Tara Calaby

writer, editor & phd candidate

Tag: science fiction (page 2 of 2)

Review: Divergent – Veronica Roth

At the age of sixteen, all teenagers are required to undergo aptitude testing and choose the faction that they will belong to for the rest of their lives. For Tris, the decision may mean leaving her family behind, if she decides not to join them in the selfless community of the Abnegation faction. Such choices, however, are only the beginning, as the world around Tris begins to rapidly unravel.

I loved this book. Loved it. I read a few pages over a couple of days, and then sat down and read the majority of its 487 pages in one afternoon, enjoying every moment of it. Divervent hits so many of my happy buttons. Dystopia, personality-based groupings, coming-of-age stories, heroic actions and deaths… this book was essentially written to be just my kind of thing.

Because of that, I’m going to struggle to review it properly. Right now, I mostly just want to rave about the fact that I’ve not been this excited by groupings since Harry Potter. The Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite factions are what make Divergent great, and I think that, through them, Veronica Roth has created a universe that will stick with people long after the plot of her trilogy has become a little fuzzied by time.

I also really enjoy Tris as a protagonist. It is so refreshing to read about a character who is great because of who she is, rather than how she looks. She’s not pretty, she doesn’t look Dauntless-strong and yet she is always presented as having something to offer and as being a girl that people can fall for. As much as it is a book about increasing tension between factions, Divergent is a book about Tris’s personal growth. She is far from perfect and far from confident in her own abilities, but she grows a great deal over the course of the novel and will hopefully continue to do so in the other two books in this trilogy. Certainly, the events of the closing chapters would suggest so.

I also appreciated the slow development of the romance in Divergent and the fact that it is not represented as being the most important part of the story. It feels like the romance is based on common backgrounds and values, not the usual fated attraction or interest based almost entirely on infeasibly perfect appearances. Again – very refreshing.

The supporting characters are all wonderfully developed as well. Christina’s bold and tactless personality is a great counter to Tris’s self doubt and Abnegation upbringing. Four is just the right about of mysterious and always intriguing. Will steadily grew on me as the book progressed and Al is heartbreakingly complex. Tris’s family are all great in different ways and by Jove there are two scenes in the book that will stay with me for a while. The villains are good too. A little too villainous at times, perhaps, so I’m hoping that we get a bit more character development with them in the upcoming books, so that they’re a little more three-dimensional.

I could rave for ages, but instead I shall just reiterate that I loved this book and bemoan the fact that I have to wait until May for the next book, Insurgent to be released. It’s going to be a long six months…

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Air

luna8Issue 008 of Luna Station Quarterly was released yesterday, containing my drabble “Air”.

You can read the magazine on the website or download it to print out and read offline. I definitely recommend taking a look at the second link for the lovely cover art, if nowt else!

Review: Mirror Shards: Extending the Edges of Augmented Reality – Thomas K. Carpenter (ed)

Mirror Shards book coverMirror Shards: Extending the Edges of Augmented Reality is a science fiction anthology comprising thirteen short stories by new and established authors. Augmented reality, for those readers who are looking a little confused right now, deals with the idea of using technology to expand upon (augment!) the real world. Think GPS, but implanted into your eyes. The authors of the collected stories, however, have envisioned the implementation of augmented reality in a broad spectrum of ways, ensuring that readers will not grow bored as they make their way through the analogy.

“El Mirador” – Alex J. Kane
A tale of a tech-filled bounty hunter on the trail of a murderer. The second person narrative in this piece unfortunately made it difficult for me to get into it.

“Music of the Spheres” – Ken Liu
An engaging and thought-provoking exploration of the creation of disability through technology that is not available to everyone.

“These Delicate Creatures” – Melissa Yuan-Innes
The use of tech-enhanced theatre as political dissent is the focus of a clever tale of family and priorities.

“Bellow the Bollocks Line” – T D Edge
A short, but well-imagined, tale of a society in technological overload.

“The Sun is Real” – George Page III
One of my two favourites from the anthology, this piece looks at the use of augmented reality in a prison situation.

“A Book By Its Cover” – Colleen Anderson
One of the two definitely-not-for-young-readers stories in the compilation, this is a creepy tale of immersive entertainment and a woman who wants to be a part of it.

“Of Bone and Steel and Other Soft Materials” – Annie Bellet
An artificially-sighted woman takes on a boy’s kidnappers. A much better story than the title led me to expect!

“Witness Protection” – Louise Herring-Jones
In a futuristic version of the police-based crime story, a new spy device falls into the wrong hands.

“Stage Presence, Baby” – E.M. Schadegg
A singer alters her stage presence through technology in alien-occupied Earth.

“Gift Horses” – Karen Able
In this story, North America is controlled by OverSight, an augmented reality technology manufacturer. Unfortunately, I was left wanting more, as the story seemed to end just as it started getting interesting!

“The Cageless Zoo” – Thomas G. Carpenter
My other favourite, this piece is reminiscent of Jurassic Park. A family attends a futuristic zoo where predators are held through augmented reality instead of cages. Of course, something goes wrong.

“More Real Than Flesh” – Grayson Bray Morris
The other not-for-minors story in the compilation, this piece looks at the sex industry in the future.

“The Watcher” – George Walker
This engrossing piece tells of a DisneySub caught in border skirmishes between India and Pakistan. I felt that this story could easily be used as the basis of a much longer work.

With Mirror Shards, Carpenter has managed to put together a satisfying collection of science fiction writing that comprises a pleasing range of topics, ideas and literary styles. A professional and interesting anthology, it should be enjoyed by both regular readers of speculative fiction and those who like to dabble from time to time.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Shatter Me – Tahereh Mafi

Shatter Me coverJuliette Ferrars can kill with a touch. Treated like a monster all of her life and finally thrown into an asylum and kept in isolation for almost a year, she is eventually collected, only to find that she is wanted as a weapon. Can she trust Adam, the boy she remembers as the only kind student at her school, or is he as bad as her captor, Warner, and the rest of the Reestablishment? Juliette must choose whether to agree to the Reestablishment’s wishes – or to fight back and potentially change the world.

The plot of Shatter Me will be greatly appreciated by lovers of dystopian and paranormal fiction for young readers. We learn about Mafi’s universe slowly, due in part to Juliette’s isolation at the book’s beginning. As she becomes aware of the changes that have taken place since her incarceration, so too does the reader, meaning that the full extent of the Reestablishment’s actions is not clear until the latter half of the book.

As a protagonist, Juliette is a complicated mix of power and vulnerability. She is physically strong, but emotionally weak, relying upon Adam to provide her with the feeling of security she desires. I think this vulnerability will endear her to many readers. Although her abilities set her aside from Mafi’s audience, her fears and insecurities make her nonetheless easy to identify with. It is easy, too, to sympathise with a character who has been so deprived of love and affirmation throughout her life.

It is Adam, however, who is sure to prove the favourite of most readers. He is carefully calculated to make a good proportion of younger readers fall immediately in love with him, from the descriptions of his buff appearance to the deeper aspects of his personality. For those who are greater fans than I of fated romances, Adam should be a much-appreciated leading man!

Personally, however, I was far more intrigued by the character of Warner, leader of the local contingent of the Reestablishment. I’m not sure I was meant to like him and very sure that I shouldn’t, but I have always been a sucker for a bad guy and Warner is so delightfully multi-faceted that I can almost justify his sections of Shatter Me proving to be my highlights. It takes skill to construct an antagonist who is more than just a caricature of evil and, for me, Warner was the character who I wanted to learn more about and wanted Juliette to “learn more about” as well.

Shatter Me has an interesting plot and strong characters, but the stand-out feature of Tahereh Mafi’s debut novel is her prose. This book is not written like your standard young adult offering. The language here doesn’t just tell a story. It becomes like another character, such is the strength of its presence. It pleases me that a book so devoted to the love of words and writing is being published and heavily promoted in a literary era that often values paint-by-numbers offerings over truly eloquent works.

To be fair, Mafi’s style didn’t always work for me. There were points where I found the prose a little too purple or out of keeping with the action it described. I think this is largely a consequence of a conflict between style and content. Poetic metaphor sits much more comfortably with Juliette’s internal monologue whilst confined to a cell than it does in the middle of gunfire. And I think there can be too much metaphor in a book of this length. There is a danger of phrases becoming repetitive or even just feeling repetitive if metaphor is overused.

That said, I will gladly take a novel that perhaps tries to be a little too clever occasionally over one that doesn’t try at all. There is a great deal of talent behind Mafi’s prose and I feel like she is only a little more writing experience away from being a truly incredible author. When she learns to harness her abilities she, like Juliette, will be capable of great things.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Specials – Scott Westerfeld

Specials book coverBeware: this review will necessarily include spoilers for Uglies and Pretties, the other books in this trilogy.

With the New Smoke’s influence and reach growing, Special Circumstances are more active than ever. And the Cutters, a new group of particularly icy Specials under Shay’s leadership, intend to put a halt to their power before things go to far. Tally loves being Special, but will her new heightened senses and abilities prove enough to stop the Smokies from changing the world for good?

I was hoping for big things from Specials. Uglies and Pretties both struck me as good dystopian adventure novels, but I felt as though they were building towards a spectacular conclusion, which would tie together all of the plot threads and character changes and leave me feeling satisfied and wowed. Unfortunately, that wasn’t my experience and, instead, I’m left feeling quite apathetic towards the entire series.

I love the concept of Tally belonging to a different group in each of the books. The difficulty is that, in practice, its a technique that can alienate the reader. I had grown to enjoy her as a protagonist by the end of Pretties, but in Specials I found her even less likeable than in Uglies. In Specials, Westerfeld asks his readers to identify and empathise with a character who is, essentially, a villain. This can work brilliantly when the villain in question is charismatic, mysterious or multi-faceted, but it is here where Tally falls short. She is little more than a puppet.

In contrast, Shay is an interesting character. I remain unconvinced by her personality progression in the trilogy but, here at least, she proves herself the least-offensive of Westerfeld’s female characters. In a series where the protagonist merely reacts to situations (usually under the guidance of a male partner or friend), Shay initiates. However, Shay is the only supporting character who receives any real development in Specials. It may have been intentional on Westerfeld’s behalf, to show an emotional distance that differentiates the Specials, but it meant that an important character death felt rushed and emotionally dull and the conclusion felt unsupported.

Another thing I found lacking in Specials was a counter to the destructive actions that were linked to mental acuity here and in the previous books. The Cutters cut themselves to clear their minds; the Crims deprived themselves of food. I felt that Westerfeld raised important issues, then failed to do anything valuable with them, so that I was left viewing them more as an attempt to be daring than a careful commentary on the challenges that real teens face.

I found the ending of the series particularly dissatisfying. It didn’t ring true to me as a realistic outcome and it felt unsupported by both what Specials showed of Tally’s nature and the Uglies universe as a whole. Instead of being left wishing for more, I confirmed that I had no further interest in reading about this world and the characters within it.

Specials is not a bad book, by any means, but I found it personally unsatisfying. As a stand-alone, I think it would make a good adventure yarn. As a conclusion to a trilogy, however, I found it extremely wanting. There are some great action sequences in here and some clever ideas about a dystopian future that has definite echoes of today’s existence. But I wanted more.

Review: All These Things I’ve Done – Gabrielle Zevin

All These Things I've Done book coverAnya is the orphaned daughter of the former head of the Balanchine family, infamous as one of the big-five families that supply chocolate to the populace despite its prohibition. Due to her family, her life has been filled with crime and even murder, but her own focus lies in taking care of her younger sister and her older brother, whose acquired brain injury makes him younger than his physical years. Anya’s life is fairly routine until the new Assistant DA’s son, Win, arrives at her school. When she falls for Win, however, she finds herself caught between protecting her family and protecting her heart.

I wasn’t sure whether I would like All These Things I’ve Done. The Australian cover is gorgeous, but I have never been a fan of fiction centred around the Mafia, whether in film or book form. It doesn’t hold the allure for me that it does for so many others. However, the focus of this novel is not upon the criminal activities of Anya’s extended family but, rather, upon her relationships with her immediate family members and budding romance with Win. Indeed, the normalcy of a good proportion of All These Things I’ve Done means that it is a book that should be enjoyed by lovers of contemporary YA fiction, despite its futuristic setting and crime-based plot.

For a book that focusses on a Mafiya family, All These Things I’ve Done is surprisingly low-key. While it easily retains the reader’s interest, Gabrielle Zevin accomplishes this not through constant action or page-turning suspense but, rather, through cleverly rendered characters who you can’t help but want to read more about.

Personally, I found Anya the easy stand-out. She is strong and independent and extremely aware of her responsibilities, but is not without her weaknesses as well. Zevin has created a character who truly reads like a sixteen-year-old who has been the protector of her siblings for several years, which is no small feat. Anya combines duty and mature insight with a tendency towards rash behaviour that exposes her youth at times. Above all, however, she is likeable and easy to identify with, despite her unusual upbringing.

All that said, it is Win who will likely prove the favourite of many readers. Kind, devoted and good-looking, he is just the type of romantic interest to gain a large following. For those who are not smitten by Win, Anya’s childhood crush, Yuji Ono, provides an intriguing alternative. I, for one, hope that we’ll see a lot more of him in the rest of the series!

I wasn’t entirely sure about Anya’s best friend, Scarlet, however. It’s hard to give my reasoning without spoilers, but her later alliance with someone who wronged Anya dreadfully towards the beginning of the book seemed unconvincing to me. Certainly, it wasn’t an action of the loyal friend she is painted as – and I’m not sure it sends a good message to Zevin’s readers. It will be interesting to see what comes of this plot point in later books.

Although it is the first book in the Birthright series, All These Things I’ve Done is surprisingly self-contained. While a few threads are left untied, in order to entice readers to continue with the series, those who do not read on will not feel robbed of a satisfactory (if not entirely happy) conclusion to the novel.

There is no reason not to continue reading, however. All These Things I’ve Done is a solid new offering from Gabrielle Zevin that is sure to appeal to a broad range of readers.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Glow – Amy Kathleen Ryan

Glow book coverWaverly and Kieran are the oldest of the first generation of children born on the Empyrean, a ship half-way through its journey across the galaxy on a mission to colonise a new Earth. Happy and in love, their greatest concern is whether or not it is time for them to marry. But a sudden attack from their companion ship, the New Horizon, changes everything, and Waverly and Kieran find themselves torn apart – and forced to find the strength and conviction to become leaders in their changed and dangerous lives.

In writing Glow, Amy Kathleen Ryan has achieved something that few writers manage: she has put forward a novel that offers readers both enthralling action and an intelligent commentary on human nature and behaviour. Just as it is extremely difficult to put Glow down, it is also difficult to come away from reading this novel without thinking deeply about the events within its pages and the beliefs, motivations and manipulations that inspire them. Readers looking for something fluffy and mindless should look elsewhere; here they will find the darker side of humanity, in all its many guises.

One of the most commendable aspects of Glow is Ryan’s respect for her audience. She does not shy away from topics such as sexual assault, parental violence and loss, but rather paints a futuristic world that reflects the failings of our own, simultaneously adding to the authenticity of her universe and characters and acknowledging the ability of young readers to cope with darker literary content. Indeed, it is this frankness that helps give Glow the “crossover appeal” that is so greatly coveted in the YA publishing world. I would have no hesitation recommending it to adult readers; while the novel’s protagonists may be teenagers, its themes and ideas are ageless.

Glow focusses on two main characters, Waverly and Kieran, with the novel switching between their (third person limited) perspectives. Waverly is a fantastic character. She is strong in all the right ways, without ever feeling too capable to the point of being unrealistic. When she is rash, her behaviour is motivated by her feelings for the people around her, and she does not cope easily with the darker side of fighting back. Her interactions with other female characters are cooperative, and she has worth in her own right, not just in relation to the novel’s male characters. There should be more YA protagonists like Ryan’s Waverly.

In contrast, I found Kieran more difficult to like and certainly more difficult to identify with. It is a testimony to Ryan’s ability that his sections of the text could be different enough from Waverly’s sections that they were able to leave me with a feeling of uneasiness, as opposed to my easy appreciation of Waverly. Kieran’s self-assuredness and conviction felt somehow dangerous. And yet Seth, whose actions should have made me despise him, seemed more likeable – and perhaps even safer. He is violent and dishonest, but somehow Ryan manages to convey that there is more to him than that. I loved the fact that I didn’t know how to feel where Glow‘s main male characters were concerned.

The most obvious example of Ryan’s talent for tearing reader assumptions into pieces can be seen through her exploration of the attitudes and actions of the religious and secular leaders aboard the two ships. There is no easy, black-and-white delineation of good and bad here. Glow is a study in greys. That is what makes it such a great book. My only real criticism is that this uncertainty extends to the novel’s conclusion. As the first book in a series, it lacks a solid ending, encouraging the reader to return for more – but perhaps leaving them a little unsatisfied in the interim.

I hope that Glow will receive the recognition and popularity it deserves. In a market that deals so often in reworks of the latest fad, it stands apart as a book with true depth. I can’t wait to read the sequel.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Chasers – James Phelan

Chasers coverIn New York for a UN Youth Ambassadors camp, Jesse is on a subway with friends when an explosion and the subsequent fireball devastates their train and most of the people in it. They make their way above ground, only to find the city in ruins. The dead are everywhere, there is no sign of help and the other survivors have changed.

Wow, what a gripping novel Chasers is! It took me a couple of chapters to grow accustomed to Jesse’s first person voice but, once I got a little further into the book, it was extremely hard to stop reading. Now, having finished it, I’d be picking up the sequel right away if it weren’t for the fact that I have other books I’m committed to reading first.

In a lot of ways, the general storyline of Chasers is not particularly ground-breaking. It’s a fairly simple tale of post-apocalyptic survival (with added zombie-like creatures) and there isn’t a great deal that actually happens in the novel, but somehow James Phelan has managed to infuse his story with a power that goes beyond its surface appearance.

Chasers is more than the action-horror that it initially seems to be. Its strength lies in Phelan’s portrayal of the inner workings of his protagonist. The reader witnesses the changes that are wrought in Jesse by the situation he finds himself in – not so much through his own self analysis as through his interactions both with his companions and with the city around him. More than a tale of physical survival in a ravaged world, this is an exploration of the human mind and of the ways in which an individual, emotionally injured by a traumatising situation, constructs purpose and meaning in order to carry on.

Of course, Chasers is also a fast-paced novel, with plenty of suspense to keep the reader turning the pages until the mind-blowing ending. The reader is no more informed as to the circumstances leading to the destruction of New York than Jesse is, giving the book a constant feel of urgency. Chasers raises a lot of questions, few of which are answered in this, the first book in a series. Luckily, Phelan’s world and characters are interesting enough that I am more than happy to read the subsequent books in order to get some more answers.

Jesse is a sympathetic protagonist, with an authentic teen voice. He is supported by the carefully diverse characters of Dave, Mini and Anna. While it is Anna who Jesse is most enamoured of, she is possibly the least-defined of his friends. Dave is complicated and sometimes confusing, but he makes perfect sense in the end. Of the three, Mini is the most likeable. Her quiet presence adds much-needed warmth to the (necessary) bleakness of the novel.

The one thing that I struggled with while reading Chasers was the absence of quotation marks throughout most of the book. There was a reason for their exclusion, but I’m unsure as to whether the stylistic choice was clever enough to warrant the confusion it sometimes allowed.

That said, I’m willing to forgive a lot from a novel that gave me such a perfect punch to the stomach in its closing pages. It’s the ending that makes Chasers as good as it is. Once you get there, you realise just how artfully constructed the entire work is – and want to go right back to the beginning to read it all over again.

Chasers is Phelan’s first YA novel. In a growing teen market, he is definitely an author to watch.

Review: Harmonica and Gig – RJ Astruc

Harmonica and Gig coverThree qverse experts are hired to investigate the suspicious death of a qverse employee. There’s talk that his very brain was hacked and INTROMET matriarch Viger Singer is willing to offer a million dollar incentive (alongside a smidge of identity-revealing blackmail) in exchange for a result. Regina ‘Harmonica’ Carter – forty-something, cynical and the top of her game – is pitted against Lloyd ‘Talobos’ Hong and Felix ‘Gig’ McGuiggen, a designer-gened and paranoid hacker in his twenties. But, as their investigations continue, Harmonica and Gig begin to question the nature of the game they’ve been thrust into.

I have always loved RJ Astruc’s writing. She has the ability to draw me into stories that sit outside my usual reading tastes and to make me enjoy the kind of characters that normally I’d barely acknowledge. Her fiction combines an elegant and distinctive writing style with an ever-present sense of humour, which informs Harmonica and Gig‘s characters and universe. Although not a comedy, the novel displays a similar grasp of the quirks of human nature. Astruc is not afraid to give her characters flaws and, in doing so, allows them to break free of the usual sci-fi archetypes.

The qverse of Harmonica and Gig is well-imagined and described in such a way that its constant presence in the book’s universe feels natural from the very beginning. At times, the technological concepts discussed made my head spin a little, but this was likely due to their nature rather than any fault with their depiction. Indeed, this is a very tech-heavy novel, as the storyline would imply. Set in the near(ish) future, it combines new technology with the familiar in a surprisingly comfortable manner.

Although Harmonica and Gig employs a third person perspective, the chapters are split between Astruc’s two protagonists. Each has a distinctive personality, although this is demonstrated more through their thoughts and actions than the voice of their respective sections, allowing the writing to remain uniform throughout.

Harmonica is a fantastic character. She is strong, bold and unapologetic. Her actions are occasionally rash and she has one hell of a commitment phobia, but such characteristics are what make her so likeable. Harry’s a little bit larger than life, but she is not a caricature. And books need more female characters who are portrayed as being sexy (and sexual) beyond their twenties.

In contrast, Gig appears quite weak at first. He is young and pretty and seems out of his depth in comparison to Harry and Talobos. I, personally, didn’t find him as gripping a character as Harmonica, but grew to appreciate his different approach to the situation and to life in general. He is the perfect foil for Harry and his relative vulnerability is important in a book that deals largely in powerful and seemingly-invincible characters.

Harmonica and Gig is a wonderful sci-fi thriller but, for me, the absolute highlight of the novel is its universe. Astruc melds cultures and societies into a believable mid-twenty-first century world. Australia has become SouthAsia – a melding of Anglo and Asian peoples and cultures. The novel’s characters reflect the new racial landscape and offer an unforced glimpse into the social changes that have taken place alongside the technological changes described in the book. But Harmonica and Gig does not moralise. Indeed, its universe is refreshingly matter-of-fact.

Harmonica and Gig is an excellent novel that goes beyond its genre in presenting a storyline that is accessible to all but the most hardened of speculative fiction despisers. For those who consider themselves science fiction aficionados, it’s a must-read.

(NB: The author of this novel is a friend of mine.)

Review: Galaxy of Heroes – Gus Flory

Galaxy of Heroes is set in the distant future – a future where the human race is scattered far from Earth and under the constant threat of violence and extinction from the more powerful inhabitants of the universe. It focuses around the experiences of four main characters who share a common history and who meet again as the action unfolds.

The most memorable of these characters is easily the larger-than-life Captain Jace Spade and this is ultimately his story. He’s not completely likeable, but that makes him more realistic. The other character of note is Genie, a cyborg created to be irresistible to men. Through her, interesting questions of futuristic ethics are raised; the idea of a sentient, albeit manufactured, creature being programmed for sexual and romantic slavery is a difficult one.

In the end, however, the strong point of this novel is the story itself. Flory is not the most elegant of writers, and there are places where a little further editing could have improved the flow of the writing and reduced unnecessary repetition, but there is no question that he can tell a gripping tale. Galaxy of Heroes is almost solid action from start to finish, and there was no point at which I felt bored by what I was reading. The universe that is created within this book’s pages is clever and well fleshed out, and the descriptions of battle are excellent.

I hope Flory goes on to write more – perhaps even more in this very universe. I, for one, would be glad to read it.

(I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.)

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