Yesterday’s Kin is the newest science fiction book by award-winning author Nancy Kress. She has won two Hugo Awards and five Nebula Awards, and her fairly recent novella After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall was both a Nebula winner and a Hugo nominee.

Four months ago, life on Earth was changed forever when an alien ship arrived and settled near the moon. The aliens were quick to convey the message that their mission was peaceful, and two months later they were granted permission to set up an embassy in New York Harbor in exchange for sharing the physics of their star drive. Once they settled on Earth, they continued to communicate with the UN, but they refused to show themselves—until the day they request the presence of Dr. Marianne Jenner.

Marianne, a geneticist who recently discovered a thirty-first haplogroup of mitochondrial DNA, is quite surprised when the university’s celebration of her achievement is interrupted by the FBI. She’s even more flummoxed to learn they have come to escort her to the UN Headquarters in New York, which she can only assume is somehow connected to the aliens since no one will give her details about what is going on. After her arrival, she and a small party are the first to actually board the Embassy and meet the aliens, who finally reveal the terrifying reason for their visit to Earth. They came to warn that this planet will encounter the same fate that befell two of their own planets, and all humans will die in ten months—unless the humans and aliens together can find a way to save them.

Nancy Kress is an excellent writer, and she seems to be particularly skilled at novella-length science fiction. After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall was riveting, and Yesterday’s Kin shares many of the same strengths. While the two stories are very different, they are both easy to become immersed in and difficult to put down with their simple but effective prose and wonderful storytelling. They’re both page-turners with interesting characters and situations, and like After the Fall, Before the Fall During the Fall, I enjoyed Yesterday’s Kin immensely.

Yesterday’s Kin is what I consider to be hard science fiction done right. Science is blended into the story well by being integral to the plot and adding to the story being told. Marianne’s perspective contains focus on the scientific research that takes place on the Embassy, and there is a lot of discussion of biological concepts in her storyline. Sometimes I struggle with this in hard science fiction and find it boring when there are paragraphs of infodumps and explanation, but this is seamlessly woven into Yesterday’s Kin. A substantial portion of the science is told through dialogue, but it’s also a natural part of the discussion instead of seeming as though the author is trying to jam explanation into the conversation for the sole benefit of readers.

In general, I was very impressed by how practical, logical, and believable events in Yesterday’s Kin are. It’s a succinct book yet it’s full of little details, such as the different reactions to the appearance of the aliens and the news they eventually reveal. For instance, Marianne’s reflections on the alien’s arrival give a clear idea of the effect they had without details on specific incidents, especially in the last line which so wonderfully portrays the mix of hope and despair they brought with them:

 

When it was announced that the asteroid was in fact an alien vessel, panic had decreased in some quarters and increased in others. A ship? Aliens? Armed forces across the world mobilized. Communications strategies were formed, and immediately hacked by the curious and technologically sophisticated. Seven different religions declared the end of the world. The stock and bond markets crashed, rallied, soared, crashed again, and generally behaved like a reed buffeted by a hurricane. Governments put the world’s top linguists, biologists, mathematicians, astronomers, and physicists on top-priority standby. Psychics blossomed. People rejoiced and feared and prayed and committed suicide and sent up balloons in the general direction of the moon, where the alien ship eventually parked itself in orbit. [pp. 20-21]

In addition to being about aliens and scientists, Yesterday’s Kin is also the story of the Jenner family told through the viewpoints of Marianne and her youngest son Noah. It begins with Marianne’s perspective and only takes a few pages to become interesting since it’s not long before she’s off to the Embassy to meet the aliens, but it captured my attention even before that with its wry glimpse at Marianne’s publication party that is “supposed to be an honor.” I found Marianne to be an intriguing and realistically drawn character. She’s not as young as many protagonists I’ve encountered in science fiction since she has three grown children, and her story revolves around both her career and her family. I’d say there’s more emphasis on her career, which seems to be a pattern from her past since at least one of her children felt she was too involved with her work when they were younger. While she is focused on her work, it’s still clear that she cares deeply about all of her children—the thought that haunts her most about the potential end of the world is their deaths—and her relationships with each are different and complicated. She gets along well with her older son, Ryan, but she’s always arguing with her daughter Elizabeth and rarely in contact with the youngest, Noah.

Noah keeps to himself more than the rest of the family and has never felt like he truly belonged. His mother, brother, and sister each excel at their chosen careers, but Noah has not had clear goals in his life and feels lost. He uses the drug sugarcane to create a false sense of identity, but it’s destructive to his personal relationships and ability to keep a job since this artificial identity changes every time he takes the drug. After the aliens arrive, Noah learns more about himself and his part of the story is both about his search for identity and the aliens. I preferred Marianne’s storyline since I thought it was instantly engaging, and I also thought she had more personality and more compelling observations. Noah’s part of the story takes longer to get going, and it took me a little while to warm to him since his behavior did not endear him to those around him. The first glimpse into his life shows him getting kicked out of his apartment due to sugarcane use, and his family doesn’t seem any happier with him than the woman who made him leave because she’d had enough. His side of the story is important, though, and even if I preferred Marianne’s story I was never bored by his story, especially since it was told in small chunks interspersed with Marianne’s.

Yesterday’s Kin is a wonderful science fiction book, and it’s impressive how full the story is despite its succinctness. It’s satisfying and intense from beginning to end, and it weaves science into the plot while thoughtfully examining what might happen if the world were faced with the arrival of aliens bringing bad news to humanity. While I wasn’t quite as emotionally invested as I may have liked and found one storyline weaker than the other, I enjoyed it very much and highly recommend Yesterday’s Kin.

My Rating: 8.5/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

Read an Excerpt

Other Reviews:

Sci-Fi November
Sci-Fi November

This month’s first official Sci-Fi Month post here is by Karina Sumner-Smith, author of the Towers Trilogy. I recently finished reading Radiant, the first book in the trilogy, and am now glad the other two books in the series will be released next year! Radiant is unique with some beautiful writing, and I also loved the friendship that developed between Xhea and Shai (like Karina Sumner-Smith I would love to read more SF/F books with great friendships between women). She’s here today sharing her perspective on the oft-asked question of what happened to hope and wonder in science fiction!

Radiant by Karina Sumner-Smith Defiant by Karina Sumner-Smith
What Happened to Hope and Wonder in Science Fiction?
by Karina Sumner-Smith

If you attend SF conventions, you’ve probably heard this conversation before – or one of its many tired variations. What happened to the great, bold futures that science fiction once imagined? Where has the genre gone wrong?

I’d participated in such conversations online and off – sometimes having interesting discussions, sometimes mentally filing the complaints somewhere between “nostalgic” and “old man ranting at clouds”. But it was only as I sat on a panel with three older male writers, listening to them decry the loss of hope and wonder in modern science fiction, that I started to react.

They spoke of their early memories of space travel – of the first humans launched into space, of the moon landings, of that feeling that anything was possible. And now they looked at science fiction and what did they see? Dystopian landscapes and tyrannical governments. Dark stories about bleak futures.

What happened to the wonder, they asked. What happened to the hope and promise for the human race?

It felt, to me, like mourning for a genre that had lost its way – and it was that, more than anything, that made me angry.

A moment of silence came. “Do you know my first memory of space travel?” I asked into that quiet. “Challenger.”

In contrast to their earlier stories, I talked of being four years old and watching on television as something went terribly wrong after liftoff. I hadn’t truly understood what I was seeing in that moment, only knew that my mother sat down very suddenly, very abruptly, on the coffee table.  My mother never let anyone sit on the coffee table.

I talked of spending days in my dorm room watching as crews searched fields for the wreckage and remains from the space shuttle Columbia.

Of NASA budget cuts. Of projects cancelled or failed.

“No one has walked on the moon in my lifetime,” I told them. “Yet you try to tell me that it’s my generation who has lost their wonder?  That it’s the young people of today who have let everything slip and fall into ruin? You don’t understand. You had the dream and the potential and the opportunities, and you messed it all up. You got hope and moon landings and that bright, glorious future. I got only the disasters.”

I still remember the other panelists’ expressions. “I … never thought about it that way,” one finally offered.

#

I’ve heard it asked, “What was the first book that got you hooked on science fiction?” For me, there was no first. SFF was always part of my life.

The child of two science fiction and fantasy readers, I was raised on stories of dragons and space adventures. As I grew, I read all the genre work I could find: Asimov and McCaffrey, Heinlein and LeGuin and Clarke. I swung wildly between extremes, consuming fantasies by David Eddings and Mercedes Lackey for months, only to switch suddenly to Larry Niven and hard SF classics. For years, my to-read pile was stacked high with books that smelled perpetually of the used bookstores in which I’d found them.

It was all amazing to me: so many new horizons, new worlds, new futures, new possibilities. Even the darker stories, the bleakest landscapes, were made bright by my sense of discovery.

Yet I never once mistook science fiction for truth. Wondrous and clever as the stories were, it was blazingly obvious that the future imagined in the “golden age” and beyond, for good or ill, bore little resemblance to the world of my adolescence and early adulthood. After a while, I began to yearn for stories that better reflected the world, the people, and the future that I knew.

The future is glorious, those older stories told me.

You’re wrong, the newspaper replied.

Somewhere along the way, I think we started to believe that science fiction had a responsibility. We weren’t just writing about an imaginary future, but about our possible futures, telling stories as if they were stepping stones on the path leading humanity forward. And if that’s what we believe, however far back the notion may linger in the subconscious, is it any wonder that so many cringe to see that the beacon toward which we’re travelling has become darker, that its light has flickered and been cast in shadow?

Yet for all the triumphant pointing when a technology first imagined in a science fiction story is made real, great SF isn’t necessarily about prediction. If stories are a crystal ball, I contend that they show us not visions of the future, but our own images, warped and reflected back to us.

That’s why we can’t simply tell the same stories over and over; why our future is imagined and re-imagined and rewritten year after year. We’re telling stories that speak not to the people we were, not the futures we imagined in years gone past, but the people we are and are trying to become.

What happened to hope and wonder in science fiction? They’re still there, shining threads woven into the tapestries of the stories we tell. They, like the rest of us grew and learned and changed.

And, like us and the genre we love, they’re changing still.

Karina Sumner-Smith is a fantasy author and freelance writer. Her debut novel, Radiant, was published by Talos/Skyhorse in September 2014, with the second and third books in the trilogy to follow in 2015. Prior to focusing on novel-length work, Karina published a range of fantasy, science fiction and horror short stories, including Nebula Award nominated story “An End to All Things,” and ultra-short story “When the Zombies Win,” which appeared in two Best of the Year anthologies. Visit her online at karinasumnersmith.com.

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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 (often 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.

This week brought one book, but first up is an update on plans for Sci-Fi Month hosted by Oh, the Books! and Rinn Reads.

On Monday, I’ll have a guest post by Karina Sumner-Smith on hope and wonder in science fiction. I finished reading Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress last weekend and loved it but didn’t manage to finish a review of it last week like I’d hoped. There should be a review of it this week, though, most likely on Wednesday. For more science fiction fun, check out the Sci-Fi Month schedule or you can follow on Twitter.

On to this week’s book!

Old Venus edited by George R. R. Martin and GardnerDozois

Old Venus edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

This anthology containing sixteen new science fiction stories will be released on March 3, 2015 (hardcover, ebook, and audiobook). It sounds like fun, and it includes stories by Elizabeth Bear, Garth Nix, Gwyneth Jones, Ian McDonald, Lavie Tidhar, and more!

 

Sixteen all-new stories by science fiction’s top talents, collected by bestselling author George R. R. Martin and multiple-award-winning editor Gardner Dozois

From pulp adventures such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Carson of Venus to classic short stories such as Ray Bradbury’s “The Long Rain” to visionary novels such as C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra, the planet Venus has loomed almost as large in the imaginations of science fiction writers as Earth’s next-nearest neighbor, Mars. But while the Red Planet conjured up in Golden Age science fiction stories was a place of vast deserts and ruined cities, bright blue Venus was its polar opposite: a steamy, swampy jungle world with strange creatures lurking amidst the dripping vegetation. Alas, just as the last century’s space probes exploded our dreams of Mars, so, too, did they shatter our romantic visions of Venus, revealing, instead of a lush paradise, a hellish world inimical to all life.

But don’t despair! This new anthology of sixteen original stories by some of science fiction’s best writers—edited by #1 New York Times bestselling author George R. R. Martin and award-winning editor Gardner Dozois—turns back the clock to that more innocent time, before the hard-won knowledge of science vanquished the infinite possibilities of the imagination.

Join our cast of award-winning contributors—including Elizabeth Bear, David Brin, Joe Haldeman, Gwyneth Jones, Mike Resnick, Eleanor Arnason, Allen M. Steele, and more—as we travel back in time to a planet that never was but should have been: a young, rain-drenched world of fabulous monsters and seductive mysteries.

FEATURING ALL-NEW STORIES BY

Eleanor Arnason • Elizabeth Bear • David Brin • Tobias S. Buckell • Michael Cassutt • Joe Haldeman • Matthew Hughes • Gwyneth Jones • Joe R. Lansdale • Stephen Leigh • Paul McAuley • Ian McDonald • Garth Nix • Mike Resnick • Allen M. Steele • Lavie Tidhar

And an Introduction by Gardner Dozois

Sci-Fi November

Sci-Fi Month, an event celebrating science fiction hosted by Oh the Books! and Rinn Reads, officially begins today! I participated in the first Sci-Fi Month last year and had a lot of fun so I’m going to once again. Although I love science fiction, I tend to read more fantasy so I found it was a great way to get myself to read some SF books I’d been planning to read for awhile. Last year I finally picked up Warchild by Karin Lowachee and discovered a new favorite book, and this frequently happens when I try reading more science fiction. It’s how I came to love books like Primary Inversion and The Last Hawk by Catherine Asaro, The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks, and the Miles Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold. I’m hoping to discover more great science fiction through Sci-Fi November once again.

This year there are almost 90 participants so there will be all kinds of discussions and reviews to read, and I’m sure that will also help with discovering more great science fiction! There is a schedule available if you want to see what you can look forward to.

I added a few reviews to the schedule, but I haven’t started reading any of these books yet and this is subject to change. I moved recently and am still not done unpacking, and I’ve had trouble concentrating on reading lately since I feel like I should be unpacking instead of reading so I might just have to see how it goes! Like last year, I would like to discuss books that I don’t see reviewed very often including at least one book by a new-to-me author and at least one book that isn’t a new release. I have myself tentatively scheduled to review Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress, Burndive by Karin Lowachee, and Kesrith by C. J. Cherryh, but this may change since I also have been considering other books such as Biting the Sun by Tanith Lee and City of Pearl by Karen Traviss. However, there will definitely be guest posts by Karina Sumner-Smith, whose debut novel Radiant I found very unique and well-written, and Martha Wells, whose Raksura books are wonderful!

Steles of the Sky is the conclusion to Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy, following Range of Ghosts and Shattered Pillars. Though this story has been completed, there will be a second trilogy of books set in this world with the first book scheduled for release in 2017, The Lotus Kingdoms.

For this mini-review, I am not going to write about the plot. Instead, here is the book description with my thoughts on the book below.

Elizabeth Bear concludes her award-winning epic fantasy Eternal Sky trilogy in Steles of the Sky.

Re Temur, legitimate heir to his grandfather’s Khaganate, has finally raised his banner and declared himself at war with his usurping uncle. With his companions—the Wizard Samarkar, the Cho-tse Hrahima, and the silent monk Brother Hsiung—he must make his way to Dragon Lake to gather in his army of followers. But Temur’s enemies are not idle; the leader of the Nameless Assassins, who has shattered the peace of the Steppe, has struck at Temur’s uncle already. To the south, in the Rasan empire, plague rages. To the east, the great city of Asmaracanda has burned, and the Uthman Caliph is deposed. All the world seems to be on fire, and who knows if even the beloved son of the Eternal Sky can save it?

Steles of the Sky was one of my most anticipated books of 2014 since the first two books in the Eternal Sky trilogy, Range of Ghosts and Shattered Pillars, are phenomenal. Both are beautifully written with a variety of well-developed characters, and the series is set in a vividly drawn world inspired by Central Asia. Range of Ghosts set the stage by introducing the world and characters, largely through the stories of Temur and Samarkar. In Shattered Pillars, the story expanded to focus on more individual characters, but I felt that having this view of different events and character motivations made it a better book despite some slower pacing. I thought this middle volume maintained the right balance between too much detail and too little—scenes were vivid and easy to visualize without bogging down the story.

Unfortunately, I felt that Steles of the Sky failed in this respect and was bogged down by too many scenes that added nothing to the story other than additional pages. It does contain a decent, satisfying end to the trilogy; however, I had to read nearly as many pages as those within the first book alone to get to the compelling parts. Steles of the Sky is about 100 pages longer than each of the first two books in the trilogy, and it really did not need the extra length. The beginning and middle mostly focused on traveling and getting the different characters in place for the end without many engaging scenes, making a significant portion of the book quite dull. Though there is still some lovely writing, it’s missing the strong character development or sparkling dialogue that could have kept me invested in the story despite its slow forward momentum as it made its way toward a conclusion. Instead, I ended up setting this book aside a couple of times to read other books because I had such difficulty forcing myself to slog through all those pages. Even though it does greatly improve as it nears the end, the pacing is still awkward since the finale picks up the pace too much and is hastily wrapped up.

I have very conflicted feelings about Steles of the Sky, and it was difficult for me to write this review since I do not want to discourage anyone from reading the series, particularly considering that my opinion on the final book does not seem to be a common one. The first two books in the Eternal Sky trilogy were both on my Hugo ballot since I thought they were excellent for myriad reasons—the gorgeous writing, the well-written characters, the world, the magic, and the way it subverted some common fantasy tropes including the damsel in distress and magic vs. science. The final book does contain much of what I loved about the first two, but it was poorly paced and I found it quite frustrating that there were not as many pages dedicated to the good parts of the story as the dull ones.

My Rating: 5/10

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

Read an Excerpt from Steles of the Sky

Other Reviews of Steles of the Sky:

Reviews of the Previous Eternal Sky Books:

  1. Range of Ghosts
  2. Shattered Pillars

 

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 (often 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.

This week brought four books, one of which I’m particularly excited to read! I’ve already talked about one of these before, but in case you missed it, here’s where you can find more information on it:

Dreamer's Pool by Juliet Marillier

Dreamer’s Pool (Blackthorn & Grim #1) by Juliet Marillier

This first book in a new adult fantasy series is currently available in Australia and will be released in the US on November 4 (hardcover, ebook). The author’s website has an excerpt from Dreamer’s Pool.

I love the sound of this one and have been hearing it’s excellent. There is a giveaway for a copy of this book currently running on Goodreads, but it’s closing on October 28 so there’s not much time left to enter! This one is open in several countries.

 

Award-winning author Juliet Marillier “weaves magic, mythology, and folklore into every sentence on the page” (The Book Smugglers). Now she begins an all-new and enchanting series that will transport readers to a magical vision of ancient Ireland…

In exchange for help escaping her long and wrongful imprisonment, embittered magical healer Blackthorn has vowed to set aside her bid for vengeance against the man who destroyed all that she once held dear. Followed by a former prison mate, a silent hulk of a man named Grim, she travels north to Dalriada. There she’ll live on the fringe of a mysterious forest, duty bound for seven years to assist anyone who asks for her help.

Oran, crown prince of Dalriada, has waited anxiously for the arrival of his future bride, Lady Flidais. He knows her only from a portrait and sweetly poetic correspondence that have convinced him Flidais is his destined true love. But Oran discovers letters can lie. For although his intended exactly resembles her portrait, her brutality upon arrival proves she is nothing like the sensitive woman of the letters.

With the strategic marriage imminent, Oran sees no way out of his dilemma. Word has spread that Blackthorn possesses a remarkable gift for solving knotty problems, so the prince asks her for help. To save Oran from his treacherous nuptials, Blackthorn and Grim will need all their resources: courage, ingenuity, leaps of deduction, and more than a little magic.

The City Stained Red by Sam Sykes

The City Stained Red (Bring Down Heaven #1) by Sam Sykes

This thick fantasy novel will be available in the US on January 27, 2015 (trade paperback, ebook*, audiobook) and in the UK on October 30, 2014 (paperback, ebook). An excerpt from The City Stained Red is available on the author’s website.

* Edited on 11/13/14 to add: The ebook was released earlier than the print version and is now available!

 

The first book in a new trilogy from the acclaimed author of the Aeon’s Gate series.

A long-exiled living god arises.
A city begins to break apart at the seams.

Lenk and his battle-scarred companions have come to Cier’Djaal in search of Miron Evanhands, a wealthy priest who contracted them to eradicate demons — and then vanished before paying for the job.

But hunting Miron down might be tougher than even these weary adventurers can handle as two unstoppable religious armies move towards all-out war, tensions rise within the capital’s cultural melting pot, and demons begin to pour from the shadows…

And Khoth Kapira, the long-banished living god, has seen his chance to return and regain dominion over the world.

Now all that prevents the city from tearing itself apart in carnage are Lenk, Kataria, a savage human-hating warrior, Denaos, a dangerous rogue, Asper, a healer priestess, Dreadaeleon, a young wizard, and Gariath, one of the last of the dragonmen.

The Tree of Water by Elizabeth Haydon

The Tree of Water (The Lost Journals of Ven Polypheme #4) by Elizabeth Haydon

This fantasy novel for young readers will be released on October 28 (hardcover, ebook). An excerpt from The Tree of Water is available on Tor.com.

The previous books in the series are as follows:

  1. The Floating Island
  2. The Thief Queen’s Daughter
  3. The Dragon’s Lair
 

The epic voyages continue in The Tree of Water, the fourth adventure in bestselling author Elizabeth Haydon’s acclaimed fantasy series for young readers, The Lost Journals of Ven Polypheme.

As Royal Reporter of the land of Serendair, it is the duty of young Charles Magnus “Ven” Polypheme to travel the world and seek out magic hiding in plain sight. But Ven needs to escape the clutches of the nefarious Thief Queen, ruler of the Gated City, whose minions are hunting for him. His friend, the merrow Amariel, has the perfect solution to his dilemma: Ven and Char will join her to explore the world beneath the sea.

As they journey through the sea, Ven finds himself surrounded by wonders greater than he could have ever imagined. But the beauty of the ocean is more than matched by the dangers lurking within its depths, and Ven and his friends soon realize that in order to save thousands of innocent lives, they may have to sacrifice their own. For everything in the ocean needs to eat…

“A delightful epic fantasy that will attract a readership both older and younger than the target audience.” —Booklist (starred review) on The Floating Island