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Lit Life Blog

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Reviews & Recs

Reviews & Recs

Because every book lover needs to stay in the know.

The Phoenix Empress by K Arsenault RiveraThe Phoenix Empress (Their Bright Ascendency, #2) by K. Arsenault Rivera
Genres: Fantasy
Published by Tor Books Pages: 544
on October 9, 2018
ISBN: 0765392577

The Phoenix Empress, the sequel to K Arsenault Rivera's wildly buzzed about The Tiger's Daughter, an epic historical fantasy in the vein of Patrick Rothfuss and Naomi Novik.

Since she was a child, the divine empress O Shizuka has believed she was an untouchable god. When her uncle, ruler of the Hokkaran Empire, sends her on a suicide mission as a leader of the Imperial Army, the horrors of war cause her to question everything she knows.

Thousands of miles away, the exiled and cursed warrior Barsalyya Shefali undergoes trials the most superstitious would not believe in order to return to Hokkaran court and claim her rightful place next to O Shizuka.

As the distance between disgraced empress and blighted warrior narrows, a familiar demonic force grows closer to the heart of the empire. Will the two fallen warriors be able to protect their home?

Goodreads
Lady Astronaut of Mars DuologyThe Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal
Genres: Science Fiction
Published by Tor Books Pages: 416
on August 21, 2018
ISBN: 0765398931

Continuing the grand sweep of alternate history begun in The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky looks forward to 1961, when mankind is well-established on the moon andlooking forward to its next step: journeying to, and eventually colonizing, Mars.

Of course the noted Lady Astronaut Elma York would like to go, but there’s a lotriding on whoever the International Aerospace Coalition decides to send on thishistoric—but potentially very dangerous—mission? Could Elma really leave behindher husband and the chance to start a family to spend several years travelingto Mars? And with the Civil Rights movement taking hold all over Earth, willthe astronaut pool ever be allowed to catch up, and will these brave men andwomen of all races be treated equitably when they get there? This gripping lookat the real conflicts behind a fantastical space race will put a new spin onour visions of what might have been.

At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

Goodreads

The Lady Astronaut of Mars Duology is a recent pair of books that serve as prequels to Mary Robinette Kowal’s award-winning short story, Lady Astronaut of Mars. It’s sure to appeal to fans of Hidden Figures, although it’s main character is a Jewish woman rather than a black woman, it still tells the story of human calculators helping humanity reach the stars.

The first book, The Calculating Stars, starts off with a bang… literally. A meteorite crashes into the Earth, wiping out much of the Eastern seaboard and creating a long-term ecological disaster. The science suggests that it could be an extinction event, and humanity needs to find another home, pronto.

So where in our real history, we landed on the Moon as part of a space race with Russia, in this alternate timeline it was a multi-national effort in order to establish a footprint in space, with an eye towards an eventual Mars colony.

Both The Calculating Stars and its sequel, The Fated Sky, are told from the first-person point of view of Elma York, a brilliant Southern Jewish woman. Elma served as a WASP pilot in WWII and now serves as a “calculator”, doing math by hand for the nascent space program. Her husband Nathaniel is a rocket scientist. They have a beautiful relationship built on mutual love and respect.

This is a story of a woman trying to get herself and the other women who work with her the respect and recognition they deserve. The meteorite strike may have forced people to work together on a tight timeline, but it didn’t erase the attitudes of the 1950s. Elma has to fight against a lot of sexism, and the people of color in her life have to fight against racism (Elma also occasionally encounters antisemitism). As if that’s not enough, Elma has terrible social anxiety in a time where mental illness wasn’t well-understood.

Kowal is an excellent author and both books are really well-paced. That isn’t to say that they’re action-packed. There’s a lot of math and a lot of talking and a lot of panic attacks. The second book involves more space adventures, but the first is almost entirely earth-bound. Still, I was always left wanting to know what would happen next, how Elma and her friends would overcome the obstacles in their path.

There are some awkward moments in this book when Elma is confronted with her own color-blindness. I get it. As an author it has to be really difficult to accurately portray race relations at the time and have your character be believable, but likable. And so Elma frequently fails to realize that something has happened because of someone’s race, or that her or Nathaniel’s attempts to help come across as playing White Savior.

About Elma’s Judaism: it’s well-portrayed. She and Nathaniel are both Jewish, but not super observant. They came across as believable. Their faith informed their attitudes and decisions at times, but they were more driven by science and their love of space. There isn’t a lot of talk about God, no miracles. This is not inspirational fiction masquerading as sci-fi, it’s sci-fi with characters who happen to have a religious background, just like people in real life do.

I find it refreshing to see more fiction where people have a specific faith, as long as it isn’t the center of the novel and isn’t over the top. A lot of authors take the easy path of either not mentioning it, having their character be vaguely non-denominationally Christian-ish, or have their character be some sort of witch, whose practices may or may not bear any resemblance to actual witchcraft or Pagan religions.

In the real world, I feel like our faith or lack thereof is a larger part of our personality than it’s portrayed in books. In an effort to make the main character more appealing to a vaster swath of readers, authors have filed down that part of them. The thing is, even if a person is casually agnostic, or barely kind-of-sort-of Christian, that informs who they are. Were they raised agnostic? Is their family more devout and they’ve drifted away from the faith?

Giving a character a real faith, or lack thereof, gives them more depth. It makes them more believable. A skilled author can weave that into their characterization with a deft enough touch that the book doesn’t read like an “inspie” or turn off readers of other faiths.

Anyway. This went off on a tangent. These books are good. I read The Fated Sky in one insomniac night and was crying like a baby when it finished. Pick them up if you enjoy good feminist alternative history sci-fi with a diverse cast.

A Study in HonorA Study in Honor by Claire O'Dell, Beth Bernobich
Published by Harper Voyager Pages: 304
on July 31, 2018
ISBN: 006269930X

Dr. Janet Watson knows firsthand the horrifying cost of a divided nation. While treating broken soldiers on the battlefields of the New Civil War, a sniper’s bullet shattered her arm and ended her career. Honorably discharged and struggling with the semi-functional mechanical arm that replaced the limb she lost, she returns to the nation’s capital, a bleak, edgy city in the throes of a fraught presidential election. Homeless and jobless, Watson is uncertain of the future when she meets another black and queer woman, Sara Holmes, a mysterious yet playfully challenging covert agent who offers the doctor a place to stay.

Watson’s readjustment to civilian life is complicated by the infuriating antics of her strange new roommate. But the tensions between them dissolve when Watson discovers that soldiers from the New Civil War have begun dying one by one—and that the deaths may be the tip of something far more dangerous, involving the pharmaceutical industry and even the looming election. Joining forces, Watson and Holmes embark on a thrilling investigation to solve the mystery—and secure justice for these fallen soldiers.

Goodreads

 

Sherlock Holmes is a literary character that people can’t keep away from. Whether it’s direct adaptations of the original books, modern-day re-imaginings, cameos in other stories, or loving homages, he’s almost inescapable.

And that brings us to A Study in Honor by Claire O’Dell. Here, Holmes and Watson are two black women in a near-future version of the United States torn apart by a new civil war. It works surprisingly well.

Janet Watson is a veteran. She was serving as a combat medic when her unit was overrun and enemy fire destroyed her arm. She’s now in possession of a poorly re-fitted mechanical arm designed for someone larger than her. The arm doesn’t work well, which means she can’t resume her career as a surgeon. Her prospects are rather grim when she meets Sara Holmes.

Watson doesn’t start out as Holmes’ assistant in this. They’re roommates. Holmes claims to need someone to help pay the rent on her lavish apartment and offers Janet an incredible deal. Watson quickly becomes convinced that Holmes is up to something, but the apartment is beautiful and far nicer than anything else she could afford on her physician’s assistant salary, so she grits her teeth and goes along with it.

That could be a great set-up for an odd couple style story, but this is a Sherlock Holmes story so of course there’s a mystery involving veterans of a specific military action turning up dead under suspicious circumstances.

Aside from the race and gender of the primary players, there’s a few differences between A Study in Honor and a lot of other Sherlock stories. This is more Janet’s story than Sara’s. Rather than being focused on Holmes’ brilliant deductions, this is about Sara putting the pieces together (while putting the pieces of her own life back together), before eventually being swept in to a deeper level by Holmes.

And for fans who have always shipped Holmes and Watson… Well, Janet Watson is a lesbian. Holmes reads as asexual to me, but there are moments when she fakes a romance with Janet for reasons of espionage, which can give shippers a lot of fuel for “will they or won’t they?” speculation. Also, the lavish gifts that Sara gives Janet as part of the cover will please anyone who enjoys those “swept off your feet” by a billionaire romances.

Better writers could probably say a lot about the relationship dynamic between Holmes and Watson. It’s certainly not entirely healthy, but it makes for very good reading.

The author’s website says this is a series, and I’d certainly like to see what O’Dell has planned next for her versions of Holmes and Watson.

A couple notes: This book’s protagonists are black. The author is not. I don’t know whether or not she’s queer. I do feel like she did a fair job with representation, but I say that from the perspective of a white woman. She does acknowledge Tempest Bradford and Nisi Shawl’s Writing the Other workshop in her acknowledgment section. Anyway, I just share this so that readers who would prefer to focus on #OwnVoices works will know that this might not be the book for them.

Also, this is called a “debut novel”, but the author has written other works under a different name (which our book plug-in has helpfully tagged for you). Secondary pen names are weird, y’all.

Those notes aside, I enjoyed this book. I had a hard time putting it down and I’ll definitely pick up the sequel.

 

“1984 and Brave New World meets Narnia” in this exciting new young adult release from award-wining author Stephen Zimmer.  Four main characters begin their journeys in the Faraway Saga, a tale that invites readers to explore infinite horizons!

[divider]

[RAVENOUS]: Tell me about Dream of the Navigator. What inspired you to write it?

[ZIMMER]: A lot of things came together to inspire Dream of the Navigator.  Watching trends in society and technology, and patterns, definitely inspired the vision of the massive technates that serve as the main population centers within the world portrayed in the book.  It is a fusion of dystopian and utopian elements that are used by those in power to maintain tight control over the masses through the extensive deployment of technology.

On the other side of the equation, I have a keen interest in consciousness, dreams, and things of a spiritual nature, which brings limitless possibilities to a storyline such as this where non-physical realms are explored and discovered by the principle characters.

Bringing all of this together in one story has been very enjoyable as a writer.  It has given me plenty to work with and explore, which inspires even more elements as the writing progresses.  I think readers are going to have a lot of fun reading it, and it will leave them with a few things to think about too.

[RAVENOUS]: What was the best and worst part writing Dream of the Navigator?

[ZIMMER]: The best part of writing this book was being able to open up some new territory for myself as an author.  I’ve never been shy about trying out some new things (such as when I wrote my Harvey and Solomon Steampunk short stories) and it was great to be able to immerse into dystopian elements within the context of young adult fiction.  It gets into futurism and even science fiction a little, alongside some fantastical elements. Being able to draw those kinds of things into a single mix as a writer is both challenging and a whole lot of fun.

The worst part is always making the hard decisions of what character threads to follow.  There are many very interesting characters in this series, such as The Artist and Gabriel, but I wanted to keep this focused to a quartet so I made the choices to follow Jaelynn, Cayden, Salvador, and Haven and see things through their eyes.  These were the right characters to follow but it would have been just as smooth of a flow to write character threads for The Artist and Gabriel.

 

[RAVENOUS]: Which character in the story do you most relate to?

[ZIMMER]: Oddly enough, it is not one of the 4 primary characters that I feel I relate to the most, but rather one of the supporting cast, boy named Gabriel Adamson.  He is fiercely independent and has a strong sense that there is something fundamentally wrong with the society that he is living in. He’s not just being a rebellious teenager for the sake of rebellion.  He is an independent thinker and is driven to learn and become better at what he does. He is not one to compromise the values that he holds strongly to heart. I am similar to him in a lot of ways and it was a great experience in writing seeing his character take root and evolve.  By the time I finished this novel I had come to relate with him very well.

 

[RAVENOUS]: How do you get to know your characters?

[ZIMMER]: When I am writing, I describe it as a cinematic process, in that I write what I “see” happening, very much like having a vivid daydream.  When I am in that kind of zone, I am in the character’s heads too, so I have a connection with them that allows me to get to know them on a level that is not possible with my friends and even family in this world. When you are listening to their thoughts, looking through their eyes, and observing them in their world, you cannot help but get to know them extremely well.

 

[RAVENOUS]: Any special scenes you loved, but had to edit out?

[ZIMMER]: I did do a lot of trimming to make sure the pacing of the novel flows well, but thankfully I did not have to get rid of any significant scenes.  I am glad that I did not have more than four character threads in this book as I know I would have eventually settled on 4 and it would have been hard to cut one out that featured a character like The Artist or Gabriel.

 

[RAVENOUS]: What is your writing kryptonite and how do you overcome it?

[ZIMMER]: Endless rewriting of a scene is one hurdle I had to learn to overcome in the earlier phases of my development as a writer.  To progress in a manuscript, I learned to simply move to work on another section if I found myself bogging down in rewriting a section.  In completing a book it just took time to get a sense of where the text needed to be in order for my editors to work with it. When I find myself starting to go over the same territory again and again without any major revisions, I know it is time to hand it off to the editor.  If I did not do this, I could literally do infinite passes through a manuscript.

 

[RAVENOUS]: Where do you see your series going in the next few years?

[ZIMMER]: I estimate this story arc covering a trilogy, but I am leaving it open for a possible 4th installment, depending on a couple of subplots/developments that I’m looking to include in the storyline.  I think these books would be a great foundation for cross-media projects such as film/tv and gaming, though the settings and environments would necessitate a sizable budget and high-production value to render them justice.

 

[RAVENOUS]: What was your writing process with Dream of the Navigator? Did you research, set aside time each day, or write whenever inspired?

[ZIMMER]: I kept to the same process that I take for all of my work, which involves morning writing sessions in a space that is set aside for writing only.  The computer I use there is not connected to the internet and I do no other work on it besides writing. When it comes to research, I normally take time for that during the day or evening when I need to investigate something.

 

[RAVENOUS]: In 3-5 words, how would you sum up Dream of the Navigator?

[ZIMMER]: Cinematic, engaging, and thought-provoking.

 

[RAVENOUS]: What messages do you hope readers will take from Dream of the Navigator?

[ZIMMER]: If readers come away from reading this book with a better appreciation of keeping an open mind about the nature of the universe and the incredible possibilities out there, while also gaining a greater understanding of the value and nature of individual freedom, then I will be very happy.

 

[RAVENOUS]: Alright! Now for a couple fun questions….

[RAVENOUS]: If you could assign a theme song to Dream of the Navigator, what would it be?

[ZIMMER]: Rush’s “Freewill”.  The exercise of free will, and environment to be able to exercise one’s free will, is paramount to this series.  The classic Rush song does a great job of representing the concept of free will in music.

[RAVENOUS]:  What is your favorite word?

[ZIMMER]: That is a very difficult one to answer as I have many favorites!  Yet for some weird reason, I always get a chuckle out of the word “fish.”  I can not explain it, but it is a word that has given me immense amusement over the years.  Great to use in combination with other words to come up with ridiculous imagery too! Haha!

[RAVENOUS]: What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

[ZIMMER]: David Gemmell’’s novel Legend.  This novel has a wonderful depth underlying a great heroic fantasy tale involving an aging warrior about to fight his last battle.

[RAVENOUS]: If you could name a drink (virgin or alcoholic) after Dream of the Navigator, what would call it?

[ZIMMER]: Navigator Nectar, and it would be a very carefully selected and aged Bourbon that would have to be at least as good as Blanton’s.  I can see myself aboard The Artist’s vessel having a good pour of this! haha

via GIPHY

[divider]

About DREAM OF THE NAVIGATOR:

Cities have been replaced by technates. It is a world of soaring apartments, hundreds of stories high, where technology measures, monitors and rations to meet the needs of the greater populace. It is a world of drones, in the air and on the ground, and advanced robotic beings who carry out much of the harder labor, security, and even pleasure assignments.

Those discontent, or who resist, are taken to Rehabilitation Centers, established after the embrace of the Greater Good Doctrine. For most, virtual realms, substances, and entertainment provide escapes, but for Haven, Cayden, Jaelynn, and Salvador, growing up in Technate 6 is a restless existence.

A hunger for something more gnaws inside each of them. Discoveries await that open the gates to transcend time and space, and even new planes of existence. Nothing in their universe, or others, is impossible to explore. What was once reality, now seems like an illusion in a deepening experience. Begin the journey to Faraway, in Dream of the Navigator, the first book of the Faraway Saga!

[divider]

About the author: Stephen Zimmer is an award-winning author and filmmaker based out of Lexington Kentucky. His works include the Rayden Valkyrie novels and novellas(Sword and Sorcery), the Rising Dawn Saga (Cross Genre), the Fires in Eden Series (Epic Fantasy), the Hellscapes short story collections (Horror), the Chronicles of Ave short story collections (Fantasy), the Harvey and Solomon Tales (Steampunk), the Ragnar Stormbringer Tales (Sword and Sorcery), and the forthcoming Faraway Saga (YA Dystopian/Cross-Genre).

Stephen’s visual work includes the feature film Shadows Light, shorts films such as The Sirens and Swordbearer, and the forthcoming Rayden Valkyrie: Saga of a Lionheart TV Pilot.

Stephen is a proud Kentucky Colonel who also enjoys the realms of music, martial arts, good bourbons, and spending time with family.

 

Website: https://www.stephenzimmer.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/stephenzimmer7

Twitter: @sgzimmer

Instagram: @stephenzimmer7

 

The Black God’s DrumsThe Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
Genres: Fantasy
Published by Tor.com Pages: 112
on August 21, 2018
ISBN: 1250294703

Rising SFF star P. Djèlí Clark brings an alternate New Orleans of orisha, airships, and adventure to life in his immersive debut novella The Black God's Drums

In an alternate New Orleans caught in the tangle of the American Civil War, the wall-scaling girl named Creeper yearns to escape the streets for the air – in particular, by earning a spot on-board the airship Midnight Robber. Creeper plans to earn Captain Ann-Marie’s trust with information she discovers about a Haitian scientist and a mysterious weapon he calls The Black God’s Drums.

But Creeper also has a secret herself: Oya, the African orisha of the wind and storms, speaks inside her head, and may have her own ulterior motivations.

Soon, Creeper, Oya, and the crew of the Midnight Robber are pulled into a perilous mission aimed to stop the Black God’s Drums from being unleashed and wiping out the entirety of New Orleans.

“Asinewy mosaic of Haitian sky pirates, wily street urchins, and orisha magic.Beguiling and bombastic!” —Scott Westerfeld, New York Times bestselling author

At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

Goodreads

I was pretty excited to find out this book was coming out, and even more excited when I got approved for an advanced copy from NetGalley. P. Djèlí Clark wrote one of my favorite short stories “A Dead Djinn in Cairo”, so I wanted to see what he would do with a novella-length work.

Sadly, The Black God’s Drums didn’t work for me as well as Djinn did. It’s hard to say why, but I think it has a lot to do with the narrators in each one. The former story had an awesome female detective, whereas the latter features a young teenage thief. Now my teenage self would have loved “Creeper”, the narrator of The Black God’s Drums, and maybe my current self could have grown to love her in a longer story, but she just failed to grab me over the course of the novella.

Clark definitely excels at world building. This story takes place in an alternate version of New Orleans. There are steampunk elements, including airships, and mystical elements, as Creeper herself serves as a vessel for the goddess Oya.

As is the case with most novellas, the plot here is rather simple. There is a dangerous magical device, called The Black God’s Drums or Shango’s Thunder. It creates killer storms. The bad guys want it, the good guys don’t want anyone to ever use it again. Think of it as a magical nuke. The bad guys are a splinter sect of Confederate soldiers. Would you want the Confederates to have a magical nuke? I hope not.

Our “good guys” are a rag-tag bunch. Creeper is an orphaned thief. She seeks out the help of a dashing female airship captain. There are a couple of mysterious nuns. Members of the captain’s diverse crew help out, though their actions mainly happen behind the scenes.

I feel like a broken record saying this about novellas, but I wish this had been longer. I would have preferred a more complex plot, a chance for Creeper to really grow as a character, more of the airship crew, more of the city. When there’s a great setting and an interesting cast of characters, it feels like such a let-down to only be with them for a couple hundred pages. I mean, this is such a short novella it doesn’t even have chapter breaks (unless they added those in after sending out the advanced review copies).

I’ll definitely keep an eye out for more by this author. Even though this book didn’t work for me, I still like the author’s ideas. He clearly has a great imagination and a knack for world building. I’d love to see what he’d do with a full-length novel or trilogy, whether set in this world, the world of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” or some other world together.

The Black God’s Drums will be published on August 21st. If you would like a physical copy I highly recommend pre-ordering it from your favorite local independent bookstore.

Thank you to NetGalley and Macmillan/Tor-Forge for providing me with a review copy of this book!