Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell

Gareth L. Powell - Embers of War - a spaceship flies away from a moon orbiting a planet

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 23 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

Another ship dropped off the tactical grid, obliterated by a shower of pin-sized antimatter warheads. In the war room of her Scimitar, the Righteous Fury, Captain Annelida Deal uttered a venomous curse. The Outward ships were putting up more of a fight than she had anticipated, determined to protect their forward command post on the planet below. If she could only get past them, locate the bunker where the conference was taking place, and drop a decent-sized warhead of her own, the war might be over.

That’s the first paragraph of the prologue for Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell. About a month ago, he was giving some pretty excellent Twitter advice on how to promote your novel. In the course of that thread, he wisely put his money where his mouth was and included a short promo for Embers of War:

 

After reading that description I promptly bought the book.

That war crime takes place during the prologue. To end the war, one side does something truly horrific—several starships (including the Trouble Dog) take part in the razing of a sentient jungle that spans the entire single super-continent of a planet. Not only does this destroy a billion-year-old biosphere, but it takes thousands of soldiers and civilians with it. As the prologue closes:

The fires burned for six weeks. The war was over in one.

The story proper takes place three years later, and the redemption of the starship that’s mentioned in the tweet-teaser is only part of the book. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a character, and the Trouble Dog is only one of them. She’s a sentient warship who resigned her commission and joined the House of Reclamation—a neutral outfit that comes to the rescue of those in need. We also watch events through the lens of her new captain, Sal Konstanz, former captain of a medical ship that fought on the opposite side of the war. They and the rest of the skeleton crew are sent to investigate the disappearance of a ship in a mysterious planetary system.

Ashton Childe, an intelligence officer assigned to a planet he despises, is also tasked with investigating this event. And on the missing ship is Ona Sudak, a poet with a mysterious past. We get to know each of these characters, and a few more besides, as they all race to reach the site of the incident, or in the poet’s case, to escape the wreckage and explore a truly fascinating and inexplicable planet.

Throughout the action, we get a lot of reflection on the war and the lingering effects of such a devastating conflict. This isn’t a book in which the characters are all battle-hardened veterans who came out the other side tougher than they went in. The effects of trauma are often more subtle than that, and Embers of War does an elegant job of showcasing some of the different ways war can change and shape a person—or a starship.

I admit, that was the part that piqued my interest the most—I love sentient spaceships, and I did find myself wishing for more from the Trouble Dog‘s POV. The humans are all well written and feel like developed characters, but that only serves to set apart the Trouble Dog (and also the ship’s maintenance alien, Nod) even more. Despite the human cells used to grow a ship’s brain, they are most definitely not human, and the POV chapters for the ship and for Nod feel very different from the human stuff. The Trouble Dog‘s interactions with her former pack-mates are fascinating, while the Nod chapters are spare and odd and poetic.

I am a sucker for sci-fi with an ancient intergalactic mystery, and there’s one at the heart of this book. We’re introduced to it fairly early on, though it doesn’t become clear how it affects the story until later in the book, which is as it should be. By the end, I was quite curious what would happen next. Yes, this is definitely the first book in a series, so if that’s not your thing, you should probably steer clear. That said, Embers of War does come to a satisfying conclusion. If I didn’t want to know what came next, I’d feel fine about stopping here. It sort of answers the questions we have only to leave us with more—which is an effective way to close the first novel in a series. The next book, Fleet of Knives, arrived in February, and I, for one, will be checking it out.

Note: Full disclosure, I kinda-sorta know Gareth L. Powell online, though I’ve never met nor actually spoken with him.

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Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers Book 3) by Becky Chambers -- A spaceship with six branching tubes leading to six hexagonal sections flies through space

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 22 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

“Mom, Can I go see the stars?”

That’s the first sentence of Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers. If you regularly listen to Book Club episodes of The Incomparable, you’ve probably heard Jason Snell and several other people (including me!) waxing poetic about how much we enjoyed Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and its follow-up, A Closed and Common Orbit. Record of a Spaceborn Few is her third book in this universe, but I’m not going to call it the third in a series. All three of these novels take place in the far future, in a universe where Earth has been ravaged by the depredations of humanity, and humans have fled the planet — either to elsewhere in Earth’s solar system (Mars or other colonies) or in a great exodus fleet to the stars — where humans discovered they share the galaxy with various alien races, many of whom are part of the Galactic Commons — a loose federation of races that, at the time of these books, had only recently let humanity join.

I’m purposely going to avoid heavy spoilers about the other two books because I think they’re great, and I think you should read them. I don’t, however, think you need to read them before you read this book. (If, like me, you’re Quite Particular about consuming media in the order it was created, you probably will, but you don’t *have* to.)

One of the things I found most fascinating about this world in the first book was the place of humans in this future. We’re basically at the bottom of the social ladder. As I said, humanity was only allowed into the Galactic Commons a short time before the events in these books — within the lifetimes of some of the human characters. I grew up reading a lot of whiz-bang space-future books where Man was either alone in the universe, at war with an equally-powerful race, or simply at the top of the heap. The idea of humanity brought low isn’t a new idea, but it felt refreshing to me, in part because Chambers didn’t dwell on it. It’s simply a fact of life.

The second book focuses on an Artificial Intelligence learning to live disguised as a human. It’s a more personal story, so while galactic politics definitely figure in, that aspect floats much more around the edges. And while I didn’t miss it at all (I really REALLY adored that book), I was excited to discover that Record of a Spaceborn Few is all about humans and human history and the future of humanity. Humans, humans, humans.

It did have the side-effect of feeling a little preachy, but that’s something you run into in most media focused on our place in a larger universe. In Doctor Who we get the 4th Doctor’s famous “humans are indomitable” speech. In Babylon 5, the other races observe that humans build community like no others. In Star Trek…well, Star Trek (especially early Star Trek) is told from a very human-centric viewpoint. So you probably get my meaning. The greatness-of-humanity tends to be a theme I bounce off, which is part of why I loved Chambers’ first book so much. We were just another race in a great big universe. Which is why, as a reader, I’m glad I read this book third. My appetite for information was whetted by the first two novles, so by the time I got to this one, I was ready to dive into human society and see what it’s all about.

This book takes place in the Exodan Fleet and follows the lives of a handful of separate characters as they go about their lives. There is a familial connection to one of the characters from the first book. One of the characters we follow in the fleet is the sister of the captain from the first book, but it’s not in any way a plot point. It’s just a thing that’s mentioned a few times — usually as an example of how and why a human might want to leave the fleet and join the larger universe.

In terms of plot, this book is somewhat similar to the first, in that there’s not exactly a central story or mystery to solve. It’s more a day-in-the-life (or, a-few-months-in-the-life) examination of what it’s like to grow up in a wholly artificial environment where resources are finite. Every molecule must be cared for, tracked, and re-used — up to and including human bodies when they die. Or, in the case of one of the POV characters, it’s about what it’s like to come from living on a planet and then try to adjust to life on a spaceship in a fleet that’s developed a pretty insular society. It’s not so easy to settle in and make friends when everyone looks at you as an outsider. This is nicely contrasted by one character who can’t wait to leave the fleet and go anywhere else because the fleet never changes much, so their life is boring with a capital BORE.

My favorite thing about all three of these books is the well-developed universe Chambers created. It feels so deeply built-out. Like I could pop in and ask about any random race or planet or space station or racial tradition or social construct, and there would be a fully-formed answer. Even the smallest interactions seem to have accounted for how each part of this world affects the others. This book is no different. From the way humans care for their dead, to the layout of the residential areas of the ships, to the way families decorate their homes to commemorate the generations who have lived there, to the central idea that everyone must do something to pull their weight (with the delightful concept that everyone should try different jobs to determine what they’re good at and how they can best serve the fleet), there were exceedingly few moments where I wondered “how would that work?” because Chambers told or showed me how.

In terms of the relationships and personal journeys of the characters, I think I connected with this book the least of the three — possibly because the connections between the characters even within the book are more tenuous than in the previous novels. Instead of having a core cast of characters who work together, we dip in and out of the lives of people who don’t interact with each other much. Though to be fair, when they do, it’s in a meaningful way. I just prefer stories about a team pulling together because I find that more emotionally compelling — it’s like one large pull at my heart-strings instead of having my feels tugged in multiple directions. But that’s just me. Your mileage (light-yearage?) may vary.

On an Incomparable episode, I’m pretty sure I said I wanted many many more stories told in this universe — anywhere in this universe. And so far, that is exactly what I’m getting. Each book has a thin thread tying it to the others, but they’re definitely not continuations of the same story. I hope Becky Chambers continues to write more in this universe. And then more. And then more. Because I am all in.

HealthDay

I am currently sitting in bed, computer in my lap, surrounded by crackers and ginger ale and Pepto Bismol and a Booster Juice. Yep. That’s right. I’m home sick. But I’m not calling it a “sick day”. This, my friends, is a HealthDay.

I recently switched antidepressant medications, and the initial side effects are kicking my butt. I could probably handle a slow-paced day at work (with all these stomach-supports in tow), but I’m also feeling just…wrong in the head. If you’ve been through the delights* of getting-used-to-a-new-brain-medication, you may know what I’m talking about. There’s no good way to describe it—at least not that I’ve found anyhow. I just feel wrong.

The important thing is that all this current discomfort is in support of future, better health. There’s no guarantee the new drug will be effective. I’ve bounced between *many* over the last couple years, trying to find something that will work for me, and so far I’ve had little luck. But that’s not a surprise. Brains are complicated, and there’s a lot we don’t yet understand about the chemistry happening between our ears. I knew when I started this process that it could be long and would likely involve a lot of trial and error. (Boy howdy has it!)

Anyway, I post this random update in part to remind myself that it’s okay to take a HealthDay when I need it. (I still can’t shake a profound feeling of GUILT any time I miss a day of work.) I also hope that if you’re struggling with your own mental health that you remember you’re not alone. And even if it feels like you’re not getting anywhere, stick it out. Take a HealthDay if you’re able to. We can do this. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. We’ll get there.

 

*Not at all delightful.

Girl Reporter by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Cover of Girl Reporter by Tansy Rayner Roberts. A drawing of a girl with purple hair, glasses, and a knit cap holding a purple cell phone and saluting with 2 fingers. An older woman with her eyes closed in the background. Silhouettes of 4 superheroes fly in the upper background.

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 15 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

The Friday Report Presents: Everything You Need To Know about True Blue Aussie Beaut Superheroes, But Were Afraid To Ask

That’s the title of the first chapter of Girl Reporter by Tansy Rayner Roberts. It’s the story of Friday Valentina, daughter of one of the world’s most famous reporters. Friday is a successful reporter in her own right, in the mileu of “new media”—she’s a YouTube vlogger, a live-tweeter, and always has her phone at hand to capture the story. This gets much trickier when the story at hand, the one she’s been avoiding for a while, is this: her famous mother is missing, and her found-family-brother, who happens to be a superhero, thinks they should do something about it.

I should mention that in this version of the world, Australia (along with every other country) has mysterious machines that turn people into superheroes. In Australia, there are five heroes at any given time. Every six months, a new hero is chosen, and one of the existing five retires. These heroes are not only saviors of the world, but celebrities—gracing the covers of magazines and inspiring royal-family-level gossip and speculation. Friday’s mother made her name getting the first interview with one of the heroes, and there’s a very good chance her disappearance has something to do with this. (I won’t spoil where she is or who she’s with, but it’s a helluva reveal.)

Like a fool, I started reading this novella at bedtime, expecting to get a couple chapters in and then fall asleep like I usually do. Alas, the relatable determination and snark of the main character, along with the lively prose, kept me awake and interested—while the intense need to know what happened next kept me turning the virtual pages until I’d finished the whole book. And then, because I just wanted a little bit more about this fantastic story, I read the afterward, in which Roberts admits this story is a love-letter to all the “girl reporters” in comics—the women with no superpowers but plenty of resolve, resourcefulness, and raw talent.

I knew this wasn’t Roberts’ first time writing in this universe, as I’d read her short story “Cookie Cutter Hero” in the Kaleidoscope anthology. That story explains how the “new” Solar (a teenage girl with one hand) received her superhero powers, but I didn’t realize this was the second *book* in this universe until the next day when I looked it up on Goodreads. To be honest, it really didn’t matter that it was a sequel. I got all the context I needed, and I was never confused about what was happening or why. (Though I am definitely gonna go back and read book one, Kid Dark Against the Machine.)

I really recommend Girl Reporter, especially if you have any fondness for superhero-fiction. Roberts pokes fun at the tropes while demonstrating she knows and loves them oh-so-well. I should warn you though, if you don’t like to laugh at (and with) your heroes, this book may not be for you. Also, if you’re not comfortable with feminism, 80s fashion, diversity, or lesbian sex, you might want to avoid this. If those things are your things? Don’t hesitate! Pick up Girl Reporter now!

Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher

Cover of Summer in Orcus (a wolf stands in a misty glade; the trees seem to be sprouting out of a giant horned animal)

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 14 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

Once upon a time there was a girl named Summer, whose mother loved her very very very much.

Her mother loved her so much that she was not allowed to play outside where someone might grab her, nor go away on sleepovers where there might be an accident or suspicious food. She was not allowed to go away to camp, where she might be squashed by a horse or bitten by diseased mosquitoes, and she most certainly was not allowed to go on the Ferris Wheel at the carnival because (her mother said) the people who maintain the machinery are lazy and not very educated and might get drunk and forget to put a bolt back on and the entire thing could come loose at any moment and fall down and kill everyone inside, and they should probably leave the carnival immediately before it happened.

That’s the beginning of Summer in Orcus, by T. Kingfisher and illustrated by Lauren Henderson. T. Kingfisher is the pseudonym of Ursula Vernon, who is an award-winning writer and artist of children’s books and graphic novels. Anything with “T. Kingfisher” on the cover is meant for non-children, as is Summer in Orcus—however, you don’t need to be *too* grown up to appreciate this book. In fact, it was a nominee for The World Science Fiction Society Award for Best Young Adult Book. That’s how I came across it.

If you’re a listener to The Incomparable, you might recall episode 412, in which an intrepid band of book-club adventurers (including yours truly) read most-if-not-all of the 2018 Hugo Award nominees for best novel, as well as a few other nominated works. At that time, I hadn’t completed my reading, and time was getting short, so I came up with a cunning plan for the YA category. I decided to read 33% of each book, and then if there was time before voting ended, I’d loop back and finish as many as I could.

I quite enjoyed the stories published under Ursula Vernon’s name, so I decided to start with Summer in Orcus.

Welp. That was a mistake.

Why?

Because I foiled my cunning plan right out of the gate. I swiftly reached 33% of the book, and simply could not bring myself to stop. I whizzed on by 50% and then left 60% in the dust. Eventually I gave in and admitted I was reading this whole thing without stopping for anything less important than sleep, work, or food. (And sometimes not for those.)

And now, to why. This book pushed so many of my buttons I felt like a busy elevator. My literary happy-place is anywhere a youngish girl is whisked away from her normal, mundane world into a land of magic and danger (and possibly talking animals). That’s exactly what happens when 11-year-old Summer has a run-in with Baba Yaga, whose chicken-legged hut has come to roost in a neighbouring yard. The old witch promises Summer her heart’s desire! Then the witch turns Summer out into the land of Orcus, where she must figure out where she is, why she’s there, what she should be doing, whom to trust, how to get home, and what exactly *is* her heart’s desire anyway?

The twist on all this that had me lapping it up is that Summer in Orcus is incredibly self aware. Summer herself is a fan of this genre, and she’s continually comparing her circumstances to those in Narnia or Oz or similar locales. So rather than approaching her plight as a typical “oblivious” character, she tackles things the way we, as savvy readers, would likely do it.

Of course you can’t have an adventure story like this without collecting a menagerie of friends-you-make-along-the-way. In this case that includes a talking weasel, a nattily-dressed bird and his flock of valets, some truly fierce geese, and my favorite—a werehouse. That’s not a typo. It is, indeed, w-e-r-e-house, which is a talking wolf who turns into a lovely cottage at night. (Truly the best kind of companion to have along when adventuring…until the dreaded house-hunters come stalking along, anyway.)

Yes. This book has many puns. If that puts you off, A) I do not understand you, and B) you might want to avoid this one—or just push through because there’s an awful lot more to it than clever puns.

The story is not entirely made up of delight and wonder. There are moments of sadness and darkness, including some references to Summer’s mundanely sad backstory. In fact, Summer’s experience dealing with her mentally ill mother is what honed the very skills she needs to succeed in Orcus. I’ll say no more than that, except to tease the existence of characters like the the Forester, the Warlord, and the Queen-in-Chains.

This book was originally published as a free serial, with chapters released twice weekly, and while I can kinda see that structure, I didn’t know it going in, and I wouldn’t have recognized it except for stumbling across that fact on Goodreads. To me it was an engrossing journey-quest that had me laughing and crying and wanting much, much more. I do hope I’ll get it.

In closing, I’d like to warn you all: Antelope women cannot be trusted.

Recently Read

Recently Read

Hey all! If you haven’t heard the news, The Incomparable podcast network has a podcast feed all about books!

So poor is my sense of time that I was going to call Recently Read a “recent addition” to the network. Then I looked at the list of episodes and realized the first one came out in June of last year. How does time even work?

Anyway, if you’re a book-lover like I am, you may want to check this out. Each episode is short (usually well under 10 minutes!) and consists of someone talking about a book they just read. I’ve done several, and it’s honestly encouraged me to read more. Turns out I like having a place I can talk about a book I just read, even if it’s a one-sided conversation.

I’ve got a couple more drafted — yes, I write the script out before I record — and I’ll be posting them soonish. It recently occurred to me that those scripts (with a little bit of polishing) would make for good blog posts. I know not everyone can (or wants to) listen to podcasts, so I plan to start posting those book reviews here. Also soonish.

I really do encourage you to check out the podcast though. There are many more people than just lil ol’ me on the network, and quite a few of us have been Recently Reading. It’s fun!

Talking About Mental Health

I’ve talked about mental health on this blog quite a lot over the years. I haven’t done it as much over the last couple years, but then again, I haven’t talked about *much* on this blog over that time. The reason for that is, ironically, mental health. (Or the lack thereof, honestly.)

Today on Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat it’s #BellLetsTalk day. I’ve mentioned this before because it’s important to me. I chose to move to Canada almost five years ago, and finding there’s a very public day devoted to mental health awareness surprised and pleased me. (Every tweet/RT/post/etc. including “#BellLetsTalk” means another 5 cents donated to mental health initiatives in Canada.)

I will give my usual caveat that EVERY DAY should be a day for talking about mental health. Ending the stigma around mental illness is a job for more than one day, but the more money we can tweet into this effort, the more resources organizations will have to put toward this all year round, so I hope you’ll all get out there and use the hashtag–you don’t even have to be in Canada! (I think there’s a way to participate via text messages and calling too.)

So once again, I’m here to do my little part and tell my own story. I hope hearing me talk about my own struggle will help others know they’re not alone. Because you’re not. I suffer from mental illness, and I am not ashamed. (Or at least I try really hard not to be. It’s still difficult to get past the stigma sometimes, but I think I’ve come a long way.) So on with the show…


A couple years ago I realized I really needed some help. It had been many years since I’d been on medication, but I was struggling mightily—missing work, lacking joy in even the things I love the most (podcasting, of course), so I did what I always tell other people to do—talk to someone. For me, that someone was my doctor. (I am so lucky and pleased to have a doctor I like and trust and who trusts *me* to know my own mind and body and make decisions for myself.) We tried a variety of different medications to help address my depression and anxiety. I think over the course of one year I tried five or six different meds. Some of them didn’t work. Some of them worked but had debilitating side effects. I got discouraged and kinda gave up.

So for a while I stepped away from regular medication, in part to let my body and brain re-set after all that bouncing around from med to med. (Though I still had [and have] some as-needed meds for anxiety.) I managed to get by for about a year this way, but it was really just “getting by”. And then eventually that “getting by” started to slip to not-quite-getting-by.

I went back to my doctor.

Now I’m on some new meds that seem to be working (and without super-awful side effects! yay!). It’s early yet, but I’m hopeful.

[Note: The writing of this blog post was literally just interrupted by my reminder to take my Cipralex. LOL at timing!]

Anyway, my mental health is the number one factor in determining when I have the energy to write outside of my day job. I would love to promise more regular content here, but I don’t know how my mental health will hold up. But as I said, I’m hopeful, and I have a few things I wrote for podcasts that I might be able to re-purpose for blog posts, just to keep things moving while I work up to fulfilling the last of my Patreon reward posts.

So once again, I’ll just say to anyone out there that’s struggling: you are not alone. I hope you’ll reach out and find some help.

And to everyone, whether you’re struggling or not, please take a moment today to use the #BellLetsTalk hashtag. Each time I see it come through my feed, my heart lifts a little bit. I have to imagine it’s doing the same for others. Seems like a pretty easy way to spread joy while raising money for a worthy cause.

Finally, mega-thanks to my spouse Steven and all my friends, family, and internet pals who have stuck with me through all this and provided constant understanding and support. I love you all so very very much.