Sci-Fi Month 2015

For the second year in a row, Karina Sumner-Smith is visiting for Sci-Fi Month! She has written a number of science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories, and her Towers trilogy is set in the same world as her Nebula-nominated short story “An End to All Things.” Though the first book in this trilogy, her debut novel Radiant, was released last year, the trilogy has already been completed—the final book, Towers Fall, was just released earlier this month!

Radiant is an impressive first novel: beautifully written, unique, and thoughtfully composed. I also loved the focus on the development of the friendship between Xhea and Shai and that their friendship continues to be the central relationship in Defiant, which is also quite enjoyable. Although I haven’t yet read Towers Fall, it is on my small books-to-read-soon stack since I’m quite excited to read the conclusion to Xhea and Shai’s story—and I’m also thrilled that the author is here today discussing “Disaster, Worry, and the Unexpected Utility of Science Fiction”!

Towers Fall by Karina Sumner-Smith

Disaster, Worry, and the Unexpected Utility of Science Fiction
By Karina Sumner-Smith

A few years back, I took a new job at a new company in an unfamiliar area of town. After settling in—finding the kitchen and washrooms, claiming space for my massive mug, attempting to find a better chair—I started my usual planning for the apocalypse.

Where, in this office, were the exits? Were the doors easily barricaded against the undead; were the halls, or the stairways? Where could one hide if zombies got inside? And where were the air vents, anyway?

“What are you doing?” one of my new co-workers asked on my second day of (apparently not-so-unobtrusive) poking into corners.

“Oh,” I replied absently, “just finding escape routes for when the zombie hordes attack.”

There was a pause.

“Well?” she asked at last. “Will we be safe?”

“Nope,” was my honest reply. “We’re all totally screwed.”

#

 It’s no surprise that writers are good at coming up with stories. Creating stories—or if not full stories, then at least scenarios—is a critical part of the skill-set, and one that gets honed by constant use. Yet this is also a skill of worriers and those with “overactive imaginations”—categories, all, into which I fit neatly.

Worrying, wondering, asking “what if” is something that we all do, at some level. What if I don’t get this job? Should I call him back? What was that noise? Can you even imagine the reaction if I’d gone in there with ketchup smeared across my face?

It’s just that a lifetime of reading and writing genre fiction seems to have shaped the scenarios that my brain presents. On top of all the everyday worries and thoughts of any adult, others slip into the mix.

Like: if all the connected computers of the world gained sentience as a single being, with the world’s data making up its memories and mind, what kind of person would it be? Why would aliens visit us, anyway? What would happen if the people around me suddenly started disappearing into thin air, one by one? What would I do if zombies attacked my office?

Useless thoughts, some would say. Silly nonsense. A waste of time. The same words and phrases that I’ve heard dismissively used toward science fiction itself.

Experts disagree. One need only look to the opening of any survival manual or article to see that the things that result in the best chance of surviving an emergency or disaster are preparation and practice. Our brains are fickle things. Faced with an unfamiliar, dangerous situation, people tend to do one of two things: carry on with normal routine as if everything is okay or will be okay soon (like checking your email and finding your purse before getting out of the building when the fire alarm rings), or get shut down by total panic. Panic is particularly dangerous, especially as we so rarely recognize it for what it is; rather than a screaming, flailing mess, one tends to freeze. Thoughts come slowly, if they come at all. Rational thought is impossible.

Or, in the words of Dune’s Paul Muad’Dib, “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.”

Imagining zombies, I found all the fire exits in the office—including one overlooked by my co-workers—and imagined escaping through each. I found the rungs of a built-in ladder, hidden in a closet behind the water heater, that led up to a hidden space between the floors. I imagined hiding, fighting, running, blocking the doors. I tried to see where, from a hidden location, I might call for help.

No, the building wasn’t a good choice for long-term defense against a shambling horde of ravenous dead, but that truly didn’t matter. What did matter was, in the “safety” of a totally made-up scenario, it was okay to think through the kind of events from which one’s mind usually shies away.

There is a lot, these days, that one might not want to think about.

And a lot of reactions, too, that one might want to practice. Words. Efforts. Deeds. Times one nods and times one turns away.

If thoughts and practice and planning aid in times of emergency and disaster, what else might they help? What other moments of personal fear and stress and anger might we mitigate with the stories that we read? What can we practice—what reactions can we hone—with the stories that we tell ourselves?

Reading exposes us to lives beyond our own; reading science fiction exposes us to worlds and realities and futures far beyond the confines of our lives. It opens us to empathy and compassion the way little else does.

Within all of my imaginings—seeing the stars and first contact, alien attacks and unexpected haunting—I’m right there. I’m living those other lives, experiencing those joys and sorrows and hardships. I’m acting, reacting; I gauge and wonder over my own responses. And sometimes, when what I imagine is my own fear or terror or hatred, I feel ashamed. Then I try again, attempting to do better the next time around, be stronger, even just in the safety of my own mind.

Science fiction, as a genre, believes that we can be better people. No, not all science fictional stories hold this belief as central; not every book or story, movie or game has the goodness of humanity as a central tenant. Yet that message is there, underpinning so many of the big works of the genre.

It’s the belief that we can grow into something more than we are. That we can reach higher, farther; that we can build civilizations in the stars; that we can grow to become people worthy of such achievements. It shows us those futures—good and bad and in-between—and lets us imagine them in the safe space of a story. It lets us think and practice and plan, even when all we want to do is turn away in fear and denial.

#

“Well?” we ask. “Will we be safe? Will we be okay?”

And you know, watching our world, sometimes I think we have as much chance as my office-mates did when facing the zombie apocalypse. And then I take a deep breath, and close my eyes, and I imagine another choice. Another path. Another way forward.

At its heart, science fiction believes that we can be better than this. And if we try, and we practice, I think we could believe it too.

Radiant by Karina Sumner-Smith Defiant by Karina Sumner-Smith Towers Fall by Karina Sumner-Smith

Karina Sumner-Smith is the author of the Towers Trilogy from Talos Press: Radiant (Sept 2014), Defiant (May 2015), and Towers Fall (Nov 2015). In addition to novel-length work, Karina has published a range of science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories that have been nominated for the Nebula Award, reprinted in several Year’s Best anthologies, and translated into Spanish and Czech. She lives in Ontario near the shores of Lake Huron with her husband, a small dog, and a large cat. Visit her online at karinasumnersmith.com.

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I talk about books I got over the last week – old or new, bought or received for review consideration (usually unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

Last week brought one of my most anticipated releases of next year and a debut science fiction novel that sounds quite interesting, but first, some brief updates:

On to recent books!

Flamecaster by Cinda Williams Chima

Flamecaster (Shattered Realms #1) by Cinda Williams Chima

Flamecaster, the first book in a new quartet set in the same world as the Seven Realms series, will be released on April 5, 2016 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).

I am so incredibly excited about this book since I loved the Seven Realms books (The Demon King, The Exiled Queen, The Gray Wolf Throne, The Crimson Crown). The first book was slow to start, but once I got into it, I couldn’t put it down. Han and Raisa were both memorable characters, and though all the books were great, the last book was especially wonderful. I’m looking forward to finding out what happens years after it ended!

 

The first in a thrilling new four-book fantasy series from New York Times bestselling author Cinda Williams Chima, set in the same world as her beloved Seven Realms series, a generation later

Adrian sul’Han, known as Ash, is a trained healer with a powerful gift of magic—and a thirst for revenge. Ash is forced into hiding after a series of murders throws the queendom into chaos. Now Ash is closer than he’s ever been to killing the man responsible, the cruel king of Arden. As a healer, can Ash use his powers not to save a life but to take it?

Abandoned at birth, Jenna Bandelow was told that the mysterious magemark on the back of her neck would make her a target. But when the King’s Guard launches a relentless search for a girl with a mark like hers, Jenna assumes that it has more to do with her role as a saboteur than any birth-based curse. Though Jenna doesn’t know why she’s being hunted, she knows that she can’t get caught.

Eventually, Ash’s and Jenna’s paths will collide in Arden. Thrown together by chance and joined by their hatred of the king, they will come to rescue each other in ways they cannot yet imagine.

Set in the world of the acclaimed Seven Realms series a generation later, this is a thrilling story of dark magic, chilling threats, and two unforgettable characters walking a knife-sharp line between life and death.

The Cold Between by Elizabeth Bonesteel

The Cold Between (Central Corps #1) by Elizabeth Bonesteel

This debut science fiction novel will be released on March 8, 2016 (trade paperback, ebook, audiobook). I hadn’t heard of it before it showed up in the mail, but now I’m quite interested in reading it—it sounds fantastic!

 

Deep in the stars, a young officer and her lover are plunged into a murder mystery and a deadly conspiracy in this first entry in a stellar military science-fiction series in the tradition of Lois McMaster Bujold.

When her crewmate, Danny, is murdered on the colony of Volhynia, Central Corps chief engineer, Commander Elena Shaw, is shocked to learn the main suspect is her lover, Treiko Zajec. She knows Trey is innocent—he was with her when Danny was killed. So who is the real killer and why are the cops framing an innocent man?

Retracing Danny’s last hours, they discover that his death may be tied to a mystery from the past: the explosion of a Central Corps starship at a wormhole near Volhynia. For twenty-five years, the Central Gov has been lying about the tragedy, even willing to go to war with the outlaw PSI to protect their secrets.

With the authorities closing in, Elena and Trey head to the wormhole, certain they’ll find answers on the other side. But the truth that awaits them is far more terrifying than they ever imagined . . . a conspiracy deep within Central Gov that threatens all of human civilization throughout the inhabited reaches of the galaxy—and beyond.

The Shannara Chronicles: The Elfstones of Shannara (TV Tie-in Edition)

The Elfstones of Shannara (The Shannara Chronicles #1) by Terry Brooks

The Shannara Chronicles television show is coming to MTV on January 5, 2016. Since the first season is based on The Elfstones of Shannara, paperback TV tie-in editions of The Shannara Chronicles will be released on December 1. The Elfstones of Shannara will be available in both trade paperback and mass market paperback, and The Wishsong of Shannara will be available in trade paperback.

 

ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR FANTASY TALES OF ALL TIME. SOON TO BE AN EPIC NEW SERIES FROM MTV.
 
Thousands of years after the destruction of the age of man and science, new races and magic now rule the world, but an imminent danger threatens. A horde of evil Demons is beginning to escape and bring death upon the land. Only Wil Ohmsford, the last of the Shannara bloodline, has the power to guard the Elven Princess Amberle on a perilous quest to the save the world, while the leader of the Demon force aims to stop their mission at any cost.

I have a Sci-Fi Month confession to make: I didn’t think I liked science fiction for a long time. I once thought it was a dry and dull genre, full of flat characters who owed their existence to the need for someone to deliver tech-heavy exposition. Now I know the genre encompasses a wide variety of stories after reading many wonderful science fiction books and discovering television shows like Firefly, but the point is: had my introduction to science fiction been Karin Lowachee’s intense, character-driven Warchild series I would have been an instant science fiction fan. I cannot recommend these novels highly enough to those who enjoy character-focused books, though I would add the caveat that they do explore some heavy themes that some may find difficult to read, primarily due to a focus on the effects of war on young people. They’re not utterly grim and hopeless stories without any glimmer of light at the end, but the characters do have some rather harrowing experiences that include rape and violence—and Yuri’s tale, Cagebird, is the most candidly horrific so far.

Cagebird takes place before, during, and after the first two books in the series as it alternates between two timelines: the present one after the end of Burndive followed by the events leading to Yuri’s imprisonment, beginning with the day his home moon was destroyed by aliens when he was only four years old. On that day, he watches his childhood playmate lose an arm in the explosion, and he is later separated from his family in the resulting chaos. With aid from a kind teenager, he is at least reunited with his father and baby sister, but his mother and brother are sent to a different location when the refugees are transferred to a new planet. Five years later he is found by Marcus, a merchant captain, who hires Yuri and his friend to work on his ship—but Marcus is actually the notorious pirate Falcone…and he’s looking for a new protégé.

Cagebird is the most raw and character-driven of the three books, and it is excellent (though Warchild remains my favorite of the three and Jos remains my favorite character). Like Burndive, it takes longer to get going than the first book, and I found it difficult to care about Yuri’s situation in the present timeline after what he did in the previous book. Intertwining this timeline with his past quickly made him both more interesting and easier to sympathize with, and the first section about Yuri’s life leading up current events hooked me. His early years are tragic, and ever since he came into contact with Falcone, he’s been trapped and used. Even after Falcone is dead, Yuri can’t escape the ties created by being his protégé.

After reading Warchild, it’s especially interesting to compare Jos and Yuri’s experiences with Falcone and I’m not quite sure which is more horrifying—reading about his terrible treatment of Jos from the beginning or knowing that Falcone’s benevolence toward Yuri is false and wondering what will happen when the charade ends. At this point, Falcone seems to have learned that he has to be more careful with the boys he chooses to train if he doesn’t want them to betray him or run away the first chance they get. Yuri comes aboard his ship by choice with his father’s permission, believing he’s going to be earning money on a merchant ship, and soon after he arrives, he’s given special treatment as a protégé personally selected by the captain. By the time Yuri finds out he’s on a pirate ship, he doesn’t really care or want to believe other people when they tell him not everyone is treated as well as he since he’s much happier there than he was on the planet for refugees. It’s not until Yuri begins his geisha training at age thirteen that this life begins to fall apart and Falcone begins to show his true colors.

Like Jos, Yuri ends up with emotional scars, but the way they handle their turmoil is very different. In Warchild, Jos withholds the worst that happens to him, but Yuri’s narrative doesn’t shy away from relating his more painful experiences. While events happened in Yuri’s story, I thought they were in the background with the ways in which they shaped Yuri as a person in the foreground. Each of the three books in the series are quite focused on characterization, but this one was less about war and peace with the aliens and more about Yuri himself—the cage that was built for him and his attempts to overcome that and find his own place in the universe.

Though Cagebird as a whole is fantastic, the present storyline was weaker than the storyline of Yuri’s past, and I did not find these sections as interesting even after the first one.  They are important to his overall story and did become more compelling later, especially once some familiar faces from other books showed up toward the end (and the very last conversation in the book was priceless as a Warchild fan). I think this was not as captivating as the other timeline largely because the characters in the past were more vividly drawn, and Yuri’s interactions with Finch did not measure up to those with other characters in his earlier life.

Despite this, Cagebird is another excellent novel in what is now my favorite science fiction series of all time. Each book focuses on a different character while building on the previous book(s) and expanding to show a bigger picture, and they’re definitely books I would like to reread back to back someday because of both how they fit together and how incredible they are. Words cannot express how excited I am that a fourth novel in this series, The Warboy, is in progress.

My Rating: 9/10

Where I got my reading copy: It was a Christmas gift.

My Reviews of Other Books in the Warchild Series:

  1. Warchild
  2. Burndive
Sci-Fi Month 2015

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I talk about books I got over the last week – old or new, bought or received for review consideration (usually unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

Since only one book showed up the week before last, this week’s post covers two weeks. Here’s what happened in the last couple of weeks in case you missed it:

I’m working on a review of Cagebird by Karin Lowachee for Sci-Fi Month, and that will most likely be going up next week.

Now, the books!

A Daughter of No Nation by A. M. Dellamonica

A Daughter of No Nation (Hidden Sea Tales #2) by A. M. Dellamonica

A Daughter of No Nation will be released on December 1 (hardcover, ebook). An excerpt from Child of a Hidden Sea, the first book in the series, is on Tor.com.

Some short stories set in the same world are also available on Tor.com:

 

The second novel in the Stormwrack series, following a young woman’s odyssey into a fantastical age-of-sail world

All Sophie Hansa wanted was to meet her birth parents. Instead, she and her stepbrother found themselves transported to another world made up of giant archipelagos and people who can magically alter themselves. With her business in Stormwrack finished, it looked like Sophie had seen the last of the Fleet, until she finds the captain of her late aunt’s ship, Parrish Garland, waiting for her at her parents’ home.

Sophie finds out that her birth mother has been imprisoned by her birth father for hiding their daughter, and now Sophie must return to Stormwrack to talk the father she never knew into releasing the mother who wants nothing to do with her. Not only does she have to navigate the troubled social waters of her father’s home nation, she also finds herself in the middle of a conspiracy that could lead to open civil war in the Fleet.

Now Sophie, Bran, and Parrish must unravel a decades-old mystery if they hope to free Sophie’s mom and preserve the peace ensured by the nations united in the Fleet.

Chaos Choreography by Seanan McGuire

Chaos Choreography (InCryptid #5) by Seanan McGuire

The fifth InCryptid book will be released on March 1, 2016 (mass market paperback and ebook with an audiobook to come later). Like the first two books in the series, this one is about Verity Price. The third and fourth books are about her brother Alex.

The previous books in the series are as follows:

  1. Discount Armageddon (my review)
  2. Midnight Blue-Light Special (my review)
  3. Half-off Ragnarok
  4. Pocket Apocalypse

I love Seanan McGuire’s books, especially her October Daye series, and the first book in this series is so much fun! (I did like the second book as well, but not as much as the first.)

 

Verity Price is back on the West Coast and getting back into the swing of the family business: cryptozoology. She’s rescuing cryptids from bad situations, protecting them from monster-hunters, and generally risking life and limb for the greater good, with her ex-Covenant partner/husband, Dominic, by her side. Her ballroom dance career is behind her—or so she thinks. When Verity gets the call from the producers of Dance or Die, the reality show she almost won several years before, she finds the lure impossible to resist, and she and Dominic are off to L.A. for one last shot at the big time.

Of course, nothing is that simple. When two contestants turn up dead, Verity will need every ally she can find with the investigation, without blowing her cover….

Other Books:

Sorcerer to the Crown
by Zen Cho
384pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 7/10
Amazon Rating: 4/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.94/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.86/5
 

Book Description from Penguin Group Website:

In this sparkling debut, magic and mayhem clash with the British elite…

The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, one of the most respected organizations throughout all of England, has long been tasked with maintaining magic within His Majesty’s lands. But lately, the once proper institute has fallen into disgrace, naming an altogether unsuitable gentleman—a freed slave who doesn’t even have a familiar—as their Sorcerer Royal, and allowing England’s once profuse stores of magic to slowly bleed dry. At least they haven’t stooped so low as to allow women to practice what is obviously a man’s profession…

At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers and eminently proficient magician, ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up. But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large…

Sorcerer to the Crown is the first book in the Sorcerer Royal series and a debut novel by Zen Cho, author of the Crawford Award-winning short story collection Spirits Abroad and a finalist for the 2013 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. I was excited to read it because I’ve seen a lot of praise for it and it sounded right up my alley, but my reaction to it is rather complicated and difficult to articulate (which is why I decided to write my thoughts in a mini review instead of a full scale review).

Once in awhile, I read a book that I appreciate immensely yet do not enjoy reading immensely. Objectively, I admire its wonderful qualities and completely understand why many people think it’s amazing, yet it’s missing that special spark that keeps me eagerly turning the pages. It’s missing that magic touch that makes me invested in the characters and absorbed in the world, and since it does have such praiseworthy aspects, I’m rather mystified as to why it didn’t work better for me.  Sorcerer to the Crown is one of these books: it’s a decent enough book, but for reasons that I can’t really explain, I merely liked it instead of loving it.

The writing is verbose at times, but it’s also insightful with some humor which should more than make up for some wordiness. The characters are well developed, and I liked the contrast of Zacharias’ serious, dutiful nature with Prunella’s lack of propriety and propensity toward finding the humor in situations. Both characters are likable, but Prunella is especially delightful and her perspective kept the book much lighter than it would have been without her. The author did an excellent job of capturing the complexities of human emotion through both Zacharias and Prunella’s feelings toward the people who raised them, and it’s a very thoughtfully written book.

Though set in England, the attitudes and beliefs of other parts of the world are drawn into the story. Different cultures have different approaches to magic, and English magic was not always perfect and absolute as their sorcerers might want one to believe. As a trained sorcerer, Zacharias was more entrenched in the British traditions and more likely to find other ideas about magic foolish, while Prunella could actually see the sense in other methods and viewpoints.

Given that there’s a lot to admire about Sorcerer to the Crown, I’m surprised I was not more fond of it. The beginning was slow, some of the characters seemed a bit over the top, and I felt like it lacked subtlety at times, but these were all minor problems instead of glaring ones with this particular novel—and I’ve enjoyed many books where these were small issues with the book more than this one.

That’s not to say I didn’t like Sorcerer to the Crown, because I did. However, I’m at a bit of a loss as to why it was a book I merely enjoyed somewhat instead of a book that I found captivating. The ideas that went into the story were wonderful, and conceptually, there’s a lot done quite well. It seems like it should have been my type of book—and yet, for some reason, it didn’t completely engage me.

My Rating: 7/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

Read an Excerpt

Other Reviews of Sorcerer to the Crown:

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