[Friday Flash Review] The Abyss Surrounds Us, by Emily Skrutskie

Untitled-1❧ Title: The Abyss Surrounds Us
❧ Author: Emily Skrutskie
❧ Publisher: Flux
❧ Publication date: February 8th 2016
❧ Rating: ✦✦✦✦✦
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Cas has fought pirates her entire life. But can she survive living among them?

For Cassandra Leung, bossing around sea monsters is just the family business. She’s been a Reckoner trainer-in-training ever since she could walk, raising the genetically-engineered beasts to defend ships as they cross the pirate-infested NeoPacific. But when the pirate queen Santa Elena swoops in on Cas’s first solo mission and snatches her from the bloodstained decks, Cas’s dream of being a full-time trainer seems dead in the water.

There’s no time to mourn. Waiting for her on the pirate ship is an unhatched Reckoner pup. Santa Elena wants to take back the seas with a monster of her own, and she needs a proper trainer to do it. She orders Cas to raise the pup, make sure he imprints on her ship, and, when the time comes, teach him to fight for the pirates. If Cas fails, her blood will be the next to paint the sea

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the abyss surrounds us❝In A Nutshell❞

 

✎ Pirates! Sea monsters trained to defend against pirate attacks, bred for purpose and trained hands-on by a single person they bond with. Cas is taken captive by a pirate queen and told to raise the Reckoner pup she somehow managed to steal, or die. Cas is forced to choose between loyalty and her life.

✎ Broken social/political system across oceans and floating cities where the pirates so very obviously aren’t just The Bad Guys else why would this book have been written come on.

✎ Diverse ☒ (biracial MC, sexuality, f/f romance – not #ownvoices afaik)

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❝What I loved❞

✎ The Reckoners are amazing. Everyone says “Pacific Rim” when you mention sea monsters, but I didn’t like Pacific Rim but so this was much better. The relationship between Cas and the Reckoner pup is intriguing and also pretty fun to read. This book is fun in the best sense of the word. It is exciting and I’d have happily read another hundred or so pages, so it was a little disappointing that it was so short (under 300 pages for the ppb ed).

✎ The careful way the potential romance is handled, in the possibly-problematic situation of Swift and Cas definitely not being equals on the ship and Cas, in fact, being a prisoner. It makes it fairly difficult for the two to have a clear and easy romance, but they do manage and even though a lot is held back on both sides, there’s still enough romance on the page for it to not feel entirely frustrating. The romance is hate-to-love, which can be a little “oh my god get on with it; pick one!” but the initial attraction here really shows that the eventual romance doesn’t just spring out of nowhere: what holds them back more than anything else is the odd power dynamic (captor/captive) and their own views of one another.

✎ The Reckoners. They are everything. But so is a Chinese American MC who is also queer. The cover is also so good.

✎ The fact that it’s pretty clear there’s much more to the world than the black-and-white version we see through Cas’ narrative and the suggestion that we’ll get to see more of this develop in the second part The Edge Of The Abyss.
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❝What I didn’t love❞

✎ Cas’ absolute loyalty at first and her determination to take the pill and end her life instead of being taken by the pirates just… it doesn’t work for me. I’m never really a fan of the theme of people putting things like keeping what amounts to trade secrets higher than their own lives, and, whilst I get that it’s how Cas has been raised, I like people to call out BS like that internally and realise how brainwashing it is. Eh, maybe I just don’t like authority in situations like this, so the whole “if you’re captured, you must sacrifice yourself!” my first reaction is “why?” followed by “hell, no”. Maybe it comes from me being the kind of person to question absolutely everything ever, ever, ever who knows.

✎ Not really something I didn’t like, but I wish, wish, wish this book had been longer because I enjoyed it so much and wanted more.

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❝If you liked this…❞

…then you might also like: Zenn Scarlet, by Christian Schoon, which is kind of similar-ish with the theme of the “monsters” and a girl who’s really good at what she does. The sequel Under Nameless Stars is not recommended as highly, however, since it honestly bored me rigid and was so much worse than the first book I didn’t even buy it after reading and reviewing the ARC. But! Zenn Scarlett can definitely be enjoyed as a standalone, so go ahead!

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False Hearts, by Laura Lam

Title: False Hearts
Author: Laura Lam
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 16th June 2016
Rating: ★★★★★

False-Hearts-UK-Cover (2)False Hearts, by Laura Lam, is an exciting sci-fi thriller that explores the ideas of brain-hacking, lucid dreaming and the deep, dark world of organised crime and corruption in a city that is perfect on the outside. Where flesh parlours are a five-minute ticket to a new appearance and neural implants allow for quick downloading of information directly to the brain, muscular implants regulate body mass and size, and everything from synthetic, hangover free alcohol to fully-prepared meals can be ordered from a replicator in your kitchen, San Francisco seems to be the perfect city, full of perfect people.

Since the introduction of Zeal lounges, allowing the user to plug directly into their own vast fantasies and participate as they play out, the crime rate has plummeted and the city has become a peaceful haven of happy people with sculpted smiles.

But not everyone gets the same kick out of Zeal; for some, the dreaming process of acting out hidden fantasies doesn’t produce the same effect. For formerly conjoined twins, Taema and Tila, raised outside of society in a secluded cult, Zeal does nothing. Maybe it’s because they were raised so differently, taught the word of Mana-Ma, the conduit for the Good Book and God’s word. But maybe it’s the fact that they can already both lucid dream thanks to their training in the cult of Mana’s Hearth and the fact that their brains simply work differently, lowering the pleasure of Zeal for both of them.

However, this fact makes Taema and Tila somewhat unique and very useful for those seeking to use Zeal for a darker purpose. Everyone knows about the Zealots; those who plug into Zeal and live out such dark fantasies that they are driven away from the monitored feeds in the legal, safe Zeal lounges and into the shady, grimy parlours of the city’s underbelly. Addicted to Zeal, unable to feel a connection with life outside their fantasies, they plug in for hours and hours at a time, eventually wasting away, their lives crumbling around them as they act out their darker sides away from the prying eyes of the rest of the city.

Taema has always been the sensible twin, the reserved twin. An engineer with a good job and bright future, she plays by all the rules. That is, until her sister comes home covered in blood, accused of a murder Taema knows her sister can’t possibly be capable of.

Or could she? The deeper Taema delves into her sister’s life, the more she realises that, since they left Mana’s Hearth, she barely knows her sister anymore. So many secrets and lies hang between them now and Taema is left in the dark. With her sister’s trial pending and the first murder in the city in decades being covered up, Taema is given a choice: become Tila and find out the truth or leave her sister to die.

Soon she finds herself undercover and in deep water as she tries to step into her sister’s very different shoes. With a partner to help her learn the ropes of being undercover, Taema brainloads new info every day, learning everything from the hierarchy of the city’s dark and dangerous mafia to martial combat techniques. As she slips further down the rabbit hole, losing herself more with each day spent pretending to be Tila, she discovers a deeper, darker truth at the heart of it all.

Whatever her sister was caught up in, it goes far further than she could ever have imagined, and in the end, it might feel as though they never really escaped the Hearth after all.

This book was thrilling in every sense of the word; exciting and vibrant and bursting with what felt like a genuine and accurate possible aesthetic of a future San Francisco. So many earthbound science fiction narratives can read far too much like our very own here and now, rendering the setting somewhat redundant as a supposed science fiction. False Hearts does not suffer from this at all, instead depicting a very visible future with all the usual instalments of such a setting, with thoughtful details that make a world feel less like a structure confined to the page, and more a living, real thing. Essentially the world that Lam creates in lieu of our own feels possible, as if we’re glimpsing the future instead of reading about an entirely fictional world. This, for me, is something of an essential part of a good futuristic earth.

False Hearts is a superbly-written and gripping thriller that plays out with almost startling movie-like clarity. It would translate to film like a dream come true. As is to be expected from Lam, the world she presents is not only racially diverse, but also sexually. Lo and behold and let the angels sing for a bisexual main character who neither coyly dances around the subject nor is revealed as not heterosexual outside of the actual story and by the author. No Dumbledore treatment here. Taema is bi and definitely interested in the possibility of dating women when the suggestion is presented. We even have a disabled boy. Heck, Taema and Tila themselves are formerly conjoined twins. And, as I’ve also come to expect from Lam, their status as such is not a part of the plot. It simply is. Just as Micah’s intersex biology was not a part of her Dark Circus series; it simply was just how Micah was.

It’s ludicrously refreshing to have an author remember that bisexuality, race and disability are a thing. As said, I’d expect nothing less with Lam. She’s a bright star in a sky dotted with samey science fiction that tries too hard to be edgy, potentially using both race and LGBT characters more as set-dressing than as characters who feature very prominently in the story.

I knew about False Hearts long before I read it, dating back to a handful of DMs where we both lamented the fact that her publisher (then, Strange Chemistry) would not be picking up the third Micah Grey book. She’d recently finished a draft of what became False Hearts, which her agent loved and we both crossed our fingers hoping it would be a breakout novel for her (and that her backlist would be picked up as well).

These things happened, and now, after years of anticipation, waiting whilst “Bonkers Book” was finished and edited and eventually sold, I got to read the novel the pitch of which made me giddy with excitement.

I wasn’t disappointed. False Hearts is a stunningly clever thriller that is sure to keep you reading well into the night. I can’t reiterate how much I love this book. Lam is a stellar author and with False Hearts she has stepped up her game. I can’t imagine how I’ll possibly wait patiently for the second book. I miss Taema already.

A Thousand Pieces of You, by Claudia Gray [Firebird #1]

✎Title: A Thousand Pieces of You (Firebird #1)
Author: Claudia Gray
Publisher: Harper Teen
Publication date: 4th November 2014
Rating: ★★★★★

17234658A Thousand Pieces of You, by Claudia Gray, is an ambitious new trilogy that seeks to tackle the notion of alternative realities, via the idea of travelling between these various possibilities. It’s a well-known theory that there are many, many different universes and realities just out of reach of our own. In one, I am sitting wearing not a green shirt, but a red one. In another, I’m wearing a green shirt, but I’m writing a different review. And in yet another, I don’t read at all, but instead I’m blogging about my screenplay or posting up my photographs. In the first book of the Firebird trilogy, Marguerite’s parents are very impressive scientists who are working on the concept of just how to travel between these realities, these different places.

Marguerite isn’t a scientist. Rather, she is an artist. She is alone in her love of art, with even her sister taking after their parents with her talent and aptitude for science. Generally Marguerite finds her on the sidelines, ever-watchful as her parents and their dedicated team work towards their goals. Leading scientists in their fields, it’s inevitable that they would find the way to manage to travel between these places.

They call it the Firebird.

And it is about to turn Marguerite’s life upside down. When tragedy strikes and the finger is pointed at someone she has trusted most of her life, someone she has harboured feelings for, Marguerite refuses to sit and do nothing. She ventures off on her home in search of the man responsible for the death of someone close to her heart—and she has revenge in mind. Willing to follow him through various alternative realities where she is sure he is hiding, Marguerite is tireless in her search. Only… the realities she discovers are both like and unlike her own and she can never estimate just which reality she will wind up in on her chase.

From London to historical Russia, to a facility at sea in an existence where the sea levels are rising quicker and her parents are specialists in that field instead of quantum physics, Marguerite will soon discover that it is impossible to navigate these worlds alone. Handy for her, then, that she isn’t alone. She finds herself aided by another of her parents’ assistants and puts her faith in him as she seeks out vengeance.

Yet as things progress and Marguerite discovers more than she expected throughout her journeys, she begins to realise that there is more to hand than she could ever have imagined. In fact, a vast and convoluted plot has been hatched and she has found herself at the centre of a tangled web stretching all the way to the very top of a powerful company. Nothing makes sense, especially when the people she meets inhabiting the bodies of their alternative selves do not seem to retain the memories the same way she does. Marguerite begins to realise she is different somehow—that the Firebird responds differently to her.

She also begins to discover that although she is herself in her own world, when she ventures elsewhere, she is merely seizing control of the body of her counterpart. When she falls in love and acts on those feelings, she is using the body of herself; taking those precious first experiences away from herself. And in addition, she will come to realise that, even though the soul of a person might travel between the realities and be housed within their counterpart for a while, and whilst there may be many instances of the same person throughout these alternative worlds, the people she meets are not the people she knows. Not exactly. They are themselves, as much as she is herself. The smallest of differences from one world to the next can change who a person is entirely—and just because you love one version of someone, that doesn’t mean those feelings transfer already nurtured and explored to their counterpart.

Traveling between these places is complicated and Marguerite is ultimately alone, unique in her ability to retain the memories of who she is and what the Firebird is and does. Though when Marguerite stumbles into a world with another passenger through time, she begins to hope against hope that the impossible might just be plausible, might just have happened. And if it has, she will find herself at the heart of an even deeper tangle and with little room to wriggle her way out. Ultimately, Marguerite will need to plan carefully in the midst of conspiracy and danger if she is to find a way for herself and those she loves to survive the machinations of the powerful and power-hungry. The Firebird is all she has. Now she must perfect how to use it.

A Thousand Pieces of You is a stunningly exciting story that whisks you from place to place, whilst immersing you fully in the feel of that particular nuance of the world. The Imperial Court in Russia is a focal point and it is a heartbreakingly bitter-sweet segment, where, with the date of the setting, you just know that disaster is looming, ready to strike at any point. And it does. Heart-breaking and beautifully-told, A Thousand Pieces of You will steal your heart and make you think about what precisely makes you, you. One small shift of circumstance could change nothing—or it could change everything.

In this book of infinite worlds to visit, you are invited to lose yourself along with Marguerite on her travels; to see what she sees and feel what she feels. Trust and dishonesty and following your heart—these feelings will tie you to Marguerite and keep you turning the page well into the night. Well-executed and exciting, A Thousand Pieces of You sets the stage for an exhilarating ride through a web of possible possibilities, whilst promising love and betrayal and a fight to prevent everything coming unravelled as more and deeper threads of time and space are tugged on and pulled.

The idea of war from within is one thing—but what about war threatened from without?

A Thousand Pieces of You will steal your heart, break it into a thousand pieces and force you to leave each fragment in a different existence, each different from the last. Read it and be amazed. Fall in love with each and every piece of A Thousand Pieces of You.

ZENN SCARLETT: Cover Reveal

Despite the fact that Zenn Scarlett did not appear recently on my most anticipated list for 2013, this isn’t so much for the reason that I am not anticipating it, but rather the fact that if I placed every single Strange Chemistry novel I’m wringing my hands for this year, then it wouldn’t be much of a list!

Zenn Scarlett is one of those books you know is going to be special from the offset. It’s yet another offering of YA science fiction from the Strange Chemistry lab and it has all the elements to pique my interest in a heartbeat.

Zenn Scarlett is a bright and occasionally a-little-too-smart-for-her-own-good 17-year-old girl training hard to become an exoveterinarian. She specializes in the treatment of exotic alien life forms, mostly large and generally dangerous. Her novice year of training at the Ciscan Cloister Exovet Clinic on Mars was going well – until there are a series of inexplicable animal escapes from the school that Zenn finds herself blamed for. As if this isn’t enough to be dealing with, her father vanishes under strange circumstances, and Zenn is worried that she has started hearing the thoughts of the creatures around her…

With the help of Liam, a towner boy, and Hamish, an alien bug also training at the clinic, Zenn must try to find her father, rescue the animals and unravel the mystery of who is behind the attacks on the school. And all without failing her first year.

Honestly, I love school settings. It’s all the anime in my formative years. You get to mix all the slice-of-life goodness with the action and awesome of a story and it can quite often be one of the best mixes. How many great anime series have a high school or some other organisation or order type of setup? Yep, lots. With the special school and training and space, this is all sounding very video game/Final Fantasy-esque to me… so imagine my fanboyish delight when I saw the cover…

ZennScarlett

It’s just so…. wow. If that is Zenn on the cover, I absolutely love that she looks like an androgynous bishounen (Google Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children and you’ll see my line of thought) and is dressed so…wow. She has so much more appeal to me as a guy dressed as casually as she is, just staring out into all that space, than if she were wearing a leather pair of hotpants and shimmying  about against a dark background. Plus, I love the androgyny (as in, mmmm, androgyny) and with a YA book featuring (yet another) female protagonist, it’s incredibly attractive to some readers to be able to pick up a book with a cover that doesn’t scream “I’m for girls!” as some of the prettier covers are wont to do.

This is a stunning cover. In fact, it’s my favourite so far. Hands down. The spacescape, the character, everything. The font is simple and elegant and it all screams “science fiction” in the best of ways.

I think I’m going to be grabby-handing this cover for the foreseeable future; it’s just so perfect. Top level kudos to the art department for this one…  because they have completely outdone themselves. Art is by: ARGH! Oxford.

Zenn Scarlett is due out in May, by Christian Schoon.

Christian Schoon grew up in Minnesota, and worked his way through college in a succession of rock bands before earning his degree from the U of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Journalism.

Following a stint as an in-house copywriter/scriptwriter at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, he supplied freelance copy for the entertainment industry and scriptwriting for live-action and animated TV.

Currently, he writes from his 150-year-old farmstead in Iowa which he shares with a fluctuating number of horses (generally less than a dozen, but not always), 30 or so cats, a dog, three ferrets and a surprisingly tolerant wife.

The Zenn Scarlett books are his first novels, however he admits to being an unrepentant fan of science fiction and fantasy ever since discovering the tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs in the fifth grade. He can be found at his blog: christianschoon.com and on Twitter.

Definitely an amazing cover…

Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey (Expanse Series #1)

  • TITLE: Leviathan Wakes (Book One of the Expanse Series)
  • AUTHOR: James S.A Corey*
  • PUBLISHER: Orbit (UK)
  • PUBLICATION DATE: 2nd June 2011

Leviathan Wakes is the first science fiction novel I have ever read. Well, that’s probably not strictly true, since exposure to early sci-fi at school and university make that claim untrue, but the sentiment is there: Leviathan Wakes is the first science fiction novel I’ve read, that sits comfortably in the category of modern SFF.

What a choice to start with.

There were minor issues with the first book of the Expanse Series, but they were just that; small details or niggles that related more to my personal preference than the overall effect of the book. Any book will have small niggles and no book is perfect, especially the first in a series: the writer is setting up the world and the plot, both at the same time, and it takes time. Skilled writers will do both simultaneously, and Corey managed that.

I’ll say now that I was impressed.

I have never read “space opera” before, and honestly, I’m uncertain as to what general consensus takes it to mean. I’ve taken to thinking of it as follows: Space Opera is to science fiction, what Epic Fantasy is to fantasy. Not a hard and fast rule, but it works for me and my purposes so far. In every way, Leviathan Wakes was a new adventure for me.

It aims to fill the gap between humanity’s colonisation of the solar system, and our flight beyond into the deeper unknown of space. It does a good job of imagining what humanity will begin to evolve into, given the chance to develop without constant gravity. A lot of science fiction chooses to have Earth or near-Earth level gravity on its space stations, colonies and colonised domes, so this was a bit of a change. I suspect it helped set the mood better for the tensions between Earthers and Belters, creating more noticeable differences between the two sides, but it worked well despite feeling a little engineered.

The narrative skips between two characters, and these POVs alternate throughout the novel.

Jim Holden, native of Earth and XO of the Canterbury—an ice hauler en route from Saturn’s rings—is a general good guy who has had a lot of free time on the Cant to think about his mistakes and his dishonourable discharge. He believes in doing the ‘right thing’ and sometimes doesn’t think things through as much as a situation requires. Essentially he is a very well-meaning, honest idealist. So when he becomes the catalyst for a shooting war between Mars and the OPA, and everyone in the solar system wants a piece of him, with few friends and many enemies, Holden has to navigate the virtual battlefield well enough to keep himself and his crew out of the firing line.

Detective Miller hails from the colonised Ceres. Working a private security contract and still nursing feelings leftover from a divorce, Miller isn’t at his best. He’s getting old, jaded and is long-past too tired. Living on the Belt lends a certain perspective; when even your air is shipped in from a place difficult to locate on a map, it’s hard to be the idealist that Holden is. But when Miller is given an under-the-table assignment, a favour for the shareholders, things begin to change. The target is Juliette Andromeda Mao, and he’s to find the rich girl runaway and bring her back to mummy and daddy. It’s your average kidnap job. Nothing to speak of…until finding Julie appears to lead him straight to the centre of a brewing war, in the middle of which, Jim Holden seems to be standing.

When these two men cross paths, the whole galaxy threatens to go to hell.

The plotting is tight and every detail of the story is well-executed. Both character arcs are seamlessly interwoven and neither outshines the other. Holden and Miller are constantly on equal footing and maintain a constant status quo. They are both very different men, and therefore stories, but impossibly compelling and fantastically individual.

The best part of Leviathan Wakes is the way the characters are written. I have scarcely read a book with such strong, real, normal people presented as characters. Not a single character, main, sub or minor, is a stock type and nothing is forced, staged or feels like a plot device. The people in Leviathan Wakes are just that; people.

It makes for astoundingly enjoyable reading. Everyone has a personality all their own and it’s something often lacking to a point in much SFF. Sure, not all characters are stiff and wooden and not all are cliché, but Corey goes the extra mile in Leviathan Wakes and really raises the bar on his to craft believable, real, and compelling characters. It’s all so damn natural.

And it’s why I bumped my initial rating of four stars, up to a full-rounded five. Leviathan Wakes reads like watching a film or TV series: the characters are so real that they move off the page and the writing that accompanies them is stylish, sophisticated and gives them the perfect stage upon which to shine.

It’s a gritty(ish), dark and biting little insight into the darker side of humanity, that holds the worst analysis of the human condition in one hand, measured against the best of it in the other. It’s a classy, smart and grown-up read that is utterly engrossing and worryingly accurate.

Definitely a winner.
*James S A Corey is the pseudonym for writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

5/5