A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, by Becky Chambers

I don’t want to spend too much time here re-capping what this book is about: if you’re unfamiliar with this series, read my review of the first book in this series, A Psalm for the Wild-Built. Discovering it last year, I fell in love with the gentle post-apocalyptic near-utopia that Chambers has created, and with Sibling Dex and their robot companion Mosscap, whose story picks up in this volume immediately after the end of the previous book.

Mosscap, the first robot to re-engage with humanity after centuries of the two species living separately, is about to meet humans other than Dex, and it’s exciting for everyone concerned — but also confusing. The various encounters Mosscap and Dex have with people along their journey to the big city — including Dex’s large, lovely, complicated family — are described with lovely, often humourous insight. But when we reach what we expect to be the climax of the story — Mosscap’s presentation to the people of the city – the story takes an unexpected turn.

I loved reading this short book just as much as its prequel, and read it very quickly. If I have a criticism it’s only to say that I hope there is a third book coming, because this book is great on atmosphere and character development but a little light on plot, and there are things I would like to see developed and resolved further. But I can never get enough of the world Chambers has created in these novels.

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Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir

Like many, many people, I loved Andy Weir’s The Martian (even before the movie). I was more uncertain about his second book, Artemis. While I think there are authors who are brilliantly able to experiment, try new things, dip into different voices, different kinds of stories, and even different genres, there are other writers that (for me as a reader, at least), have a Thing They Do Well and are best when they stick to doing it. I like Project Hail Mary for all the same reasons I liked The Martian: the hard science (and, in this case, a possible end-of-life-on-Earth scenario) is delivered through the smart, slightly snarky voice of a male scientist who is not particular introspective, very practical and innovative, and is dealing with an impossible situation as best he can.

In this case, the narrator is Ryland Grace, and he’s actually a former scientist who has given up academia for teaching junior high science, a job he loves. But as the book opens, Ryland doesn’t remember that — he doesn’t remember anything, even his own name. He awakes from an induced coma to find himself on a spaceship with two dead crewmates and no idea who is he or what his mission is.

As his memories come back, they are horrifying — Ryland is the only survivor of a last-chance mission (hence the title) that was intended to save Earth from a terrible fate. And he has no idea how to do it.

Any normal person would just curl up in a corner and die, but if you’re an Andy Weir protagonist, you buckle down, get to work, make friends with an alien, solve problems, and do your best to salvage what you can on your way to a surprisingly poignant and bittersweet ending. I really loved this book.

Victories Greater Than Death, by Charlie Jane Anders

After hearing author Charlie Jane Anders talk about this book on a podcast awhile back I thought it sounded interesting, bought it and then forgot about it for awhile as I was reading other things. When I finally picked it up I enjoyed this fast-paced YA science fiction novel, which is the first in a series.

Teenager Tina Mains kind of falls into the “Chosen One” trope, but the news that she’s special doesn’t come as a surprise to her — she was raised as an average American kid with a loving single mom, but a kid who’s always known that she isn’t actually human, but is a human appearing clone of a powerful alien warrior whose people are someday coming back to pick her up. When the moment finally comes, Tina’s supposed to say goodbye to earth and everything on it forever — but her best friend ends up coming along with her. Far from home and swept into the middle of a war between alien forces, Tina and Rachel have to forge new alliances and figure out how to survive and thrive.

This novel has a lively cast of characters both human and alien, and was a quick, enjoyable read. I am pretty sure I will pick up the next book in the series when it’s out.

Bewilderment, by Richard Powers

Apparently this was a hugely successful book last year shortlisted for some major awards, but it would have flown completely under my radar if not for a glowing recommendation by a good friend whose taste in books I trust. Even at that, I shied away because the blurb made it sound a tiny bit futuristic and dystopian and, well, we all know where I stand on that. In fact, what might be worse, it is actually set in our present-day, real world, with only a few very slightly heightened details to throw the dangers we live under in high relief (in this novel, the unnamed but extremely Trump-like US president contests the results of a “fraudulent” election loss, and is successful in overturning the election and staying in office — so that’s about how close to reality the novel is).

But this is really a novel about the present world, in all its beauty and with all its flaws, and at the heart of it is the relationship between a father and son. Theo is an astrobiologist who models what life on other planets might be like; Robin is his neurodivergent nine-year-old son who can barely cope with the harsh realities of life in this world.

The novel is beautiful, lyrical, exhilarating … and heartbreaking. I knew this was not going to be the kind of novel that would have a simply happy ending: the reality it explores — how to survive, and raise a child, and be a sensitive and empathetic human in a hideously broken world — is far too complex for that. And yet … I had my difficulties with the ending, and not just because it was heartbreaking. I can’t say more without spoilers, although if anyone else who’s read it wants to defend the ending and say it was the perfect way to close this book, I will gladly discuss it in comments. Definitely, definitely read this book. It’s beautiful and thought-provoking and lovely to read and challenging. But expect to emerge from it a little bit battered. I did.

Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr

The first novel I read in 2022 was a Christmas gift, and an absolutely beautiful and absorbing book to start the year with. I’ve categorized it as General Fiction and Historical Fiction and Sci-Fi, because it’s a book of many stories and many genres. In true Anthony Doerr fashion, you can trust the disparate storylines to weave together at the end, but the beauty of the journey is the best part.

One storyline contains the fall of Constantinople in 1453, told from two perspectives: Anna, a young orphaned girl inside the city, and Omeir, a young oxen-driver conscripted into the ranks of the attackers. Another thread of the novel tells the story of Zeno Ninis, who begins life as a lonely child in mid 20th-century middle America, signs up for the Korean War and spends time in a POW camp, then in later life turns to translating ancient Greek texts and, almost by accident, teaching an obscure Greek story to a group of children in a library in February 2020.

Weaving into Zeno’s story and intersecting with it in a tragic way is the story of a teenaged boy who grows up in the same American town where Zeno lives as an old man. Seymour is the highly sensitive, neurodiverse son of a poor single mom. The only place Seymour is comfortable is in the woods behind their trailer, and when the natural beauty he relies on is devastated by a housing development, his discomfort with humanity blossoms into hatred and he is lured into a shadowy world of eco-terrorism.

The final thread of the story is the tale of Konstance, a young girl in the twenty-second century living aboard a multi-generational ship of refugees leaving earth to plant life on a new planet. As she grows up, Konstance has to grapple with the reality that the great project she is part of will not be realized in her lifetime — she will live and die aboard this ship in hope that her great-grandchildren may be settlers on a hospitable planet. Even more unsettling is the realization that not everything aboard the ship is what it seems to be.

Tying these stories together is an ancient Greek manuscript, lost for many years, rediscovered, translated, passed down and recreated — the tale of a fool who tries to reach a magical city in the clouds and is turned into various animals along the way. It’s a silly tale, but the ways in which the old manuscript intersects with each character’s story is a golden thread running through the novel.

One reviewer whose reviews I normally like and agree with found the book slow and ponderous and felt that the theme of “stories matter” was pounded home relentlessly. I obviously did not find it slow — I could hardly put it down — and while there definitely is an ongoing message that stories matter, the theme that came through for me was: how do humans cope with the end of the world? Each of these characters is, in some way, facing what appears to be the end of their world – and in the contemporary and future sections, the end of the actual world due to human-caused climate disasters is an ongoing theme. Faced with the loss of everything, how do we carry on? What does it mean to be human in these circumstances? I found this book to be a very engaging reflection on these questions.

Truth of the Divine, by Lindsay Ellis

When I read Lindsay Ellis’s book Axiom’s End, I described it as “an engaging and unusual first contact story, and it’s set up for a sequel, so I’ll be interested to see where Ellis takes this story.” This is the sequel, and even after reading it I’m still not entirely sure how I feel.

The main character, as in the first book, is Cora Sabino, a 21 year old American girl who is the daughter of shadow alien-truther/whistleblower Nils Ortega. Cora is the only human able to communicate with the being she calls Ampersand, one of a group of aliens known as “amygdalenes” who have appeared on earth. Cora, who is joined in this novel by a second narrator Kaveh, a journalist who also becomes a love interest for her, becomes caught up in the web of government, FBI, CIA, anti-alien protestors — and, of course, the aliens themselves, who have their own priorities which may not align with those of humans.

I found the first 2/3 of this book very slow and then got kind of hooked as the pace picked up in the last third. However, I can’t say I ever really loved it — a lot of the alien stuff confused me and neither the human nor the alien characters deeply engaged me (except for one and I was not happy with how things worked out for that character). I was under the impression this was going to be a two book series, and if it is, it ended in the bleakest way imaginable, which would make me like it even less. But I’ve heard suggestions that Ellis is writing a third, and if it’s a trilogy, she may yet manage to say something more hopeful and meaningful about human/alien relations. Right now, though, it’s giving me that feeling of despair I get from a lot of futuristic sci fi (although this is set in an alternate-timeline 2007/2008), so I’m not sure I want to continue. It is still a really intriguing take on the idea of first contact; I’m just not sure it’s fully working for me.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

See my previous review about Becky Chambers’ novels — after I read and loved A Psalm for the Wild-Built, I had to go back and read her earlier Wayfarers series, beginning with the first volume, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. It’s set in a different future world from the world of A Psalm for the Wild-Built, but it has a similar sensibility — a belief that while human society can’t go on as it’s currently going, what comes afterwards, while different, might be better.

In this version of Chambers’ future, humanity is one among many species out exploring the galaxy, under the watchful eye of a Galactic Confederacy. If that sounds a bit Star Trekky to you, it’s worth noting that this is no human-dominated United Federation of Planets; in these novels, humanity is a recent addition to the spacefaring races, and is looked on by the others as possibly a bit too primitive and dangerous to be trusted (actually this was also canonically true originally in the Star Trek universe, but it’s somewhat obscured by the fact that the Federation is so human-centric in the time period of the TV series and movies).

The titualar Wayfarer of this series is a small spacecraft with a tight-knit crew of various species. Where Chambers really shines here is in creating different species that don’t just feel like “humans with one or two different physical/cultural features,” as is the case in a lot of sci-fi, but alien species that actually feel like fully thought-out and fleshed-out different kinds of beings, where different physiology leads to cultural differences that make sense. As a result, the book’s reflections on what it means to be human — or rather, to be a sentient being — take on an additional richess and variety. I really enjoyed this book and look forward to reading the others set in the same universe.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers is a sci-fi author I’ve just discovered after hearing some buzz about her online, and I really love her books and I think I’m going to end up reading everything she’s written and waiting eagerly for her next book.

I’m iffy on sci-fi. I like my Star Treks,, all of them (and I used to read a lot of Star Trek novels back in the day, though I haven’t for a long time), but there aren’t a ton of actual sci-fi novels that I’ve really loved — I can’t think of many, other than Hank Green’s books and Andy Weir’s The Martian that have been true favourites. I especially can’t be at it with dystopian fiction — it just hits me too hard and depresses me too much.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is futuristic. It’s set either on Earth or on a very Earth-like, human-inhabited planet with a history similar to Earth’s, after the collapse of the planet’s highly technological society. So you’d think it was going to be dystopian fiction, but it’s not. It’s about a human society that has rebuilt itself after collapse, in a way that’s not like the pre-collapse world, but is functional and interesting and enjoyable. It’s not dystopian but neither is it utopian — can a book just be topian? Or perhaps it is utopian, because A Psalm for the Wild-Built posits a world in which humanity has learned from its mistakes and tried to “build back better” — which, in 2021, honestly does seem like a pretty idealistic concept.

One of the key things we know about the past of this novel’s world is that the human society of the past relied very heavily on robots to do their work — and one day, just as so much of our science fiction predicts, the robots became sentient. But instead of robots rising up to destroy their human masters, or humans brutally enslaving the robots, humans and robots just — agreed to go their separate ways. They live in separate territories and have had no contact with each other for hundreds of years.

In this post-apocalyptc human world we meet Dex, a twenty-something, non-binary monk in a religious order dedicated to worshiping the six gods humanity seems to have settled on. Dex likes being a monk, but they’re also restless, leaving the comfort of the monastery to head out on the road serving people in a travelling tea ministry (part tea-house, part counselling service) — yet even that leaves Dex wanting more. Which leaves Dex curious about the wilderness beyond human civilization, and in a perfect position to be the first human in centuries to encounter a robot.

Not only is this world brilliantly and beautifully drawn, but Dex and Mosscap, the robot he meets, are delightful, interesting characters. I’m so glad this book appears to be the first of a series so that I will have more to look forward to. This was an absolutely pleasure to read.

Axiom’s End, by Lindsay Ellis

I’ve been familiar with Lindsay Ellis’s work as a video essayist and commenter on media for some time, but only realized she was also a fiction writer when her science-fiction novel, Axiom’s End, was released this summer. 

Axiom’s End contains an enthusiastic blurb from Hank Green, who is a friend of Ellis’s and is also mentioned in the Acknowledgements; that’s a great endorsement to have but it’s also a very slight touch unfortunate because if I give you a very brief summary of Axiom’s End — an alien comes to earth and chooses one young adult woman to be their “first contact” person to connect with the rest of humanity — it’s going to remind you a lot of the plot of Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. But Axiom’s End has a very different feel to it, and a very different kind of alien encounter. It also has a whole complicated subtext about conspiracy theories and actual conspiracies, because its protagonist, Cora Ortega, is the estranged daughter of a kind of vaguely Julian-Assange-like figure, Nils Ortega, who has been trying to tell the world for several years (this story is set in 2007 btw) that aliens are already on earth, the US government knows this, and they’ve been covering it up for a long time. Cora thinks her father is crazy as well as egotistical and obsessed — until she discovers that a lot of what he’s been trying to tell the world is true.

Axiom’s End is an engaging and unusual first contact story, and it’s set up for a sequel, so I’ll be interested to see where Ellis takes this story.

The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline

It’s a pretty well-known fact to anyone who regularly talks to me about books, or listens to my book podcast, that I don’t read novels set in dystopian futures — they never were my favourite genre, but David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks messed with my head badly a few years ago, and with the world as uncertain as it seems to have been since … I don’t know, a long time? … reading about dystopian futures just upsets me way too much. So even though I’ve read Cherie Dimaline’s other novel, Empire of Wild, and heard such good things about The Marrow Thieves, I knew it was set in a post-environmental-collapse near-future, and that’s exactly the kind of book my brain doesn’t deal well with.

I was convinced to give it a try despite my usual preference when I read something online suggesting that many Indigenous writers are writing dystopian fiction because Indigenous people in North America have already lived through a dystopia — the collapse of their civilization and way of life at the hands of enemies (our settler ancestors) and the attempt to rebuild. That perspective — plus the desire to find more Indigenous young-adult fiction to add to my English curriculum for the coming school year — led me to finally pick up The Marrow Thieves. 

It’s set in late twenty-first century Canada, after climate change has led to the collapse of most of Canada’s (and, presumably, the world’s) dominant culture. Along with the environmental and economic collapse, mental illness runs rampant because most people have lost the ability to dream. Only Indigenous people still dream, but marrow extracted from their bones may have the ability to cure white people, so the Indigenous characters are hunted as prey, rounded up in “schools” reminscent of the deadly residential schools of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The main character is a teenager named French, or Francis, who has become separated from his whole family while on the run, and discovered a makeshift family in a ragtag group of other Indigenous refugees. While the whole sci-fi conceit of the dreamlessness, how the marrow is supposed to cure it, and why it matters so much, is not as thoroughly developed as it could have been, the character development, and particularly French’s coming of age in a  hostile and difficult world, makes for a compelling read.