Review of Archangel by Marguerite Reed

August 28, 2015 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Archangel by Marguerite ReedArchangel (Book One of the Chronicles of Ubastis)
By Marguerite Reed; Narrated by Dina Pearlman
Audible Studios via Resurrection House
Release date: 17 June 2015
[UNABRIDGED] – 11 hours, 5 minutes

Themes: / military sci-fi / grief / humanity /

Publisher summary:

The Earth is dying, and our hopes are pinned on Ubastis, an untamed paradise at the edge of colonized space. But such an influx of people threatens the planet’s unstudied ecosystem – a tenuous research colony must complete its analysis, lest humanity abandon one planet only to die on another.

The Ubasti colonists barely get by on their own. To acquire the tools they need, they are relegated to selling whatever they can to outside investors. For xenobiologist Vashti Loren, this means bringing Offworlders on safari to hunt the specimens she and her fellow biologists so desperately need to study.

Haunted by the violent death of her husband, the heroic and celebrated Lasse Undset, Vashti must balance the needs of Ubastis against the swelling crush of settlers. Vashti struggles in her role as one of the few colonists licensed to carry deadly weapons, just as she struggles with her history of using them. And when she discovers a genetically engineered soldier smuggled onto the surface, Vashti must face the nightmare of her husband’s murder all over again. Standing at the threshold of humanity’s greatest hope, she alone understands the darkness of guarding paradise.

I spent a lot of my time while listening to this book confused, which made it all the more surprising when I realized at the end that I’d liked the book, and am fairly intrigued about what will come next. A book spanning multiple topics/thoughts, it was interesting to see how the various topics mostly worked together.

I think this book served in some ways as world-building/scene-setting for future books, which may explain why I was confused at times. This may be seen as a negative, but since I liked the world, it was okay, once I realized that I hadn’t missed anything with the plot (though at times, I was convinced that I had). I also liked the main character, a researcher on the planet of Ubastis but also one of the one people on the planet with a literal license to kill…anything. So while it seemed that the plot may have moved slowly, or that I was sure I was missing things, in the end it worked out okay for me. But others, especially those who listen, might have similar confusion.

It’s hard to describe what the book is “about” since Archangel covers so many topics. The book is set sometime in the future after the Earth has been effectively destroyed/overused by humans. Humans seem to have escaped to space, though it’s not clear that they had to go far to find other places to live. The book mentions a station at L5, which I presume is the L5 Lagrange point that people who’ve studied physics/astrophysics and sci-fi lovers alike will probably recognize. L5 has long been thought of as a place where space colonization might be feasible, so it seems as if it fits and that it’s not some L5 in relation to the world in the book, separate from our own system. Many humans seem to live in space, while a small handful live on Ubastis. Ubastis is a planet that has seen small waves of colonists; the first two waves of colonists were trained primarily as a military would be trained, though the job was to scout areas of the planet and start setup for more colonists in the future, to establish it as its own world. The other aspect of the colonists’ life is to study the planet and understand the resources it has and the balance between the natural ecosystem and those resources–the colonists do not wish to make Ubastis into another Earth, and so immigration to the planet is heavily controlled, only up for discussion once every 10 years. Archangel takes place just prior to one of these votes, and there is a heavy contingent of “off-worlders” lobbying for the strict limits to be lifted, to open immigration to the planet. In the book, human engineering is also not only possibly but heavily used, and most people have some level of genetic modification; most to dull aggression and many for vanity reasons.

The main character, Dr/Commander Lauren Vashti, is a “natural,” a non-genetically modified human. She was one of the people in the second group of colonists to come to the planet. Her husband was one of the leaders of that second group, and the pair are seen in many ways as a literal mother and father (and in the case of her husband, even a saint) of the planet and its resources. Vashti’s husband was killed by a highly-engineered “assault human,” a BEAST, one who was specifically genetically modified to be a soldier of sorts. This brings me to the first of the interleaved topics that the book touches on–motherhood and, to some extent, single motherhood. Vashti spends much of the book seemingly at odds with her dual role on the world. She has a literal daughter, a toddler, but often sees that being a literal mother is incompatible with being a leader, a voice for the planet as a whole. Because of her natural gifts as well as the reverence given to her, Vashti is also a literal mother to many Ubastians (and off-worlders?), as her eggs were frozen and used to create other offspring. There were striking scenes in the book where Vashti’s grief/memories of her husband are interrupted by her daughter, perfectly capturing the issues with motherhood. Later in the book, as she realizes that she is in some way a mother to the planet, similar memories are jarringly interrupted by the politics of the planet, things she must stand up for.

Obviously, another topic in the book is that of genetic engineering and the…sense…in doing so. I won’t go into details, but Vashti being a “natural” woman actually has a fairly important aspect in the plot. In particular, it seems that BEASTs can only really be “controlled” by natural humans, those without genetic modifications. This speaks volumes to the topic of genetic modification in general, but the topic is also touched upon by human nature. Because Vashti is a “natural,” she has a “normal” level of aggression/willingness to kill. It seems that many people have that particular knob turned down. Vashti is looked down upon by outsiders because she is in fact willing to kill to study the fauna native to Ubastis and willing to kill in self defense. It seems that most others find killing repugnant in general, something to be psychologically educated-away/re-educated away. The people of Ubastis (and also the off-worlders, I believe) are vegetarian. In fact, many are Muslim, though it was never really clear to me why it was important that so many were Muslim (the rest seemed to be Christian of some sort).

Another topic commonly dealt with in science fiction is that of resource use/protection of a planet/avoiding a runaway situation like we have on Earth/that eventually dooms Earth in many books…this book is no different. In her role as scientist and “mother” on Ubastis, Vashti preaches for conservation and minimization of the human footprint on the planet. The Earth is looked to as a sign of the worst that can happen.

In all, Archangel is a book about revolution. There are many types of revolution in the story, both personal revolution for Vashti, but other aspects of revolution, too. Once I came to terms with being “confused” every now and then, it was actually a fun read. The narrator, Dina Pearlman, is one whose name is familiar but I can’t find any other books that I’ve listened to that she’s narrated. Her narration had an odd cadence that was particularly difficult to follow at first. I found speeding up the audio playback helped that significantly, though her pacing may also have contributed to my confusion at times. Once I got “used” to it (at the faster playback speed), I got more into the book, but it did take awhile.

This book might not be for everybody–and certainly might not be for everybody in audio form–but as for me, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next on Ubastis.

Posted by terpkristin.

Review of Heraclix and Pomp by Forrest Aguirre

February 26, 2015 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Heraclix and PompHeraclix and Pomp: A Novel of the Fabricated and the Fey
By Forrest Aguirre; Narrated by Brandon Massey
Publisher: Audible Studios (via Resurrection House)
[UNABRIDGED] – 11 hours and 7 minutes

Themes: / fantasy / golem / magician / magic / faery /

Publisher summary:

Heraclix was dead and Pomp was immortal. That was before Heraclix’s reanimation (along with the sewn-together pieces and parts of many other dead people) and Pomp’s near murder at the hands of an evil necromancer. As they travel from Vienna to Prague to Istanbul and back again (with a side-trip to Hell), they struggle to understand who and what they are: Heraclix seeks to know the life he had before his death and rebirth, and Pomp wrestles with the language and meaning of mortality. As they journey across a land rife with revolution and unrest, they discover that the evil necromancer they thought dead might not be so dead after all. In fact, he might be making a pact to ensure his own immortality….

There are some books that are just magical, that are written in such a way that you can’t help but be drawn into a new world even if it’s set against our own. Neil Gaiman writes this way and so does Susanna Clark in Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Forrest Aguirre, World Fantasy Award winner for his editorial work in the Leviathan 3 anthology, has created such a tale. The story of Heraclix and Pomp is magical before the magic even begins, or possibly just at the same time.

Because this is the story about a golem, who has been fabricated by a magician, and Pomp, a faery.

They go on a journey to find out what exactly Heraclix is made of … in more ways than one. Being a golem, he’s been formed from different parts of various bodies and some behave abnormally to say the least.

I knew I would enjoy this tale right away, however, my main problem actually has nothing to do with the writing or the story itself, it’s the audio narration.

I almost put the book down because the narration was just plain hard to listen to. Brandon Massey’s narration was dull and monotone, almost robotic even, with words over-pronounced so that each letter is sounded out. I don’t like listening to audiobooks on faster speeds, because I like to appreciate the acting and the reading itself, but 1.75 speed actually made this much better to listen to. At least there was a reason for the robot-sounding voice.

As much as I wanted to love every moment of the book, I was so off-put by the narration that it made it really hard to enjoy the story. I didn’t look forward to my car rides and sadly I don’t have the time to go back and read, which I’m sure I will enjoy much more.

Despite these facts, I could still see the glimmer of lyrical beauty in the narrative. It’s a great story and wonderfully written and my reduced rating is mainly a factor of the audio presentation.

3.5 out of 5 Stars (recommended, but not on audio)

Posted by Bryce L.

Review of Chimpanzee by Darin Bradley

December 2, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

ChimpanzeeChimpanzee
Written and narrated by Darin Bradley
Publisher: Resurrection House via Audible
Publication Date: 9 October 2014
[UNABRIDGED] – 5 hours, 46 minutes

Themes: / dystopia / unrest / cognitive theory / virtual reality / revolution /

Publisher summary:

Unemployment has ravaged the U.S. economy. Foreclosures are rampant. People struggle everywhere, exhausted by the collapse that destroyed their lives . . .

Benjamin Cade is an expert in cognition and abstract literature, and before the flatlined economy caught up to him, he earned his living as a university instructor. Now, without income, he joins the millions defaulting on their loans—in his case, the money he borrowed to finance his degrees. But there are consequences.

Using advances in cognitive science and chemical therapy, Ben’s debtors can reclaim their property—his education. The government calls the process “Repossession Therapy,” and it is administered by the Homeland Renewal Project, the desperate program designed to salvage what remains of the ravaged U.S. economy. The data Ben’s repossession will yield is invaluable to those improving the “indexing” technology—a remarkable medical advance that has enabled the effective cure of all mental disorders. By disassembling his mind, doctors will gain the expertise to assist untold millions.

But Ben has no intention of losing his mind without a fight, so he begins teaching in the central park, distributing his knowledge before it’s gone in a race against ignorance. And somewhere in Ben’s confusing takedown, Chimpanzee arrives. Its iconography appears spray-painted and wheat-pasted around town. Young people in rubber chimpanzee masks start massive protests. A new use of the indexing technology shows up in bars across the country. It’s called “chimping” . . . named after the mysterious protest movement, and it uses goggles and electrodes to reverse the curative indexing process, temporarily (recreationally) offering those inclined a mental illness of their own choosing.

As Ben slowly loses himself, the Chimpanzee movement seems to grow. And all fingers point to Ben . . . or maybe the voice that speaks to him every time he uses the chimping rig. As civil unrest grows, and Homeland Security takes an interest, Ben finds himself at the center of a storm that may not even be real. What is Chimpanzee? Who created it? What does it want?

And is there even enough of Ben left to find out?

What I prefer in my dystopia is realism and possibility, that it could happen here, in my lifetime. I read dystopia for the horror, for the thrill. That is the brilliance Darin Bradley brings to his novels, both in Noise and in Chimpanzee. It helps that Chimpanzee takes place in a town an hour from where I live, a place I visit often, particularly the arts district, where quite a bit of the action takes place. The events are very vivid to me, described in that place. They will be vivid to others for different reasons, but basically anyone watching the news in the last few years will feel they know the world of this novel.

The premise of Chimpanzee (see description above) may be even more chilling to those of us working in academia, who have seen the impact of the various economic downturns on expensive liberal arts educations. Now that there are no job guarantees, and no guarantee on the investment made (often by the students through hefty loans), people are starting to question the benefit of the system we have maintained for so long. I hate this conversation, because I work at one of those schools, and depend on it for my livelihood. So did the author, for a while. And that’s where reality and the terror of this possible future start to blur within the novel.

There is a lot in this novel that might feel over the reader’s head.  I would encourage people who don’t understand every word from the rhetoric of cognitive theory to press on –  treat it like a classic science fiction info dump.  Let it wash over you, grasp what you can. You will be in the same place as the students in the story, who also are put into a position of creating their own meaning, applied to their real situations.

There is a concept of virtual reality in this novel that I liked, called chimping, something you can do at a bar with your friends.  It becomes an important part of the story in ways I will not give away here.

The audiobook has a story to its making. In the insert, it talks about the initial difficulty Resurrection House had in distributing the audio version.  It includes a warning:

“Because some books aren’t meant for sedans on highways. They may have too many voices, or they may have jagged corners that snag plots, or they may have things with no business being in stories… like symbols or formulae or languages we don’t understand. You can listen to them, if you’re ready to pay attention.”

I did not heed the warning and listened to some of this audio production while driving around. The first time I encountered a repossessed memory, the sound used to represent the hole, the deletion, it almost sent me off the road.  When I played it at home, my husband jumped out of his skin. It would be remiss not to warn you.

Otherwise, the audio moves back and forth between a radio-play style performance from multiple readers with sound effects and music, and the author’s own narration.  I liked the music choices and the sound effects were generally effective.  Having sound effects in some parts magnifies the silence of the others. Benjamin Cade spends a lot of time inside his head, and losing what is in his head, so I think that silence is well warranted.  It takes some getting used to, but I ended up appreciating it.  The author also does a good job delivering his narration in a noirish tone, where short sentences shine.

Posted by Jenny Colvin