In the near future, the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life debate explodes into a war called the Heartland War. The only way the war could reach a peace was to come to an agreement. There would be no abortion but when children are between the ages of 13 and 17 their parents can sign an order to have them unwound. New scientific technology allows doctors to transplant all of a person’s body parts. They will then “live on” in a “divided state.” Teens whose parents choose to sign an unwind order for them are rounded up by juvie cops and brought to Harvest Camps to await their fate. Some families, particularly from fundamentalist branches of all faiths, believe in tithing 10% of their children, and will have a child simply to raise them to be a tithe. Additionally, many children end up unwanted and living in State Homes, where they are all given the last name of Ward–for ward of the state.
Connor is a light-hearted bad boy who just accidentally found his own unwind orders in his parents’ desk and immediately goes on the run. Lev is a tithe who is on his way to Harvest Camp. Risa is a ward of the state, and she is on a bus to be unwound, because she isn’t deemed exceptional enough to justify her upkeep. A series of events throws them into each other’s lives and leaves whether or not they will be unwound in question.
This was recommended to me years ago, but when I first read the description I was skeptical that the book was anything but Pro-Life propaganda. Years later I decided to check it out again, and most reviews mentioned how neutral the book was. Additionally, I read some interviews with the author where he stated he genuinely was trying to present a neutral story that analyzes some tough questions, so I thought I would give it a shot. Ultimately, the author has succeeded at creating a future world that is fascinating to visit and that also analyzes medical ethics in a creative way. I would honestly say the book is much more about medical ethics, particularly in regards to transplants, than it really is about abortion rights.
The basic plot is that three very different teenagers are supposed to be unwound but then find themselves on the run instead of actually at Harvest Camp. The book is in the third person but from the limited perspective of one character, and that one character switches around. It is predominantly Connor, Risa, or Lev, but it is also sometimes someone like a juvie cop or a parent. Sometimes this narrative structure works really well, providing many different perspectives on the same event or issue. Other times it feels too contrived. The perspective switches at just the right moment to keep the reader in the dark, or to reveal something we wouldn’t otherwise know. Sometimes this structure builds suspense and other times it kind of ruins it. Overall, though, I enjoyed the structure and found that the multiple perspectives really added to the world and the story.
This narrative structure is enhanced by clippings from real, modern-day newspaper articles and blogs, as well as fake advertisements and news from the future the book is set in. Partially due to the Audible narrator, who did a fantastic job at the ads, I really enjoyed these snippets of media from the future. They are very tongue-in-cheek and adult, but will still appeal to teens reading the book for their over-the-topness. I found the modern day news articles to be less interesting, and mostly felt a bit like scare mongering. They read as a bit heavy-handed in pushing the “this could really happen!” angle.
I did find it a bit frustrating that all three of the main characters are white and straight. While it is acknowledged that a few people (primarily adults) could be GLBTQ, the assumed norm is straight and cis, no matter what social organization is in control. Whether it’s mainstream society, rebels, or anyone in-between. The norm is always straight cis. Similarly, while the author does include non-white people to a much greater degree than non-straight/non-cis people (there are a wide variety of ethnicities and religions represented in the society), they are all secondary characters. One thing that really stuck out to me was that at one point in the book we meet a Chinese-American girl who is being unwound because her parents wanted a son, and they just kept trying until they got one and then picked a daughter to unwind, because they couldn’t afford all the kids. She’s also got an interesting punk aesthetic to her. What an interesting main character she would have been! Can you imagine her in the role of Connor? They are both running away from being unwound, and she could easily have taken that main character role. It just bothers me when a book has three main characters who are all in a similar situation due to society-wide problems, and yet they are so non-diverse, with just a nod at gender by having one female character.
With regards to the female character, Risa, I must say I was very disappointed to have one plot point be an attempted rape of her, and her then being saved by a male character. First, we only get one female main character and then she naturally is almost raped. Then naturally she must be saved by someone else. The whole scene sickened me, especially when I thought about teen girls reading it. It was just a completely unnecessary plot point. I once read an article that talked about how often rape scenes (or attempted rape scenes) are a sign of lack of creativity. I don’t think all of them are, but this one certainly came across that way. Unnecessary and a convenient plot point without thought to how it would affect the readers.
In spite of these characterization and style complaints though, the plot is very good, and the world is fascinating. Characters in a natural manner talk about and explore the ethics of life, when life begins, and who has the right to life, as well as who has the right to end it. The plot is fast-paced, and I read as quickly as I could to find out what happened. There are also a couple of twists at the end that rocked my socks off and left me immediately downloading the next book in the series.
All of that said, I have a few questions about the world that were never addressed. First, if everyone who is unwound is between the ages of 13 and 17, how does that work out with transplantation? People have not yet finished growing at 17, especially their minds. Does this mean a 67 year old woman would have a 15 year old’s arm if she needed a transplant? If so, that sounds very grotesque to me, and I wonder how society has learned to deal with something so mis-matched. This isn’t particularly addressed, except to say that sometimes it’s weird to look at someone with two eyes that don’t match. Similarly, the world at large isn’t really talked about at all. The kids who are trying to escape being unwound don’t even consider running into another country but they never explain why. How has the world at large reacted to the United States’ new law? Is there any country that would be a safe-haven for unwinds? Are there other countries following suit? The international impact is woefully underaddressed.
In spite of these various shortcomings, the plot and the world still sucked me in. It was a quick read that left me wanting more.
Overall, fans of dystopian ya looking for another series to whet their appetite will definitely enjoy this one. It’s a completely different dystopia from most of the ones that are already big, and I am sure YA readers who are currently teens themselves will find the idea of their parents being able to sign an unwind order on them chilling. Dystopian YA fans should definitely give this one a go.
4 out of 5 stars
In an alternate history, the personal fax machine, not computers, became the quintessential technology, and one company, BelisCo, is running much of the United States. San Jose is now run entirely by BelisCo, and it boasts all the best of modern planned living: adult-only zones, smoking and non-smoking zones, clean and reliable transportation, and legal weed. Marcus Metiline is a PI in San Jose, and his whole world gets turned upside down when he agrees to take a job for BelisCo itself.
This is one of my accepted ARCs for 2015, and I went for it due to its interesting slight twist on the noir genre. I was intrigued at the idea of a PI in an alternate world where fax machines were the status quo instead of PCs. It felt almost like a steampunk. Techpunk? There should be a world for this when the old tech isn’t steam-power. In any case, although I found the world very interesting and I enjoyed visiting it, the plot left me dissatisfied.
This book is an enjoyable read even when the plot is doing weird things. The sentences flow smoothly, and the settings and characters are clearly rendered. I really enjoyed this alternate world. I liked it so much that I was disappointed by how little time we spend in it. Marcus is quickly scooped out and plopped into another world, and I didn’t like that one nearly as much or find it as interesting. The first world Marcus inhabits is creative and new. The other worlds are more dull and are things I’ve seen before.
It’s difficult to review this book without giving much away, but suffice to say that there is physics in the book, and while I appreciate the fact that science of it is good and well-explained, it also is a physics I’ve seen in scifi many times before, and I don’t think this particular rendering brought anything fresh to the table.
There are three really important characters in the book: Marcus, the owner of BelisCo, and a doctor. All three of them are male. This makes the book read a bit like a boys’ club, and it bugged me. The book would have instantly been more unique and interesting if, say, Marcus had been a hard-boiled woman PI. When every main character is basically the same (an intelligent white male), it’s just dull.
So, the non-spoiler reason of why I wasn’t into the plot is that I felt it took things just one twist too far, rendering things a bit ridiculous. If you want more explanation, see the spoiler-filled paragraph below.
Basically, Marcus finds out that San Jose is some sort of Matrix-like simulation aka not the real world, and he is encouraged to break out of it. When he does, the buildings of San Jose start falling apart and people are mad at him. We discover that the reason for this is that the simulation was being done on a bunch of cancer patients. The science here didn’t make much sense to me at the time, but basically they would live longer if they were in the simulation, giving them more of a chance to beat the cancer. Everyone entered the simulation through Marcus, and they had to keep him believing it to keep the experiment going. This whole experiment is highly illegal, and they blow up the building to get rid of the evidence. There are then hints that there are more worlds and simulations than these. First, I found the whole we’re in a simulation and this isn’t real life thing to be a very been there done that plot. It took us out of the much more interesting simulation world and into a computer simulation that I’ve seen before. The second twist of it actually being cancer treatment and them needing Marcus to stay in the world just sent the whole thing off into left field for me. Particularly since I found the science of the cancer treatment to be weak compared to the physics earlier. While I appreciate to others it may read more like a cool idea, to me it just took things on a path from super interesting to I’ve seen this before to wtf was that. It just really didn’t work for me.
Overall, readers who are intrigued by the world in the summary and who don’t mind multiple plot twists and a predominantly male cast will enjoy this read. It is well-written and interesting, but readers expecting to linger in the fax machine world of the plot summary should know that this world is soon left behind.
3 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy in exchange for my honest review
Humanity, desperate to save themselves from oncoming meteors that will destroy Earth, builds two spaceships and binds them together into one unit. They fill it with the best and brightest of humanity then send it off into space, with nanobots working to keep them all perpetually the same age they were when entering the ship, hoping that they will find another habitable planet. But over the thousands of years of searching, the two ships have slowly evolved into one of beauty, order, and plenty of food. The other has become a prison ship, full of starvation and degradation. Both ruled by an artificial intelligence known as Ark. When a man awakes on the prison ship, he must discover who he is and why he has been awakened.
The basic idea of a ship full of thousands of people wandering outer space for thousands of years and how that impacts their culture is a good one. But it is unfortunately supported by weak characterization, quite a bit of telling instead of showing (often in the form a conversational infodump), questionable science, and aggravating plot twists.
I am not a scifi reader who expects everything to be Asimov or heavy on the science. I enjoy the broad range that scifi has to offer. But I do expect a scifi that takes itself seriously, as this one does, to have: a plot that makes sense, at least two characters who are well-rounded and richly presented, and any science within it to be accurate or at least plausible. This scifi definitely takes itself seriously, but it fails on these marks.
The book opens with a first person narration of the nameless hero (later named Harbinger) believing he is being dissected by an alien race. It takes quite a bit of time to find out that he was cryogenically frozen on this ship, and the rebels of the prison ship have woken him up. If this wasn’t a review copy, I probably would have given up before Harbinger figures this out, because the reader has zero reason to care about this character who is being dissected, apparently. It’s quite jarring to open up the book that way, and it’s hard to read with no investment in any of the characters at all. It’s a rough beginning.
Harbinger has amnesia, so he can’t help the rebels figure out why exactly he was on the ship. But they do discover that he has superhuman powers, just as the rebels were hoping, so they want him to help them fight for access back to Echelon–the ship that is not a prison (There are names for both ships, but I honestly can’t remember what the name of the prison ship was.) The rebel character who works closest with Harbinger is a woman named Leema. Harbinger gets slightly more characterization than Leema, because we are inside his head. But both come across as flat. Their actions appear to exist entirely as plot devices and not out of real, rich motivation. For instance, Leema seems mostly to exist to give Harbinger information, to have sex with, then to spur him to make certain decision. She doesn’t come across as a person so much as a plot device. The same can be said for the leader of the rebels, Argus, an older man who calls people “son.” He simply does not feel real. He feels like a plot device who pops in whenever it’s necessary to make something happen to Harbinger.
The writing often relies on conversational infodump, which is a shame, because when there are action sequences, they are interesting and exciting. The periodic action sequences are what kept me reading. They are well-written, particularly the fight scenes. But when the characters talk, the conversation doesn’t feel real. It feels like the author is speaking directly to the reader through the characters, often to provide background information. This is known as an infodump, and it’s frustrating to read. It would be better to work this information into the plot, rather than have characters sit in a room and say it at each other for chapters at a time.
The science is a bit shaky. For instance, the spaceship is decorated with marble. Real marble. Real marble is incredibly heavy, and there’s a weight limit that spaceships can handle. It’s hard to imagine a people desperate to save humanity from meteors wasting precious weight space on marble decorations. Similarly, Harbinger is never fully explained. He appears to be human and bleeds but can’t feel pain, has superhuman strength, can only be killed by cutting off his head. Is he a robot? Or a genetically modified humanoid? Maybe a clone? Leema explains “his kind” being created but she seems to know very little about it, which makes it odd that she and the rebels knew enough to know how to break him free from Ark by cutting into him and adjusting things inside his body. The core of the idea is good but it’s just not explained enough. That is really what makes some of the science in the book weak. It’s not gone into in enough depth to make enough sense.
Finally, the plot makes quite a few quick zany twists, most of which I was willing to give a pass. The final twist, however, made me want to throw my kindle against the wall. (I didn’t, because I like my kindle). I’m sure the final plot twist was intended to make the reader want to continue on to the next book in the series, but it actually just left me feeling deeply unsatisfied and frustrated. If I had to put my finger on what made it so frustrating, I’d say that it felt forced, not organic.
Overall, this book consists of a good basic idea that suffers from infodumping, weak characters, and being forced to stick to a plot that doesn’t feel organic. Rich characters who drove an organic plot free of infodumps could have made this into an interesting world and cultural exploration. Instead, it’s a frustrating read.
2 out of 5 stars
Source: kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review
In the future, people’s memories are backed up on sticks like external hard-drives, and when someone dies, they can just be put into a new body or resleeved. Criminals are put into the brain bank for a set period of time to serve their “prison” sentence before being resleeved. Kovacs is an ex-UN envoy but he’s also a criminal, and he wakes up one day in a new sleeve on Earth, not his home planet, before his sentence is up. A rich myth–someone who has been alive for centuries in the same body, due to their wealth–has been killed. After being resleeved, the local police told him it was suicide, but he doesn’t believe them. So he’s hired Kovacs to figure it out for him. If he solves the mystery, he’ll get sent back to his home planet and get a sleeve of his choice without serving any further sentence. If he doesn’t, he’ll serve out the rest of his sentence and get resleeved on Earth, far from home. Kovacs has no choice but to try to figure out who would waste their time killing a man who has endless sleeves to burn?
I love a good noir, and I liked the futuristic scifi sound of this one (the most famous futuristic scifi noir is Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, in case you were wondering). Unfortunately, in spite of the very cool resleeving concept, I was left quite bored by the plot.
The setting and ideas for this future scifi world are fantastic. Earth has colonized various planets, and each planet was colonized by different mixes of cultures. Kovacs’ planet was colonized by the Japanese and Nordic cultures. When he was a UN envoy he fought on one colonized by Middle East cultures. So each planet has its own distinct culture, and, Kovacs at least, clearly feels that Earth is quite backwards. For instance, Earth has a cadre of people who believe that resleeving is unethical and sign documents saying they are ethically opposed to being resleeved. It sounds as if no other planets have that faction. Similarly, it sounds as if only Earth has people wealthy enough to become myths–people who can afford to be resleeved in new clones of their own bodies they grow and keep safe, as well as back up their brains at frequent intervals into a cloud. So Kovacs has some immediate culture shock, which is interesting to see.
Also, obviously, the idea of people’s brains being kept on usb sticks (basically) that you can just stick into the brain stem of another body and what implications that would have is just brilliant. It’s cool to read about, and it’s an interesting take on longevity. I also particularly appreciated that people *can* still die in various ways. For instance, if you shoot someone where this brain stick goes in, you ruin their stick and they therefore can’t be downloaded into a new body. This whole setting gives both a cool futuristic vibe and a complex environment for solving murders in. It’s hard to solve for murders when people can just be rebooted, basically.
There is a lot of realistic diversity in the book. The lead cop on the assignment is a Latina woman. Takeshi Kovacs is clearly intended to be biracial (white and Japanese). There is a big bad (who I won’t reveal) who is an Asian woman. The only other major characters are the myth and his wife, both of whom are white. However, the surrounding and minor characters all demonstrate a clear melting pot of race and creed. I appreciate it when futuristic scifi is realistic about the fact that all races and cultures and creeds would most likely be present.
One thing I do want to note, although I do think the book tries to address the obvious issue of what if a person gets resleeved into a race or gender different from their own, I’m not sure it was successful. Takeshi immediately notes that he is in a Caucasian sleeve, and that irritates him some. He continues to act like his own culture and exhibits a preference for the food of his home world but he doesn’t seem to be too bothered by being in someone else’s body. (Criminals get resleeved into other criminals at random. That is part of the punishment…not getting your own body back and knowing yours is out there being used by someone else). It is explained that Takeshi is able to deal with the dysphoria because he was trained for it in the UN Envoy but I do wish a bit more explanation was given to this issue. For instance, is being resleeved into a different race usually ok for the person? Or is it difficult just like every aspect of being resleeved into a new body is difficult? Does it vary person to person? This was unclear, largely because Takeshi’s Envoy training makes it a bit of a non-issue.
Similary, at one point a male character is resleeved into a female body, specifically because sleeving across genders is perceived of as an act of torture in this world (it is a bit unclear to me if this actually happened or if it’s virtual reality, but it is made very clear that virtual reality feels exactly the same as reality to the person in question, so the fact remains). I thought this was interesting and a nice send-up to trans issues. However, in the next breath, the character mentions that he can tell he’s in a woman’s body because he FEELS THINGS MORE EMOTIONALLY. *sighs* (I would provide you with a direct quote, but I don’t always manage to successfully bookmark passages in audiobooks, and this was one of those times). I get it that this passage is supposed to be a complement to women. The man in question talks at length about how women feel things so much more and isn’t that nice and what a burden it must be and men should understand it more. Yes, ok, fine, the character is being nice about it, but it’s still sexist. The character could have had the same experience and limited to just this sleeve without making it about all women, but no. He mentions that he’s been sleeved in women’s bodies before and this is how it always is.
On a related note, I just want to mention for anyone who might be triggered by such things that there is a rather graphic scene in which the same character inside a woman’s body is raped by torturers with a rod of hot iron. Just once I would like to get through a noir book without someone being raped, just saying. (If you appreciate warnings for this type of content, see my dedicated page here).
So the characters are interesting and diverse, and the scifi world is creative, but the plot is a bit ho-hum. Part of the problem is that I just honestly cannot make myself care about the rich myth and his problem. The second issue comes up though when Takeshi ends up having a problem that intertwines with the myth’s, and I just can’t care about his either, largely because it revolves around protecting someone who the reader meets for about two minutes of audiobook, so I’m imagining that’s only a few pages of the book. It’s basically big money all coming up against each other, and that’s a plot I personally struggle to really be interested in unless there’s at least one character I can really root for, and I just couldn’t root for any of these. I also think that it didn’t help that compared to how creative the world-building was, the plot is very average. So I was given high expectations with the world-building in the first few pages only to have a been there, seen that, reaction to the plot.
What lifted the book up from 3 stars to 4 for me was actually the audiobook narration. Todd McLaren does an awesome job of producing many different voices and accents for all the different characters, helping to keep complex scenes straight. He also has a great noir detective vibe to his voice when he speaks for Takeshi. I will note, though, that I did have to speed the audiobook up to 1.25x to match my listening speed. But I tend to listen fast, so other readers would probably prefer the slower speed.
Overall, scifi readers who also enjoy noir will most likely still enjoy the read, in spite of a seen it before plot, because the world-building is unique and creative. I would recommend that readers who enjoy both print and audiobook check out the audiobook, as I feel it elevates the story.
4 out of 5 stars
This erotica short story collection was quite hit or miss for me. The stories that excelled were creative and unique, but the stories that did not featured some problematic elements that prevented me from enjoying the erotica.
When I read a short story collection, I always individually rate the stories. My rating of the collection as a whole is just the average of those ratings. The highest rating any story in this collection received from me was four stars. There were three stories I gave four stars, and two of them were the first two stories in the collection, so it definitely started out strong for me. One is a F/F story featuring a woman who is also a flower (or a flower who is also a woman). It is poetic and heart-quickening. The second story features a sentient house that has missed its owner and demands attention. This made me laugh, and I enjoyed the oddity. It read like a lighter-hearted, erotica version of dark fantasies where there is an evil house–this one is just horny. The third four star read was enjoyable for a different reason. It’s a scifi erotica where two lovers are in a spaceship that is running out of air. They decide to make love, even though they will die quicker. It was so heart-breaking and beautiful that I wished it was a whole book.
Four of the stories received three stars. In each case I felt the story either didn’t take an idea far enough or the story wasn’t long enough to tell the story. Take it farther, and these all could be just as good as the first three I discussed.
Unfortunately, there were two stories that were big clunkers for me, with each receiving only one star, and they both had almost the same problem. “Hunting Hound” has a woman mating with a werewolf. She meets him when she is out riding, and they start making out against a tree, with her a willing participant. Then this happens.
“Stop” she said, and his face darted in toward her own with a low growl. “Too late to stop.” (loc 1650)
He proceeds to penetrate her. There is nothing sexy about a woman asking a man to stop and him claiming it’s too late and proceeding to rape her. It is never too late to stop, and it’s never too late for a partner to change their mind. It really bothers me that this type of scene is still being presented as sexy. I know everyone gets off to their own thing, but this is such a clear scene of consent being removed and then ignored that I just cannot say to each their own in this case. I also want to mention that the book blurb claims that this story features “consensual sexual violence” but it definitely did not read that way to me.
“Summer Nights,” which also received one star, has a similar problem. This story features a woman who keeps seeing the same mysterious man at parties. She goes out to the woods behind the house at one of these parties, and he follows her. She finds out he’s a vampire. She stands in the woods talking to him, holding a wineglass, when this happens:
“he struck like a train, his swinging backhand sending the wineglass flying toward the treeline, and I faintly registered the tinkling shatter of it, perhaps hitting a rock, or a fallen log.” (loc 5654)
She finds the fact that he just hit a glass out of her hand to be massively sexy and proceeds to bang him. This is, again, something I feel like I shouldn’t need to say, but there is nothing sexy about a partner violently hitting something out of your hand. Nothing. Sexy. This is not a sign that oh man she should totally bang this vampire. It is a sign she should run because she is alone in the woods with a violent motherfucker. This could have so easily been foreplay if, instead of hitting a glass out of her hand, he said something like, “I want you now,” and he gently took the glass from her hand and tossed it away. Or if she said, “I want you so much,” and tossed the glass over her shoulder. It would be so easy to have the same erotica about a powerful vampire alone in the woods with a woman without it turning into problematic territory.
I truly wish these last two stories were not in the collection. The rest of the collection is creative, features some fun queer content (the F/F story and a gender-swapping story), and in the case of the best three stories, has some unique ideas. Where the collection flounders is, interestingly enough, with the two most mainstream stories that take the agency out of the hands of the women in them and instead retreats to the tired idea of violent men being sexy.
Overall, if a reader is looking for some quick fantasy erotica, most of the stories in this book will satisfy this need, although I would recommend skipping over “Hunting Hound” and “Summer Nights.” The reader who enjoys the other stories for their uniqueness will most likely be disappointed by the “sexy violence” in these two.
3 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review