Sol’s Harvest

By M.D. Presley

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book in return for my review. 

This review includes information from book one of this series.

Thus far in this blog’s short lifespan, I’ve resisted book review invitations that came from the authors themselves, mostly because I only have a limited amount of time to read, and would prefer not to spend it reading things that are half-baked. However, I’ve made an exception for The Woven Ring, in part because the author asked nicely, and in part because the book’s Amazon page indicated that it might be worth a shot.

Described as a “fantasy re-imagining of the civil war,” The Woven Ring centers on the character of Marta Childress, one of three children to a powerful and secretive political operator (kind of a spymaster, I guess?). The novel unfolds on two parallel tracks, as the author juxtaposes Marta’s childhood (and later participation in the nation’s civil war) with her more contemporary post-war travails. The use of this narrative device is one of the strongest things about the book, as it functions as a great way of slowly filling out Marta’s backstory, while giving Presley the ability to foster tension in multiple scenarios, rather than being tied to one more linear story-line.

As we discover, Marta (and most of her family members) are among the ranks of the nation’s magic users, which manipulate the substance known as “breath” in order to utilize one of a set of magical abilities (for instance, as a “shaper,” Marta is able to manifest magical weapons and armor). These skills (and her family background) lead Marta to play an important role in the civil war, and much of the book’s suspense comes from waiting to find out exactly how “the old Marta” transforms into “the new Marta” of the modern timeline. (As an aside, the ways that people should, or should not, utilize the power of “breath” seems to be the impetus for the civil war itself.)

As self-publishing grows easier, the line between “professional” and “amateur” work is certainly blurring, which I think is generally a good thing (though it does make choosing each next read a little more challenging). The Woven Ring certainly straddles that line, and as such, there are definitely some instances where the inner editor in me said “oops, there’s something I would have changed” (a few omitted words, and other stuff that’s challenging to catch with a spell checker). While Marta’s character itself is certainly nuanced, several of the other main characters (particularly the bad guys) have a certain cardboard cut-out quality (though there is a revelation towards the end of the book that might help to explain this). I’m also still not sure what to think about Marta’s companions in the modern timeline, who will presumably have their stories fleshed out further in the series’ later books.

Overall, I found this to be a very enjoyable read, and it is certainly an impressive debut! While I wouldn’t put The Woven Ring up against Sanderson and co. just yet, it’s a promising start, and I’m eager to see where Presley takes the series (and lest I appear to be damning it with faint praise, I’d say the same thing about Sanderson’s debut, Elantris). The writing could still use some refinement, so I’m going to stick with the “recommended with reservations” rating, but I’m confident that there’s the potential here for some great stories to come.

Rating: 2 – Recommended with Reservations

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Elantris, Blood Song

For We Are Many (Bobiverse, Book 2)

By Dennis Taylor

Last week I reviewed the first book in the “Bobiverse” series, We Are Legion (We Are Bob), which I found to be a surprisingly engaging “hard sci-fi” novel. Book two, For We Are Many, picks up right where book one left off, with former human (now AI replicant) Bob and his many clones attempting to re-settle Earth’s population, while simultaneously exploring the universe and encountering new friends and foes.

Make no mistake, this series is definitely on the “hard” end of the sci fi spectrum (it’s pretty readable, but a lot of the plot and action sequences depend on engineering, space physics, etc.). Being a soft sciences kind of guy, I readily admit that Taylor’s science could be total BS, and I wouldn’t know it, but I get the impression that he’s done his research. In that sense, and in terms of the books’ comedic bent, I think The Martian is probably the closest comp I can come up with.

During the course of the books, the eponymous Bob continues to create clones of himself, both to perform specific tasks (like monitoring an alien civilization), as well as to expand his (and humanity’s) ability to explore and eventually colonize distant planets. I did find it occasionally difficult to follow the proliferation of the various Bobs, which number in the dozens (hundreds?) by the end of the second novel. It’s a bit of a strange situation, as each of the Bobs retains a certain core identity, but continue to evolve and diverge from the original Bob’s perspective as they exist separately from him. Because they’re all basically the same person, it can be a struggle to keep track of who is who, though Taylor does a good job of making sure that doing so is not necessarily essential to following the plot.

I did find myself drifting a bit towards the middle of the book, which primarily focuses on re-homing humanity and terraforming planets, but the action picks back up with the emergence of a threatening alien civilization (who receive the tongue-in-cheek moniker of “the Borg,” as all true Bobs are trekkies). By the novel’s end, I was happily back in the saddle, and am eager to see what book three holds.

To recap: this series is fun and provocative, if a little bit more on the “techie” side of things than I typically go for (the author is a computer programmer, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read any of these books). You should absolutely start with book one if you’re considering picking up the series, and if you like that, you should absolutely give book two a try!

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you enjoyed this, you may like: The Martian, A Fire Upon the Deep

We Are Legion (We Are Bob)

By Dennis Taylor

Wow, another pleasant surprise! Like Kings of the Wyld, I picked up a copy of Dennis Taylor’s We Are Legion (We Are Bob) without doing much in the way of research (it helps that it’s currently available as a free rental on the kindle store).

Here’s the pitch that got me to take a chance on it:

Bob Johansson has just sold his software company and is looking forward to a life of leisure. There are places to go, books to read, and movies to watch. So it’s a little unfair when he gets himself killed crossing the street.

Bob wakes up a century later to find that corpsicles have been declared to be without rights, and he is now the property of the state. He has been uploaded into computer hardware and is slated to be the controlling AI in an interstellar probe looking for habitable planets. The stakes are high: no less than the first claim to entire worlds. If he declines the honor, he’ll be switched off, and they’ll try again with someone else. If he accepts, he becomes a prime target. There are at least three other countries trying to get their own probes launched first, and they play dirty.

The safest place for Bob is in space, heading away from Earth at top speed. Or so he thinks. Because the universe is full of nasties, and trespassers make them mad – very mad.

The beginning of the book is a little rocky, but it also turns out to be a bit of a red herring. What Bob does on Earth isn’t actually all that interesting- it’s once he launches into orbit (and starts making copies of himself) that things get fun. Once you reach the meat of the book, you realize that it’s really more of an extended thought experiment about how someone might react when put into the odd (but not impossible?) situation in which Bob finds himself. If you could create more copies of yourself, would you? How many? What if they turned out to be very similar, but not identical to you? What if one of them insisted on calling itself “Homer,” primarily to get a rise out of you?

In tone, the book is quite similar to Andy Weir’s The Martian, insofar as it’s a mix of somewhat campy sci-fi humor and more technical “hard science” about what is going on during Bob’s travels. I will say that the book definitely is not high brow literature. The writing is by no means bad, but this is a book about plot, not prose (or character development, for that matter). I did cringe occasionally as Taylor inserted various pieces of sci-fi lore for color, but as in something like Ready Player One, it’s all done with a good humored wink and a nudge.

To sum it up, this is an entertaining speculative novel about space travel, cloning, artificial intelligence and the colonization of the stars, all with a significant dose of sci-fi camp thrown in for good measure. If that sounds like your thing, I highly recommend you give it a try! I’m on to book two

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you enjoyed this, you may like: Ready Player One, The Martian

Revenger

By Alistair Reynolds

I’m a relatively recent convert to science fiction, and spent a considerable portion of my first twenty-some years fuming about why libraries insisted on lumping dry old sci-fi in with my beloved fantasy books. That began to change around 2011, when I encountered Dan Simmons’ incredible and challenging novel Hyperion which, fittingly enough, was more of a sci-fi/fantasy hybrid (or at the very least, a sci-fi/literary fiction hybrid).

Since then I’ve slowly but surely incorporated more sci-fi into my literary diet, and have had the pleasure of reading several books by noted sci-fi guru, Alistair Reynolds. I first read Reynold’s House of Suns (more on that in a future review), but my most recently read Reynolds (say that 3x fast!) is Revenger.

Like Hyperion, Revenger is sort of a hybrid of several different genres, though it still fits comfortably within the “sci-fi” range. A review I found on Amazon described it thusly: “Basically, it’s Treasure Island meets Moby Dick, set in space, with a nice Blade Runner-ish color palette and a cast of character worthy of a Terry Gilliam movie. I loved it.”

I really can’t argue with any of that assessment! The story follows Arafura Ness who, along with her sister Adrana, decide to leave the relatively comfortable world they grew up on, in search of interstellar adventure. The sisters’ desire to set out from their home is assisted by the revelation that they have the rare talent to be “bone readers,” which enable them to provide a vital service to ships searching for lost treasure.

This lost treasure ends up being one of the most fascinating parts of the story, to me at least (though I’ll admit to having a certain preoccupation with the treasure in “Treasure Island” as well, and indeed remember having one dream in particular about having discovered the hoard for 10 year-old self! If only…). Essentially, in this universe exist a number of “baubles,” or planetary enclosures that only open for very specific periods of time. So for instance, a ship’s captain may determine that a certain bauble will be open for a week, starting tomorrow, and so will position their crew to raid the planet’s treasures during the time that the bauble is open. The downside is that when a bauble closes, there is no way to manually open it, and so if any crew members are left inside, it’s game over.

Arafura and Adrana do indeed find themselves embroiled in adventure, but as it turns out, they may have bitten off more than they can chew. I’ll leave the plot summary there, except to note that there are SPACE PIRATES, so that’s pretty cool. Reynold’s writing is solid, and I found the book to be highly readable. There’s some “hard science” space travel detail, but in general this is more a book about interstellar adventure than anything else (did I mention the SPACE PIRATES?).

Overall, I found this to be a very enjoyable read. In fact upon finishing it, I was surprised to see that it had been 400+ pages, as it felt much shorter to me. While it’s not my favorite Reynolds work so far (that’s House of Suns), I’m more than comfortable recommending this one to anyone with a passing interest in science fiction or adventure.

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

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