It’s been a while since I posted what I am reading, so here are some of my favorite titles that got me through the fall.
Malice in Ovenland is a super-fun graphic novel, great for elementary readers and up. Obviously, this is a new take on the Alice in Wonderland story, with a young heroine Lily Brown from Queens who doesn’t like her mom’s “healthy” new cooking until she is told to clean the oven and falls headfirst into a netherworld society which lives off the excess cooking grease from Lily’s mom’s oven. Lily has to find her way back to the upper world while pursued by a whole host of enemies who blame her for the recent draught of life-giving grease. Lots of fun, this is a fast-paced read with beautiful illustrations. It would make a perfect read-together story for parents and kids! After reading, you might even be tempted to find cockroaches cute . . .
Certain Dark Things is not just another vampire novel. Set in Mexico City, the novel imagines an alternate present in which the discovery of vampires’ existence in the 1970s has fundamentally reshaped the world of the 21st Century. Mexico City has become a closed nation city, leaving the rest of the country at the mercy of powerful vampire gangs who fight for territory against each other and the humans. And it’s not just one kind of vampire. Vampires from every culture in the world — dozens of subspecies — have fled to Mexico because it has some of the least restrictive laws against blood-suckers. This is not great news for the native vampires of Mexico — bird-winged blood drinkers who have existed since the time of the Aztecs. One of these, a beautiful young woman named Atl, flees to Mexico City when her Northern Mexico clan is destroyed by a rival gang of Necros (a horrifying European species that can control humans with a single bite and whose blood is poison to other vampires). With only her faithful dog Cualli and a young street boy Domingo, Atl must try to find a way out of the country while pursued by both Necros and human gangs who refuse to tolerate any vampires on their turf. I loved the premise of this book! Throwing vampire myths from so many cultures together was right down my alley. If you like vampire books but would appreciate some . . . er, fresh blood . . . this is a fast-paced read that breathes fresh life into the genre.
I read this book months ago and it keeps resurfacing in my thoughts — a good indication that this is a powerful story. All her life, twelve-year-old Ada has been raised by her father David Sibelius, who home-schools her and takes her to work with him at the university computer science lab, where he and his colleagues are working on early versions of artificial intelligence. Ada is a prodigy who can code, talk physics or analyze literature with her father’s friends, but she has no friends of her own age and does not understand anything about “regular” twelve-year-olds. When her father David begins to lose his mental faculties, she is forced to adjust to a terrifying new reality, but she is also presented with a shocking secret: Her father was not who she always believed he was. The novel jumps back and forth between Ada as a child in the 1980s, and Ada as an adult in the 2010s. In both time periods, she is grappling with the legacy of her father’s secret, and of the strange work he was doing on artificial intelligence. Before his mind deteriorated completely, David promised that he would see Ada again. What did he mean? Who was he? The novel is poignant, well-crafted and utterly convincing. A great read that will haunt you long after you finish.
Ann Leckie’s series drops us right into a universe both familiar and terrifyingly different. It may take you a while to understand what is going on, because many of your assumptions about point-of-view will be stripped away. This is because the main character Breq is an ancillary — a human body that has been ‘slaved’ to the artificial intelligence of a giant spaceship, in this case Justice of Torren. In the empire called the Radch, each spaceship is sentient, crewed by legions of ancillaries who are all connected to the same central mind. Because of this, Breq can be in a thousand places at once, watching events unfold all across the surface of a planet, wherever her soldiers are stationed, or on the ship orbiting above.
Where do ancillaries come from? The Radch is a military empire. It exists by annexing other star systems and enslaving huge swaths of the native population, putting them in cryogenic storage until those bodies are needed — their old minds wiped away and reprogrammed as part of a ship’s AI. If that sounds horrifying, it is, but Breq knows no other life — until a terrible event separates her from her mothership, which is destroyed in hyperspace, leaving Breq alone, the last remnant of Justice of Torren. An ancillary is not considered to be human, but now Breq must find her way through space, hiding and pretending, until she can find a way to discover the truth about how her ship was destroyed, and take revenge on the person she blames — who happens to be the leader of the empire.
There are three books in the Radch series, and I read them all one after the other. Once you are sucked into this world, you don’t want to leave. Another really cool thing about the world which Leckie creates — the Radch do not pay attention to gender. Gender exists, but their language does not even include words for ‘he’ or ‘she.’ Because of this, all characters are labeled ‘she’ and you can’t really be sure, nor does it really matter, what gender they are. Breq struggles whenever she is in another non-Radch culture, since she has to look for subtle clues and remember not to insult males by calling them female and vice versa. I just loved this. I found the second two books a bit more slow-moving than the first, but that was okay. By that time, the story was a drama I cared about, and the Radch are all about taking time, observing propriety, and having tea. You have to accept them on their own terms at their own pace. If you are looking for a brave and terrifying new world to immerse yourself in, definitely give this series a go.
After reading the Ancillary Justice series, Ninefox Gambit was a wonderful complementary read. We are dropped into an interstellar empire called the Hexarchate, where six factions with different skill sets vie for power within the system. (Think Divergent on a galactic scale.) The ultimate power in the universe is pure mathematics. An understanding of number theory has to be agreed on and followed by everyone in the society, right down to the yearly calendar and how many days in a week. Within this mathematic “orthodoxy” the laws of physics work as you would expect, and all is right in the cosmos. But from time to time, mathematical heresies arise, like adding a day to the week or computing with a different base number, and the whole fabric of physics starts to warp. Weapons don’t work they way they’re supposed to. New technologies become possible that should not be possible. Our hero, Captain Kel Cheris, is a military commander who gets in deep trouble for unorthodox strategy, but she is given a way to redeem herself: Retake an important station that has fallen into the hands of heretics. To do this, she must use a secret weapon: She downloads the consciousness of a never-defeated general who has been dead for thousands of years. The only problem: this general was consigned to cold storage because he went mad and massacred his own armies. Can Kel control the new voice in her brain? Can she trust it, or keep from being taken over? And how will she defeat an unknown heresy? Once you get into the premise, this is a fantastic adventure with brilliant world-building.
This sci-fi novel got a lot of buzz when it came out, and I see why. The basic story: pieces of a gigantic metal robot, thousands of years old, are discovered scattered around the earth, buried deep in the earth or under the sea. Where did they come from? What are they for? A team is assembled in top secrecy to rebuild the robot and figure out how it works. The story is told in a series of interviews — reports submitted by an anonymous interviewer who is pulling most of the strings behind the project. This narrative structure is very easy to follow and pulls you in nicely. I finished the book in a single day, and I’m not a fast reader. I did think that toward the end, the limits of the transcript format began to show. The storytelling had to use some rather hard-to-believe contortions to report certain information, and by the end, you don’t really feel like you’ve come to know the characters very well. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a quick, engaging sci-fi mystery, this one is a good choice!