Book Review – The Sparrow

I hadn’t even heard of this book until it was brought up by one of my local book clubs. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell was published in 1996 and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and the British Science Fiction Association Award. A mini-series based on the book is currently under development at FX.

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Here is the blurb:

In 2019, humanity finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post picks up exquisite singing from the planet Rakhat. While the U.N. debates possible contact missions, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an 8-person expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question what it means to be human.

This brief description hardly begins to explain the scope of this book. The story unfolds in two parallel time frames, one telling how an alien radio signal was discovered and a secret interplanetary mission was sent to search out the planet from whence it originated. The second part follows the trauma of the sole survivor to return from that mission, a Jesuit priest, Emilio Sandoz.

The plot develops slowly, but that didn’t matter as much to me as it usually does, being a plot-oriented reader. The way the character development was done and how the relationships between each character were slowly drawn were engrossing and made up for the lack of immediate drama. This is heartbreaking at the same time, for you already know at the outset that something terrible is going to happen to all these people.

Emilio Sandoz becomes the spiritual force behind the mission, and much of this book is about his faith in God at different points in his life. Everyone on this mission has their own reasons for being there, and while the expedition is driven by the Jesuits, this is not a book that glorifies religion. Rather, it asks questions of how far one will go for faith and how events can be interpreted by those with blind faith in their God. In the end, can tragedy be written off as God’s will? Or is it better to forgo all belief in such a system?

Have you read The Sparrow or anything else by Mary Doria Russell? Let me know in the comments.

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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.

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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.

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Book Review – Binti: The Complete Trilogy

I read Binti: The Complete Trilogy last fall as a book club pick and enjoyed it a lot. Binti is a character in a series of novellas by author Nnedi Okarafor and this volume brings all three of the novellas together in one book, with a bonus new story included. Please follow my Amazon links to help support this blog.

Raised in a traditional village amongst her Himba people, Binti leaps at the chance to attend Oomza University off-planet. Her decision upsets her family, but she believes that the chance to study at this prestigious school outweighs their concerns. Before she can even get there, her ship is attacked by the Medusae and everyone but her is killed.

Binti must communicate with the Medusae and prevent a catastrophe at the university while she struggles to personally deal with the aftermath of the slaughter. Each story in this book takes place at slightly different times, but they all follow logically. Eventually we see how Binti deals with her decision to leave home and how her people receive her when she returns.

The new story in the book is a pleasant tale and adds a little to the characters of the other students at the university. Overall, I really liked how Binti viewed the world as a character. Even though she rebels to some extent by leaving home, she is still one of the Himba people. Her unique outlook makes her character more real and her struggles are based in trying to reconcile her relationships with the universe, her family, and her people.

I don’t know if there will be any further Binti stories or not. The book comes to a satisfying conclusion, but doesn’t rule out another tale. If you want to just start with the first novella, you can find that one (just titled Binti) here.

Read more of my reviews here.

Book Review – The Evolutionary Void

The Evolutionary Void is the third book in the Void series by Peter F. Hamilton, concluding the science fiction epic. I listened to the audio version of this book, read by John Lee.

This final volume in the Void series is a brilliant conclusion in which Hamilton somehow manages to wrap up all of the plot threads in a way that is satisfying, true to the characters, and answers all the questions that I had about the Void.

The story is told in two parts, like the previous volumes, with most of the scenes taking place in the Commonwealth, and suitably less of the novel taken up by Edeard’s story, as it concludes by making final connections to the rest of the series.

After Edeard learns to manipulate the Void fabric and roll back the events of his life, he decides that he needs to make all of the world’s problems right. His journey through different lifetimes shows us glimpses of how each decision turns out. Toward the end of the book, we finally get to see Inigo’s final dream.

Araminta has been revealed as the Second Dreamer and has fled Viotia on the Silfen paths as this book begins. She debates her options while continuing to stay one step ahead of Living Dream. She is one of my favorite characters in the book, with her creative problem solving in the face of overwhelming odds.

The nebulous conflict between the factions in ANA ramps up, with the Accelerator Faction taking a larger role. Gore Burnelli becomes a more prominent character in the aftermath of a devastating move by the Accelerators, and the nature of the Deterrence Fleet is also revealed.

Aaron, the mysterious operative with no memory of his past, and with a mission that only reveals itself in parts, is falling apart. Nightmares threaten his ability to function and push him into an even more violent and unpredictable state.

All the characters and plot elements are finally brought together as Living Dream launches its pilgrimage, Justine Burnelli nears Querencia, Gore Burnelli schemes, the factions reveal their agents and goals, and others attempt to stop the Void’s expansion.

Like in the previous Void books, the author blends science fiction with elements of fantasy in Edeard’s story and the existence of the elf-like Silfen. Even more subtle aspects of the world-building echo the fantasy genre, with the Knights Guardian resembling paladins in that they follow an ethos as they carry out their quest. Characters from the long-ago past also continue to appear in this last volume, so reading Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained before the Void series is helpful.

One of the biggest themes in this series is how the human race could evolve into another state, or a post-physical existence. While some think that the Void could offer this, others believe that it is up to each race to reach this potential on their own. Some species in Hamilton’s world have already done so, and humanity seems to be halfway there, with the ability to store one’s consciousness in ANA to later resume physical life in a cloned body, or to rejuvenate one’s body for a life that can last over a thousand years.

This is actually one of my favorite themes in science fiction and is not original to this book. However, the Void series does take a closer look at how humanity may go about reaching this post-physical ascension, whether it’s through technology of our own, that borrowed from alien cultures, or through a more metaphysical method in using the psychic powers granted by the Void.

One small quibble that I had with this book was that I think it delved into these metaphysical descriptions a bit too much toward the end, as well as some theoretical physics that read more like technobabble to me. For someone with more of a background in physics, the ideas may have been more interesting.

The ending of the series wraps up essentially all of the questions that I had, and is a fitting conclusion for the characters. I’m a bit sad that this series is over, but I fully intend to track down the author’s other books in the future.

Have you read the Void series? What about Peter F. Hamilton’s other books? Let me know in the comments below!

Find my other book reviews here.

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