Book Review – A Memory Called Empire

I had been meaning to get to this book for some time since it won the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel. For some reason I had it in my head that this was a fantasy novel, but A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine is actually a science fiction tale of politics and intrigue.

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Here is the blurb:

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.

Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.

This book was a wonderful and fast read for me. I had some trouble keeping the people straight at first, as the citizens of the Empire were named after first a number and then an inanimate object (ex. Three Seagrass).

The protagonist, Mahit, has studied the language and the culture of the Teixcalaanli Empire for her whole life and carries the memories and some of the personality of the previous ambassador in an implant next to her brain. When this implant malfunctions, she is at the mercy of her local liason and newly formed political connections that might be trying to kill her, making her a sympathetic outsider and a fun character to read about.

The world-building was intricate, and even though we only see a small portion of the Empire, it all felt very real. The characters were plausible and well-drawn, and the ending was a shock that made sense in hindsight.

While a second book was just released, the story in A Memory Called Empire does reach a satisfying conclusion, so you could read this as a stand-alone if you wish. I’m planning to read the next book, A Desolation Called Peace very soon though!

Have you read this book? Let me know in the comments above.

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Book Review – The City & The City

I had wanted to read something by China Miéville for some time and this novel came up in one of my book clubs. So I finally had my chance. The City & The City is a stand-alone novel that tied for a Hugo Award for best novel, won the Locus Award, World Fantasy Award, and Arthur C. Clarke Award, and was nominated for a Nebula Award.

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Here is the blurb:

When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he investigates, the evidence points to conspiracies far stranger and more deadly than anything he could have imagined.

Borlú must travel from the decaying Beszel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own. This is a border crossing like no other, a journey as psychic as it is physical, a shift in perception, a seeing of the unseen. His destination is Beszel’s equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the rich and vibrant city of Ul Qoma. With Ul Qoman detective Qussim Dhatt, and struggling with his own transition, Borlú is enmeshed in a sordid underworld of rabid nationalists intent on destroying their neighboring city, and unificationists who dream of dissolving the two into one. As the detectives uncover the dead woman’s secrets, they begin to suspect a truth that could cost them and those they care about more than their lives.

What stands against them are murderous powers in Beszel and in Ul Qoma: and, most terrifying of all, that which lies between these two cities.

Casting shades of Kafka and Philip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler and 1984, The City & the City is a murder mystery taken to dazzling metaphysical and artistic heights.

Overall, this book just wasn’t for me. I found the author’s writing style hard to follow and I can’t pinpoint exactly why. Something about the sentence structure and the way he writes dialogue made this a hard book to get into.

The story started off intriguing enough with a murder investigation in a strange mish-mash of coexisting cities, their separation enforced by the mysterious power of Breach. I felt like the plot dragged and it wasn’t until about two-thirds of the way through the story that it became more suspenseful.

This next part is a little spoilery:

What bothered me the most about this book is that the most fascinating aspect – the nature of the two cities and rumor of a secret third city – was not the point of the book. The murder is solved and has a mundane explanation, while the third city is just a red herring. Meh.

Have you read anything by China Miéville? Would you recommend a different book of his based on my problems with this one? Let me know in the comments.

Find more of my reviews here.

Book Review – All Clear

I just finished listening to the audiobook version of All Clear by Connie Willis, narrated by Katherine Kellgren. This book is the second part of one long story that started in Blackout, which I reviewed here, and is part of the author’s larger Oxford Time Travel book series. This duology won the Hugo, Locus, and Nebula awards.

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Here is the blurb:

In Blackout, award-winning author Connie Willis returned to the time-traveling future of 2060—the setting for several of her most celebrated works—and sent three Oxford historians to World War II England: Michael Davies, intent on observing heroism during the Miracle of Dunkirk; Merope Ward, studying children evacuated from London; and Polly Churchill, posing as a shopgirl in the middle of the Blitz. But when the three become unexpectedly trapped in 1940, they struggle not only to find their way home but to survive as Hitler’s bombers attempt to pummel London into submission.

Now the situation has grown even more dire. Small discrepancies in the historical record seem to indicate that one or all of them have somehow affected the past, changing the outcome of the war. The belief that the past can be observed but never altered has always been a core belief of time-travel theory—but suddenly it seems that the theory is horribly, tragically wrong.

Meanwhile, in 2060 Oxford, the historians’ supervisor, Mr. Dunworthy, and seventeen-year-old Colin Templer, who nurses a powerful crush on Polly, are engaged in a frantic and seemingly impossible struggle of their own—to find three missing needles in the haystack of history.

Told with compassion, humor, and an artistry both uplifting and devastating, All Clear is more than just the triumphant culmination of the adventure that began with Blackout. It’s Connie Willis’s most humane, heartfelt novel yet—a clear-eyed celebration of faith, love, and the quiet, ordinary acts of heroism and sacrifice too often overlooked by history.

I enjoyed this book more than the first half of the story in Blackout, probably because I was more invested in the characters by this point, and we see the characters figure out the mystery behind their problems with time travel. I think that the story worked better having the three main characters in contact with each other as well, rather than constantly missing each other as they did in Blackout.

The audio production of both these books was nicely done also. While this is quite a long story, my attention didn’t wander often while listening, which is more likely for me with an audiobook than a physical book.

The ending of the book brings everything to a satisfying close. I anticipated some of the outcomes but the author still threw in some facets that I hadn’t thought about. This is the kind of book that may be worth rereading once you know how it ends since there are many small pieces to the story that I likely missed on the first pass.

Have you read any of Connie Willis’s time travel books? Let me know in the comments.

Find more of my book reviews here.

Book Review – Blackout

I am not a huge history buff and it has been decades since I took a history class. However, I did delve into Connie Willis’s time travel books a few years ago with The Doomsday Book, set mostly during the spread of the Black Death in medieval England. I really enjoyed that story, but I don’t think I ever reviewed it here.

My book club wanted to read Blackout, another book in the series, set mainly during World War II. This is a book that you can pick up even if you haven’t read the earlier ones, as they’re loosely related. However, Blackout is only the beginning of a two-part story that is finished in the book All Clear, which I plan to start reading next.

The duology won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel and the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.

Here is the blurb:

Oxford in 2060 is a chaotic place, with scores of time-traveling historians being sent into the past. Michael Davies is prepping to go to Pearl Harbor. Merope Ward is coping with a bunch of bratty 1940 evacuees and trying to talk her thesis adviser into letting her go to VE-Day. Polly Churchill’s next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London’s Blitz. But now the time-travel lab is suddenly canceling assignments and switching around everyone’s schedules. And when Michael, Merope, and Polly finally get to World War II, things just get worse. For there they face air raids, blackouts, and dive-bombing Stukas–to say nothing of a growing feeling that not only their assignments but the war and history itself are spiraling out of control. Because suddenly the once-reliable mechanisms of time travel are showing significant glitches, and our heroes are beginning to question their most firmly held belief: that no historian can possibly change the past.

I listened to Blackout as an audiobook (narrated by Katherine Kellgren), and while I enjoyed the book, I felt a little bogged down in some of the details. However, that is also one of the strong points of the book. The author does a wonderful job portraying the details of everyday life in WW2 England and interweaving that with the historical events. Being a terrible history student, I can’t say how accurate these details are, but it certainly feels authentic when reading it.

The characters feel well-drawn but are a bit frustrating to read about at times. I wanted to shout at them occasionally, but part of the story seems to be about how coincidence and accidents shaped history. The overall theme here relates to whether the past can be changed by these small events, and in the end, that question is still unanswered in this book.

In terms of pacing, I also felt like it took a while for the plot to emerge because there isn’t any real antagonist. Hitler is in the background of the plot, but the three main characters aren’t supposed to have any direct role in the war. Once things start to go wrong, it takes time for them to finally become convinced something is wrong and start to deal with it.

I did enjoy the book enough that I need to read the sequel though. None of the plot threads are resolved in this one, and I read that the publisher had split the original manuscript for the book into two volumes because of the length, so the author had intended it to be one long story.

Have you read Blackout or any of Connie Willis’s other books? Let me know in the comments.

Find more of my reviews here. And please follow the links to help support this blog.

Book Review – Dragonflight

Sometimes I wonder if books I had read and loved when growing up would still stand up if I read them again now. One of my book clubs decided to read Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey a few months ago, so I had a chance to evaluate that idea.

As a pre-teen and teenager, I read everything that Anne McCaffrey had written, including multiple re-reads of the Dragonriders of Pern series. I have to say that Dragonflight certainly still stands up as one of my favorite books of all time. While it is the first book in a series, it can also be read as a stand-alone.

Here is the blurb, which is a bit spoilery:

To the nobles who live in Ruatha Hold, Lessa is nothing but a ragged kitchen girl. For most of her life she has survived by serving those who betrayed her father and took over his lands. Now the time has come for Lessa to shed her disguise—and take back her stolen birthright.

But everything changes when she meets a queen dragon. The bond they share will be deep and last forever. It will protect them when, for the first time in centuries, Lessa’s world is threatened by Thread, an evil substance that falls like rain and destroys everything it touches. Dragons and their Riders once protected the planet from Thread, but there are very few of them left these days. Now brave Lessa must risk her life, and the life of her beloved dragon, to save her beautiful world. . .

The first sections of this book were originally published as novellas in Analog Science Fiction Magazine. The first of these, Weyr Search, won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards for Best Novella, making McCaffrey the first woman to win either award.

The story follows two main characters, with Lessa being the more dominant lead character. She came across as more prickly and less trusting than I remembered her to be. The plot moves quickly and introduces the reader to the telepathic dragons and the civilization that has adapted to Pern and the unique threat of Thread that falls from the sky.

I have always felt like the Dragonriders of Pern were more fantasy to me than science fiction, but on this re-read I do see how the science fiction aspects are woven in to hint at the underlying science background to the world of Pern to a greater extent than I remembered in this first book.

If you’ve never read anything by Anne McCaffrey, this is a wonderful book to start with. You can also continue with books 2 (Dragonquest) and 3 (The White Dragon) to complete the first section of the series. In my opinion, the eleventh book, All the Weyrs of Pern should have been the last book, as I felt like nothing else needed to be resolved after that ending. I read one or two in the series after that, but it just wasn’t the same world to me.

Read more of my reviews here. And please follow the links to help support this blog.

Book Review – This Is How You Lose the Time War

I picked this book up on a whim when I was looking for more stand-alone science fiction novels. I haven’t read a lot of time travel fiction, so why not explore a bit?

This is How You Lose the Time War was just nominated for a Hugo in the Best Novella category as well. I wasn’t familiar with authors Amal El-Mohtar or Max Gladstone prior to this. Please follow my Amazon affiliate links to help support this blog.

The way that this book is structured is unusual in that it is told from the perspectives of two opposing time-traveling agents, Red and Blue. Each one works for their faction to win a war that has raged across alternate timelines. The narrative switches between short scenes in which each agent finds a letter from their opposite, followed by the text of that letter.

I really like the way that this book was written as it was a fresh way to explore this type of concept. The language was beautiful but also a bit inaccessible at times. I’m sure I missed some of the references that the book makes.

The best part of this novel for me were the glimpses of each alternate reality through history, from Atlantis and prehistoric times to fishing villages and space battles. We never get to see much of each one, but the characters experienced just enough to draw me in.

Overall, I felt this book was too long for what it was trying to do. Part of the ending was easily predictable, but one aspect did surprise me. I think that it could have been just as effective though with fewer exchanges between Red and Blue.

This book won’t be for everyone, but as it is a novella, it’s fairly short. I’m glad I read it, but it isn’t going to be one of my favorites.

Read more of my reviews here.

Book Review – The City in the Middle of the Night

I am still very much behind on my book reviews, but since the Hugo award nominees were just announced, I thought I’d share my thoughts on those nominated works that I’ve already read. Please follow my Amazon affiliate links to help support this blog.

So this is a book review of The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders. This book has been nominated for a Hugo for Best Novel. I listened to the audiobook version of this a couple of months ago. I reviewed the authors previous book, All the Birds in the Sky, here, and it was one of my favorite reads for 2019.

The premise in The City in the Middle of the Night is that people have colonized a planet that is tidally-locked. That means that it doesn’t rotate, so one side always faces toward the sun while the other side always faces away from it. This sets up a rather inhospitable environment where one side of the planet is too hot for people to survive, while the other is unbearably cold.

On this planet, humans have struggled to survive along the border between these two extremes. Making their lives even harder, dangerous alien life lives on the planet and the technology that was brought with the original colonists is breaking down and cannot be rebuilt.

The novel is told through the perspectives of two main characters. Sophie is a student in the city of Xiosphant where people’s circadian rhythms are regimented by the government in the absence of normal day-night cycles. She is in love with her best friend, Bianca, but when she takes the blame for her friend’s minor theft, she finds herself dragged from the safety of the city.

Abandoned and left for dead in the night outside the city, Sophie is beset upon by an alien called a Crocodile by the cityfolk. She surrenders herself to the monster, only to learn that the creatures are sentient as it helps her survive the cold and return to the city.

The second main character is Mouth, a member of the Resourceful Couriers, an illegal caravan that trades between cities, risking the dangers of the road. Mouth was once a member of the nomadic citizens, but all her people died tragically, leaving her alone to remember their culture. When she arrives in Xiosphant, she becomes obsessed with obtaining a citizen artifact from the palace. Her own story starts to overlap with that of Sophie and Bianca as Bianca joins a building rebellion and Sophie begins to engage again with the people of the city.

The plot is secondary to the relationships in this book, and while the narrative kept me interested, in the end, I found myself wanting more resolution in terms of the plot that had been building from the beginning. My opinions of each important character changed as I learned more about them and as they made their choices through the story, and they all felt very real and well drawn to me. I didn’t necessarily like them all, but I understood why they behaved the way that they did to each other.

I still enjoyed this book, but not as much as All the Birds in the Sky. It almost feels like the plot needs a sequel, but my understanding is that this is currently a stand-alone book.

Read more of my reviews here.

Book Review – The Three-Body Problem

While one of my goals since 2019 has been to finish reading some of the series that I’ve started, I can’t help but read books by new-to-me authors, which often means starting new series. I have also been trying to read from a more diverse selection of authors, so one book that I had been interested in was The Three-Body Problem by Chinese author Cixin Liu. This book is one of the most popular science fiction novels in China, and is book one of a trilogy (Remembrance of Earth’s Past). The translation by Ken Liu brought the book to English-speaking audiences and it won the Hugo award for Best Novel in 2015.

This book gets its name from a famous physics problem that tries to model the motion of three celestial bodies. I had never heard of this, and this is one reason why I like to read hard science fiction. It encourages me to look things up and to learn more about the world.

I also learned about the Chinese Cultural Revolution by reading this book. If you’ve never learned that part of history, it is worth looking into and doing some reading. This event has been likened to the Holocaust in terms of the lives lost and the discrimination that occurred at that time. So while the characters in the book are fictional, the historical setting for parts of the story is not.

The narrative follows a couple of characters, but the central protagonist is Wang Miao, a nanotech scientist. An unknown force seems to be interfering in science and working against progress all around the world. Miao ends up playing an immersive video game where he must solve puzzles on a strangely changing world, unlocking hints to what is really going on.

Most of the characters in the story are scientists, but one of the most interesting characters is a police investigator who spurs Miao to investigate. The different threads of the plot come together toward the end of the book and even though this is the first book in a trilogy, enough is revealed to have some resolution by the end.

One thing that I learned after finishing this book was that the original Chinese text had been told in a different order. The sections detailing events during the Cultural Revolution had been in later parts to help reduce the chance that the book would be censored.

I am glad that I read this book, but I doubt that I will continue on with the series. I never really identified with any of the characters and found the anti-humanity themes off-putting. The concepts were interesting but there wasn’t enough to encourage me to keep reading.

Read more of my reviews here. Oh, and please follow my Amazon affiliate links to help support this blog.

Book Review – The Stone Sky

The Stone Sky is the third and final volume in N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, and brings it to a satisfying conclusion. I read this as an e-book, and while this wasn’t my favorite book by the author, I found it to be an intriguing series that finally brought the reader to an understanding of the strange world of the Stillness by the end.

The Stone Sky won the 2018 Hugo award for Best Novel, making Jemisin the first author to win this accolade in three consecutive years. Follow these links to find my reviews for the first book (The Fifth Season) and the second book (The Obelisk Gate).


This book begins immediately after the events in The Obelisk Gate, so it’s going to be hard to avoid spoilers if you aren’t caught up to that point. Read on at your own risk.

Essun has survived after activating the obelisk gate, but has found that she must now pay the same price as Alabaster when she uses orogeny at this point. Her body is being gradually transformed into stone. Each time this happens, she lets her stone-eater companion, Hoa, consume the inert flesh to relieve her of its weight.

Hoa features a greater part in this final book as he tells us of his origin. He was not always a stone-eater, but even in his previous form he had never been accepted as a normal part of society. Finally, we learn what happened in the distant past and how the world came to be the way it is.

The third part of this book follows Nassun, Essun’s daughter, as she comes to terms with her the ability to change the world and possibly end it for everyone. While her mother seeks to heal the world and repair the damage wrought by humans, Nassun sees salvation in complete destruction of humanity.

Once it is clear that mother and daughter have both similar but opposing goals, their stories converge, building to a final conflict. Schaffa exists as a father-figure to Nassun in this book, continuing his transformation and showing how even the Guardians have been victims through history.

I enjoyed this series, but I wonder if I missed some of the finer points while struggling to figure out how the world worked. One example is that I didn’t understand why Essun would partially turn to stone for using orogeny after she had activated the obelisk gate. I think it may be fun to re-read all of the books to catch those details on a second read, but I don’t often have time to do this. (Too many books, too little time!)

If you’re looking for fantasy with a unique setting, world-building, and realistic characters, then this is a great series. Themes throughout the books include looking at oppression of different races and classes, suppressing history, and a difficult mother-daughter relationship.

Read more of my reviews here.

Book Review – The Obelisk Gate

The Obelisk Gate is the second book in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series and won the Hugo award for Best Novel in 2017. You can find my review of the first book, The Fifth Season, here.


The story in this second volume follows two main point-of-view characters, Essun, who we know from the first book, and Nassun, her daughter, who we have only seen through Essun’s memories up until now.

The prose is written in the same unusual style as the earlier book, with sections of second person point-of-view told by an unknown narrator in staggered interlude chapters. (That narrator is revealed toward the end.)

The world-building continues to shine in this book. The geologically active continent has been broken, and a volcanic winter (what the people call the Fifth Season) is imminent. Certain people with the skill to use orogeny can pull the energy of the earth’s heat out to power magical feats. Additional aspects of magic are developed in this second volume, and I did get a little confused about which energy did what and how.

Essun has settled in at Castrima, where her ex-lover and mentor, Alabaster, tries to teach her to harness the power of the obelisks. His time is limited as he slowly turns to stone in the aftermath of breaking the world. As he petrifies, he is devoured by his companion stone eater. Essun’s own stone eater ally, Hoa, continues to protect her, but no one knows why the stone eaters have made their specific alliances or what their endgame may be.

The timeline for Nassun reverts to the first book’s events and begins immediately after her father, Jija, murders her brother for being an orogene. In The Fifth Season, I had wondered why Jija had not gone on to kill Nassun, knowing that she must also be an orogene.

The other main character in the book is Schaffa, Essun’s Fulcrum Guardian. He had been left for dead in the aftermath of the Guardians’ attack at the end of the first book. Schaffa succumbs to a deep and evil power to save himself and emerges with memory loss and a deadly ignorance of his own abilities.

This book was about relationships between individuals as well as classes and races. Much of the plot deals with how Essun and Alabaster learn to work together again, while Nassun deals with the dying relationship with her father as Schaffa replaces him in that role.

The setting of Castrima, an underground geode where orogenes live amongst non-orogene humans, provides a backdrop for conflict between the two peoples. Castrima’s life-preserving mechanisms will not work without an orogene present, but tensions rise and old prejudices drive people to violence.

Essun must control her own power as she becomes a target in this power struggle. She has to learn from Alabaster in a desperate attempt to save all the people and end the seasons forever.

I enjoyed this story a lot, but found the first book to be better. The action in this middle book felt like it stagnated a bit, but it was still fascinating to read about the world that Jemisin has imagined. I’m looking forward to the third book, The Stone Sky.

Find more of my reviews here.

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