Welcome to another edition of Review Amnesty. As I explained earlier this week, I’ve been playing review catch up all year and it is now time to actually catch up. Today I’m starting off the latest round of Review Amnesties with a Space edition in which I review to space novels (sort of), namely Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station and Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, both of which I loved for different reasons.
Lavie Tidhar – Central Station
A worldwide diaspora has left a quarter of a million people at the foot of a space station. Cultures collide in real life and virtual reality. Life is cheap, and data is cheaper.
When Boris Chong returns to Tel Aviv from Mars, much has changed. Boris’s ex-lover is raising a strangely familiar child who can tap into the datastream of a mind with the touch of a finger. His cousin is infatuated with a robotnik—a damaged cyborg soldier who might as well be begging for parts. His father is terminally-ill with a multigenerational mind-plague. And a hunted data-vampire has followed Boris to where she is forbidden to return.
Rising above them is Central Station, the interplanetary hub between all things: the constantly shifting Tel Aviv; a powerful virtual arena, and the space colonies where humanity has gone to escape the ravages of poverty and war. Everything is connected by the Others, powerful alien entities who, through the Conversation—a shifting, flowing stream of consciousness—are just the beginning of irrevocable change.
At Central Station, humans and machines continue to adapt, thrive . . . and even evolve.
It’s no secret I’ve loved Lavie Tidhar’s previous two novels, The Violent Century and A Man Lies Dreaming. Tidhar’s concepts aren’t always comfortable and usually challenging, but they are fascinating and I really enjoyed the stories themselves and the way I kept thinking about them. Central Station isn’t a straight novel, but a collection of connected short stories rewritten to fit together as a single narrative. I’d encountered at least one of these short stories before and it was interesting to see how that story fit into this larger structure.
What I loved most about this book was its setting. I am normally more of a character-driven reader, but the way Central Station is set up and the way it was presented just captured my imagination. Tidhar just presents the world of Central Station as just the future, no explanation of how we got here, what sort of first contact of wars there were, this is just how it is. Yet even through its thranshumanist elements, space exploration, and strange virtual worlds, there are also clear traces of humanity and history as we know it today. Oddly enough, these traces served to alienate more than to connect the reader to the characters and story.
But despite my attachment to the setting, there were a number of brilliant characters, my favourites being Achimwene and Carmel. To be fair, I’d read — or rather heard — The Bookseller when it was reprinted in Clarkesworld last year and I loved the story then, so it is no wonder that I reconnected with these characters easily. Achimwene’s love for old, pulpy crime novels and his book collecting nature spoke to me, while I liked the way he and Carmel clicked together. Carmel’s vulnerability, her need for data and answers, were immensely appealing. But of course there are the alte-zachen man Ibrahim, his adopted son Ismail and his friend Kranki, and the various cyborgs in the form of the robotniks and the robo-priests, who are all equally interesting.
The thread that runs through all of the various arcs is the theme of memory. Whether it is Carmel needing it to nourish herself to survive, Weiwei’s Folly drowning those who suffer it in memories, or the robotniks needing to escape their memories in the bliss of Crucifixion, they all concern the way memories shape who and what we are. They are part of what makes us human, they connect us to our past and to those around us with whom we share these memories. In the same way, humanity is connected through the Conversation, and to be cut off from that, like Achimwene is, is considered to be disabling, similar to how losing your memory can be disabling.
Central Station is a very layered narrative, that is deceptively meandering and seemingly plotless, but I think this is a collection that bears rereading to mine it for all of its secrets. Tidhar remains one of the most thought-provoking authors I’ve encountered in the past few years and I can’t wait for his next novel to see where his mind goes next.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.
Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics. Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics. Cheris’s career isn’t the only thing at stake. If the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next.
Cheris’s best hope is to ally with the undead tactician Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress.
The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own. As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao–because she might be his next victim.
I have one Hugo nomination writ in stone for next year and that is Ninefox Gambit. Boom. Review done. But I’m guessing that won’t do, will it? Well, then… I first encountered Yoon Ha Lee’s writing through his short fiction, which I love, so wanting to read Ninefox Gambit was a given. The one thing that gave me pause was that it was rumoured to contain a lot of maths-based action and me and maths don’t exactly have a friction-free relationship. However, there was no way I wasn’t going to read it and Lee didn’t disappoint.
I did have to get through the first chapter or so by gritting my teeth though, because the book had a slow start, but once I got past that and the action burst loose I was sucked in and the story didn’t let go. I adored the complexity of the hexarchate and its societal structure. There were political shenanigans aplenty and I’m always down for those in my fiction.
At the centre of the narrative is the relationship between Cheris and Jedao. I love the push and pull of their bond and the way that they built trust between them. Lee’s gradual revelation of the full extent of Jedao’s motivations for his actions and Cheris’ growing realisation that not all is as she was taught, was compelling and brilliantly done.
Lee also pulls off a maths-inspired, calendar-based magic system, which never confused me, or rather it never pulled me out of the story enough to make me stop reading to figure it out. And there was actual gamification theory in the way Jedao tries to mentor and train Cheris, which I adored.
As I told several people, I think this book is as good as Ancillary Justice and as complex, even as regards gender, without being as overt about it through its use of pronouns as Leckie did. I absolutely adored this book and I’m not managing to do it justice. I feel as if I’d have to reread the book to be able to write a complete in-depth review for it, as it’s been almost six months since I’ve read it and I may have lost some of the nuance and details. However, here are two other reviews whose opinions mirror my own, which are far more eloquent than I am, one can be found at Lady Business and the other at The Book Smugglers.
I really hope Ninefox Gambit makes it on the Hugo shortlist next year, as it is an amazing book, and one of the must-read SF books of 2016. So if you haven’t yet, go check it out. Push through that first chapter and enjoy. You can thank me later!
This book was provided for review by the publisher.