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. 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.

This is a long one since I didn’t manage to fit one of these posts in last weekend. All my blogging time then went toward finishing Warchild by Karin Lowachee so I could stick to the schedule I’d made myself for Sci-Fi Month (but that was fine since I ended up LOVING Warchild, which is now one of my favorite books ever!).

That also means I didn’t get to mention the Mind Meld at SF Signal I’d recently participated in as I had been planning to. It’s about the importance of anthologies, and there are a lot of different answers and anthology recommendations.

Several books came in over the last two weeks, including two I’ve talked about before. One is even a book by one of my favorite authors that I LOVED that an awesome friend got signed for me at a con, which made my week! The other was released earlier this month, Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach (also known as Rachel Aaron, the author of the Legend of Eli Monpress series).

On to the rest of the books!

The Silvered by Tanya Huff

The Silvered by Tanya Huff

The Silvered was released in the UK earlier this month (paperback, ebook). It was first released in the US about a year ago and is available in hardcover, ebook, audiobook, and mass market paperback. An excerpt from the beginning of the book is available on the US publisher’s website.

I’ve heard The Silvered is quite good, and I rather enjoyed Tanya Huff’s novel The Fire’s Stone so I was excited to start reading this one—enough so that I already started reading it! Right now I’ve only read through part of the second chapter, but I like what I’ve read so far.

 

The Empire has declared war on the small, were-ruled kingdom of Aydori, capturing five women of the Mage-Pack, including the wife of the were Pack-leader. With the Pack off defending the border, it falls to Mirian Maylin and Tomas Hagen—she a low-level mage, he younger brother to the Pack-leader—to save them. Together the two set out on the kidnappers’ trail, racing into the heart of enemy territory. But with every step the odds against their survival, let alone their success, grow steeper…

Fiddlehead by Cherie Priest

Fiddlehead (The Clockwork Century #5) by Cherie Priest

The conclusion to The Clockwork Century was just released earlier this month (trade paperback, ebook). The previous novels are as follows:

  1. Boneshaker
  2. Dreadnought
  3. Ganymede
  4. The Inexplicables

An excerpt from Fiddlehead can be read on the publisher’s website.

 

Ex-spy ‘Belle Boyd’ is retired – more or less. Retired from spying on the Confederacy anyway. Her short-lived marriage to a Union navy boy cast suspicion on those Southern loyalties, so her mid-forties found her unemployed, widowed and disgraced. Until her life-changing job offer from the staunchly Union Pinkerton Detective Agency.

When she’s required to assist Abraham Lincoln himself, she has to put any old loyalties firmly aside – for a man she spied against twenty years ago.Lincoln’s friend Gideon Bardsley, colleague and ex-slave, is targeted for assassination after the young inventor made a breakthrough. Fiddlehead, Bardsley’s calculating engine, has proved an extraordinary threat threatens the civilized world. Meaning now is not the time for conflict.

Now Bardsley and Fiddlehead are in great danger as forces conspire to keep this secret, the war moving and the money flowing. With spies from both camps gunning for her, can even the notorious Belle Boyd hold the war-hawks at bay?

Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac

Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac

Killer of Enemies is published by Tu Books, a publisher dedicated to young adult science fiction, fantasy, and mystery books with diverse characters. I recently read one of their science fiction novels, Tankborn by Karen Sandler, and really enjoyed it.

An excerpt from Killer of Enemies, published in hardcover and ebook earlier this fall, is available online.

 

Years ago, seventeen-year-old Apache hunter Lozen and her family lived in a world of haves and have-nots. There were the Ones—people so augmented with technology and genetic enhancements that they were barely human—and there was everyone else who served them.

Then the Cloud came, and everything changed. Tech stopped working. The world plunged back into a new steam age. The Ones’ pets—genetically engineered monsters—turned on them and are now loose on the world.

Lozen was not one of the lucky ones pre-C, but fate has given her a unique set of survival skills and magical abilities. She hunts monsters for the Ones who survived the apocalyptic events of the Cloud, which ensures the safety of her kidnapped family. But with every monster she takes down, Lozen’s powers grow, and she connects those powers to an ancient legend of her people. It soon becomes clear to Lozen that she is not just a hired gun.

As the legendary Killer of Enemies was in the ancient days of the Apache people, Lozen is meant to be a more than a hunter. Lozen is meant to be a hero.

Malice by John Gwynne

Malice (The Faithful and the Fallen #1) by John Gwynne

This fantasy debut, the winner of the 2013 David Gemmell Morningstar Award, will be released in the US on December 3 (trade paperback, ebook). It is already available in the UK. An excerpt from Malice can be read on the US publisher’s website.

 

A black sun is rising …

Young Corban watches enviously as boys become warriors under King Brenin’s rule, learning the art of war. He yearns to wield his sword and spear to protect his king’s realm. But that day will come all too soon. Only when he loses those he loves will he learn the true price of courage.

The Banished Lands has a violent past where armies of men and giants clashed shields in battle, the earth running dark with their heartsblood. Although the giant-clans were broken in ages past, their ruined fortresses still scar the land. But now giants stir anew, the very stones weep blood and there are sightings of giant wyrms. Those who can still read the signs see a threat far greater than the ancient wars. Sorrow will darken the world, as angels and demons make it their battlefield. Then there will be a war to end all wars.

High King Aquilus summons his fellow kings to council, seeking an alliance in this time of need. Some are skeptical, fighting their own border skirmishes against pirates and giants. But prophesy indicates darkness and light will demand two champions, the Black Sun and the Bright Star. They would be wise to seek out both, for if the Black Sun gains ascendancy, mankind’s hopes and dreams will fall to dust.

Last to Rise by Francis Knight

Last to Rise (Rojan Dizon #3) by Francis Knight

The conclusion to the Rojan Dizon trilogy will be released on November 26 (trade paperback, ebook). The previous books in the series are as follows:

  1. Fade to Black (My review)
  2. Before the Fall

An excerpt from Last to Rise is available on the publisher’s website.

 

The concluding volume of the Rojan Dizon series where magic must save a city on the eve of its destruction.

The towering vertical city of Mahala is on the brink of war with its neighbouring countries. It might be his worst nightmare, but Rojan and the few remaining pain mages have been drafted in to help.

The city needs power in whatever form they can get it — and fast. With alchemists readying a prototype electricity generator, and factories producing guns faster than ever, the city’s best advantage is still the mages.

Leading the alchemists is Rojan’s sister, with a risky plan to help tap the mages’ strength and overcome the armies marching towards them. With food in the city running out and a battle brimming that no one is ready for, risky is the best they’ve got . . .

Apparition by Trish J. MacGregor

Apparition (Hungry Ghosts #3) by Trish J. MacGregor

This stand alone sequel to Esperanza was released earlier this month (hardcover, ebook). Another related book, Ghost Key, came out after Esperanza and before Apparition.

An excerpt from Apparition can be read on Tor.com.

 

Trish J. MacGregor returns to a mythic city high in the Ecuadorian Andes in Apparition.

Tess and Ian have been living in the high city of Esperanza for years, along with Tess’s niece, Maddie, and her partner, Nick Sanchez. They thought they could rest, that they had defeated the brujo threat to our plane of existence. But they were wrong.

A new and greater threat has formed, a new tribe of the hungry dead, seeking to possess the bodies of the living in order to experience the passions of physical life. This new tribe has found the door to the physical plane that is Esperanza, and they threaten all human life. Only the outnumbered Light Chasers and their human allies can stand against the evil brujos.

A Dance of Blades by David Dalglish

A Dance of Blades (Shadowdance #2) by David Dalglish

The Shadowdance books were originally self published, and they are now being released in quick succession by Orbit Books (trade paperback, ebook). There have been some changes to the newer versions, and you can learn more about the differences between the self-published editions and the Orbit editions on the author’s blog.

The first book, A Dance of Cloaks, was released last month, and A Dance of Blades just became available earlier this month. A Dance of Mirrors will follow next month.

 

It’s been five long years since the city learned to fear…

The war between the thief guilds and the powerful allegiance known as the Trifect has slowly dwindled. Now only the mysterious Haern is left to wage his private battle against the guilds in the guise of the Watcher – a vicious killer who knows no limits. But when the son of Alyssa Gemcroft, one of the three leaders of the Trifect, is believed murdered, the slaughter begins anew. Mercenaries flood the streets with one goal in mind: find and kill the Watcher.

Peace or destruction; every war must have its end.

Fantasy author David Dalglish spins a tale of retribution and darkness, and an underworld reaching for ultimate power.

Warchild by Karin Lowachee won the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest in 2000 and was published a couple of years later. It was followed by two related novels set in the same universe, Burndive and Cagebird. Both Warchild and Cagebird were finalists for the Philip K. Dick Award during their publication years.

Eight-year-old Jos Musey’s parents taught him to hide when he hears the alarms. Afterward, they always return and praise him for remaining in his hiding place, but this time Jos remains in one spot for so long his limbs are going numb without them telling him the drill is over and he can come out now. Jos knows he’s not supposed to leave his spot—he’s supposed to hide in case the merchant ship Mukudori is attacked by pirates, aliens, or the terrible Warboy—but he worries that there’s a simple explanation for his parents’ absence. Maybe they can’t get to him. Perhaps there have been instructions relayed over an intercom that has broken so he can’t hear it. Finally, Jos gets one of his family’s guns and ventures out of his hiding place.

The ship is complete chaos. Armed men are running around, and Jos hears screaming and gunshots. An older boy he knows is dead. Jos shoots one of the men, but he is taken and beaten into submission when he resists capture. He and the other children are taken to another ship and thrown into a dark room together, and Jos eventually learns they’ve been taken hostage by the notorious pirate Falcone. One by one, the children are removed for inspection by Falcone himself, and he takes a particular interest in Jos, a smart and attractive boy. Jos is relieved to return to the room with the other children, but later he awakens to find himself all alone: Falcone sold the other children but decided to keep Jos for himself.

Falcone begins educating Jos to serve his purposes, planning to use the boy’s attractiveness as a tool to get what he wants. When Jos turns nine years old, Falcone treats him to a trip to a station. Jos sees a chance to escape his captor when some sympathizers attack the station and runs. Falcone shoots him but when Jos awakens he’s no longer with Falcone but Nikolas-dan, a human who has turned to the alien side in their war against EarthHub. Nikolas-dan lives on the alien planet and has become a ka’redan, an assassin priest. He teaches Jos the alien language and their ways, and eventually chooses him to be his student and trains him to aid in the war against EarthHub.

Warchild is an amazing debut novel, and I completely understand why it was selected as the winner of the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest. It’s rare for a book to be as engrossing as this one is from the very first page, but I was immediately hooked by the intense opening and emotionally invested in what happened to Jos. There’s no setup in Warchild and readers are immediately thrust into the pirate attack on the Mukudori. Since this first section of the book is told from the second person, it’s very personal and you are in the shoes of a frightened eight-year-old. Throughout this section, you’re also very aware of his age, not just because the pirates want to know how old he is, but because of the way his story is told. Details like the way he thinks about his mommy and daddy and what they’ve told him make it very clear that he is quite young. It’s a very powerful beginning, and while it may seem jarring to have the beginning start in second person when it switches to first person for most of the book, I thought this was an excellent choice. In addition to making it seem like you are seeing everything as Jos, it seems as though Jos is trying to distance himself from the memories of this dark time and it gives the feeling that he’s leaving a lot of the more unsettling parts unsaid.

It takes less than 40 pages for Jos to escape his captor, and the next part of the story is not as harrowing for awhile. Of course, losing his parents and friends and spending some time with space pirates leaves it’s mark on Jos, and it’s difficult for him to live on an alien planet with people he’s been taught are his enemies. It is certainly a book that handles some heavy themes with the kidnap and abuse of the main character and the horrors of war, but it never seemed overdone to me (though I should add, my tolerance for darkness in fiction is pretty high). I think there’s enough light in some of the relationships and camaraderie to keep it from becoming too depressingly dark, even if I did find myself questioning who Jos could trust at times. Jos spends time with those on both sides of the war, and I appreciated that both sides contain realistic people, imperfect people but not necessarily bad people. They live through terrible circumstances, but they’re survivors and they do their best to keep going in the midst of the conflict they have been thrust into.

If I have one complaint about Warchild, it’s that the ending was too rushed. I wanted to see more of the aftermath, especially knowing that the next two books are about characters other than Jos! He’s a character I really cared about, and I wanted to know more about what happened to him at the end. I was pleasantly surprised by how emotionally attached I was to Jos and some of the other characters since I tend to think of military science fiction as being dry, even though I shouldn’t. It’s just that I’ve tried to read books before that contain a lot of conflict and action, and I have a hard time reading them if there’s too much focus on those things and not enough on the characters. I’m happy to say this book contains both riveting action and characters.

There’s so much I’d love to say about this book that I won’t since it would get into spoilers, so I’ll just leave it at this: Warchild is now one of my favorite books in the world, and it’s one of those rare books I loved so much that I was truly sad when it ended. I will definitely be reading the other two books set in this universe, and I now really hope to read the remaining five related books Karin Lowachee would like to write someday.

My Rating: 10/10 (I dithered a bit between a 10 and a 9.5 since I did want more from the end, but it’s so rare that I love a book THIS much that I had to give it a 10.)

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

Sci-Fi Month

Katie Waitman’s debut novel The Merro Tree was selected as the Del Rey Discovery of the Year  in 1997, and it also won the Compton Crook Award (an award for best first science fiction, fantasy, or horror novel of the year). The Divided, Waitman’s second novel, was released in 1999, but she has not published a novel since despite having finished a sequel to The Merro Tree.

The Merro Tree is the story of Mikk of Vyzania, starting shortly before he was born. It details his struggles with his abusive mother, who would like for him to become a great artist someday, perhaps even a performance master. Mikk too would like to be a performance master, but he has difficulty with learning due to his extra-sensitive sight and hearing. When his mother decides she’s had enough, his father has him sent to a school for the performing arts where Mikk is discovered by a great performance master and becomes his last apprentice—and eventually an even greater performance master. Mikk travels throughout the galaxy, performing for the peoples of different planets and learning the arts of alien cultures.

However, the first scene introducing Mikk takes place long afterward when Mikk is in prison, arrested for defying the Council’s ban on performing Somalite songdance. He is awaiting the announcement of the members of the tribunal who will interrogate him before deciding if he deserves to die for his crime. These chapters about Mikk’s life after his arrest are interspersed throughout the novel until his past catches up to that point; then it completes the rest of this story.

I haven’t heard much about The Merro Tree, but what I have heard is overwhelmingly positive. More than 50% of its ratings on Goodreads are 5 stars and it currently has an average rating of 4.31. It seems to be a little known but beloved book, and I was excited to finally take my copy off the bookshelf and read it for Sci-Fi Month. Now that I’ve read it, I think my expectations were much too high, and I may have enjoyed it more had I not been expecting to be amazed by it. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy reading The Merro Tree—I actually found it very readable and thought the story it told was quite compelling and unique. I do understand why so many people love it, but I personally wished it had more depth and felt it could be very trite and simplistic.

The Merro Tree is a very different science fiction book; at least, I had never read a book with an alien artist as the main character before! I was originally planning to say it was a very peaceful book unfocused on conflict and the fate of the worlds, but I decided that wasn’t quite accurate. Much of the story is light on conflict, and it’s not an action-filled or violent story, but there is a conflict between Mikk and the Council who regulated what he could perform. Mikk’s fate hangs in the balance since he may be sentenced to death. While it may be a stretch to say the fate of the worlds is affected by one man’s life, Mikk did inspire people on many worlds. It’s possible the outcome of the sentencing may create repercussions for his fellow artists by setting a precedent.

It does take a long time for the book to get to the specific circumstances surrounding the ban and Mikk’s imprisonment, and I did want to see the themes about artistic expression and culture explored more in depth than they were. While I’m glad the themes didn’t overshadow telling a good story, I also felt that the way they came up more closer to the end made it seem rushed and that there was room for more exploration. As it was, the way some of the story was wrapped up with a revelation about art by one character was just plain cheesy.

I also would have liked more depth from the characters, most of whom fit quite neatly into either “good” or “bad” categories. Mikk is so inhumanly perfect I found him difficult to connect to, and I found it frustrating that I wasn’t terribly emotionally invested in his story, even knowing he was facing a potential death sentence. Since Vyzanians are a long-lived race (one of them dies at 1,250 years old), it’s at least plausible that Mikk could become a master of various types of performing arts since he has a lot of time in which to practice and master his abilities. Part Two, entitled “The Apprentice,” covers 100 years so it’s not like he learns everything overnight! Yet he is also able to pick up new languages almost immediately (and this does not appear to be typical in comparison to other Vyzanians), and he does become the greatest performance master in the galaxy. Mikk is curious, compassionate, has a special fondness for children, and is accepting of other aliens and their cultures. As far as I could tell, Mikk’s biggest flaws were being stubborn and not giving up, and everyone seemed to love Mikk or come to love Mikk unless they were presented as not being particularly good people. On the other hand, someone has to be the greatest performance master in the galaxy and it makes sense that this person would be an impressive individual. He’s an inspiration to others and he’s perfectly likable, but I also thought he was so good that he wasn’t multi-faceted enough to be interesting.

In contrast, I thought the portrayal of one of Mikk’s foes was quite poorly done. The Council member Oplup is constantly described as being fat to the extent where this quality seemed to be emphasized over all others—there was such emphasis on his massive size that it stuck in my memory more than anything related to his personality or actual character. It was mentioned that his growing size was related to his religion, but I just kept getting the feeling that Oplup was supposed to be unlikable for being large as much as he was supposed to for being unkind to Mikk because it was mentioned repeatedly.

The Merro Tree was a good story that was never dull and kept me turning the pages; however, I felt it had too many problems to be a great book. The characters were too simplistic, the cultures and themes could have had more depth, and the ending seemed rushed (and was occasionally corny). I would be interested in reading the sequel were it ever published, but I wouldn’t be in a rush to do so.

My Rating: 7/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

 

Sci-Fi Month

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. 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.

This week brought four books in the mail, three recently released books and one ARC coming out next year.

Next week, Sci-Fi Month posts continue with a review of The Merro Tree by Katie Waitman. In the meantime, you can check out the schedule for Sci-Fi Month and read some of the great discussions, recommendations, and reviews that have gone up since the beginning of the month.

On to the new books!

Allegiance by Beth Bernobich

Allegiance (River of Souls #3) by Beth Bernobich

Allegiance is the final book in the River of Souls trilogy, following Passion Play and Queen’s Hunt. It was just released in hardcover and ebook on October 29, and an excerpt from Allegiance can be read on Tor.com. If you missed the first or second book, excerpts from those are also available online: Passion Play and Queen’s Hunt.

I still need to read the copy of Queen’s Hunt I purchased last year (it and several other books are in a literal to-read pile I made awhile ago that I can’t read quickly enough to keep up with), but I was quite excited to find a copy of the third book in the mail. I thought Passion Play was far from perfect but also an incredibly readable story, and I’m quite interested to see what happens in the rest of the series. Plus, I thought Beth Bernobich’s short story “River of Souls” was wonderful.

 

With Leos Dzavek dead and his Council in turmoil, the king of Veraene sees his chance to launch his long-desired war against Károví. Ilse Zhalina and Raul Kosenmark know the people of Károví are not so easily defeated, however. Raul sets off for Duenne to confront his king and retake his place in Veraene’s Court. Ilse Zhalina embarks on the long journey from Károví with a letter vital to their cause of peace. Both of them must beware of Markus Khandarr, King Armand’s most trusted Councilor and Raul’s long-time enemy, who has plans of his own.

Twenty-First Century Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Twenty-First Century Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Twenty-First Century Science Fiction was just released on November 5 (hardcover, ebook). The list of authors with stories in it is quite impressive and includes Elizabeth Bear, Charles Stross, Mary Robinette Kowal, John Scalzi, Catherynne M. Valente, Paul Cornell, Madeline Ashby, Ken Liu, Jo Walton, Cory Doctorow, Yoon Ha Lee, and many more.

 

Twenty-First Century Science Fiction is an enormous anthology of short stories—close to 250,000 words—edited by two of the most prestigious and award-winning editors in the SF field and featuring recent stories from some of science fiction’s greatest up-and-coming authors.

David Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden have long been recognized as two of the most skilled and trusted arbiters of the field, but Twenty-First Century Science Fiction presents fans’ first opportunities to see what their considerable talents come up with together, and also to get a unique perspective on what’s coming next in the science fiction field.

The anthology includes authors ranging from bestselling and established favorites to incandescent new talents including Paolo Bacigalupi, Cory Doctorow, Catherynne M. Valente, John Scalzi, Jo Walton, Charles Stross, Elizabeth Bear, and Peter Watts, and the stories selected include winners and nominees of all of the science fiction field’s major awards.

To Dance With the Devil by Cat Adams

To Dance With the Devil (Blood Singer #6) by Cat Adams

This urban fantasy book by USA Today bestselling authors C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp was released on November 5 (trade paperback, ebook, audiobook). An excerpt from To Dance With the Devil can be read on the authors’ website.

The first 5 books in the Blood Singer series are as follows:

  1. Blood Song
  2. Siren Song
  3. Demon Song
  4. The Isis Collar
  5. The Eldritch Conspiracy

Excerpts from each of these books can be read on the authors’ website.

 

The successful urban fantasy series continues as Celia Graves—part human, part vampire, part Siren—faces black magic and heartbreak.

Celia Graves’s newest client is one of the last surviving members of a magical family that is trapped in a generations-old feud with other magic-workers. She’s supposed to die at the next full moon unless Celia can broker peace between the clans or break the curse before it can take effect.

For the first time in a long while, Celia’s personal life is looking up. Her vampire abilities seem to be under control, her Siren abilities have gotten more reliable, and even though her office was blown up, her services are more in demand than ever now that she’s fought off terrorists and been part of the royal wedding of the year. Her friends all seem to be finding love and her grandmother has—finally—agreed to go to family therapy. The only trouble spot is Celia’s love life. Not long ago, she had two boyfriends.

Now she barely has one and she isn’t sure she wants him. But Bruno DeLuca is a powerful mage and Celia needs his help . . . especially after she’s attacked and her client is kidnapped.

Reflected by Rhiannon Held

Reflected (Silver #3) by Rhiannon Held

Reflected is scheduled for release on February 18, 2014 (trade paperback, ebook). The two previous books in the series are Silver (excerpt) and Tarnished (excerpt), respectively.

 

Falling in love in a werewolf pack leads to some very bad choices in this new novel from the author of Silver.

Rhiannon Held continues the secret lives of the werewolf packs that live and hunt alongside human society in Reflected, the third book of the series that began with her debut novel, Silver. Silver and her mate Andrew Dare are pack leaders of the entire North American werewolf population, and that makes the more traditional packs in Europe very nervous indeed. It’s getting hard to hide from human surveillance.

Tankborn by Karen Sandler is the first book in a young adult science fiction trilogy by the same name. The second book, Awakening, is available now with the final book, Rebellion, to follow in spring 2014.

On the planet Loka, the people who fled there from Earth are divided into groups with different amounts of land, wealth, and power depending on their social status. Whether high-status or lowborn, they all have one commonality: they are trueborn, making them much better off than the tankborn.

The tankborn, or GENs (Genetically Engineered Non-humans), are created by humans and gestate in a tank. GENs are developed with a little bit of animal DNA, used to give them their skets, or skill sets. Until they reach the age of 15, GENs live with a nurture mother, another tankborn made specially for caretaking, and perhaps some nurture siblings. Once a GEN turns 15, he or she is given an assignment that requires leaving one’s family behind, sometimes forever. A GEN has no control over their assignment, but it’s supposed to keep them safe and it’s supposed to make them happy since they are doing a task that matches their sket. If they perform their task well and avoid conflicts with the trueborn, they have nothing to fear; however, a tankborn who leaves their assigned area, uses advanced technology, or raises their voice to a trueborn can be reset—becoming an empty shell without a trace of their memories and personality.

As Kayla nears her fifteenth birthday, she wonders what type of assignment she’ll be given and if it will take her far away from her family or bring her closer to her friend Mishalla, who was recently assigned. Shortly before Kayla’s birthday, an enforcer in the Brigade brings her the clothing she’ll need for her assignment and a data upload with a message Kayla is not expecting: Your help is required, Kayla 6982, nurture daughter of Tala. Hidden with her new clothes is a package that she is asked to hide from everyone and bring with her to her assignment. She decides to embark on this mysterious mission and cleverly avoids all searches of both her belongings and herself to bring this item with her on her new assignment as caretaker to an elderly trueborn man.

Tankborn was an entertaining story, and I enjoyed reading it immensely. Taken individually, the science fiction elements were not all that unique—humanity settling on another planet when Earth became uninhabitable, genetically engineered people and questions about their humanity, and some advanced technologies. However, the additional details, such as the societal structure with the various degrees of status and the religious beliefs of the GENs, were well done and made the book seem unique as a whole. Besides being a science fiction story, there’s also some mystery/suspense and a little romance, though I did think that the world and story were the strengths of this novel. I felt that some of the revelations were predictable, the characterization could have been stronger, and that the two romantic subplots seemed underdeveloped and rather rushed—but none of those criticisms kept me from eagerly turning the pages or wanting to read the second book!

Of course, the main science fiction element explored in Tankborn were the GENs, the easily identifiable people with tattoos on their cheeks for neural transmission of data who were viewed as non-human. The two most prominent viewpoint characters, Kayla and Mishalla, are GENs and this provides a glimpse of their everyday lives and struggles—from Kayla’s mistreatment by trueborn boys merely for being tankborn to Mishalla’s inability to be seen in public with a trueborn boy, even one who is lowborn. Through these two characters, readers are shown what tankborns face through firsthand encounters. I also found it interesting that there was a religious component to the story, and GENs believe that the Infinite spoke to the prophets about how to create them. Kayla’s perspective has some focus on her religious beliefs and her complex relationship with religion. She resents having to follow a set path in life, but at the same time she has faith in the Infinite and truly believes what she has been taught: the Infinite designed GENs for a purpose and when their task is completed they return to the Infinite, an experience solely belonging to those who are tankborn. Throughout the story, more about the origin of the GENs and Kayla’s past are revealed and while aspects of these (particularly Kayla’s history) were rather predictable, I remained engaged in the book from start to finish.

Kayla is attracted to Devak, a handsome high-status trueborn who stops some boys from throwing rocks at her brother in the first chapter (and of course turns out to be the great-grandson of the man she is assigned to care for!). There are some sections from Devak’s point of view, and out of all the characters, he is the one who changes the most throughout the story as he works through his own beliefs about the humanity of GENs. In the first scene with Kayla, Devak shows kindness but it’s also clear he doesn’t see GENs as equals. He believes himself to be decent to GENs, but as he spends time with Kayla, he finds himself constantly thinking or saying things that show he does in fact believe he’s superior to GENs. The more he talks to Kayla, the more he questions his beliefs about humanity, which he has questioned somewhat due to the influence of his great-grandfather, who treats tankborns the same way he would anyone else. I thought Devak was believable as a character who has had some good influences but also has to deal with some prejudices he’s learned from society and the rest of his family. His mother is just plain rude to GENs, but his father has taught him everything they do is for the good of GENs or even lowborns, which is easy to believe until Kayla asks him if he’s ever asked any of these people how they actually feel. I thought Karen Sandler did an excellent job of showing Devak as a generally decent person who has soaked up what the world around him is constantly teaching him.

I especially appreciated that Devak learned and changed through the story because he’s the only character who wasn’t black or white in viewpoint. He was the only character who didn’t fall into an extreme since most were either rude to or ignored GENs or treated them as equals. His great-grandfather, Zul, is also an interesting character: he’s 102 years old and bed-ridden but he doesn’t let that stop him from being a force to be reckoned with!

Despite containing a couple of interesting characters, this was more of a plot-driven book and I did feel like Kayla and Mishalla had interchangeable personalities and voices. Neither stood out as a unique person and they seemed more like vehicles for the story than characters with a life of their own, swept up by the story and driven by the plot. As long as they were also courageous enough to embark on mysterious missions, it seemed as though any GEN character could have been in the place of Kayla or Mishalla. Most of the unique traits they had came from their particular makeup as a genetically engineered person, such as the way Kayla felt like a freak because of her strength and her unusually marked arms. They’re both perfectly likable characters (though Kayla’s story was more interesting than Mishalla’s), but neither came alive. While it makes some sense since both their lives were planned out for them, neither seems to have unique hopes, dreams, or interests aside from their respective love interests.

On the subject of the romantic interests, both relationships seemed very rushed and I never really understood what brought either couple together. There’s at least some time for Kayla and Devak to get to know each other, but there are very few scenes with Mishalla and Eoghan (to be fair, Mishalla’s storyline has fewer pages overall).

All complaints aside, I did truly enjoy Tankborn and found it a very engaging book. It kept me turning the pages, wanting to find out the truth about tankborns and how Kayla and Mishalla’s stories ended. Even if I would have liked to see more to her character than being tankborn, I could sympathize with Kayla from the very first chapter, which showed just how poorly tankborns were treated for simply being tankborn. I appreciated that there were at least some nuances in how the characters viewed GENs and dealt with their own prejudices and views on humanity, and I thought the social structure and beliefs came together very well in this story. I definitely plan to continue this series (and even considered reading the next book immediately after this one before deciding to try to fit in some books by different authors for Sci-Fi Month!).

My Rating: 7.5/10

Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from the publisher.

Other Reviews:

Sci-Fi Month
Sci-Fi Month

It’s now Sci-Fi Month, and I’m thrilled that the first official post is science fiction reading advice from Max Gladstone! He is the author of Three Parts Dead, a novel so well received that he was one of the 2013 finalists for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His second novel, Two Serpents Rise, was just released on October 29 (read an excerpt).

Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone Max Gladstone

The Best Science Fiction Reading Advice I’ve Ever Received
By Max Gladstone

Science Fiction is a hard genre to learn without help.  It’s big, it’s old, and metric tons of new books come out every year.  The great lights of modern litfic produce one novel a decade, if that, while genre writers write an order of magnitude faster.  Even worse, science fiction is intertextual and referential—great writers tend to be great readers, and incorporate other writers’ concepts.  As a kid I strained my brain trying to reconcile the Ender universe with LeGuin’s Hainish books—they had to take place in the same universe, since obviously both had ansibles!

In my experience the genre is best passed down by word of mouth—more knowledgeable friends, parents, teachers, and librarians introduce us to the key works, and help us expand.  “If you liked x, you’ll probably like Y!”  My uncle Danny got me started with boxes of old paperbacks, from Asimov to Zelazny.  But if you’re not lucky enough to have someone drop off boxloads of awesome old books, where should you start?

To which end I pass on the advice I received from my uncle, as I stared gobsmacked at piles of paperbacks: start with the books that won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards.  The Nebula’s awarded by professional science fiction writers, while the Hugo—even though it isn’t awarded by straight-up popular vote—is open to all fans who have the money to pay for a supporting membership at the last WorldCon.  Both awards have their advantages, and books that win both wowed professionals and fans alike, and tend to have real staying power.

Here’s the list, shamelessly culled from Wikipedia:

Starting with Dune, you work your way up to get a sense of where the genre has been, and where it’s going.  Themes emerge and fade with the decades.

I doubt you’d find a single person to claim that this list represents all the best books of the field.  Zelazny’s work doesn’t appear here, for example, nor does Bruce Sterling’s, and Hyperion is nowhere to be seen.  There’s a shortage of Fritz Leiber and Samuel Delaney and Kim Stanley Robinson. But if you’re looking to expand your foundation, this is a good way to go!

And, as a special bonus, this list is somewhat fractal.  When you reach the end, you encounter Among Others, a brilliant reading list woven through an equally brilliant novel.  Write down all those titles, and continue.

If you’re new to the genre, I hope this helped!  If you’re not: what reading list do you use to help people find their feet in science fiction?