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Monthly Archives: June 2019

“The Wrong Stars” and “The Dreaming Stars” by Tim Pratt

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Tim Pratt is best known for his fantasy novels. In addition to tie-in books for Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder, he’s written the original novels Heirs of Grace and The Nex. His space-opera Axiom Trilogy is, therefore, something of a departure. In The Wrong Stars, Callie and her crew discover a derelict spaceship at the edge of the solar system. It’s one of many that Earth sent out in the midst of ecological and political disaster centuries ago, a desperate attempt to make sure humanity would survive if its original home fell. So why did it never even make it out of the Sol system? How has it gone undiscovered for so long? Why is only a single member of the crew left aboard? And what is that weird device grafted onto the engine?

The Dreaming Stars continues the adventures of Callie and the rest of the White Raven’s crew. They’ve discovered that the answers to some of the questions asked above are downright terrifying. With the help of an alien ally and a human who might be either an ally or an enemy, they set out to confront what could be an existential threat to all other intelligent life in the universe.

Pratt maintains a delicate balance in which the setting’s technology is advanced enough to evoke wonder from the reader, but not so advanced that the characters can effortlessly solve every problem they come across. Interstellar travel has been accomplished by “bridges” between star systems, but only at designated arrival and departure points. Aliens are known to exist, but their culture and psychology are sufficiently different that interacting with them is sometimes challenging. Cybernetic body modifications allow for humans to accomplish feats that would be impossible for a purely biological person, but not everyone goes in for them. And while the characters’ world is better than ours—prejudice against people of differing skin tones or sexual orientations seems to be almost nonexistent, for example—it isn’t perfect.

I particularly like the way AI is portrayed in the series. Strong AI exist, but such entities are essentially cloned from human minds. They start out virtually identical to their template minds, but differing experiences cause them to diverge over time.

Another aspect of the novels I appreciated was the diversity of character traits and the way they play off each other. Whether enthusiastic, jaded, acerbic, or philosophical, the characters’ personalities informed their actions and choices. While some get along with each other better than others, all the interactions are interesting.

The next (and presumably final) installment, The Forbidden Stars, arrives in October. It promises to raise the stakes even further, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the White Raven’s crew handles their new challenges.

“Odd Adventures with Your Other Father” by Norman Prentiss

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Odd Adventures with Your Other Father was originally published through the Kindle Scout program, which is perhaps unusual for an established author like the Bram Stoker Award-winning Norman Prentiss. The story has three main characters: Celia and her fathers, Jack and Shawn. Jack died when Celia was little, and Shawn tells her several stories about a summer they spent on a cross-country road trip after graduating from college. These are set within a frame story about Celia enacting a secret plan while she’s away at summer camp.

We learn early on in the book that Jack had a form of telepathy, and other supernatural phenomena exist in the setting as well. The incidents involving these weird happenings are well-written and interesting. But the heart of the story is the family relationships: between Shawn and Celia and between Shawn and Jack. The couple faces ordinary challenges, such as illness and prejudice, alongside the paranormal goings-on. In a similar way, Celia’s own strange experiences relate back to her life with Shawn, her sense of loss over having never really known Jack, the bonds of loyalty and understanding between herself and her best friend.

I did have a couple of stylistic issues with the novel. The primary one is that some of the dialogue doesn’t feel realistic. Elmore Leonard once said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” and some of the dialogue here definitely sounds like writing. But while it isn’t perfect, Odd Adventures with Your Other Father is a book with heart, and that counts for a lot.

“Big Fish in a Small Pond” published by The Centropic Oracle

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I’m happy to announce that my short story, “Big Fish in a Small Pond,” is now available on the Centropic Oracle podcast!

“The Siren Depths” by Martha Wells

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In the third installment of Martha Wells’s Books of the Raksura series, Moon finds himself with exactly the opposite problem from what he’s used to. As he finally starts to settle into his home at Indigo Cloud, he discovers that another group of Raksura has taken an interest in him—and because of Raksura society’s complex rules, they may be able to force him to take up residence with them instead. Combined with gradually emerging hints about the reasons behind the Fell’s repeated attacks on Raksura settlements, this makes for a tense and dramatic story.

Although Moon is an adult, the Raksura series is in some ways a coming-of-age story, since Moon has to learn how to build relationships with others and find his place in Raksura society. This theme continues with the conflict between the different Raksura courts that want to “claim” Moon. Just as he’s beginning to feel like he might be able to build a stable life, and that he’s getting a handle on the rules by which their civilization operates, everything gets upended again. And he finds himself in the unenviable position of having to mediate between different groups with the right to call themselves his family, and who don’t always get along all that well. (Imagine one of those awkward Thanksgivings where your relatives have too much wine and start arguing about politics, but with more shape-shifting and fang-baring.)

We also get significant development on a major plot arc of the series: the Fell attacks on various civilizations, and in particular their animosity towards the Raksura. This is the source of much of the story’s action, but it’s also intimately tied to the backgrounds of the characters, especially Moon.

Wells continues the worldbuilding that makes the Three Worlds such a delight. We see not only an older and more established Raksura court, but also yet another new (to us) species. As usual, they’re given a unique culture that feels real, with its own architecture, clothing styles, and social norms. The Raksura stories, with their plethora of civilizations, evokes the same kind of “sensawunda” as the best sci-fi, despite being confined to (mostly) a single continent on a single planet.

A couple of major plot threads get resolved in this book, but there are still mysteries and the potential for further developments. I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series, as Moon’s story continues to be a rewarding one.