Soulsmith AND Blackflame (Cradle, Books 2+3)

By Will Wight

I’ve noticed a strange phenomena since transitioning from reading hardcopy books to reading mostly via my Kindle, which is that:

A) I’m less apt to remember the names of the books I’m reading (presumably because I don’t look at the book cover every time I open it up), and

B) when I read multiple books in a series one after another, the books tend to merge together, whereas with hardcopy books, the delineations between books seemed much more stark.

With that in mind, I just inhaled books two and three of Will Wight’s “Cradle” series without taking much of a breath, and so it seems to make more sense to just review them together, rather than attempting to tease them apart. Reader’s of last week’s review of book one, Unsouled, will recall that the series follows Wei Shi Lindon, a young man who initially seemed handicapped by his lack of a “soul,” but who (of course) turns out to far more capable than anyone ever dreamed, the chosen one, etc. etc. It’s a hackneyed premise, but Wight’s opening novel kept my attention, and the story only improves over books two and three.

As book two opens, Lindon has left the relative safety of his ancestral community, and travels with his newfound companion and (sort of) mentor, the talented but terse sword artist Yerin. Faced with the wider world, Lindon quickly realizes how myopic his home community’s perspective is (both on the topics of “soul abilities,” and in other respects). With his new perspective comes new goals, as Lindon continually pushes to develop himself and embrace the destiny that was (partly) revealed to him in book one. Along the way, Lindon and Yerin accumulate antagonists and friends, the most memorable of whom is the mysterious Eithan, whose humor and confidence quickly endear himself to the reader.

When he’s not writing books, Will Wight is also a creator of board games, and the Cradle series owes a lot of its appeal to the notion of “character progression” codified in both board game and video game lore. Much of the series’ (if not all of it, frankly) is driven by Lindon’s quest for continuous improvement, and the most satisfying passages in the books typically revolve around Lindon “leveling up” (in video game parlance) at crucial times. If that sort of “character development” appeals to you, you’ll likely enjoy the series quite a bit. If that concept turns you off, Cradle may not be for you.

By the end of book three, the story arc continues to develop in interesting ways, and I’m eager to see what book four holds. The danger with this sort of story is that by continuing to raise the bar on what is possible (and how powerful any given individual can be), the author backs themselves into a corner, as the only way to challenge a super-humanly powerful protagonist is by introducing a villain who is somehow even more capable (but not so much that the hero can’t figure out some clever way to defeat them!). We haven’t seen that villain yet, though Wight has sketched out some possibilities that will no doubt be revealed in future books.

To sum up: the Cradle series is standard fantasy fare, with a heavy dollop of video-game like character progression mixed in. The books are quick, easy reads- perfect for a summer day at the beach, mountains, or what have you. This isn’t high literature, and Wight tends to gloss over anything that might distract from the core of the story (there are something like 6 significant characters by the end of book three). With that said, these are satisfying reads, and I’ll download book four as soon as it comes out.

Rating: 3 – Recommended with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: Red Rising, Mistborn

Unsouled (Cradle, Book 1)

By Will Wight

I picked up Unsouled with a bit of trepidation, as my only other encounter with Will Wight’s writing (try saying that 3 times fast!) came via his Traveler’s Gate trilogy, which I started but didn’t finish. The Cradle series, like the Traveler’s Gate trilogy, leans heavily on that hoary old fantasy trope of a seemingly unremarkable young person, who ends up being a future ubermensch, etc. etc. As I’ve written before, I don’t mind the trope- some authors use it at a jumping off point for a compelling story, while other times the story never really transcends the trope. For me, the question becomes whether the characters develop in interesting ways, and whether the world broadens out in a satisfying way. I didn’t get that feeling from Wight’s House of Blades, though perhaps I’ll need to give it another try, because I did end up enjoying Unsouled quite a bit.

The “unsouled” in question is Wei Shi Lindon, born into a community where young people typically manifest one of four specific “soul talents,” which allow them to gain greater power, provide greater utility to their people, and to assume greater social status. Lindon, however, appears to be “unsouled,” meaning that his path to making something of himself appears to be cut off before it begins. However, as a canny reader may guess, fate intervenes (in the form of an incredibly advanced celestial being), leading Lindon to leave his village and begin his transformation into something far beyond his original dreams or expectations.

Again, as a premise, you’ve probably heard this before, and there are plenty of pitfalls for Wight to navigate. I developed a quick fondness for Lindon, but was less interested in the specifics of the four schools of talents, so was relieved that Wight didn’t spend large chunks of the book belaboring the magic system. And while this review is specific to book one of the series, in the interest of full disclosure I’ll note that I’m currently finishing up book three, and have been encouraged by how the story continues to adapt in the subsequent books.

To sum up: Unsouled is a classic fantasy bildungsroman. It’s heavy on plot, and relatively light on character development (Lindon gets good treatment, but most of the other characters end up being pretty two dimensional). It’s a relatively simple and quick read, so would make good beach reading fodder. It also has the advantage of being free on the Kindle library (if that’s your reading method of choice), and one can speed-read it with confidence knowing that books two and three are available for future consumption. High literature, this isn’t, but it’s a satisfying portion for a fantasy glutton like me.

Rating: 3- Recommended with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: Red Sister, The Shadow of What Was Lost.

 

Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch, Book 3)

By Ann Leckie

In most book series, and particularly in the sci-fi/fantasy genres, the narrative universe tends to grow and expand with each new book. It’s a rare series that narrows in focus over time, and off the top of my head, I can’t recall another sci-fi “space opera” type that fits that descriptor, with the notable exception of Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, which concludes with Ancillary Mercy.

As blog readers will recall, I found the series’ initial installment, Ancillary Justice, to be a show-stopper. I loved the flashbacks to Breq’s former existence as a multi-bodied AI, and found the universe of the Radch to be both mysterious and intriguing. Like many other authors before her, however, Leckie seemed to struggle a bit with the “middle” book of the series (Ancillary Sword) which seemed a bit slow and myopic compared to book one.

Book three picks up just where book two had left off, with Breq continuing to try to maintain control of the Athoek system, and opposing the machinations of the many-bodied ruler of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai. But like book two, much of the actual narrative of the book is devoted to Breq’s relationships, both to the members of her crew, and to the inhabitants of Athoek. (I notice that one of the prominent Amazon reviews refers to the book as being more “soap opera” than “space opera,” and I’m inclined to agree.) While I’m not normally a fan of that kind of narrative (it’s part of what I didn’t love about Cherryh’s Morgaine books), I think Leckie does an admirable job of tugging on the readers’ sympathies. Even as the pace slowed in books two and three, I found myself rooting hard for Breq, even as I occasionally reminded myself that Breq was an android (sort of).

Unfortunately, while the narrowing of scope does allow for some increased attention on the characters’ emotional state, it doesn’t help with the overall arc of the story, which seems underdeveloped. As in book two, Ancillary Mercy’s conclusion seems rushed and unsatisfying, and I thought Leckie’s resolution re. Anaander Mianaai felt forced. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good book, but it suffers in comparison to book one, which is unfortunate.

Final analysis: if you’ve gotten through book two, by all means, finish the series. Though I thought books two and three represented a step down from the start of the series, I was never tempted to stop reading, and I would happily read future stories about the Radch. If you don’t mind a little “soap opera” mixed in with your “space opera,” this could be the series for you!

Rating 3- Recommended with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoyA Fire Upon the DeepHouse of Suns.

 

Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch, Book 2)

By Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice, book one of the Imperial Radch series, is a tough act to follow. Let’s get that out of the way right from the start! Leckie’s initial foray into the world of the Radch was truly innovative, and not just because of her unusual treatment of gender (see my book one review for more details).

In book two (*spoiler alert*), the story re-centers on Breq (formerly the ship known as Justice of Toren, and now an AI installed in a single human body), in the slightly implausible position of having been appointed captain of her own ship. Breq, like the rest of Radch civilization, finds herself caught up in a conflict inspired by Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch. With her newfound ship, Breq travels to the planet Athoek, where she is determined to right past wrongs, and to resist the influence of Anaander Mianaai.

If you peruse other reviews of the book, you’re likely to see people argue that Ancillary Sword suffers from “second act” syndrome, insofar as it lacks the initial punch of book one, and doesn’t offer the satisfying conclusion typically associated with a series finale. I’m not going to argue differently. The scale of the book is much smaller than that of Ancillary Justice, in particular because we are given no more of the flashbacks into Justice of Toren‘s past, which constituted a lot of the appeal of the first book. The events of book two are restricted to a relatively short period of time (a year, maybe?), and while (presumably) there is a lot going on elsewhere in Radch space, we never get to see or hear about it.

In classic “second act” fashion, the book doesn’t finish with a bang, but rather sets the stage for book three. The conclusion felt a bit rushed to me, though that could have been because my kindle kept reassuring me that I had 10% more book left (appendix and excerpts from other books… boo.).

With all that said, do I regret reading the book? Not at all. While it may not be as strong as book one, I was still eager to read more about the Radch, and even though Breq’s character might not seem as nuanced as it was in book one, I still found myself rooting hard for her. I also really enjoyed the interplay between Breq and her ship, as both settle into an unusual relationship of “AI captain in charge of AI ship.”

So here’s my take: if you read Ancillary Justice and enjoyed it, there’s no reason not to continue with the series. If, however, you tried book one and weren’t blown away, it’s unlikely that book two will win you back.

Rating: 3- Recommended with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: A Fire Upon the Deep, House of Suns

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, Book 1)

In the process of assembling my book list for this review blog, it occurred to me that very few of the sci-fi books on my list were written by women (that’s also true of my fantasy consumption, but to a lesser extent). Unfortunately, that experience seems to be all too common, as evidenced by the recent furor over the “sad puppy, rabid puppy, etc.” business related to the Hugo Awards.

When I mentioned this situation to a few friends, two immediately responded “you have to try Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice series.” And so I did! Typically I’ve been reviewing entire series at once, but I’ll make an exception and do individual book reviews for works that I’m currently in the process of reading. Hence, this review will be specific to book one of the Imperial Radch series, Ancillary Justice.

This is a difficult book to describe without giving away too many plot details, but I’ll give it my best shot. Our protagonist, Breq, is an AI within a human body, who had previously been one component of a many-bodied AI (i.e. a consciousness spread across multiple human hosts). Somewhat confusingly, the same AI existing in those human hosts also inhabited the spaceship that the hosts were stationed on, such that the ship’s name, Justice of Toren, could be used to refer either to the ship itself, or to the AI inhabiting both the ship and its android-esque crew.

As the story opens, Breq has been separated from her ship and fellow crew mates, for reasons that will become clear via flashbacks, and she is now engaged in a rather single-minded quest (here’s where I really can’t say more without giving away the plot). The first quarter of the book is a challenge, both because Leckie uses gender pronouns in an unorthodox way, and because the nature of Breq/Justice of Toren’s consciousness is quite foreign to how we typically conceive of individual identity. For instance, in describing Justice of Toren’s activities in the flashback sections, Leckie has to come up with creative ways to make it clear that the individual ancillaries who make up the ship consciousness are in fact doing various different things, but at the same time (e.g. “I stood watch in the concourse. I also patrolled the hallway.”).

There were definitely moments early in the book where I found myself re-reading sections multiple times, and I admit that I don’t think Leckie did herself any favors in coming up with somewhat complex naming/identifying conventions for the ships and their ancillaries. But with that said, after I had waded through the initial confusion, I really enjoyed this book. This is truly provocative stuff, and the story definitely picks up pace during the final half of the book. Stick with it, if you’ve tried it and given up!

While I mostly read for plot (I’m the kind of person who skips the songs in Tolkien, for instance), there are times when I catch myself thinking “wow, this is really interesting writing.” In Ancillary Justice, Leckie has come up with a central premise that is both potentially confusing and cumbersome, in the sense that she really has to contort her language in order to be able to accurately describe the identity and actions of Breq (and to a certain extent, all the ancillaries/ship AI’s). The fact that she is able to perform those contortions, and to do so within a fascinating and compelling story, is a true credit to her writing. A lesser author could very easily have been defeated by the complexity of her premise.

I have more thoughts on the books, but I’ll save them for my reviews of the next two books in the series. For now, I’ll leave it at this: if you like sci-fi, and you don’t mind a little complexity, then I highly recommend you give Ancillary Justice a try!

Rating: 4 – Highly Recommended

If you like this, you may enjoy: A Fire Upon the Deep, House of Suns