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“The Outside” by Ada Hoffman

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Ada Hoffman’s debut novel The Outside is an intriguing fusion of space opera and cosmic horror. Yasira Shien is an engineer in a distant future where human society is ruled by AI “gods.” When the activation of a reactor she built goes wrong, it doesn’t just blow up; it unleashes a terrifying force from outside of space and time. Yasira’s attempt to set things right puts her on a collision course with both that force and with humanity’s gods.

The far future society portrayed in the novel is an interesting one, with superintelligent AIs having taken on the role of deities and various types of cyborg designated as angels and priests. One small but intriguing worldbuilding detail is that most of the gods are described as female, although they presumably don’t have humanoid forms. The digital assistants prevalent today, such as Alexa and Siri, are also been coded as female, and some commentators have questioned whether this is due to societal perceptions of women as compliant and helpful. Are The Outside’s deific AIs female because they grew from female-coded devices of the setting’s past (our present)? It’s interesting to think of that as a potential root for their personalities.

Another interesting aspect of the worldbuilding relates to the human polities. Most far-future sci-fi presents cultures and operating on a planetary level. While individual characters might identify with a nation (Jean-Luc Picard with France, Susan Ivanova with Russia, etc.), these nations are no longer relevant political entities. Sometimes this can lead to a “planet of hats” scenario, where an alien world is portrayed as having a single monolithic culture. Often it’s part of a hopeful message about humanity putting aside tribalism. The Outside goes a different route. Yasira strongly identifies with her home planet of Jai but also with a particular nation on that planet, called Riayin. Another nation on the same planet is distinguished not just by lines on a map but by naming conventions: its people tend to have names representing positive qualities (Yasira’s girlfriend is named Productivity, for example). Despite being an interstellar civilization, humanity still maintains intraplanetary distinctions between nationalities. This was a refreshing change from the standard sci-fi political model, but I would have liked to know a bit more about how it works in practice.

There are several compelling characters in The Outside, not least of whom is Yasira herself, but Akavi was the one who really drew my attention. He’s completely committed to his mission and commits some fairly brutal actions in support of it. But we also find out that he took in his subordinates Enga and Elu when they were neglected outcasts, giving them a chance that no one else would. His complexity made him a truly interesting antagonist.

The Outside isn’t explicitly described as the first book in a series, but the ending leaves room for a sequel. I hope Hoffman writes one, because I would love to return to this world and see where Yasira’s journey takes her next.

“The Nightjar” by Deborah Hewitt

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Deborah Hewitt’s debut novel The Nightjar tells the story of Alice, a woman in a dead-end job who discovers that she’s an aviarist: a person with a magical talent for seeing the nightjars that act as psychopomps for human souls. Drawn into an alternate London populated by mages of various stripes, she finds herself drawn into the schemes of a mysterious benefactor, a cult leader, and a cabal of anti-magic bigots. The setting is a fascinating one, and I especially love the conceit of the nightjars. Hewitt does a great job of describing the mystical birds and showing how they reflect their charges’ personalities.

Despite that, the plot and characterization were somewhat lacking. Alice in particular felt like she lacked agency. She spent most of the book stumbling from one crisis to the next. While it makes sense that she would be in over her head at first, the novel would have been a lot more satisfying if Hewitt had shown her gradually gaining a measure of control over her surroundings.

A similar problem occurs with one of the side characters, Sasha. Sasha has a strong fear of water, which we see displayed several times in the story. The usual narrative for something like this would be for the character to make progress toward overcoming her fear, but this character arc goes completely unresolved.

I also didn’t buy into the relationship between Alice and Crowley. Crowley’s secretiveness is obviously an intended character trait, and he has good reasons for it, but Hewitt overdid it. After a while, I simply couldn’t understand why Alice continued to trust him.

There is one other major issue I had with the plot, but it involves significant spoilers, so I’ll leave it for the end. Overall, I found The Nightjar disappointing precisely because it had the potential to be so much better. The world it’s set in is interesting, and there were a lot of possibilities for intrigue, action, and great character interactions. There is some of all those things here, but the problems are substantial enough to bog it down.

 

–SPOILERS—

 

Alice’s primary motivation throughout the whole book is to save Jen. Every time she does something unwise, or doesn’t walk away from Crowley when she really should, her rationale is that she has to take these risks for Jen’s sake. While the Crowley thing pushed the boundaries of plausibility for me, I can understand someone doing dumb things out of desperation. But Jen dies in the end anyway! It made the whole thing feel like a “shaggy dog story.” It also didn’t seem to fit with the story tonally. The main character moving heaven and earth to save someone, only to have them die anyway, can work, particularly in a horror story. But while there are some dark moments in The Nightjar, and it’s clear that not all magic is benign, this didn’t feel like the kind of tale that should have such a nihilistic ending.

“Oathbringer” by Brandon Sanderson

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The third book in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive was one of the best books I read in 2019, and at about 1240 pages, certainly the longest. As the conflict between humans and Voidbringers heats up, Dalinar has to grapple with his past while trying to forge a coalition of nations to face the threat.

As usual, Sanderson does an excellent job of balancing character development with cool magic and epic battles. Dalinar and Shallan receive the lion’s share of introspection and character growth in this book. While their stories are very different, they both revolve around the theme of a person choosing who they want to be. And in both cases, their journeys in Oathbringer culminate in awesome displays of power during a climactic battle.

With all the interludes, flashbacks, and chapter epigraphs, not to mention its length, Oathbringer could easily have ended up feeling unfocused. The paralleling of character arcs is one of the tools Sanderson uses to hold it together and make it feel like a coherent story. In addition to Dalinar and Shallan, we see another pair of characters whose arcs share a common theme but are a study in contrast. (For spoilery reasons, I’m going to be vague about the identity of said characters.) Both have to face up to unsavory things they’ve done in the past, and Odium urges both of them to give their pain and remorse to him. “It wasn’t your fault,” he tells them. These two characters end up in very different places as a result of their response, and there’s ample buildup to show the trajectories they’re on.

My record with Stormlight Archives theories has been pretty terrible, and indeed, one of the ideas I came up with way back when I was reading The Way of Kings was very solidly disproven in this book. However, a theory that developed in my mind while I was reading turned out to be 100% correct, and I was very gratified by that.

Brandon Sanderson has announced that the fourth book of the Stormlight Archive, tentatively titled Rhythms of War, will be released in November of this year. I’m eagerly looking forward to it. I hope we learn more about the Radiant orders that haven’t been focused on so far, as well as seeing more people joining the ranks of the existing orders. (In particular, I think it would be great to see Fen become Radiant, though I’m not sure which order would suit her best. Truthwatcher, perhaps, since she tends to be fairly blunt and unafraid to speak her mind?) And more Rysn, Rock, and Lift, please!

“American Elsewhere” by Robert Jackson Bennett

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I loved Robert Jackson Bennett’s fantasy novel Foundryside, so I was looking forward to reading one of his earlier books, American Elsewhere. Upon learning that she’s inherited a house in the tiny southwestern town of Wink, Mona Bright travels there. She discovers that the town holds many secrets: about her mother, her own past, and perhaps even the nature of the universe.

Unfortunately, I found myself somewhat disappointed. The major reason for this is that the book has some pacing issues. The tempo of the first half of the book is very slow, although it does pick up after that. A slow burn can be very effective for a horror story; some of my favorites feature a gradually increasing sense of dread. But a slow burn requires starting the story on low heat. The first chapter of American Elsewhere shows too much and starts at too high a pitch. This undercuts the buildup that comes later. I had a couple of other issues with the book, but since they rely on plot spoilers, I’ll discuss them at the end of the post.

That said, American Elsewhere does show off Bennett’s skills at worldbuilding. The full truth about what’s going on in Wink melds classic cosmic horror tropes with some concepts more often seen in straight-up sci-fi. Like many of the best science fiction stories, it raises interesting philosophical questions about selfhood and the divide between perception and reality.

There are also some genuinely creepy scenes. One of Wink’s inhabitants, an elderly woman named Mrs. Benjamin, has a closet in her kitchen full of exotic teas. An old woman’s tea collection doesn’t seem like it should be even remotely scary, but Bennett manages to turn “retrieving a tea bag from the closet” into an eerie, vertiginous experience. There are a few other scenes like this, and they really add to the atmosphere of the novel.

While American Elsewhere was generally underwhelming, there are glimpses of Bennett’s talent in it, and I’m still eagerly anticipating the future novels in his Founders series.

 

–SPOILERS AHEAD—

 

Coburn (the scientist, not the lab named after him) appears to be trapped in the dimension Mr. First and the others came from, but Mona seems to forget about this entirely. She makes no attempt to bring him back at the end of the book when she returns Parson and Mrs. Benjamin. Also, no explanation is given for why being stuck on the other side doesn’t have the same negative psychological effects on Coburn that the human inhabitants of Wink experience when they see Mother. Both of these things feel like plot holes.

I also didn’t like that Bolan, Dord, and Mallory die without really accomplishing much.

“The Forbidden Stars” by Tim Pratt

Several times in the first two books of Tim Pratt’s Axiom Trilogy, characters mention the Vanir System, a human colony with which the other human polities have lost contact. No expedition sent to find out what happened to the colonists has ever returned. In the third and final installment, The Forbidden Stars, we finally discover why the Vanir System has been out of contact. The answer presents new challenges for Callie and the other crewmembers of the White Raven, as well as an escalation of their conflict with the Axiom.

As one would expect from the final volume in a series, The Forbidden Stars resolves several ongoing plot threads. One of these involves the Benefactor, a mysterious individual who’s been feeding the White Raven information about various Axiom facilities. In this book, the Benefactor sends an embodied AI called Kaustikos to accompany the crew on a mission. At first, it might seem like this steps on the toes of Shall, an established character who’s also an AI that often downloads itself into mobile robotic bodies. Pratt is careful to make Kaustikos’s personality and the appearance of his chosen body distinct enough that he doesn’t feel like just Shall 2.0.

Pratt also keeps up his record of introducing interesting and awe-inspiring technologies. The Axiom are played up as being almost godlike, walking advertisements for Clarke’s Law. There’s obviously a delicate balance to maintain in telling stories about such beings. If they don’t live up to their hype, readers will be disappointed. But if they’re too powerful, it will be hard to believe that the main characters could ever fight them effectively. Pratt keeps this balance nicely. When the function of the new Axiom technology discovered by the characters at the beginning of the book is revealed, it’s almost literally gasp-inducing. But because most of the Axiom are still in suspended animation, the conflicts faced by the crew are on a more manageable scale.

I do have one minor plot-related quibble. At one point, when Callie and company are in a bad situation, we discover that Callie had planted some devices to thwart the villains in such a scenario. While this is entirely in character for the intelligent and suspicious captain, it wasn’t foreshadowed at all, so it seemed to come out of left field.

I would have been happy to see the Axiom series continue, but The Forbidden Stars does bring both the overall narrative and individual character arcs to satisfying milestones. The trilogy was a fun ride and makes me eager to seek out more of Pratt’s work.

“The Winter of the Witch” by Katherine Arden

Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy concludes with The Winter of the Witch, in which Vasya finds herself responsible for protecting not just her family or village, or even the city of Moscow, but all of Rus’. As the stakes escalate, so does Vasya’s power, but Arden keeps her relatable by giving her corresponding doubts and fears. For all her command of magic and growing rapport with the chyerti, Vasya isn’t always sure of herself.

Nor should she be, since the Winternight books portray magic as a dangerous force. Contrary to the beliefs of some human characters, it isn’t fundamentally evil. But its use relies on the caster “forgetting that the world is other than as you willed it,” so frequent use of magic can blur the line between fantasy and reality. A witch or sorcerer can lose their grip on what’s real, becoming detached from the world around them. As the central conflict of the book ramps up, Vasya is forced to use more powerful magic more frequently, putting her at risk of such a disconnection from reality. This is a great way of making sure that Vasya can’t solve all her problems by just throwing ever-increasing amounts of magic at them.

One major aspect of the novel that I really enjoyed, as well as my one substantive criticism, rely on spoilers, so I’ll discuss those below. Overall, it will suffice to say that The Winter of the Witch doesn’t always go in the direction one expects, and it brings Vasya’s story to a satisfying conclusion.

 

–SPOILERS AHEAD—

 

Throughout the first two books, the Bear has been Vasya’s enemy, so I was genuinely surprised by her realization that her task was not to permanently defeat him, but to repair the rift between him and Morozko. This dovetails nicely with the larger theme of humans and chyerti working together to protect Rus’ from outside invasion. For all that Vasya is capable of battle-magic, her true role in the story is as a diplomat, negotiating bargains and bringing people together. This is a great way of differentiating her from other fantasy heroes, and it serves to make the story more multilayered and interesting.

I was a bit underwhelmed by the second revelation about her heritage. We’ve known since The Girl in the Tower that there was something special about her great-grandmother, but there weren’t any previous hints about her great-grandfather. It’s only in The Winter of the Witch that we hear anything about her being a “sea maiden,” and the eventual discovery of what that means felt shoehorned in at the very end of the story. It doesn’t help that this doesn’t seem to really have any effect on Vasya’s abilities or character development. It just fell completely flat to me and was the one flaw in an otherwise compelling story.

“Snowblind” by Christopher Golden

It’s no surprise that Stephen King provided Christopher Golden’s Snowblind with a front-cover blurb, because the book reminded me of some of King’s best work. While Coventry is implied to be a larger town than King’s old standby of Castle Rock, the close-knit relationships between the characters make them feel like they’re part of a smaller community. Which is good, because they’re going to need all the help they can get. During a blizzard twelve years prior, there were a number of deaths and disappearances, not all of which can be easily explained by icy roads or dangerously cold temperatures. The loved ones of those lost have tried to put their lives back together, with varying degrees of success. As another nor’easter approaches, they start to get hints that the danger of twelve years ago might not be entirely over.

The characters and their relationships are what really make the story work. While there’s a fairly large cast, Golden gives each of them enough space to let the reader see them as people. I found myself hoping, not just that they would survive and defeat the evil lurking in the snowstorm, but that a couple whose marriage was on the rocks would work things out or that a man whose life was in a downward spiral would find a way to pull himself back up. I think a big part of this is that the characters are allowed to have flaws. Many of them do react heroically when the threat becomes overt, but we also see them arguing with family or coping with past events in less-than-healthy ways. But because real people are like that, it makes the characters more relatable—their imperfections actually make them easier to root for.

Golden also does a great job juxtaposing winter’s beauty with both natural and unnatural perils. There are some lovely descriptions of Coventry’s “winter wonderland” appearance as the two blizzards blanket everything in snow. But he also shows us the downed power lines, the car accidents on icy roads, the people wading through knee-deep snow. On top of that, there are some genuinely pulse-pounding action scenes when human characters confront the things hiding in the blizzard. This is a suspenseful, well-written book, and it makes me look forward to reading more of Golden’s work.