Hidden Sun by Jaine Fenn

Hidden Sun: Shadowlands Book I by Jaine Fenn -- A woman in a yellow dress and wide-brimmed hat stands in front of a pinkish-purple sky, aside a river and several tall groupings of buildings

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 29 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

Rhia looked up, and listened. Distant chanting drifted in through the study window but the house itself was silent. Probably just one of the cats, knocking something over downstairs. She pulled the lamp closer and bent over her workbench again. The second lens was a tight fit but she mustn’t force it. A smear on the inner surface of the glass now would be damned hard to clean off later. Her motions slow and careful, she eased the lens into the cradle of leather straps. The lens dropped into place, and there it was: her sightglass, complete.

That’s the beginning of Hidden Sun, by Jaine Fenn, which I read when Hugo nomination time rolled around earlier this year. After I caught up on my short fiction reading, I decided to dive into some eligible novels, hoping to find something worthy of adding to my ballot, and golly gee whillickers, did I hit the jackpot with this one. I’d read some good books early this year, but this was the first in a while that I couldn’t stop thinking about when I wasn’t reading it. I looked forward to the end of the workday so I could go home and read some more.

A big reason for this is the world-building. Rhia lives in Shen, one of several dozen “shadowlands”, where the shadowkin live and work. Outside the shadowlands, in the dangerously hot-and-bright skyland, only the skykin can survive. These races used to be one-and-the-same, but they split apart during some cataclysmic event thousands of years ago.

So already, I was hooked. I’m always fascinated by mysterious long-ago history, especially when it clearly informs the present. In this case, that’s how this world’s history led to the internal politics of Shen, the external politics between Shen and other shadowlands, and the relations between the shadowkin and skykin. I won’t say too much more about this because I so enjoyed slowly learning about this world. I’d hate to cheat you out of that journey of discovery.

The other big reason I couldn’t put this book down was the plot. A book cannot survive upon world-building alone, and Hidden Sun delivers on both fronts. Rhia is a noble and a mostly-secret scientist in a land where religion tends to reign supreme. As you can see from the opening of the book, she has just invented a basic telescope and is excited to make astronomical observations to add to the knowledge of the network of “natural enquirers”. Before she can even get started, she’s swept up in an adventure—she must travel to another shadowland to search for her missing brother who may or may not have committed a terrible crime before fleeing Shen.

Finding her brother is also important because as the sole heir to her household, if he doesn’t return she might have to get married, produce an heir, and possibly even stop her scientific observances.

Meanwhile, in another part of Shen, Dej, an adolescent skykin, is being raised in what is basically a school/orphanage. All young skykin are raised in shadowland creches until they’re old enough to undergo the mysterious process that allows them to live in the skylands. Dej is a rebel and a thief and thoroughly unapologetic about it. Her adventure starts when she’s sent away to become an adult far sooner than anyone expects, and things don’t go as well as she’d hoped—though maybe they’re not as bad as she feared?

The book mostly alternates chapters between these two characters, which is another part of why I felt mildly addicted to it. Fenn does a marvelous job of leaving you wanting more at the end of a chapter, so you dive right into the next one—at first, you want to get through it so you can find out what happens next to Rhia, only to be swept up in Dej’s story within a few lines. Then lather, rinse, repeat.

There’s also a third POV character—a priest in another shadowland, who is working on some experiments that don’t seem altogether on the up-and-up. They involve dead bodies, so…you know…creepy! He’s a smaller part of the story, but his tale becomes increasingly important as the other two narrative threads weave their way across the world.

I sort of assumed (and hoped) those threads would eventually come together, and I was not disappointed. Especially since the way they came together was A) not what I expected and B) emotionally satisfying.

Speaking of emotionally satisfying, the end of this book is certainly that, but this is the first book in a series so things are not entirely resolved. I pre-ordered Broken Shadow, the next book in the series, as soon as I finished Hidden Sun. Good news for you readers, I procrastinated so long on posting this, Broken Shadow is now available! So go forth and read!

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Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky -- A green planet above a space ship on a background of stars

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 26 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

Just a Barrel of Monkeys: There were no windows in the Brin 2 facility–rotation meant that “outside” was always “down,” underfoot, out of mind. The wall screens told a pleasant fiction, a composite view of the world below that ignored their constant spin, showing off the planet as hanging stationary-still off in space: the green marble to match the blue marble of home, twenty light years away.

That’s the beginning of Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I generally like to start with a positive or a reason to read the book I’m talking about, but this time I’m starting with a warning: If you’re an arachnaphobe, I’m gonna recommend you don’t read this one because, while the opening lines might not make it clear, spiders are a huge part of this novel. In fact, *huge* spiders are a huge part of this novel.

But so are humans. The first section of the book takes place in the far future—humans have colonized many parts of the solar system and are terraforming planets in other star systems. Dr. Avrana Kern is going beyond mere terraforming, however. She’s developed a virus that will hasten the evolution and technological development of the monkeys that will be let loose on this newly-terraformed world.

Of course things don’t go to plan, and the monkeys die. But the virus remains.

Cut to many thousands of years later. Earth’s great empire has fallen and risen again, only to witness the end of Earth’s viability as a home for humans. Some of the last vestiges of the species have set off in suspension chambers on a ship called the Gilgamesh to search for a new home for humanity. They are two thousand years from home when we meet them. From there, the book tells the parallel stories of what happens on Avrana Kern’s planet and what happens to the remnants of humanity on the Gilgamesh.

I appreciate how these two stories play against each other. Because of the length of time it takes the humans to get anywhere, and because they have suspension chamber technology, we get to see an entire society develop on the planet while the same human characters continue toddling around the galaxy. If it was just one or the other, it wouldn’t have worked as well for me. I’m intellectually fascinated by stories about the genesis of a society, but they often lack an emotional core because the characters are always changing. On the other hand, a tense story about the possible end of humanity itself might’ve been too grim. As it is, the excitement and hope of a developing society balance the stress of the humans’ tale, while the human characters give me personalities to latch onto while the planet continues to develop.

And what about that society on the planet? Did you guess? Oh yeeeeah, in the absence of monkeys, the virus latches onto other creatures in the planet’s ecosystem—the insects and arachnids, even some of the sea creatures. I learned more about spider anatomy and spider behaviour and how spiders interact with non-spiders than I ever thought I would. Before I read this book I might have said it was more than I wanted to know, but it was just so darn interesting that after I finished the book I felt intellectually sated in a way that rarely happens after reading fiction.

One of my common complaints about fiction is when a writer has done a lot of homework, there’s a desire to shove *all* that information into their text. And while Children of Time skirts that line at moments, for the most part, the facts and info are used to great effect. Tchaikovsky clearly did a crap-ton of research, but rather than flinging factoids willy-nilly, he uses that information to make an educated prediction about how an evolved spider society might function. It feels like it has a firm basis in reality and logic, and the result is a book that continually surprised me—but each of those surprises came with a feeling of “Oh! Of course!”

Of course they wouldn’t build structures out of stone and wood.

Of course their cities would eventually become technologically advanced metropolises made of webbing that spans dozens of square miles of forest.

Of course their technology wouldn’t develop along the same lines as ours.

And as for religion, it’s built into their society in a way I found incredibly satisfying. I don’t want to say too much about that, but I will say watching the spiders’ religion develop was one of my favourite parts of the book.

I’m not gonna lie: reading the bits about the humans kinda depressed me. Not because those bits aren’t well written, but more because they *are*. Don’t get me wrong; I like stories about humans living on spaceships and fighting for survival, and this is an excellent example of that. I just wasn’t in the right headspace for it, perhaps because the real world is a bit of a trashfire. As I said earlier, I was glad to have the future-looking optimism of the spider society to balance this out. If you’re at a mental place where thinking about the end of civilization is totally gonna bum you out, or where thinking hard about the nature of mankind and all its failings is gonna make you sad, you might wanna keep this one on your To-Be-Read pile for a little while. That said, I *do* recommend putting this in your TBR pile if you like sweeping, epic-scale space stories.

And once again, this is the first book in a series. It looks like the second book, Children of Ruin, will be out in May. And hey! It’s almost May!

My 10 “Books” (Sans Pressure/Guilting)

My 10 Books

You may have seen the “My 10 Books” thing going around Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr/etc., and while I appreciate that social media is tackling something more substantial than cats* for a change, I really REALLY hate anything that requires one to tag other people. I get a squicky feeling of pressure when someone tags me in such a post**. I never want to inflict that on anyone else, so I’m not tagging a goddamn soul here.

If, however, this list should spur you on to make your own list, by all means, have at it and let me know!

So on to my list. As it’s MY list, I’ve done away with the requirement for it to be 10 books. It’s rather rare that I read a standalone book instead of a larger series. I view the stories I love most in terms of the entire story, not one piece of it. When I re-read something, I’m choosing to revisit that world, not one corner of it. So you’ll see lots of entire series here, and for that I make no apology. Continue reading

New Podcast for a New Year (A Verity-able Bounty of Goodness)

Verity! Art Placeholder

Holy crap, it’s almost 2013!  Where does the time go?  Clearly not to blogging, ‘cause I’ve been rubbish at that lately, but I SWEAR I have a really good excuse.  If you’ll point your browser over to veritypodcast.com you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Yes, that’s right, I have finally started a PODCAST.*  Of course it was only a matter of time, and I’m sure this surprises no one, but I am thrilled to the gills at the way it’s taking shape.  I get to talk Doctor Who with five smart, fun female Doctor Who fans.  What’s not to like?  And what’s even better is I get to do most of the technical, fiddly bits.  This has been an excuse to dust off my old editing skills and upgrade my software.  I spent much of this weekend putting together an introductory episode along with our first proper episode, which drops Wednesday.  I also get to play with a new Twitter account and Facebook page.  Fun fun!

So anyway, I suppose I should share the details.  Continue reading