my humanity.

And Cassie says to Jake when he’s asking to find Tobias:

“He doesn’t hate you, Jake. He never did. His heart was broken, that’s all. And you know, Tobias never had anyone. No one before Rachel. No mother, really, no father he could ever know. Rachel was the first and only person who ever loved Tobias.”

When you really think about Tobias’s story over all, there’s really no competing for sadness. He had it the worst before. He had it the worst during. And he has it the worst in the end, losing the one person who grounded him and spiraling so far down that, while he doesn’t kill himself, he retreats completely from humanity, essentially killing his human side in the process. Those three years couldn’t have been good. The one strange thing about this is the lack of any mention of his mother, Loren. I can see how since the relationship is so new and Tobias isn’t one to form bonds quickly or easily, he might still have retreated from humanity. But I find it surprising that there’s no talk from Cassie of Loren trying to find Tobias and bring him back from the brink.

And Jake’s entire arc is sad, too. Even at the end, both Cassie and Marco don’t see his return to action as a good sign. Cassie notes that Jake seems almost like Rachel, which from Cassie’s perspective isn’t a good thing as she always worried that Rachel needed the war too much. And here, it’s like Jake, too, has gotten back his drug of choice. Marco, too, sees the problems with Jake’s renewed energy and knows that Jake will try to use this new fight as a way to correct the mistakes he sees in the past. But Marco knows that this return to action will just be more of the same, the same burdens falling on Jake’s shoulders, the same impossible decisions with no “right” answers.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: I mean, not to undermine what Rachel did and all…but what exactly was the plan here? I get that Erek kind of threw a wrench in things by depowering the dracon cannons, but it seemed like a lot of fuss was already made about how the Pool ship couldn’t really stand up to a major fighter like the Blade ship. So, was Rachel somehow supposed to take out Tom and destroy the ship? Were they hoping that the loss of Tom would make the rest of the Yeerks aboard suddenly surrender? It’s clear that things didn’t go to plan, but I’m not sure really what that plan even was. Jake knew the cannons had been depowered before telling Rachel to go for it and reveal herself. Were they just going to blow it up with her in it as Plan A? And then Plan B was a single Animorph somehow taking out the entire Blade ship from within? Tom was a factor, for sure, but either Jake had built him up into more than he was and expected the others to wilt under the loss of their leader, or it was really just personal, at the heart of things, and there wasn’t really a solid plan behind any of it.

On this re-read, I do really like the plan to ram the ship at the end. It ties in perfectly with that pretty major speech Marco gave Jake about why the Animorphs won the war and why Jake succeeded as a leader. And then there is a nice symmetry to Elfangor ramming ships and the fact that there is a precedent for characters surviving maneuvers like this, so readers aren’t left to assume that they all just died. We’ve been hearing about how indestructible cockroach morphs are for about 50 books…just saying.

Favorite Quote: There are a ton of really great quotes. It was hard not to just pepper them all throughout the review, and I still ended up including a bunch. But I think the one I want to highlight is this one:

The six of us stood there contemplating our dangerous-looking new home, set against the sunrise over Earth.

“So what do we call her?” Marco wondered.

<She’s beautiful,> Tobias said. <She’s beautiful and dangerous and exciting.>

I turned in surprise to look at Tobias. He stared back at me with his eternally fierce hawk’s gaze. Marco laughed, realizing what we were thinking.

“She would love it. A scary, deadly, cool looking Yeerk ship on a doomed, suicidal, crazy mission that no one can ever know about? She would love it.”

So it was that we went aboard the Rachel.

Scorecard: Yeerks 16, Animorphs 21

Obviously the Animorphs win this one. But I think the bigger win in this book isn’t so much the destruction of the Yeerks (that was pretty well covered in the last book), but the way that Jake and the rest set up humanity as a equal voice on the intergalactic playing board. The negotiation scene with the Andalites was crucial and the fact that a bunch of traumatized teens were able to manage it and put Earth in a strong position is pretty impressive. Jake notes that had that not gone well, humans could have very well ended up as second class citizens on their own planet.

This is the final score of the series. The Animorphs win, but the Yeerks held their own pretty well, too. (No reason to point out the fact that they may have won some of these points based more on my irritation at the idiocy of the Animorphs than on them actually winning a battle in a particular book.)

Rating: Well, we made it. 54 regular books, 4 megamorphs, 4 chronicles. I’m pretty sure if I did a word count for these reviews, I would find that I have written a literal novel about this series over the last 2 years or so. But what a blast it’s been! I found out that some of the opinions I held as a child remained the same. And some changed.

Things that stayed the same include my eternal love for Rachel and Tobias, as separate characters and as a couple. My struggles with Cassie as a character and several of her books and decisions. The fact that the series had a definite trough in the last third of the series, with a few notable exceptions. And that I cried way more often than is appropriate for a middle grade series.

Things that changed included my deeper appreciation for Marco as a character. I always thought of him as the funny guy, but failed to remember how supremely clever and with it he was. Of them all, in this read I think I identified with his approach to the war the most.

While most of my opinions on Cassie stayed the same, there were definite books and moments for her that I had forgotten were so good and important. So she’s now a mixed bag character for me.

My appreciation for the war story at its heart and the deep, sympathetic, and really tough to read look at the experiences of soldiers fighting a war day in and day out and what life can be like when that war ends.

 I still really wish Rachel had lived, just because she was one of my favorite characters and no one likes it when their favorite character dies. But I can now appreciate the huge impact her death has on the reality of the story.

And, most of all, my appreciation for the way the book ended. I was really pissed about that as a kid. While I wish there weren’t quite as many threads dangling there, I think it was an awesome way to tie things up, ultimately. There’s also plenty of evidence to make you think they live through it to fight another day. You have the fact that major characters have done the same thing in the past and lived through it, so the author has set the stage for that ending. And then the fact that in this very book Marco talks about how they won by not hesitating and making crazy decisions like this. Jake’s order to ram the ship is a triumphant return to the Animorphs who win and the Animorphs who live.

I really loved reviewing this series and I’m not sure what I will use to fill the hole in my reading that will now open up (not to mention the blog itself…) now that they’re gone. I’m so appreciative of those who have read along and still love talking about this series, twenty years later. Thanks for coming along on this journey! Also, if you have some “read alike” suggestions, leave them in the comments. That ending, while cool, definitely left me craving more!

Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all!

Kate’s Review: “The Last Astronaut”

40881567._sy475_Book: “The Last Astronaut” by David Wellington

Publishing Info: Orbit, July 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a paperback copy from the publisher.

Book Description: Mission Commander Sally Jansen is Earth’s last astronaut–and last hope–in this gripping near-future thriller where a mission to make first contact becomes a terrifying struggle for survival in the depths of space.

Sally Jansen was NASA’s leading astronaut, until a mission to Mars ended in disaster. Haunted by her failure, she lives in quiet anonymity, convinced her days in space are over.

She’s wrong.

A large alien object has entered the solar system on a straight course toward Earth. It has made no attempt to communicate and is ignoring all incoming transmissions.

Out of time and out of options, NASA turns to Jansen. For all the dangers of the mission, it’s the shot at redemption she always longed for.

But as the object slowly begins to reveal its secrets, one thing becomes horribly clear: the future of humanity lies in Jansen’s hands.

Review: Thanks to Orbit for sending me a paperback copy of this book!

Perhaps you are all looking at the title and the primary genre of “The Last Astronaut” and are thinking to yourself ‘well hey now, isn’t Sci Fi Serena’s literary wheelhouse?’ And you’d be right. As a matter of fact, I tend to avoid Science Fiction unless it meets very specific characteristics. But when I was reading about “The Last Astronaut” by David Wellington, my interest was piqued. For one thing, a few of the early reviews used words like ‘terrifying’ to describe it. When you do that and throw around phrases like ‘large alien object’, something about ‘transmissions’, and ‘the future of humanity’, my mind is going to go to one place.

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Did he have the special? (source)

It turns out that “Alien” this is not, but ultimately that wasn’t a bad thing.

“The Last Astronaut” does mix some elements of horror in with sci-fi and character study, and it comes together to be an entertaining tale of slow burn suspense. We have the familiar scenario of a crew of different people with different motivations coming together for the purpose of investigating an alien object heading towards Earth, but the person at the forefront is astronaut Sally Jansen. Jansen was supposed to be the head of a mission going to Mars years before, but disaster struck and left other astronauts dead and Jansen in disgrace. Now she is hoping for redemption, and another chance at discovery. Jansen is a complex and strong protagonist, and has many layers that we slowly get to peel back as the story goes on and the stakes get higher and higher. She is competent and determined, but she is also headstrong and hard to trust, at least for the other crew members. Her actions had severe consequences for NASA and space exploration, but her talent is undeniable, even if her trauma and fall from grace is still haunting her. Her dynamic with the other crew members as they have to board the object is rife with tension, and their inherent mistrust of her makes for emotional conflict on top of the slow revealing other environmental conflict. While there were certainly other compelling characters, specifically ship scientist Parminder Rao who is elated at the prospect of alien life, this is Jansen’s story, and she is well centered and well developed.

The plot, while not as heavy on the horror as I had hoped, is still filled with suspense and tension, which made it an engrossing read for me in spite of the genre clash. The Alien Object is reminiscent of the recent space object ‘Oumuamua (and it is referenced in the book as well), but is larger and seems to have a clear path, heading straight for Earth. When the NASA crew finally encounters it in hopes of learning more, not only have they been beaten by the private company KSpace, but that the crew from the KSpace mission isn’t answering attempts at communication. And once they board the object, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that they are in way over their heads, and that this object isn’t what it seems. I really don’t want to spoil anything in this review, as the slow reveal is effectively creepy and well done. What I will say is that the alien being in “The Last Astronaut” is effective because it feels like something we haven’t really seen before. If you take elements from space horror classics like “Annihilation” and “Event Horizon”, you might be part way there, but Wellington has created a mythos that feels original, at least to this reader.

You may be wondering why this isn’t rated higher, as it seems that I liked a lot about it. And the reason is solely based on personal preference. At the end of the day, “The Last Astronaut” is still pretty heavy on the sci-fi, and it’s done in a way that didn’t really connect with me as much as I had hoped it would. I think that had the horror elements been ramped up more it would have left more of an impression, but as it was, this ultimately isn’t my genre. That said, I really do believe that sci-fi fans would probably find a lot to like about this book, as even I can appreciate the trajectory and story elements that it had. It may not achieve genre crossover as much as I thought it would, but don’t let my words discourage you from giving it a try if it has grabbed your attention!

Rating 7: While the story was more sci-fi than horror and therefore not my usual wheelhouse, I liked the originality that came with “The Last Astronaut” and its main character, and think sci-fi aficionados will find a lot to enjoy!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Astronaut” is included on the Goodreads lists “Upcoming 2019 SFF With Female Leads or Co-Leads”, and “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2019”.

Find “The Last Astronaut” at your library using WorldCat!