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Review – Spill Zone

Spill Zone, Science Fiction Graphic Novel written by Scott Westerfeld, drawn by Alex Puvilland, coloured by Hilary Sycamore

Series: Spill Zone #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

When I see Scott Westerfeld’s name, I get excited. His name on a book means an interesting world, difficult choices, troubled youngsters, and the occasional surprise that makes me squee. The artist is new to me, but I love the art. It’s lovely and fits the tone well.

After the Spill, Poughkeepsie has become uninhabitable. Addison and her sister Lexa still live rather close. Armed with rules like “Never get off the motorcycle” and “don’t look at the meat puppets,” Addison braves the weird dangers of the Spill Zone in order to take photographs which she sells through a broker for big cash.

Or so she thinks, until she meets one of her ‘collectors’ who offers her a million to take what might be her last trip into the Spill Zone.

I loved the soldiers that set up barricades around the zone. They were a nice touch of mundanity. Addison is badass and also sympathetic. Her parents were lost in the Spill, leaving her to care for Lexa, who was affected in ways that we’re only beginning to see.

It’s mysterious and exciting, and the stuff in the Spill Zone appeal to both my love of Cthonic weirdness and zombie apocalypses. The second volume cannot come soon enough.

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Review – A Thousand Words for Stranger

A Thousand Words for Stranger, Science Fiction by Julie E Czerneda

Series: Trade Pact Universe

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

It feels funny to say this 20 years after the fact, but this was an impressive debut. The writing and some of the world building are so good that they mask some of the amateur mistakes.

This is a setup I’ve seen before: amnesiac protagonist Sira is lost and pursued by danger she doesn’t understand. She takes up with a spaceship captain, Jason Morgan, and the two work together to find out what’s going on and who she was.

Ugh, that oversimplification doesn’t cover it at all. I feel like this is one of those books that I can’t really explain unless I over-summarise or compare it to another book. Unfortunately, the closest I can think of is Nine Princes in Amber, to which A Thousand Words for Stranger can only pale in comparison. Of course, it is a different story with different themes and intentions. The amnesia lasts for most of the book, Sira resists attempts to recall her former self, and she doesn’t have anything like the agency or motivation of Corwin. This is more of a small-scale space romance. And that’s fine.

For people who like telepaths in their Science Fiction, I would put this up there with the later Acorna novels. The Clan are a race of humanoids who breed for psionic power and the rest of their society and culture revolve around it. That part of the world building is faithfully and logically portrayed. There are many alien races that come in bite-sized pieces, enough to add interesting diversity. It reminded me of reading Star Wars novels as a kid. That’s probably enough to recommend it on its own.

It is still noticeably an early book in Czerneda’s career. The pacing is muddy and character development woefully uneven. More than one subplot seems to accomplish nothing more than taking up time, while some threads are dropped soon after being brought up to introduce something else. What actually bothered me was how inconsistent the characters are. Most notably, antagonist characters are never well established, either before being introduced or revealed to be antagonistic. I’ve read way more awkward examples of this, though. If I had been reading with a less intent eye for detail and structure, I might have just liked it without any qualifiers.

I’ve been wanting to check out Czerneda’s books for a few years, so I thought I’d start at the beginning. It’s a bit rocky, but I did enjoy it. I’m looking forward to reading more. Not just in the Trade Pact Universe.

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Review – The Girl with the Ghost Machine

The Girl with the Ghost Machine, Paranormal by Lauren DeStefano

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is a story about loss, grief, and the damaging effects of failure to accept death. Emmaline’s mother died when she was young, and she was left to move on with no support from her father because he basically abandoned her to build a machine to summon ghosts and give them form. Luckily for Emmaline, she had her childhood friends the twins Gully and Oliver to sustain her. However, she was essentially orphaned, and she seems to know it, if not consciously.

Even if the machine had never worked, I think there could have been plenty of discussion of the themes. Obviously it would have been far more difficult and wouldn’t have all of the science fiction and almost occulty appeal, but I do feel like it could have been done. The basic question of the entire book is this: “Should you trade a lifetime of memories for a brief period of being with a deceased loved one again?”

The answer is not an easy one to come to, although of course since the majority of the characters are children, they each come to their own answers swiftly. Any reader answer to the question is pretty much justified, which surprised me.

I was impressed to see such a heavy topic covered so well in such a short book. It’s sympathetic and respectful, never stooping to coddle or pretend that death is not a big deal or conversely, such a big deal that it can’t be broached. The writing style has some poetic moments, but it’s mostly a clean and simple vehicle for the story. Bravo, I say.

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King of Teeth

One of the better jobs was simply maintaining the cage. Quiet, predictable work that was always done in a group or at least a pair. No chance that a grudge might sneak up on kill you. The others in the group didn’t even have to be allies. You were all united in not wanting to add to the blood you had to scrub off the concrete. Cleaning the cage was a little spot of peace in the Underground.

A flash of light caught Zaymie’s eye. She set down her bucket of rinse water and crouched, careful not to let her bare knees meet a soap-covered stain. No immediate joy. One of her locks slid over her shoulder as she  turned her head this way and that, trying to get the firelight from the sconces outside the cage to catch on the mystery object.

There. More of a glint this time, flashes over more than one angle, as if the thing had many facets. Her hand shot out and she jumped back to her feet. “Found a tooth,” she called out, palming it. “Who’s got the bag?”

“I do.” Tiger appeared at her side, the curt reply the only sound he made. Only long acquaintance with the short knife fighter kept Zaymie from jumping. He handed her the smelly burlap sack reserved for debris such as teeth and fingers.

Ill fortune. If Kickaby had been holding the bag, he would have simply thrown it to her, never mind the chance of spilling. When it came to a sharpness contest, Tiger was a dagger and Kickaby was a bowl. “Thanks.” She reached into the bag and relaxed her hand, not quite letting go of the thing. “I’m gonna see if it has any fellows.”

Their eyes locked. Tiger’s normally straight-lipped expression broke into something akin to a bemused smile. The cage was designed to be a heatsink, to cool the combatants in the sweaty, literal heat of battle. Not the sort of environment that allowed for flushed skin. Certainly not from something as basic as lying.

Goosebumps rose to sharp points, prickling hard across her neck like sandpaper under her skin. “Unless you want to be the King of Teeth.”

“Not today.” He turned away first, his breath and shoulders shaking. Laughing at her.

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Free-writing On the Run

Hadley leaned forward to get her head between her knees. Her frizzy black hair draped over her legs like a ragged curtain. “Are they still out there?”

It was a stupid question, which Brian wasted no time answering. “Where do you expect them to go? They’re as trapped as we are.”

She disagreed. Nothing with teeth like that could truly be said to be trapped. Predators were the masters of all they surveyed. The beasts weren’t trapped. They were in charge.

That and other similarly bleak and useless things crossed her mind in a whir of activity. She bumped her head back and forth between her knees like an indecisive pinball, then launched herself up. Too fast. Combined with the smell of neglect and old rat leavings, the whiplash blurred her vision. She slapped her face with one hand and rubbed her eyes. “You think the chains will keep them out?”

“I don’t know.” Her brother sat on the crumbling old mattress beside her and rubbed her shoulder absentmindedly. “The door is made of metal, so they probably won’t just chew through it.”

Probably. So comforting.

“Those claws didn’t look like they’d help much with tool-manipulating, either. Even if they’re smart enough to open the door, I doubt they could.”

The warehouse had been a boon. From the outside, it had seemed to span the whole world. It very well could have done. The truly wonderful part about it was that it clearly connected contiguously from within, while only threatening a few entrances.

The truly disgusting part about it was that it looked like a concrete factory had thrown up into a dusty wood pile. Hadley coughed into both hands, then twitched away from that comforting hand on her back. “Then we should find all of the doors and chain them.”

Only Brian could smile in that situation. She couldn’t remember the last time she had smiled. Too much stress. Too exhausted. But Brian was always grinning, laughing at his own stupid jokes, and generally finding the silver lining in everything. He flapped her hair away from her face. “Take a second to breathe. They’re locked onto us, which means that if we don’t move, they won’t.”

“You can’t possibly know that.”

“No, but I can figure it out. Using logic.” He tapped the side of his head with a grimy finger. “The usurper sent beasts after us. That could mean just about anything on his end, but what it means for us is that they’re not gonna do the kinds of things a ranger team would do. Like secure all the doors.”

As much as Hadley’s back ached to flop onto the mattress and curl up for a good long kip, she could smell it all too well. She wasn’t quite burnt out enough to consider it over the floor. There were less places for fleas and lice to live on the floor. “Then you think they’ll just hover where we are until we move?”

“It’s highly likely.”

“We should still chain all the doors.”

Brian scrubbed at his chin. There was a bit of scruff there, but he was still too young to grow a proper beard. “It’d be better if I went by myself. You need to sleep, and if we split up, they might be confused enough to go slow and split their own forces. I’d have a better chance of making it to the next door then.”

The floor definitely looked inviting. It would be hard and cold, visibly dusty with cobwebs that would stick in her hair for ages. Still inviting. Hadley slid to the floor and pushed herself farther from the mattress in little scoots. “And I’ll get the next one.”

“You better.”

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Review – A Confusion of Princes

A Confusion of Princes, Young Adult Science Fiction by Garth Nix

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

A compelling premise that was generally executed well, if dragged down by poor aesthetic choices. Although I didn’t read Sabriel until relatively recently (a few years ago), I did grow up with the osmosis understanding that it was an amazing book and anyone who likes Fantasy should read it and fall in love accordingly. Garth Nix is that good, but this particular book didn’t impress me.

Khemri is a Prince of the Empire, which is basically the end all, be all of the galaxy if not universe. However, Princes themselves are all but a dime a dozen, with ten million of them in circulation. All Princes are born on one of any Imperial planet, selected and taken from their parents, and then subjected to decades of augmentation and training. Their parents are either killed or mind-wiped and allowed to return to their lives.

Khemri’s character arc is a little obvious, but quite fun in spite of it. He starts out arrogant and ignorant of even his own place in the big picture. There’s a lot of guidance pushing him towards a goal, and he does improve as a person beyond the intention of that guidance. He goes from arrogant and ignorant to compassionate and canny. At first, his ignorance is eyebrow-raising. There’s not really a good reason for him to be so mis/uninformed. But it’s done to make him a more effective audience proxy, so I suppose it’s not necessarily a flaw.

A lot of the things that make him grow as a character are either forced upon him, or the result of bad luck. He doesn’t take initiative until, surprise, a relationship with another character compels him to do so. Khemri doesn’t really act on his own until at least the last third, if not later. Still, that’s kind of the point. So again, not necessarily a flaw.

There’s a subplot with one of the other Princes that doesn’t get a lot of attention except at very key points and I could have done without it. I confess I hated all of the names but Raine and Alice, thanks to there being a “spacey” theme of putting Zs and Ks and consonant+h combinations EVERYWHERE. It was just distracting.

Even so, Garth Nix is always worth at least a look in, and if you’re looking for a book with cool tech, a logical and well-imagined world, and a character for whom you can cheer, this is a good one.

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Freewriting – Total Cock-up

“Wow.”

“Shut up.”

“No, seriously. I am wowed as fuck.”

“If you don’t shut up, I’m gonna shoot you.”

“There is nothing here.” Fancy Carpenter tossed her head, flicking her partner across the face with her greasy hair. Each lock rendered whip-like by days without a bath. “We have never been this boned before.”

Said partner, one Isaac Namgung–soon to be nicknamed Useless Science Nerd–raised his .32 in a gesture that someone else might have respected. “This isn’t my fault.”

A triumphant ha stuck in her throat. Two weeks, they’d been out in the wastes. The last three days of that without food or water. All in the hopes of finding a fabled cave with an even more far-fetched treasure inside. She could have strangled him. If she’d had the energy, she might have done. “Your research landed us fortnight-deep into the asscrack of hell. I don’t see any cave, and I sure as hell don’t see any dragon bones.” A cough wracked her upper body. More than just lack of water. “I’m pretty sure that puts this all on you.”

“My research is dependant on your fieldwork,” Isaac pointed out. His logic hit the dust along with his butt as he dropped to the ground in a ladylike huff. “And as for boned, I wasn’t the one who decided to come out here without any backup.”

‘Backup’ meant a retrieval and protection company. Men and women no better than mercenaries tracking their movements, waiting for an alert when things went wrong. Outside of the wastes, they looked like a bunch of parasitic jerks, as far as Fancy was concerned. Anything a person could do with a gun, Fancy was a dab hand. Shoot, clean, build, beat someone to death with.

One thing she couldn’t do though, was drive. Not in the wastes. Taking a dainty seat beside Isaac, she dug her fingers into her hair. It felt like digging runnels into mud. “Okay. Maybe you got me there. We could have possibly made a few decisions in a different kind of way than we did.”

“Using all the words doesn’t change the fact that you are the shit who got us into this mess.”

“And doing all the fucking science doesn’t make this flatland patch of sand a goddamn cave.”

“Bitch.”

“Asshole.”