#SciFiMonth Novella Review: The Past Is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

The Past Is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopia

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Tor.com (July 20, 2021)

Length: 160 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Novellas are not my preferred format and I rarely seek them out on my own, but whenever I come across anything by Catherynne Valente, I feel it warrants a look. While her books are by no means always my cup of tea, at least I can be sure I’ll be getting something damned cool and original.

The Past is Red happens to match both those descriptions—and it worked very well for me. The story, which takes place in the future on an Earth flooded by climate change, opens on the life of a girl named Tetley. She and her twin brother, Maruchan, were born in Garbagetown, an island of refuse floating on the ocean. But even in this society made up of some of the world’s last survivors, there exists stratification. Parts of Garbagetown are named the leavings of humanity where they have more or less ended up, so Pill Hill is where all the pharmaceutical waste has collected, Electric City is full of old batteries, and so on and so forth.

Each section’s residents have their own unique customs, culture, and societal status. Against all odds, Tetley, who hails from Candlehole, meets a boy from Electric City named Goodnight Moon, forming a lifelong friendship despite their differences. However, all that comes to an end when a terrible truth is revealed to Tetley, and she takes it upon herself to literally blow it all up. For many years after that, she lives in isolation, ostracized by everyone including her own family. Still, she has never regretted her violent actions, believing Garbagetown to be a magical, wonderful place anyone would be lucky to call home. She can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to leave and sail into the great unknown just to chase an illusion, but she accepts her punishment and is prepared to live alone for the rest of the days…until a visitor shows up with a mysterious summons, bearing intriguing gifts.

Somewhere in my pile of books is a copy of The Future is Blue, an anthology containing the title story in which Tetley first appears. The Past is Red is an expansion of that novelette into a lengthier work giving us an update on the character, and I love that it offers a glimmer of hope in her otherwise dark and broken world. That said, this story is still pretty bleak. Tetley literally lives on a garbage heap, she doesn’t get much love at home, and she is harassed and bullied mercilessly whenever she’s out and about. When you’re living a life hers, there just doesn’t seem to be much to look forward to.

And yet, that isn’t going to stop this girl from dreaming, even if her dreams for the future are vastly different from everyone else’s. While the rest of the world is still chasing a fantasy, building grand plans to leave Garbagetown, or losing themselves in utopic visions that may never come to pass, Tetley has her feet planted firmly in the detritus-strewn streets asking questions like, “Well, just what is so wrong about what we have right in front of us?” Why bother seeking out a new land, after all, if we’re just going to fuck it all up again? Why not just stay and rebuild, and make something beautiful out of what we already have?

In fact, there is beauty in Garbagetown already—but only if you cared to look.  Tetley loves her world because she lives in the now, recognizing that many of the Earth’s problems were caused by the myopic views of the generations that came before hers, AKA the Fuckwits. But for all her hatred of the Fuckwits, Tetley also loves the things they left behind. All their creators are dead and gone now, and nothing can be done about that, just like there’s nothing they can do about the crap place the world has become. Nevertheless, while no one can ever accuse Tetley of being an idealist, she’s also not afraid to see the magic and wonder around her. There’s also wisdom in her practicality of accepting the situation, along with her preparedness to address things accordingly.

As you can probably tell, Tetley made this whole book for me. While she can be both rash and foolish at times, everything about her is also sincere. If I’m to be honest, like most novellas, the story felt too short, and nothing about the plot was particularly mind-blowing. World-building was also great, certainly above average when it comes to imagination, but again, not enough detail came through given the format’s restrictions. Tetley, though, was a shining beacon. Like I always say, a well-written character can change everything. The Past is Red could have easily become this bleak, preachy overblown piece with little substance, but instead it came across very charming and full of heart as it was told through Tetley’s narrative.

All in all, this was a wonderful read.

#SciFiMonth Waiting on Wednesday 11/24/21

Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly meme that first originated at Breaking the Spine but has since linked up with “Can’t Wait Wednesday” at Wishful Endings now that the original creator is unable to host it anymore. Either way, this fun feature is a chance to showcase the upcoming releases that we can’t wait to get our hands on!

Mogsy’s Pick

The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart (February 22, 2022 by Ballantine Books)

Yep, another locked room sci-fi mystery to feed my obsession…this time with time travel too!

“For someone with January Cole’s background, running security at a fancy hotel shouldn’t be much of a challenge.

Except the Paradox is no ordinary hotel. Here, the ultra-wealthy guests are costumed for a dozen different time periods, all anxiously waiting to catch their “flights” to the past. And proximity to the timeport makes for an interesting stay. The clocks run backward on occasion – and, rumor has it, ghosts stroll the halls.

Now, January’s job is about to get a whole lot harder. Because the US government is getting ready to privatize time-travel technology – and a handful of trillionaires have just arrived to put down their bids.

And there’s a murderer on the loose. 

Or at least that’s what January suspects. Except the corpse in question is one that somehow only she can see. And the accidents stalking their prestigious guests…well, the only way a killer could engineer those is by operating invisibly and in plain sight, all at once. Which is surely impossible.

There’s a reason January can glimpse what others can’t. But her ability is also destroying her grip on reality – and forcing her to confront secrets of her own.

Because here at the Paradox Hotel, the past is waiting around every corner.

At once a dazzlingly time-twisting murder mystery and a story about grief, memory, and what it means to – literally – come face-to-face with our ghosts, The Paradox Hotel is another unforgettable speculative thrill ride from acclaimed author Rob Hart.”

#SciFiMonth Sci-5 Tuesday: Sentient Starships

To celebrate science fiction during the month of November, I’ve put together a series of posts I’ll be doing on Tuesdays to highlight the sci-fi tropes or themes that I find simply irresistible! I’ve also been fortunate to read some great books in the genre over the last few years, and to give them some extra attention, each week I will also be featuring five titles that I recently enjoyed or thought were pretty special.

Anyway, whether they are living ships or brains in a box, I love books about SENTIENT STARSHIPS! There are so many on my list, and so many more I still have to read, but these are the ones that have stood out for me recently.

We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor

Meet Bob Johansson, who has just sold off his software company and is looking to take his new fortune to a service offering their clients the option to cryogenically freeze themselves in the event of their deaths. You can probably guess where this is headed. Sure enough, while enjoying his new life of freedom and leisure at a convention in Las Vegas, Bob gets distracted while crossing the street and—BAM! Pain and blackness is the last thing he remembers before waking up more than a century later to discover that he is now an artificial intelligence created from a brain scan of his consciousness. The country has turned into a theocracy which has declared that replicants like Bob are without rights. He is also now the property of a government program developing a self-replicating interstellar von Neumann probe with the goal of exploring the galaxy. Bob will be uploaded into the probe and sent on journey into space to look for habitable planets. Unfortunately, the mission will be dangerous. Other nations have the same idea and are all in competition with each other. As Bob travels deeper into space, he also begins to realize the need for more processing power, leading him to clone himself multiple times in order to distribute all his responsibilities. And thus, we end up with a “legion” of Bobs, each one going about their own way and chronicling their own adventures in deep space. This is definitely sci-fi done in a way I’ve never really seen before! (Read the full review…)

Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell

Following a handful of different characters, the story is set in the aftermath of a bitter and violent war fought in a galaxy rife with political tensions. Disgusted with the part she played, the sentient warship Trouble Dog has decided on a new course for her life, joining the House of Reclamation, an organization that answers the calls of distressed starships, in the hopes of atoning for the atrocities she committed. Sal Konstanz, who once fought against Trouble Dog, now finds herself on the same side as the ship as her captain. Together with their crew of medics and rescue workers, they follow a signal from a downed vessel to a touristy but disputed area of space called the Gallery, a system whose planets have all been carved into gargantuan intricate shapes by an ancient alien race. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the system is another example of former enemies now working together as allies. Ashton Childe and Laura Petrushka, agents from opposing sides team up to locate a missing poet who was rumored to have been on the ship that went down in the Gallery. And indeed, the missing woman in question is Ona Sudak, whose relaxing pleasure cruise with her travel companion has turned into a nightmare after the attack on her ship leaves them marooned on a strange planet surrounded by all kinds of mysterious threats. (Read the full review…)

Honor Among Thieves by Rachel Caine & Ann Aguirre

The story, which takes place in the distant future of 2142, follows a teenager named Zara Cole, whose debilitating headaches as a child caused a schism between her and her family. After a traumatic experience, she became estranged from her parents and refused to relocate to Mars with her mother and sister, preferring to remain by herself on the mean streets of New Detroit. Although the world has seen a number of technological advancements since the arrival of the Leviathan, a race of sentient space ships that bestowed their vast knowledge on humanity, Zara has access to very few comforts, reduced to thieving in order to stay alive. But one day, she steals from the wrong person, landing her in the crosshairs of a dangerous man. Having already survived one attempt on her life, Zara decides to get herself booked into a detention center, thinking she’ll be safe behind jail walls. What she did not expect, however, were the Leviathan. Each year, the aliens select a hundred humans, called Honors, to join them in space in a kind of “exchange program” meant to promote relations between the two species. Never once have they called for someone like Zara, a petty thief from one of the lowest echelons of society, so it was a surprise to everyone when the Leviathan decided to name her an Honor. Still, when the alternative is to stay on Earth where her vengeful enemy can get to her anytime, the opportunity to get off planet is starting to look like her best chance for survival. (Read the full review…)

Toxic by Lydia Kang

Toxic is a young adult space adventure set aboard Cyclo, a massive state-of-the-art liveship that’s the first of its kind. But of course, being an actual biological construct, Cyclo isn’t your typical sentient ship. Like anything alive, it also experiences senescence, and now it is slowly but surely dying. In order to study the event, data collectors have been dispatched on a one-way trip to Cyclo to document the ship’s final days. Made up entirely of criminals, this group was never intended to make it back alive. Among them is Fennec, who has signed on for the mission as a way to repay his debt to society. He’s determined to fulfill his contract so that his sister will be taken care of when he’s gone, because when the ship dies, he and his team will soon follow. However, instead of finding Cyclo completely evacuated, Fennec and his fellow mercenaries discover a lone girl on the ship, who apparently has been left behind. For seventeen years, Hana has been kept isolated and hidden because her very existence would have been a violation of the strict population laws. Created illegally by her mother and cared for by Cyclo, she is devastated when Fennec and his team arrive, informing her of Cyclo’s impending demise and the reason for their mission. Hana doesn’t understand why she has been abandoned and left to die, but for the first time in her life, she has gotten a taste of freedom and knows she will do anything for a chance to live. (Read the full review…)

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

The book follows Breq, a soldier who is more (and, I suppose, also less) than she seems. An “Ancillary”, Breq was formerly one of many corpse soldiers all linked up with an artificial intelligence as part of a massive starship called the Justice of Toren. So in a sense, she is the Justice of Toren. Breq as well as all the other corpse soldier “segments” who were treated as appendages connected to the Justice of Toren were collectively considered part of the ship. The narration also reflects this; in chapters where Breq is linked up to the rest of the Justice of Toren, we see through the eyes of multiple Ancillaries, which in essence are all one entity. Because the ship’s Ancillaries are everywhere, the protagonist is aware of things happening around all her different segments who are in different places at the same time. After an act of treachery, Breq was the only one who made it out of the subsequent disaster, making her the last surviving remnant of the Justice of Toren, left alone and isolated in a human body. Now she sets herself on a path of vengeance to track down and kill Anaander Mianaai, the multi-bodied and near-immortal Lord of the Radch who was responsible. (Read the full review)

Audiobook Review: The Seventh Queen by Greta Kelly

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

The Seventh Queen by Greta Kelly

Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 2 of Warrior Witch

Publisher: HarperAudio (November 2, 2021)

Length: 13 hrs and 33 mins

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Narrator: Imani Jade Powers

Although it was only a ten-month wait between The Frozen Crown and The Seventh Queen, I have to say even that felt too long given the scream-worthy cliffhanger the first book left us with. Needless to say, as soon as I received my review copy of the audiobook from the publisher, I fell upon it like a ravening wolf.

As the story picks up from where things left off in The Frozen Crown, be aware that this review may discuss events and contain possible spoilers from previous novel. Our protagonist princess Askia of Serevesh has been captured by the tyrant emperor Radovan, having failed in her mission to repel the Rovan invasion and retake her rightful place on the throne. Now she is also forced to wear a cursed necklace that would steal her magic, which is Radovan’s true prize.

However, the transfer process itself takes time—thirty days to be exact. This at least gives Askia a chance to hatch up an escape plan, which is determined to do before her time runs out. Even as a prisoner in her enemy’s domain, our protagonist is not helpless. A death witch, her powers allow her to see and communicate with the dead. Very quickly, she makes allies of the ghosts of Radovan’s late wives, six other women whom he had imprisoned and murdered for their magic. They know better than anyone what Radovan is capable of, but they also know his weaknesses and what makes him tick, and Askia is not about to let that advantage go to waste.

Meanwhile out in the world though, the Vishir empire is also in turmoil, having just lost its ruler. His two heirs now vie for power, leaving the Roven empire free to press its attack, making Askia’s changes to win back Seravesh look grimmer than ever. With the threat of a civil war on the horizon, what kind of world would she return to even if she somehow manages to escape?

I definitely enjoyed The Seventh Queen, but probably not as much as its predecessor. This by no means makes it a bad sequel, just that perhaps the novelty has worn off slightly, and the fact that we have quite a different story this time. The biggest change is given away in the publisher description: “Askia was born a soldier, but now it’s time to become a spy.” The story reflects this with far fewer displays of her martial prowess and a general lack of kickassery, focusing more on her cloak-and-dagger skills. This made for a more subtle, low-key kind of book, and with the events of The Frozen Crown still relatively fresh on the mind, my expectations required a bit of adjustment.

In addition, the story was noticeably slower, making a lot of the book felt like filler, even when it was not. Much of the early plot took place on the castle grounds following Askia as she learned her way around, getting to know the resident ghosts. Even with her thirty-day deadline looming, we just didn’t have that same sense of urgency which was a constant presence throughout the first book. Granted, we still had those vibes here, but they were relatively muted, which didn’t really mesh with the desperation of Askia’s situation. That said, we still got to see her resourcefulness at play here—just in a different way. If I’m to be honest, I quite liked seeing this side of Askia. Slow-burning plot notwithstanding, it was a joy watching her brilliant mind at work teasing out solutions to her problems and calculating risks with that brilliant mind.

We also got some political intrigue, some romance. Everything came together nicely in the end too—exactly as expected, as some might say, with all the pieces falling into place just a tad too neatly. However, I don’t really begrudge the book that. The characters were all very well written, and with everything they’ve been through to get to this point, my heart could only feel contentment at that picture perfect ending.

All in all, a duology worth reading. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a hidden gem! And mad respect as well to narrator Imani Jade Powers who once again delivered a pitch perfect performance for the audiobook edition of The Seventh Queen.

Bookshelf Roundup: 11/20/21: Stacking the Shelves & Recent Reads

Bookshelf Roundup is a feature I do every weekend which fills the role of several blog memes, like Stacking the Shelves where I talk about the new books I’ve added to my library or received for review, as well as It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? where I summarize what I’ve finished reading in the last week and what I’m planning to read soon. Mostly it also serves as a recap post, so sometimes I’ll throw in stuff like reading challenge progress reports, book lists, and other random bookish thoughts or announcements.

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My update is going to be a relatively small one today, but big things are happening behind the scenes. Many of you know I work from home doing independent contract work, and the market conditions last year have resulted in me putting in extra hours and that has of course taken some time away from the blog and reading/reviewing in general. Pretty soon though, it looks like I’ll be taking on another job, one that just kind of fell into my lap. Basically, I found out a local business I frequent was in need of some help, and with the current state of labor shortages these days, they’ve had trouble filling the position. While I wasn’t really looking, I asked as a loyal customer and friend if there was anything I could do, and soon one conversation led to another and now I’m being trained next week!

Thing is though, this might have started with me just genuinely wanting to help out, but it’s actually an awesome position and a great opportunity for me, so I’m pretty psyched. Of course, this will mean yet more readjustment of my schedule, but I’m also confident I’ll be able to work out a good balance between blog, jobs, family and life in general, so I guess we’ll see how things go. For now, let’s move on to the books and see what’s new in my mailbox and inbox this week!

Received for Review

My thanks to the publishers and authors for the following review copies received, and be sure to click the links to their Goodreads pages for more details and full descriptions!

Quite a few gems added to the review TBR this week, from a variety of publishers, starting with the kind folks at William Morrow for an ARC of No Second Chances by Rio Youers. I’ve heard of the author, but never read any of his books. This thriller will hopefully be my first, which features an intensely twisted tale following a disgraced actor suspected of killing his wife, a young naïve starlet new to Hollywood, as well as a vengeful drug dealer who’s after them both.

Next up, I also received You Sexy Thing by Cat Rambo, with thanks to the awesome Tor Books crew. With a week and a half left in November, I’m hoping I can still fit this one in for Sci-fi Month before it’s over, because by all accounts this book is really fun!

Thanks also to the team at Minotaur Books for a surprise copy of The Deathwatch Beetle by Kjell Eriksson. The macabre title definitely caught my attention, and though I found out upon further research that it’s actually the twelfth installment in the Swedish thriller Ann Lindell series, I hope it can be read as a standalone because I’d really love to check it out.

Also thank you to Wunderkind PR and 47North for a finished copy of Star Mother by Charlie N. Holmberg, described as the author’s most whimsical novel yet. I’ve read a couple of her other books, and more whimsy certainly sounds good to me!

And finally, with thanks to Angry Robot for a review copy of Swashbucklers by Dan Hanks, and what a crazy wild ride it was! In case you missed it, my review went up earlier this week, you can check it out here.

Just one new audiobook in the digital haul this week. With thanks to Random House Audio, I picked up a listening copy of Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil by Timothy Zahn. I’m in no way caught up with this series yet, but in spite of myself I just can’t seem to resist anything Thrawn. I do hope I’ll get to read all of these at some point.

Reviews

The Hidden by Melanie Golding (5 of 5 stars)
Swashbucklers by Dan Hanks (3.5 of 5 stars)
Activation Degradation by Marina J. Lostetter

Roundup Highlights:

What I’ve Been Reading

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Have you heard of or read any of the books featured this week? What caught your eye? Any new discoveries? I hope you found something interesting for a future read!

#SciFiMonth Friday Face-Off: Futuristic Vista

Welcome to The Friday Face-Off, a weekly meme created by Books by Proxy! Each Friday, we will pit cover against cover while also taking the opportunity to showcase gorgeous artwork and feature some of our favorite book covers. If you want to join the fun, simply choose a book each Friday that fits that week’s predetermined theme, post and compare two or more different covers available for that book, then name your favorite. A list of future weeks’ themes are available at Lynn’s Book Blog.

This week’s theme is:

~ a cover featuring a FUTURISTIC VISTA

The Forever Watch by David Ramirez

I dug deep into my Goodreads shelf for my pick this week. Honestly, it’s been a few years and I can’t say I remember much about the story, but what I do remember was the cover to my copy. Here it is, along with several other editions published since:

From left to right:
Thomas Dunne Books (2014) – Hodder & Stoughton (2014)

Chinese Edition (2019) – Japanese Edition (2019)

Winner:

I probably gave it away in my intro, but the Thomas Dunne edition was the one I read and that cover will always be awe-inspiring to me with that stunning perspective and all those colors.

But what do you think? Which one is your favorite?

Book Review: Swashbucklers by Dan Hanks

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

Swashbucklers by Dan Hanks

Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy

Series: Book 1

Publisher: Angry Robot (November 9, 2021)

Length: 400 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Ah, Angry Robot, as ever living up to their mission of publishing the best in science fiction, fantasy, and WTF, and Swashbucklers is definitely one that belongs into the WTF category. This one sure threw me for a loop! To start, I was first drawn to the book because of its cover, so cleverly adorned with a video game controller in disguise, as well as its description which hinted vaguely at a sci-fi type adventure involving virtual worlds and the like. In reality though, it’s all that but also more.

The story first begins with the return of our protagonist Cisco Collins to his hometown after many years away. Tagging along is his eight-year-old son George, who has no idea why the move is having such a strange effect on his father, and to be honest, neither really does Cisco. Many of his childhood memories have faded away, including those of the event that happened thirty-two years ago when he and his friends fought off an invasion by an evil magical pirate called Deadman’s Grin and his army of minions from another realm. After it was all over, though, in an attempt to explain the away the phenomenon, the town blamed a gas leak for causing mass hallucination and the whole situation was eventually swept under the rug.

But now, some of the memories are returning to Cisco, which is why he has come home. A recent report in the news about a man killed by his child’s stuffed toy come to life has triggered something in his mind, and he’s not the only one. His best friends growing up—Jake, Doc, and Michelle—are also reminded of the enemy they had vanquished so long ago, and they fear the story of this bizarre death might be a sign of Deadman’s Grin’s reawakening. Still, they beat him once, they can do it again…right? Except now they are all several decades older, saddled with all the responsibilities that come with adulthood. Cisco himself is not in the best of health, and he has also his son to care for and to keep safe. Times have changed, so much that maybe even their old weapons and tricks will not be enough.

The best descriptions I have seen for Swashbucklers are the ones that compare it to Stranger Things, except the kids have all grown up and are reunited for one more go at the big baddie. It sits somewhere in the overlap between sci-fi and fantasy, bringing a strange mishmash of horror and the paranormal, geeky pop culture references, laser guns and video games of 80s nostalgia, and for good measure, we even have a bit of Halloween and Christmas thrown in.

Anyway, that’s all the good stuff. What didn’t work so well for me was the plot structure and pacing. Things also got weird, and to be fair, “weird” can be hit or miss. I very much enjoyed the intro and the first half of the book, which started out relatively linear and well-reasoned, but around midway, the story went off the rails a bit and started to lose me. Multiple flashbacks and switches in perspective also contributed to the confusion, but mostly I think my struggles were caused by the strangeness and surrealism, the almost phantasmagorical aspects of this novel. While more descriptive world-building may have helped, a lack of explanations and a failure to make certain connections left me feeling a bit untethered and disengaged.

Fortunately, I loved the characters. The premise of old gang getting back together is one of my favorite tropes, and author did a superb job showing how the years have changed everyone—some of them in more drastic ways than others. Fatherhood has made Cisco reevaluate his priorities, and a big chunk of the book shows him being torn between the desire for the adventure and doing the right thing. Whenever I felt the story losing me, the characters’ personal narratives and conflicts always somehow pulled me back.

Overall, a few stumbles aside, Swashbucklers was a good read and a nice surprise! A lot of quirky and a little crazy, this book would be perfect for readers who enjoy speculative fiction that doesn’t fit neatly into any category.

#SciFiMonth Waiting on Wednesday 11/17/21

Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly meme that first originated at Breaking the Spine but has since linked up with “Can’t Wait Wednesday” at Wishful Endings now that the original creator is unable to host it anymore. Either way, this fun feature is a chance to showcase the upcoming releases that we can’t wait to get our hands on!

Mogsy’s Pick

Black Tide by K.C. Jones (May 10, 2022 by Nightfire)

Black Tide is described as a “character-driven science fiction/horror novel that explores what happens after a cataclysmic event leaves the world crawling with nightmares.” Straight onto the TBR it goes!

“It was just another day at the beach. And then the world ended.

Mike and Beth didn’t know each other existed before the night of the meteor shower. A melancholy film producer and a house sitter barely scraping by, chance made them neighbors, a bottle of champagne brought them together, and a shared need for human connection sparked something more.

After a drunken and desperate one-night-stand, the two strangers awake to discover a surprise astronomical event has left widespread destruction in its wake. But the cosmic lightshow was only a part of something much bigger, and far more terrifying. When a set of lost car keys leaves them stranded on an empty stretch of Oregon coast, when their emergency calls go unanswered and inhuman screams echo from the dunes, when the rising tide reaches for the car and unspeakable horrors close in around them, these two self-destructive souls must find in each other the strength to overcome past pain and the fight to survive a nightmare of apocalyptic scale.”

#SciFiMonth Sci-5 Tuesday: Extraterrestrial Plagues

To celebrate science fiction during the month of November, I’ve put together a series of posts I’ll be doing on Tuesdays to highlight the sci-fi tropes or themes that I find simply irresistible! I’ve also been fortunate to read some great books in the genre over the last few years, and to give them some extra attention, each week I will also be featuring five titles that I recently enjoyed or thought were pretty special.

So, Halloween might be over, but that doesn’t mean the horror has to stop! Today’s topic is one that pops up very often in in sci-fi horror, because earthly diseases are bad enough, but who knows what an alien virus can do? Without further ado, I present to you the following list of books featuring EXTRATERRESTIAL PLAGUES.

Salvation Day by Kali Wallace

Salvation Day is a thrilling, cinematic experience. Around a decade ago, the space exploration vessel House of Wisdom became abandoned after a deadly infectious virus was released on board, killing everyone on the ship. The sole survivor was Jaswinder, the son of a very prominent family in the political and scientific community. Subsequently adopted by his aunt, Jas spent the next ten years pretending he could not remember what happened and has tried to keep a low profile ever since. Meanwhile, the spaceship, which has become massive tomb, is left drifting in space. Now older, Jas is about to embark on his first journey back into space since the incident, along with a small group of his friends. But unbeknownst to him, he is the key to a plan hatched up by a cult who want to use his genetic signature to bypass the security measures guarding House of Wisdom. Zahra is one of the members of this cult, acting upon orders to hijack Jas’ shuttle and kidnap him. But not long after they take over of the shuttle, everything starts going wrong. Not surprisingly, when they reach the House of Wisdom, they find bodies. However, what Zahra finds disturbing is not the presence of the dead, but the way that they died, which does not appear consistent with what was reported by the government. She and her team had been inoculated against the virus that supposedly killed everyone, but the threat they are faced with is something else entirely. (Read the full review…)

Contagion by Erin Bowman

Contagion by Erin Bowman stars the ragtag crew of the Odyssey, a mining ship that responds to an SOS at a seemingly deserted base on a remote planet. Led by their determined but inexpereinced captain Dylan Lowe, the team immediately begins searching for survivors but instead find a pile of dead bodies. The ship’s doctor, microbiologist Dr. Lisbeth Tarlow appears baffled at the cause of all the death and carnage, but her seventeen-year-old intern Thea Sadik suspects her mentor may know more than she lets on. Meanwhile, the Odyssey’s pilot Nova Singh struggles with her developing feelings for Dylan, even as the headstrong captain makes increasingly impulsive decisions that endanger her people. On the planet, the crew also finds a disturbing message along with a chilling video made by one of the personnel before he died. Not long afterwards, the group is separated and Thea’s life is saved by a mysterious young man who claims to be the only survivor. But who is he and where did he come from? How did he stay alive when no one else was spared by whatever killed them? Finding the answers becomes imperative as one of the Odyssey’s crew suddenly becomes infected with an unknown contagion, putting all of their lives at risk unless the outbreak can be contained. (Read the full review…)

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Illuminae follows a pair of high school students, Kady and Ezra, who break up the morning their planet was invaded. Talk about poor timing. It is the year 2575 and whole galactic empires are ruled by megacorps, and the two teenagers just happen to reside on Kerenza, a small ice planet on the edge of the universe involved in a secret and illegal mining operation by one of these corporations. Rival corp BeiTech descends upon them, destroying the Kerenza settlement, leaving thousands dead and on the run. Kady and Ezra are among the lucky (unlucky?) survivors who end up on the Alexander fleet, made up of the three ships that came to Kerenza’s rescue. Damaged and crippled, the fleet limps away towards the closest jump gate more than half a year away, while an enemy dreadnaught follows in hot pursuit, determined to leave no witnesses. But when it comes to the refugees’ problems, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Exposed to some of the biological weapons BeiTech used in their attack, many of the survivors come down with a highly contagious plague which turns its victims into mindless, savage husks. To make things worse, several systems on the Alexander were also damaged beyond repair, resulting in a crazed AI running the ship. Through it all, Kady and Ezra are starting to realize just how tiny and insignificant their problems were back in their simple, sheltered lives on Kerenza. After all this death and destruction, all they have left is each other. (Read the full review…)

Adrift by W. Michael Gear

Adrift is the fifth book in the Donovan series, taking us to the seas where the Maritime Unit has just set up their research facilities perched on the edge of a reef, hundreds of miles from the closest shore. Having survived the last ten years trapped aboard the Ashanti with a cult of cannibals, the members of this small team mostly made up of oceanographers and marine scientists are excited to have finally arrived on the planet and are eager to start studying its aquatic ecosystems. Unfortunately though, hubris proved to be their downfall. Most of the members of this close-knit group are parents, their children having been born on the Ashanti, and this shared communal experience of raising their kids under those harsh conditions had brought them all even closer than before. But from deadly sea monsters to killer algae, poor Maritime Unit never catches a break. They thought they could handle themselves and do their research the way they wanted to, but no one understands life on Donovan, and anyone who thinks they do are taught a swift and deadly lesson. (Read the full review…)

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

When James Holden and the crew of his ice mining ship encounter a derelict ship near Saturn, they find themselves in possession of a deadly secret that certain shadowy factions are willing to kill for. Now Holden is on the run, even as tensions are running high through the system, threatening to boil over. Meanwhile, a whole different world away, a detective named Miller is looking for a missing girl on Ceres. Her father is a billionaire who seemingly has unlimited resources to throw at the search, but his daughter proves elusive, having run away to join the Outer Planets Alliance, a loose network of militant organizations. Eventually though, Miller does find her, which also leads to the discovery of a mysterious new organic life that infects the body and feeds on exposure to energy and radiation. With all that has happened in The Expanse series after so many novels and even a TV show, it’s easy to forget it all began with the protomolecule, an alien entity first discovered on Phoebe and then released on Eros as part of an experiment to find out what it was designed to do. Well, we sure found out, didn’t we?

#SciFiMonth Audiobook Review: Activation Degradation by Marina J. Lostetter

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

Activation Degradation by Marina J. Lostetter

Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 3.5 of 5 stars

Genre: Science Fiction

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: HarperAudio (September 14, 2021)

Length: 9 hrs and 58 mins

Author Information: Website

Narrator: Hayden Bishop

The publisher description compares Activation Degradation to The Murderbot Diaries, which is quite ambitious, to say the least. But how does that really stack up? Well, let’s just say I despise blurbs like these for a reason, mainly because they have a way of raising undue expectations and setting readers up for disappointment, not to mention that, more often than not, they tend to diminish the books themselves. Personally, Activation Degradation did not feel anything like Murderbot to me, but honestly, that’s not a bad thing. Although it also features a cyborg protagonist, the story itself is uniquely its own and offers something different.

Readers are thrown into the action right away, as the book opens with an alien attack on an orbital helium-3 mine above the planet Jupiter where the defender bot known as Unit Four was being stored, triggering its activation. The sudden switch is disorienting, but with the help of its handler, Unit Four is able to fend off the invaders and protect its home and its precious cargo. However, its actions ultimately lead it to become captured, though it has protocols in place for dealing these kinds of situations too. Following its orders, Unit Four is prepared to lay low and observe the enemy while awaiting retrieval by its handler, whose arrival should be imminent.

What Unit Four did not expect though, is to have its entire worldview blown apart. The enemies are not as they have been described to it by its handlers, and nothing in its databanks can resolve this discrepancy nor any of the new information it is receiving now from its captors. All of it can be a lie, of course, but somehow Unit Four doesn’t think so. The sudden realization that it may have been deceived its entire short life sends shock overloading its systems, but at least now Unit Four knows it has an even more important mission. Its sister-units are still under the control of their makers, unaware of the truth, and in order to free them, Unit Four must also save everyone on the ship before time runs out.

One reason I love reading books about A.I. or robot protagonists is being able to experience a whole different point of view. These characters, the best ones at least, should be relatable but also sound distinctly “robot-like” to make them stand out from their human counterparts. That is, after all, why I love Murderbot, whose personality is quirky enough to feel “other” but still familiar enough to be charming and appealing. Bringing this back to Activation Degradation though, Unit Four is definitely a more simplistic character, because it is also a more emotional one. While this in itself is not a negative, I certainly hadn’t expected to suspend my disbelief so much when it came to Unit Four’s plausibility as a cyborg protagonist.

On its surface, Activation Degradation also reads very much like an action sci-fi thriller. I’ve read one other book by Marina J. Lostetter before this, which was the moody, broody dark fantasy mystery The Helm of Midnight, and it’s a testament to the author’s versatility, I suppose, that this one felt completely different. For one, the story moved at a breakneck pace that just wouldn’t let up, with info dumping kept to a minimal. The prose was also lighter and more readable, creating an energetic and entertaining atmosphere that’s obviously geared more towards mass appeal. I’m sure it comes as no surprise when I say this was by far a much more fun book to read.

Still, there was a lot going on in this story too, and perhaps not enough time to fully explore the themes and topics the author wanted to bring attention to. A major twist was also telegraphed too early, spoiling a couple of the plot’s biggest surprises, though that might just be due to the way I approached the book by overthinking things. Needless to say, this is a novel best experienced with no expectations; simply enjoy this one as an action-adventure story, let it whisk you away and treat any allusions to deeper philosophical messages as a nice bonus.

All told, I would consider this for your TBR if you’re into thrilling adventure sci-fi that explores the themes of artificial intelligence and what it means to be human, though Murderbot fans please treat what’s written in the publisher’s blurb with a grain of salt. Overall a solid novel that combines the excitement of space escapades with the complexities of human drama.