The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week that sound like they may be interesting—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (the latter of which are mainly unsolicited books from publishers). 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, along with series information and the publisher’s book description. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

This week I’m highlighting two books I preordered, both of which are related to books that appeared on my favorite books of 2019 list. One of these technically showed up the week before last, but I didn’t post about it then because it was the only book to discuss and I was focusing on writing last week’s book review after having been busy with work projects for a little while.

And, in case you missed it, here is the latest new post:

  • Review of A Deadly Education (Scholomance #1) by Naomi Novik — Since I loved Uprooted, I’d been looking forward to Naomi Novik’s latest book inspired by the Scholomance legend, but this one wasn’t really to my taste. Although I did enjoy the story and the dynamic between the main characters, it seemed that there was more explanation than story and I did not enjoy the rambling narrative style.

On to the new books!

The Burning God by R. F. Kuang - Book Cover

The Burning God (The Poppy War #3) by R. F. Kuang

The final book in Astounding Award–winning author R. F. Kuang’s debut epic fantasy trilogy is out now (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). The Harper Collins website has a text excerpt and an audio sample from The Burning God, as well as excerpts and audio samples from the previous books in the series, The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic.

When I preordered it, I also signed up to receive an e-copy of The Drowning Faith, some scenes written from Nezha’s point of view. If you missed this, you can now download The Drowning Faith from R. F. Kuang’s website.

Also, R. F. Kuang wrote a Women in SF&F Month guest post shortly before the release of The Poppy War: “Be a Bitch, Eat the Peach,” in which she discusses the Chinese legend of the Moon Lady, her love of Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender, and a little about the women in her series.

The Poppy War was one of my favorite books of 2018, and I thought The Dragon Republic was even better so I’m looking forward to finding out how the series ends (and I am excited for Nezha’s viewpoint!).

 

The exciting end to The Poppy War trilogy, R. F. Kuang’s acclaimed, award-winning epic fantasy that combines the history of twentieth-century China with a gripping world of gods and monsters, to devastating, enthralling effect.

After saving her nation of Nikan from foreign invaders and battling the evil Empress Su Daji in a brutal civil war, Fang Runin was betrayed by allies and left for dead.

Despite her losses, Rin hasn’t given up on those for whom she has sacrificed so much—the people of the southern provinces and especially Tikany, the village that is her home. Returning to her roots, Rin meets difficult challenges—and unexpected opportunities. While her new allies in the Southern Coalition leadership are sly and untrustworthy, Rin quickly realizes that the real power in Nikan lies with the millions of common people who thirst for vengeance and revere her as a goddess of salvation.

Backed by the masses and her Southern Army, Rin will use every weapon to defeat the Dragon Republic, the colonizing Hesperians, and all who threaten the shamanic arts and their practitioners. As her power and influence grows, though, will she be strong enough to resist the Phoenix’s intoxicating voice urging her to burn the world and everything in it?

How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories by Holly Black - Book Cover

How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories (The Folk of the Air) written by Holly Black and illustrated by Rovina Cai

This illustrated collection of Folk of the Air stories about Cardan is out now (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). The Hachette website has an excerpt from How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories.

Rovina Cai’s artwork makes this look like a lovely book, and I’m excited about having more to read set in Elfhame!

 

Return to the captivating world of Elfhame with this illustrated addition to the New York Times bestselling Folk of Air trilogy that began with The Cruel Prince, from award-winning author Holly Black.

Once upon a time, there was a boy with a wicked tongue.

Before he was a cruel prince or a wicked king, he was a faerie child with a heart of stone. #1 New York Times bestselling author, Holly Black reveals a deeper look into the dramatic life of Elfhame’s enigmatic high king, Cardan. This tale includes delicious details of life before The Cruel Prince, an adventure beyond The Queen of Nothing, and familiar moments from The Folk of the Air trilogy, told wholly from Cardan’s perspective.

This new installment in the Folk of the Air series is a return to the heart-racing romance, danger, humor, and drama that enchanted readers everywhere. Each chapter is paired with lavish and luminous full-color art, making this the perfect collector’s item to be enjoyed by both new audiences and old.

Additional Book(s):

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Book Description:

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From the author of Uprooted and Spinning Silver comes the story of an unwilling dark sorceress who is destined to rewrite the rules of magic.

“The dark school of magic I’ve been waiting for.” Katherine Arden, author of Winternight Trilogy

I decided that Orion Lake needed to die after the second time he saved my life.

Everyone loves Orion Lake. Everyone else, that is. Far as I’m concerned, he can keep his flashy combat magic to himself. I’m not joining his pack of adoring fans.

I don’t need help surviving the Scholomance, even if they do. Forget the hordes of monsters and cursed artifacts, I’m probably the most dangerous thing in the place. Just give me a chance and I’ll level mountains and kill untold millions, make myself the dark queen of the world.

At least, that’s what the world expects. Most of the other students in here would be delighted if Orion killed me like one more evil thing that’s crawled out of the drains. Sometimes I think they want me to turn into the evil witch they assume I am. The school certainly does.

But the Scholomance isn’t getting what it wants from me. And neither is Orion Lake. I may not be anyone’s idea of the shining hero, but I’m going to make it out of this place alive, and I’m not going to slaughter thousands to do it, either.

Although I’m giving serious consideration to just one.

With flawless mastery, Naomi Novik creates a school bursting with magic like you’ve never seen before, and a heroine for the ages—a character so sharply realized and so richly nuanced that she will live on in hearts and minds for generations to come.

Given my love for Uprooted and enjoyment of magic school settings, I had been quite looking forward to the first book in Naomi Novik’s Scholomance trilogy, A Deadly Education. I was even more excited to pick it up after seeing this paragraph about its inspiration on the author’s website:

One of the oldest legends of a school for witchcraft and wizardry is the story of the Scholomance, a hidden institution said to be run by the Devil himself, where the students are cloistered for years, never seeing the sun while learning the darkest of arts. Ever since I first read about this mysterious place in my middle-school library, I’ve been imagining its story. Who are the students in its classrooms and why would they or their parents accept the price the school exacts?

However, I did not find the Scholomance imagined in A Deadly Education particularly compelling, and even though I did like the overall story and the dynamic between the two main characters, these were not strong enough to make up for the amount of dull exposition between the good parts.

The basic premise is that there are a few people in the world who possess magic, and monsters that are drawn to magic are especially drawn to teenagers that possess it. It’s supposed to be safest for these young people to spend their teenage years cloistered in this school without any teachers, which still has monster attacks galore but also has plenty of books and customized assignments allowing students to hone their particular gifts.

For El (short for Galadriel), that gift is an affinity for destructive magic, and as much as she tries to resist it after her great-grandmother prophesied of the horrors she would one day cause, the school keeps trying to push her in that direction. For instance, when she requests a spell for cleaning up the foul monster goo that is all over her room (thanks to Orion Lake’s penchant for monster killing), she receives one spell that would set everything on fire and another that would allow her to enslave people to do as she commands. (After several tries, she does get the type of spell she was hoping for, but it’s in one of the languages she finds most difficult.)

Although I didn’t find the worldbuilding convincing (especially that a bunch of powerful magic-users couldn’t have come up with a better solution than a still-very-dangerous school, at least given what has been revealed so far), I did appreciate that it explored who exactly has the connections and resources to benefit from such a system. I also like where I suspect the prophecy about El is headed, and once I got to know and understand her, I came to like El herself. At first, she was rude and grating, but as she started to form some friendships, her better qualities came to the forefront: her loyalty, her desire for justice, her disdain for others being treated as a means to someone else’s advancement without regard for them as people, her refusal to take the easier path when it clashes with her values.

It’s these best parts of herself that cause Orion to continue to seek her out even after he realizes she’s not actually an evil he needs to keep an eye on. Many of the people surrounding the school’s famed monster hunter see him as someone who can improve their chances of surviving to graduate without caring one whit about him, and sharp-tongued as El is, she is also the only one who treats him like a person instead of a hero. And El finds herself inexplicably fond of Orion in spite of herself, after she realizes he’s genuinely decent and not destroying monsters for glory.

The development of their relationship is fun, as is discovering just how powerful El is—and just how much destruction she could unleash—but these aspects are overshadowed by the many infodumps. El’s first-person perspective is filled with rambling, lengthy explanations of just about anything that comes up: the school and its history, the workings of magic, the various monsters and how to kill them, her past, what she knows about the other students from their families to their magical enclaves, and so forth. A Deadly Education seemed to contain more exposition than actual story, and neither the information conveyed nor the voice were engaging enough to carry it for me. Although I thought it mostly succeeded at making El’s narrative fit her character, I can’t say I enjoyed the long-winded style and the attempts at dark-but-casual-humor largely failed to amuse me. I almost put this book down on several occasions and it wasn’t until the last third or so that it seemed to be going anywhere—but it still didn’t go far enough that I felt like drudging through page after page of dull narration paid off.

Despite that, I actually am a little curious about the next book since I did grow to like El as well as the relationships she was building. I’m not so sure I’ll actually read The Last Graduate once it comes out given that I didn’t feel that the positives outweighed the amount of negatives, but I may give it a try if I hear that it has less explanation and more focus on moving the main protagonist’s story forward.

My Rating: 4/10

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

Read an Excerpt from A Deadly Education

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week that sound like they may be interesting—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (the latter of which are mainly unsolicited books from publishers). 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, along with series information and the publisher’s book description. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Last week I was sent two ebooks to add to the TBR, but first, here are the latest posts in case you missed either of them:

On to the latest books, both of which sound fantastic!

Omake by Karin Lowachee - Cover Image

Omake: Stories from the Warchild Universe by Karin Lowachee

Omake: Stories from the Warchild Universe just came out in ebook last week. It also contains an excerpt from the upcoming fourth Warchild novel, Matryoshka, which is about Cagebird protagonist Yuri’s younger brother.

I absolutely love the character-focused science fiction books of the Warchild universe—Warchild, Burndive, and Cagebird—and am beyond excited about both this collection and Matryoshka. (Content Warning: These books deal with themes related to trauma and the effects of war on young people, and they include violence and child abuse/pedophilia.)

 

In the first collection of original stories based in the universe of the award winning novels WARCHILD, BURNDIVE, and CAGEBIRD, characters both familiar and new flesh out the worlds and lives impacted by a generational interstellar war. Included are the author’s story notes, a glossary of the striviirc-na language, and the first chapter of the fourth novel in the universe, MATRYOSHKA.

Winter's Orbit by Everina Maxwell - Cover Image

Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

Winter’s Orbit, a new version of Everina Maxwell’s debut novel that was originally published online under the title The Course of Honour, will be released on February 2, 2021 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).

Tor.com’s announcement has a little more information with quotes from Everina Maxwell and editor Ali Fisher.

 

Ancillary Justice meets Red, White & Royal Blue in Winter’s Orbit, Everina Maxwell’s gut-wrenching and romantic debut.

A famously disappointing minor royal and the Emperor’s least favorite grandchild, Prince Kiem is summoned before the Emperor and commanded to renew the empire’s bonds with its newest vassal planet. The prince must marry Count Jainan, the recent widower of another royal prince of the empire.

But Jainan suspects his late husband’s death was no accident. And Prince Kiem discovers Jainan is a suspect himself. But broken bonds between the Empire and its vassal planets leaves the entire empire vulnerable, so together they must prove that their union is strong while uncovering a possible conspiracy.

Their successful marriage will align conflicting worlds.

Their failure will be the end of the empire.

Today I have an excerpt to share with you—and it’s from Hugo Award–winning author Elizabeth Bear’s new White Space novel! Machine, a standalone novel set in the same universe as Ancestral Night, was just released last week and is now available in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook.

 

Machine by Elizabeth Bear - Cover Image
Buy Machine on Bookshop

ABOUT MACHINE:

In this compelling and addictive novel set in the same universe as the critically acclaimed White Space series and perfect for fans of Karen Traviss and Ada Hoffman, a space station begins to unravel when a routine search and rescue mission returns after going dangerously awry.

Meet Doctor Jens.

She hasn’t had a decent cup of coffee in fifteen years. Her workday begins when she jumps out of perfectly good space ships and continues with developing treatments for sick alien species she’s never seen before. She loves her life. Even without the coffee.

But Dr. Jens is about to discover an astonishing mystery: two ships, one ancient and one new, locked in a deadly embrace. The crew is suffering from an unknown ailment and the shipmind is trapped in an inadequate body, much of her memory pared away.

Unfortunately, Dr. Jens can’t resist a mystery and she begins doing some digging. She has no idea that she’s about to discover horrifying and life-changing truths.

Written in Elizabeth Bear’s signature “rollicking, suspenseful, and sentimental” (Publishers Weekly) style, Machine is a fresh and electrifying space opera that you won’t be able to put down.

 

Excerpted from Machine by Elizabeth Bear

Copyright © 2020 All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission from Saga.

Chapter 1

 

I STOOD IN THE DOOR AND LOOKED DOWN.

Down wasn’t the right word, exactly. But it also wasn’t exactly the wrong word. All directions were down from the airlock where I stood, and almost all of them were an infinitely long fall.

I wasn’t only staring into bottomless space. I was aiming: aiming at a target that wheeled sickeningly less than a klick away. My own perch was also revolving around a central core, simulating a half a g or so, just to keep things interesting.

I was standing in the airlock door because I was going to jump.

Just as soon as I got my bearings and my timing.

I don’t get to be afraid now. I get to be afraid before and I get to be afraid after. But I don’t get to be afraid during.

There’s no room during for being afraid. So I have to fold the fear up. Tuck it out of sight and get on with all the important things I was doing.

In this case, saving lives and making history. In that order of priority and the reverse order of chronology.

I hoped to be saving lives, anyway, if I got lucky and there were still some lives on the other side of my jump to save.

Across that gulf of vacuum lay the ancient ship we pursued. It wasn’t far, by space travel standards. A few hundred meters, and it seemed like less, because Big Rock Candy Mountain was thousands of meters in diameter.

I say ship. But what I was looking at was an enormous wheel whipping around its hub as if rolling through space. It was a station orbiting no primary; an endless scroll of hull unreeling—subjectively speaking, because on my own ship I felt like I was standing still—in a spring-curl spiral twisting around us.

Not a smooth hull, but a rocky and pockmarked one. One punctured by micrometeors and crumpled by sheer stresses. With bits of structure projecting from the surface at varied angles and its cerulean and gold paint frayed by unfiltered ultraviolet and abraded by space dust.

Big Rock Candy Mountain was old.

About six hundred ans old, to be as precise as I could without running a lot of fussy conversions in my head. She’d come from Terra in the pre-white-drive era, and over the centians she had built up tremendous velocity.

She was zipping along at a solid fraction of the speed of light, out here in the dark places between the stars, much farther from home than she could have possibly been, her course no longer anything like the original plot retrieved by Core archinformists.

Maybe she’d gotten lost, or an impact that had caused some of the damage to her hull had knocked her off course. Or maybe the people who had outfitted her had lied about where they planned to go. The era of Terra’s history that had spawned sublight interstellar exploration and the generation ships had not been one of trust and peaceful cooperation between peoples. More one of desperate gambles and bloody-nailed survival.

Only one generation ship had ever reached a destination as far as history was aware, and that hadn’t ended well. We were here because this one had sent out a distress signal, and a Synarche ship, tracing it, had found her. And sent out a data packet requesting assistance on Big Rock Candy Mountain’s behalf.

The Synarche ship had not been in contact since, which was disconcerting. And its locator beacon, and Big Rock Candy Mountain’s distress signal, were still beeping away down there. And so we were here: to see if we could rescue anybody. If there was anybody left to rescue.

It didn’t look promising. The ship behind us was another ambulance, but the one after that contained a team of archaeologists and archinformists, and I had an unsettling premonition that there was going to be a lot more useful work for them to do than for us. I wasn’t sure exactly how far behind us they were, but I expected we were on our own for at least five to ten diar. The rescue could not afford to wait for backup.

There could be people alive in there. We had to proceed as if there were, until we had proven otherwise. But they’d done nothing to acknowledge our approach, and they had not responded to hails on the same frequencies as their distress beacon.

I couldn’t have preconceptions, because I couldn’t afford to miss anyone who might be alive. Nevertheless, contemplating the vast ruin before me made me feel sad. Worse, it was that creeping, satisfying sadness you get when you look on a ruin: at something long destroyed, something lost that isn’t your problem.

My own ship, Synarche Medical Vessel I Race To Seek the Living, was an ambulance associated with Core General. She had spent nearly a standard month with her modern engines burning fuel recklessly to match velocity with Big Rock Candy Mountain. Sally—as we called her—was fast, maneuverable, and had outsize sublight engines for her mass. She also had an Alcubierre-White drive for FTL travel, though since it didn’t impart any actual velocity to the ship, it couldn’t be used to chase down quarry in normal space. We’d had to slingshot the big gravity well at our origin point in the Core to accelerate, then conserve momentum through the transition in order to catch the speeding generation ship.

I say “slingshot” like it was a routine maneuver. In reality, there’s nothing quite like staring into the most enormous black hole in the galaxy, then flying right down its gullet like a gnat with attitude. (Inasmuch as anybody can stare into an actual black hole with their actual eyes unless they belong to one of the exotic species that can visualize X-rays or radio waves.)

So we’d already had one adventure leaving the Core, and now here we were. We weren’t docking with Big Rock Candy Mountain. We had no information about the structural integrity of this antique hulk, but common sense suggested it would be fragile. Unbalancing it, subjecting it to the stresses of docking—both were terrible ideas. We’d have to use one of our adaptable docking collars, anyway, because the idea that our hardware and theirs would be compatible was laughable.

That’s why I was jumping.

It was not as dangerous as it probably seems. I’m Sally’s rescue specialist: getting people out of dangerous situations is my job, and I do this sort of thing frequently.

The insertion can be dicey, though.

My hardsuit had jets, so I had maneuverability. And everything in space is moving incredibly fast anyway, so what matters is the relative velocity. If you and I are moving at the same speed in the same direction and there’s nothing else around us, we’re functionally not moving.

Space has a whole lot of nothing. If I jumped at the right time, and corrected for Sally’s rotation, all I had to do was match velocity with the wheel and snug down onto it.

It was still breathtaking to stand inside that open airlock and look down. Sally had the processing power to hold a position over, or rather outside, Big Rock Candy Mountain basically forever. But Big Rock Candy Mountain was spinning, and one or two of her enormous central cables had snapped over the centians, so her spin had developed a wobble.

She was also wobbling for a more disturbing reason. There was a ship docked to the outside of her ring. One with white drives—a modern ship. A fast packet crewed by methane breathers: the one that had relayed the distress signal. Its—his, I checked my fox—name was Synarche Packet Vessel I Bring Tidings From Afar. Why in the Well he had docked with an ox ship, what he was still doing coupled to it, and why he wasn’t answering hails was a series of mysteries for which there was no answer in Sally’s databases.

And Sally, being a rescue vessel, has extremely comprehensive databases.

“Sally,” I asked my faceplate, “how’s our telemetry?”

“Pretty good, Llyn,” the shipmind answered. “We’ve matched velocity and vector, and we’re stable. Can’t do much about that spin.”

Good to know I wasn’t the only one worried about it.

“I’m in the door,” I said, which she already knew. But you’re supposed to maintain a verbal narrative. For the flight recorders and in case anything goes wrong and your crewmates don’t notice what you’re doing. It also lets them keep an eye on your checklists so nothing gets forgotten. Safety first. “Where’s Tsosie?”

His voice came through. “At the other door. Ready to go on your word, Llyn.”

He was the ambulance’s commander and senior trauma specialist, but I was the rescue specialist and this was my op. Rhym, our flight surgeon, outranked both of us as far as Core General seniority was concerned, but right now I was in charge of them, too. If we had to go to surgery, Rhym would become the authority figure.

It wouldn’t have made sense in a military outfit, so it had taken a while for me to get used to the way command shifted between team members. But it made sense for Sally.

“In three,” I said, and that many moments later we were sailing across the space between Sally and Big Rock Candy Mountain. As I stabilized, the apparent spiral of the generation ship smoothed out into a wheel so unnervingly that I wanted to slap a topologist.

Tsosie and I would have been a matched set, but Tsosie was trailing the sled that contained rescue supplies, portable airlocks, a laser cutting torch, and autostretchers. I had four drones limpeted onto my back beside the air tanks.

You can send back for stuff. But that takes time. Time isn’t always something you have when responding to an incident. We’re told to adapt, improvise, overcome. Perform the mission.

That part is not so different from what I did in the Judiciary. You do the thing that gets the correct result—within legal and ethical limits— and you fill out the paperwork later.

I like my job.

Sally fed me the telemetry through senso. Both Tsosie and I had jumped well. We used our jets to add v, so it seemed as if Sally were dropping behind while the turning wheel underneath us slowed. Soon, we were stationary relative to the surface, using our jets only to continue to course-correct into the curve of the ship’s habitation ring as we began to close the distance to it. We needed to get low, relatively speaking, because Sally would be coming around again soon.

“That looks like a decent spot,” Tsosie said, picking it out for me in the senso feed.

I studied the highlighted patch. It was flat and there were grab loops. I couldn’t see an airlock hatch, but some of the handholds and what I assumed were tether safeties led toward the interior surface of the wheel. You get a good sense of ship design in my business. I’d put airlocks there, where you wouldn’t have to deal with centripetal force on the way out or in.

“Let’s go around the corner,” I said. As soon as we touched the ship, the spin would start trying to throw us off. This was easier.

Tsosie followed my lead.

The inside surface of the wheel reminded me of the plated underbelly of some kind of legless lizardmorph. It was slightly concave, and though the concavity was a little uneven due to the broken cables, I assumed it had been intentional. Anything that made running around on the outside of your ship a little less profoundly hazardous was good. You never know when you’ll need to go outside and fix a lightsail or something, and space is awfully big.

Lose track of your ship for a few moments and you might never find it again.

We touched down lightly. Our mag boots latched onto the hull, and suddenly we were standing comfortably under about a third of a g.

Tsosie looked over and grinned at me through the faceplate. “Smooth.” He crouched down. “Do you know what I hate?” he continued, running his gauntlets over the hull.

“Do I care what you hate?” I asked.

“I hate it when you take a shit, right? And at the end of it there’s this little hard nodule—no, splinter, this little hard splinter of poo, all by its lonesome. And, you know, there’s no bowel movement behind it to push it out. It’s stranded there in your sphincter, and you can feel it but there’s nothing civilized you can do to get it out.”

“This conversation is being recorded.”

He shrugged.

“You could eat a carrot.” I lowered my head over the readouts on the backs of my hardsuit gloves.

“A what?”

“Carrot,” I said. “A sugary, edible root.”

“What’s that supposed to do, push it out the other end?”

“Nah,” I said. Then, “Well, sort of. If you’re experiencing hard little pellet feces, you’re constipated because you’re either dehydrated, or because you’re not getting enough fiber. Or both. Carrots have water and fiber. Eat carrots and you’ll get nice clean poops. If we lived on a planet, I’d tell you about apples—”

“What’s an apple?”

“What you eat every dia to keep the doctor away,” I said. “At least if your problem is an impacted bowel. Of course, if we kept doctors away, neither one of us would have anybody to talk to…. Oh, look. There’s the airlock.”

I walked toward it, boots clomping with each step. I could hear it through the contact with the hull and the atmosphere inside my hardsuit.

Tsosie followed. “Are you okay, Jens? You look kinda grayish.”

It was taking a fair amount of concentration not to wobble as I walked. “Food is not sitting so well.”

Tsosie grinned at me. He didn’t turn his faceplate toward me, but I could feel it through the senso. “I guess the potty talk isn’t helping.”

“I’m wearing too many ayatanas.” I had half a dozen recorded memory packets from various individuals loaded into my fox: drawing on their expertise for any clues about how to communicate with or help either the ancient humans that might be inside Big Rock Candy Mountain, or the methane-breathing systers aboard the docked, modern ship.

It was a plausible excuse for walking funny, anyway.

The airlock was a manual one, dogged with a wheel. The wheel was stiff with age and lack of maintenance, but I wear an exo for medical reasons. Between me, the exo, and the hardsuit’s servos I got the thing to grind free without having to throw myself on Tsosie’s mercy. I like to do things for myself, because I haven’t always been able to.

It makes me appreciate the small things. Such as being able to turn a sticky wheel.

“Deploying bubble,” Tsosie said.

I gave the wheel a turn or two, but didn’t undog it completely until Tsosie had set the bubble up, adhering the rim to Big Rock Candy Mountain’s hull. It wasn’t a full airlock. Once it was installed the only way out was to cut the membrane. But we had no way to gauge whether the airlock behind the hatch was pressurized, or even intact. Or if the interior door was open. We could explosively decompress part of the generation ship, if we weren’t careful.

There was a thing that might be a pressure gauge. The crystal over it was cracked, and if you squinted past the cracks the needle inside lay flat against one peg. If I was reading the archaic numerals right the needle rested on the depressurized side. That was a good sign for avoiding explosive decompression, if it was accurate: nothing inside to decompress.

It might be a bad sign for anybody inside the generation ship, though.

Sensible airlock design provided for a safety interlock such that one could not open both hatches at the same time. You probably wouldn’t be surprised by how often people—even modern rightminded people, even nonhuman people—fail to do what’s sensible. I wasn’t prepared to assume that unrightminded folks from the distant past—desperate enough to light out for stars even their great-grandchildren would never see, while flying the spacefaring equivalent of a very large, leaky rowboat—would be notably cautious individuals.

I checked Tsosie’s work on the bubble, which was as meticulous as ever. I was having a bad pain dia, so I tuned a little to control it. Not too much, though. Being dopey feels gross, and depressing your reflexes is a terrible idea when you’re entering a rescue zone.

Okay, maybe the ayatanas weren’t the only reason I was looking a little gray.

While I was adjusting, Tsosie finished opening the hatch. No air puffed out. It looked like the gauge was working after all. Or was maybe accidentally correct. There was a ladder inside the aperture. He climbed down and I followed, closing the hatch behind me.

“We’re in,” I told Sally. “Looks like an airlock should.”

The second hatch was off to my right as I stepped off the ladder. The space was large enough for six space-suited humans—or two humans and a large piece of equipment—and utterly barren. The bulkheads were a dingy beige, the paint scuffed with bumps and rubs. The ship had stayed functional and in use for some time after launch, then. But either the ship, the management, or the crew had not been functional enough for meticulous maintenance to be the norm.

I wondered how many generations had managed to live and die here. I wondered again if there were still people on board. I wondered if they had triggered the distress beacon, and if so, when.

What leads you to put a beacon on a ship that never plans on encountering another of its kind?

I knew less time had elapsed on this ship than for those of us who stayed home and joined the Synarche. Big Rock Candy Mountain was moving so fast after centians of acceleration that she had attained relativistic speeds. Every standard second we spent here was one point three standard seconds out in the rest of the universe.

Not a big difference, if you only stayed a week. It would mean roughly two extra diar going by in the outside galaxy. But over the course of half a millennian, the time dilation added up.

The pressure gauge in the inside hatch was more legible. It read .83, and since it maxed out at 1, I guessed that meant Terran atmospheres.

Tsosie and I took turns spraying each other’s hardsuits with decontam. We were the same species as the people who built this creaking, ancient vessel, but—in the thrilling eventuality that any were still alive— we and they were six hundred ans separated. Our microbes would eat their immune systems for lunch, and vice versa. It would be an enormous tragedy to reconnect with a lost branch of humanity only to start a pandemic and kill everybody on both sides.

So we wouldn’t do that.

“What we could learn from this place,” Tsosie breathed.

He let the pressure equalize, and suddenly I could hear the creaks and groans of the ancient ship around me. Strained metal and some distant thumps that sounded like the ring of machinery. No voices, and nothing that sounded like voices.

I thought I had been keeping my hopes down, but my spirits still fell. I wasn’t feeling particularly good about our chances of finding survivors. We had not been subtle about our approach—it doesn’t do to sneak up on people—and if anyone was still driving this thing, surely they would have answered our hails. Radio was radio. Or they would have come to meet us at the airlock, or at least sent a bot.

Artificial intelligences dated back to before the Eschaton, and Sally’s data library suggested that most of the generation ships had shipminds of a sort. Wheelminds? I didn’t even know what nomenclature you’d use for a ship this big.

Nobody spoke to us, even when I said the ship’s name out loud, amplifying it through my hardsuit speaker, and requested permission to enter.

Well, maybe somebody was on the other side of the hatch.

Tsosie tipped his head and dipped his shoulder, the broadly expressive gestures of somebody used to communicating through a hardsuit. “Here goes nothing.”

“Give it your best,” I said, and watched him lean on the hatch wheel.

 

Tsosie swung the hatch wide, and—nothing happened.

Nothing besides a brief puff of equalizing air, that is. I hadn’t really expected a welcome party, but it would have been a nice surprise.

“Huh,” he said, peering around the hatch. “Well, that’s interesting.”

That’s not a reassuring thing to hear when you’ve just broken into a space ship older than your species’s membership in civilization. I leaned sideways to peer over his shoulder.

The entire corridor was filled with what seemed at first to be a strange sort of honeycomb or spiderweb. The illumination was working—not something I would have counted on, after all this time. Let’s hear it for good old-fashioned fusion reactors.

Because the ship spun like a station to simulate gravity, we were standing on the bulkhead that faced the outside of the wheel. Big Rock Candy Mountain was enormous, and I could see quite far down the corridor before the curve of the ship bent out of sight in the distance. The whole space seemed filled with . . . building toys?

Something very similar, anyway, to the sort of peg-and-keeper sets that children of many species with manual dexterity are normally given as they begin to develop curiosity and the ability to use their fingers independently. If they happen to have fingers. These seemed to be printed or extruded in polymer and plated in what I took to be a conductive material of a shimmering, holographic metal. The whole structure created a mesh of interlocking hexagons that entirely filled the passageway.

“Structural reinforcement?” I asked, making sure we still had a connection back to our ship.

“It might be,” Sally agreed. I could feel her relaying Tsosie’s feed—and my feed—to the other four members of the crew. Loese, our new pilot; Hhayazh, a flight nurse; Rhym, the flight surgeon; and Camphvis, the other flight nurse.

It seemed like we were all equally mystified. We’d sent two out of the three Terrans in the crew (Loese was the other one) on this trip out of caution. We couldn’t expect any survivors aboard Big Rock Candy Mountain to have ever encountered a nonhuman sentience. And Hhayazh, in particular, is the sort of twiggy, bristle-covered, black-carapaced insectoid sentience that gives groundlubbers the shrieking jimjams.

Nobody was going to have the shrieking jimjams on my watch if I could possibly help it.

These structures didn’t seem sinister. They refracted light in bright, human colors. Not all primary—purple and orange and green made appearances—but all true and saturated. Kid colors, accentuating their resemblance to toys.

“There’s too many colors for it to be a DNA model,” Tsosie said. “Unless the same amino acids are wearing different dresses.”

I reached past him, and poked the nearest peg with my finger, causing him to gasp and grab my wrist an instant too late to stop me.

Poor life choices got me into this line of work: What can I say?

I didn’t really expect it to react. But I guess I should say that I poked at the nearest peg with my finger, because the whole structure peeled away from my hardsuit before I touched it and rippled with a series of whick-whick-whicking sounds into a folded configuration against the walls of the corridor. It left more than enough room for Tsosie and me to walk side by side.

“If we go in there it’s going to reassemble itself right through our bodies, isn’t it?” Tsosie asked.

“Maybe it’s shy.” I stepped past him, out into the corridor. He let go of my wrist as soon as I started to move. It had been a warning gesture, not a real attempt to restrain me.

Not that he could have. I was the one on the crew with the law enforcement background. And the adaptive exoskeleton under my hardsuit, giving me boosted reflexes and strength.

I paused briefly, and the tinkertoys didn’t nail me into place like a shrike’s victim. That was a good sign. I reached out again, and they peeled away from me again.

“Seems safe,” I said.

Tsosie made a little choking noise. But he followed me, boots clomping only a little. We were both, I noticed, making an effort to walk softly. It’s always hard when you first get back under grav—or simulated grav—not to crash around like one of the elephantine high-gravity systers in a proverbial china shop. The toys continued to peel apart ahead of us, and sealed themselves back up behind. “Maybe they are structural reinforcement.”

“Microbots,” Tsosie said, bending closer to inspect some of them.

“Only big.”

“Where do you get the raw material to make this many . . . microbots? After six hundred ans in space, anyway?”

“Excellent question,” Sally said. “Keep exploring.”

 

Photo of Elizabeth Bear by Kyle Cassidy
Photo Credit: Kyle Cassidy
About the Author

Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. She is the Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Campbell Award winning author of dozens of novels; over a hundred short stories; and a number of essays, nonfiction, and opinion pieces for markets as diverse as Popular Mechanics and The Washington Post.

Elizabeth is a frequent contributor to the Center for Science and the Imagination at ASU, and has spoken on futurism at Google, MIT, DARPA’s 100 Year Starship Project, and the White House, among others.

She lives in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts with her spouse, writer Scott Lynch.

Some recent essays are available on Medium.com.

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As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Tiger at Midnight, the first book in a YA fantasy trilogy inspired by Indian history and Hindu mythology, is Swati Teerdhala’s debut novel. It follows two characters from antagonistic kingdoms who become entangled in a game of cat and mouse: Esha, the legendary vigilante known as the Viper, and Kunal, a soldier trying to capture the Viper and bring the famed rebel to justice for the assassination of his uncle/general.

Esha and Kunal’s nations were once a kingdom and a queendom, respectively. Both of their lands flourished due to an annual blood sacrifice made by their monarchs, whose twin ancestors received the gifts of this rite and the shape-shifting blood that allowed them to perform it from the gods themselves. But about a decade before the beginning of the story, the king’s younger brother had the queen and her family murdered and took her throne for himself, making the yearly ritual impossible: it requires blood from both a male descendant of the male twin and a female descendant of the female twin. It’s said that one princess escaped the night the usurper murdered the royal family, but with no sign of her since then, the former queendom’s land has been dying—and soon, the drought will spread to the neighboring kingdom and affect its people as well.

The night of the coup was also personally traumatizing for Esha and Kunal, both of whom lost parents during the massacre. Esha’s king provided for her after the deaths of her parents, one of whom had served as an ambassador to the queendom, and she spent the years that followed training, working to undermine the traitor king, and dreaming of vengeance. But when she’s about to fulfill her mission to kill the general who slaughtered her parents, she discovers that someone else beat her to it—just barely, as the man is bleeding out and not quite dead yet when she finds him—and framed her for his murder, leaving behind a replica of one of the Viper’s trademark whips.

After the general’s assassination, his nephew Kunal and three other soldiers are sent to capture the Viper. Whoever successfully captures him (because, of course, they assume the Viper must be a “he”) will become the new commander, and everyone who fails to do so will be punished. The four soldiers are given a choice as to whether or not they accept the mission and its consequences, but it’s not much of a choice for Kunal: his uncle not only raised him after his parents died but had also wanted Kunal to follow in his footsteps and take his place as commander someday.

As Kunal pursues Esha and Esha pursues information on who set her up and why, the two adversaries frequently find themselves getting into and out of scrapes together—and the more time they spend together, the more their growing fondness for each other conflicts with their goals and worldviews.

Tropes sometimes get a bad rap, but there is a good reason particular formulas become common in storytelling. Of course, like anything in fiction, they can fall flat if done poorly or if the story and characters are not well written, but many tropes are popular because they’re custom-made for creating entertaining situations, drama, or compelling character dynamics. In some cases, tropes can even be a novel’s greatest strength—and I believe that to be precisely the case with The Tiger at Midnight.

This is an incredibly fun novel, and I thought that was largely because of the way the author integrated various familiar aspects like enemies whose lives are made more complicated by their mutual attraction, a fiercer girl and a softer boy, and a character with a secret identity. I was left with the impression that Swati Teerdhala not only loves these specific tropes but also really understands what makes them work given the way she wrote her main protagonists and their perspectives.

The story is told through the third-person perspectives of both Esha and Kunal, who first meet in the opening chapter—although Kunal has no idea Esha is the Viper or that she intends to assassinate his uncle, believing her to simply be a lost girl heading in the wrong direction at the time. As he leads her to the footpath leading to the harbor, Kunal finds himself admiring this beautiful, defiant, smart girl and falling into an unusually familiar and flirtatious ease with her. And Esha, in turn, finds herself surprised by the kind-hearted soldier boy who went out of his way to try to help her and is so comfortable talking to him that she slips up and gives him her real name when he asks.

After Kunal sets out to find the Viper, the two meet again and end up spending the night hiding in a tree after fleeing a tiger, allowing them to get to know each other more before Kunal discovers Esha’s true identity. Once he realizes she is the Viper after their first couple of encounters, they continue to run into each other frequently and they have a wonderful dynamic that gets better and better the more they’re thrown together. The two seem to be a match in different ways when they do grapple, and they seem to delight in each other’s company as they end up getting into and out of various situations and even start leaving each other notes. Kunal comes to admire Esha for her fire, strength, and conviction, and between her influence and what he sees during his travels, he further examines his complex relationship with his cruel yet protective uncle and begins to see why Esha and the rebels want change. Esha admires Kunal’s heart, belief in honor and justice (even if he can be naive at times), and thoughtfulness (even if the way he pauses to consider his words carefully before speaking makes her impatient sometimes)—but she also fears someone like this could never care for someone with so much blood on her hands.

A more ruthless, vengeance-driven character and a more merciful, justice-driven character are a great combination, and their scenes are filled with amusing banter. Swati Teerdhala also adds some delicious suspense by using both viewpoints to let readers in on some secrets before the main characters manage to piece them together. Anticipating how and when the characters figure it out, their reactions, and learning more details just makes the reading experience all the more enjoyable.

Although I had a great time with The Tiger at Midnight and its characters, it didn’t have the type of notable prose or dimensional protagonists that would have made it especially memorable to me. However, I found it to be just the type of diverting story I could use this year (and can say the same of the sequel, The Archer at Dawn).

My Rating: 7/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased the ebook on sale (knowing a publicist would be mailing a copy of The Archer at Dawn).

Read an Excerpt from The Tiger at Midnight

Listen to an Audio Sample from The Tiger at Midnight

Read “The Unlikeable Heroine” by Swati Teerdhala

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week that sound like they may be interesting—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (the latter of which are mainly unsolicited books from publishers). 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, along with series information and the publisher’s book description. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

There were no new reviews last week, although the one I’ve been working on for a while is close enough to done now that I’m hoping to be able to post it soon. (I have been finding it much harder than usual to write reviews the last few months.)

But there are two books that I had pre-ordered that arrived last week, and they both sound amazing!

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse - Cover Image

Black Sun (Between Earth and Sky #1) by Rebecca Roanhorse

Black Sun, the first book in an epic fantasy series by New York Times bestselling and Nebula, Hugo, and Astounding Award–winning author Rebecca Roanhorse, was released last week (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).

Simon & Schuster has an audio sample and text excerpt from Black Sun on their website.

Tor.com has a sneak peek of the map art by Robert Lazzaretti along with a piece about the world, inspired by pre-Columbian cultures in the Americas, written by Rebecca Roanhorse.

I’ve wanted to read Black Sun ever since I first heard about it, and I’ve only grown more excited about it since learning it has giant crows and eagles.

 

From the New York Times bestselling author of Star Wars: Resistance Reborn comes the first book in the Between Earth and Sky trilogy, inspired by the civilizations of the Pre-Columbian Americas and woven into a tale of celestial prophecies, political intrigue, and forbidden magic.

A god will return
When the earth and sky converge
Under the black sun

In the holy city of Tova, the winter solstice is usually a time for celebration and renewal, but this year it coincides with a solar eclipse, a rare celestial event proscribed by the Sun Priest as an unbalancing of the world.

Meanwhile, a ship launches from a distant city bound for Tova and set to arrive on the solstice. The captain of the ship, Xiala, is a disgraced Teek whose song can calm the waters around her as easily as it can warp a man’s mind. Her ship carries one passenger. Described as harmless, the passenger, Serapio, is a young man, blind, scarred, and cloaked in destiny. As Xiala well knows, when a man is described as harmless, he usually ends up being a villain.

Crafted with unforgettable characters, Rebecca Roanhorse has created an epic adventure exploring the decadence of power amidst the weight of history and the struggle of individuals swimming against the confines of society and their broken pasts in the most original series debut of the decade.

The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk - Cover Image

The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk

The Midnight Bargain, a romantic Regency-inspired fantasy novel by World Fantasy Award–winning author C. L. Polk, was released last week (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).

Tor.com has an excerpt from The Midnight Bargain.

I’ve been excited about reading this since I first read the description, and I also ordered it because I wanted to support Erewhon Books, a new independent publisher of speculative fiction with many titles that sound rather intriguing.

 

From the beloved World Fantasy Award-winning author of Witchmark comes The Midnight Bargain, a sweeping, romantic new fantasy set in a world reminiscent of Regency England, where women’s magic is taken from them when they marry. A sorceress must balance her desire to become the first great female magician against her duty to her family.

Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken?