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Colony by Benjamin Cross

I’m a sucker for a monster movie. During these dark winter months, with so much going on in the world, I have found some solace in fictional monsters. One of my all-time favourites is John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), itself a remake of Howard Hawk’s classic from 1951. I love the setting, the isolation, the unknown that’s ‘out there’ and ‘within’. It was the perfect movie for its time, and nearly 40 years later, I wouldn’t change a single frame.

Author Benjamin Cross’ debut novel, Colony, captures a lot of that movie’s effects, especially the sense of dread and aforementioned isolation, but is individual enough to not be a retread. It’s to his credit that he not only brings his own talents to the page, but also his extensive experience in the world of archaeology. A native of South Wales, Mr Cross has travelled all over the world, exploring ancient sites in Cambodia and Peru. A noted environmental consultant, he wears a couple of hats during the course of this book.

Callum Ross is an archaelogy professor based in Scotland, with a particular fondness for skipping stones with his son Jamie along the banks of Loch Ness. He’s trying to build a relationship with Jamie, because his job had him spend far too much time away from home. The softly-softly approach appears to be working, until a colleague appears out of the blue offering Callum a gilt-edged opportunity to travel to the Arctic and help a multinational company explore Harmsworth Island, one of hundred of islands on the Russian archipelago of Franz Josef Land. Explaining to his son that he’ll Facetime once a week doesn’t cut it with Jamie or his ex, but Callum goes anyway.

He’s reunited with an another colleague, Dan Peterson, a Texan who ribs Callum by referring to him as Dr McJones. The rest of the contingent is made up of scientists from Russia mainly, and one Canadian. There is also a suspiciously large number of Spetznaz, soldiers for hire representing the Russian Federation. Things begin intriguingly enough with the discovery of the mummified remains of a man who’s been perfectly preserved for millenia by sub-zero temperatures. Callum’s companion Lungkaju tells of a myth that has been handed down through generations of a hero sent out by his people to kill a monster. Think Beowulf, only in a colder climate. The mummy’s injuries suggest this is the hero, and that the monster got the better of him.

Benjamin Cross

Then we meet the monsters.

Colony is a frenetically paced novel that brings to mind not only The Thing, but also Michael Crichton’s classic techothriller Jurassic Park. (We’ve all seen this movie, right?) The concept that we share our planet with species that we haven’t yet discovered isn’t a new one. Scientists have always supported the theory that in parts of the world that one would deem uninhabitable or unexplored, there must be creatures that have evolved over eons that we’re not aware of. Benjamin Cross takes us to that place, and then runs riot. Callum and his companions not only have to deal with monsters that want to kill them, but there are saboteurs in their midst who for reasons of greed and idealism want to destroy Harsmworth and everyone on it. When monsters aren’t ripping humans apart, the bad guys are setting off explosions and murdering in cold blood. There is a lot going on in this book, and Mr Cross does well to balance the action with some decent characterisations, even if the dialogue contains more expostion than it needs to. But this is only a minor criticism of a book that held my attention from the first page. I really enjoyed it, and I want to see what the author does next.

PS: There’s a clever coda right at the end that’s worth hanging around for. Call it a post-credit scene, perhaps?

The Count of Monte Cristo: Chapters 5-8

(Chapters 1-4 can be found here)

Life is what happens when you’ve made other plans. For Edmond Dantes, fresh off a boat and well on his way to success in his career on the seas and so close to marrying the lovely Mercedes, his elation at being around family means he’s completely oblivious to the conspiracy which will take him away from everything and everyone he holds dear. Things are about to go pear-shaped for the young Frenchman.

At their betrothal feast, during which they will marry (because why wait?), Edmond and Mercedes enjoy their special day, lavishing plenty of attention on Old Dantes, Edmond’s ailing father. Edmond is anxious to get the old man back to health. Meanwhile, Caderousse and Danglars consider their lot in life, seemingly unaware that the third leg of their Tripod of Conspiracy has taken it upon himself to deliver the letter Danglars forged and carelessly threw away to the king’s attorney. So it’s a surprise even to them when Fernand does turn up, followed soon after by some royal guards, who take Edmond into custody without telling him why. It’s only then does it dawn on the two men that Fernand took the bull by the horns. Caderousse and Danglars think it’s in their best interest to say nothing.

We are then introduced to yet another conspirator. Gerard de Villefort is an ambitious prosecutor, acting as assistant to the king’s attorney. He’s having a betrothal feast of his own, due to marry Renee, the daughter of the highly influential Marquis and Marquise de Saint-Meran. Over dinner, it is revealed that Villefort’s father is an infamous supporter of Napoleon Bonaparte, M. Noirtier, but that his son does not share his views and is a staunch royalist. Indeed, his job has required him to sentence a handful of Bonapartists to the guillotine. Renee is horrified that her betrothed’s career requires him to show little mercy, but he promises her to do better when the situation calls for it. Villefort is then called away to deal with a man who’s been brought to his house for examination.

That man is Edmond Dantes, who’s understandably bewildered by what’s happening to him. Villefort is informed of the facts of the matter: that an anonymous letter marked for the attention of the king’s attorney has laid accusations against Edmond, and that he’s in possession of incriminating material that needs to be looked at urgently. When Villefort first sets eyes on Edmond, he’s convinced of the man’s innocence. We would breathe a sigh of relief, but that would only make The Count of Monte Cristo a much shorter book than it actually is. Villefort’s initial examination, however, reveals nothing criminal, just a naive young man taking on the responsibility of another’s mission: the late Captain Leclere.

Then comes the clincher. Just as Edmond is about to be set free, Villefort sees that the letter in Dantes’ possession is addressed to M. Noirtier, Villefort’s father, and he panics. If word of this gets out, his career and life is ruined. So he makes a split second decision: he swears Edmond to secrecy with the false promise of impending freedom; he burns the letter in the fireplace; and places Edmond into custody for a “few hours”. Later that night, Edmond is taken by boat, out through the harbour, past where Mercedes lives, and drops him off at the Chateau d’If, an island fortress that doubles up as a prison. Edmond has nowhere to go but inside, where his jailer awaits with bread, water, and a bed of straw. Subsequent attempts to gain a meeting with the prison governor lands him in the dungeon in a short space of time.

City of Forts by Jason Beech

Growing up where I did, a suburban town within a bus ride of Dublin’s city centre, wasn’t tough, really. You could say I was born and raised in a “good” part of town. There was little trouble, schools were good, families looked out for one another; there was a community spirit that lives to this day, I believe, although I haven’t been back for years. Growing up often means moving on, moving away, sometimes to a better life, sometimes not. Luck and ambition comes into it. The 1970s and early 1980s were challenging for a lot of families around me, but if you were provided, as I was, with a decent education and a start in the jobs market, then you were already winning. Then the crash happened. And it kept on happening.

It’s still happening, for many families all over the world. Jason Beech‘s novel, City of Forts, tells of one such family, who live in an unnamed town near an unnamed city, somewhere in Midwest, USA, who are in danger of falling into the cracks of society. Caitlin Nardilo is a single mother to Ricky and Brett. She holds down three jobs so she can keep food on the table. Her husband has long since headed to the Coast and is almost completely absent from their lives. Ma doesn’t know that when she heads out to work, Ricky, 13, leaves his younger brother alone in the house for the day so he can escape to the City of Forts with his friends Liz, Bixby, and Tanais. The City of Forts is a piece of land upon which there is an disused factory and a series of abandoned houses. The four friends lay claim to this place and make it their playground. It’s the final summer before they all go to high school. Ricky is in love with Liz, who for her part is unsure about where her life is going to go. Bixby is on the run from social services, having fled his foster home, and is now among the ruins. Tanais is a young Black girl, new to the group, but still figuring out if she belongs with the group or not. They are from the Town, but the City looms nearby, offering hope and menace in equal measure.

We get used to seeing them act around each other. They make do with what cards life has dealt them, and there’s a certain sense, especially with Ricky, that this is going to be as good as it gets. Then, at the very start of the story, Liz falls through a floor and literally lands on a dead body. Not knowing what else to do, because calling the cops will only lead to them being denied access to their secret playground, they decide to bury the body, but not before Ricky steals the money from the dead man’s wallet and takes a look at his ID. This course of action brings the group to the attention of Tarantula Man, the leader of a local criminal gang, the Ghost Boys, who wants to know what happened to his friend. The children are in danger, but don’t trust an adult to help them out.

Ricky’s only saviour is Floyd, a homeless man who seems to be the boy’s guardian angel. Then there’s Mr Vale, and his son Charley, who seem to want to help, but may have an agenda of their own.

Jason Beech has an amazing way with words and characters. His evocative turn of phrase, and his ability to guide us through this story from Ricky’s point of view is breathtaking in its simplicity and execution. You can sense the impending doom from the very first chapter, and this feeling never goes away even in the novel’s quiter moments. City of Forts is beautifully paced throughout, and every character is given their moment to shine. By the time the book comes to a close, each of their lives have changed, not always for the better, it has to be said. Each of their actions demand consequences. Jason Beech is wise enough to allow his characters grow and become young adults. What they do with this new-found maturity is a story for another day. City of Forts is a compelling coming-of-age story, that crosses over into crime fiction, with teenage characters that are likeable and frustrating, just as they should be.

2020 and All That.

2020 has been the most challenging year many of us have ever faced. Even if we haven’t lost someone close to us, we know someone or a family who has. It’s been a lot. But while the new year won’t bring us a hallelujah moment immediately, it’s important to note that although the light at the end of the tunnel is still far away, we’re moving ever closer to it. We still have to take care of ourselves and those around us, and not do anything silly that could jeopardise our futures.

I’m not going to get all introspective. We each have our own stories to tell about year about to pass, some more heart-breaking than others. But we’re still here. We survived so far. And 2021 is right around the corner.

I’m not one for New Year Resolutions. In fact I got very little done during the year, and it was only in the last month that I put myself in front of my laptop and created this blog. I count that as a win. I read plenty of books, and my TBR pile is gargantuan. But I’ll get through most of them.

Authors and their agents have begun emailing me and DMing me on Twitter, politely requesting reviews for their currently published and upcoming books. I’m cockahoop with joy about this. I intend to get through as many as I can, taking into account I’ve got my own stuff to do this year. (Yes, 2021 will be the year I finish my own novel’s first and, if I’m diligent, second draft of the novel that’s been in my head and computer for years.) I owe it to myself to do this. So, I’ve plenty to look forward to. I think we all need a goal for 2021, even if that goal is personal rather than professional.

I hope that we can, sometime in 2021, go see a movie, eat out at restaurants, and be close to family and friends. We’re human, and there’s nothing more human than being around other people who make us feel good. A lot of us haven’t seen our parents, grandparents, andsignificant others for a long time. But we need to hold out just a little while longer. The wait, I know, will be worth it. We have to do better for ourselves and each other. Also we need to be kind to ourselves and each other. Events of the last year have changed us: it is my hope that they’ve changed us for the better. Time will tell.

So, for my part, I will continue to read, write, and take better care of myself. I have a feeling 2021 will be a banner year for me and the people I love and care about. Let each of us do our part. Live. Learn. Love. Read. Listen to music. Dance and sing. Let us be responsible. Let us welcome in 2021 with hope, but never forget the lessons of 2020.

Happy New Year to you and yours. I’ll see you on the other side for more book reviews, book-related essays, and of course, my attempt to read The Count of Monte Cristo a few chapters at a time. Stay tuned.

Childhood Christmas Books

I think I was about six or seven years old when I found out there was no real Santa Claus. I shrugged when the realisation hit me. It came about when I found a bag of books and toys hidden in my parents’ wardrobe (don’t ask me what I was looking for at the time; I can’t remember). My mother found out and came clean. To be honest, I was more interested in the books.

I can’t recall what titles they were. I just know that at the time I read pretty much everything Enid Blyton wrote, from The Famous Five to The Secret Seven, and beyond. (I stayed away from Noddy because he just wasn’t my thing.) I loved the adventure, the derring-do, and the sheer upper-class Britishness of Blyton’s books despite me being Irish, and I don’t think there was an Irish writer at the time who did what Blyton was doing. I am ready to be corrected, though. This is just my memory.

Every Christmas I would get books from my parents. About a month before the holidays I was given x amount of money to spend on books, and I would walk up to a nearby shopping centre where the only bookstore within a manageable distance was located. The store was called Books Unlimited and there I found a corner of joy in a world that was at the time, in the mid-to-late 1970s, going mad. (SPOILER: It’s still going mad.) As the seasons passed, my reading tastes changed. I left Enid behind and graduated straight to adult class literature. Smugglers Top was replaced by the Orient Express and mysterious goings-on at Styles. I devoured Agatha Christie, who is to this day, the best-selling crime novelist of all time. My wife and I would listen to podcasts dedicated to Dame Agatha’s books, particularly All About Agatha, hosted by Kemper Donovan and Catherine Brobeck. My wife would also listen to Christmas themed stories on audio at night time. (I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard Hercules Poirot and The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding this month.)

Later years would see me pick up every action thriller written by the great Alistair MacLean. I’m sure many of you will have seen the movie adaptations of some MacLean’s books, especially The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, but the books are where it all began. He was a prolific writer, and while his characters and dialogue would be considered tropish in this day and age, you can imagine the thrill I got when I started a new story. At the time, there was no writer like him, even if the likes of Len Deighton and Hammond Innes were, without question, better at the craft.

Then, with the popularity of horror fiction coming in the wake of the blockbusting success of The Exorcist and The Omen, I read books of terror and dread into the small hours of the morning. I discovered Graham Masterton, who still publishes to this day. (In fact, I have a new book by Masterton on my NetGalley shelf, which I will read and review ahead of its publication this coming February.)

So, for me, Christmas was as much about new books as it was about food and family. And I love to think back to how it all started, with Enid, with Agatha, with Alistair, and how I looked forward to finally getting my hands on the books that had been bought by me and for me in the run up to Christmas Day. This year I can’t wait to open up the present I bought myself. More on that later.

The Daniel Hawthorne Series by Anthony Horowitz

I was delighted to recently read that Amazon had renewed Alex Rider for a second season, after its big budget launch first in Europe in June 2020, then in North America later in the year. I found it to be tremendous fun and happily recommended the show to people who asked what it was like. Anthony Horowitz is the creator of Alex Rider and has, to date, published thirteen novels in the series, as well as some short stories and additional chapters available online. A mightily prolific author, Mr Horowitz doesn’t stop there. I mentioned in my very first post on this website that he’s had authorised runs with well-known classic fictional characters Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. I’ve read these, and I adore them. I reviewed Moonflower Murders previously.

Anthony Horowitz (Image: telegraph.co.uk)

This time around, though, I want to draw your attention to a pair of novels that accomplish something unique. The Word is Murder and The Sentence is Death feature former Met detective Daniel Hawthorne who moonlights as a police consultant when the Force needs an extra pair of eyes for murder cases that defy logic. Hawthorne has made a few enemies from his time as a detective, and comes up against a lot of resistance from former colleagues. But he has an ace up his sleeve, and that’s the author himself. Anthony Horowitz goes all meta on his readers, placing himself side-by-side with Hawthorne as they solve murders so complex they’d make your eyes water.

What Mr Horowitz does is quite simple. In The Word is Murder, the author is approached by Hawthorne, who worked as a (fictional) police consultant for his real life BBC show Injustice. Hawthorne is looking for “Tony” to follow him around and write about him as he solves a case for the Met. Hawthorne won’t take no for an answer and kind of strong-arms the author into doing his bidding. The pair get off to a ropey start, with Hawthorne possessing very little in what you might call people skills. He’s rude, arrogant, very secretive, and tight with his money. But what he lacks in sociability, he more than makes up with his astute skills of deduction. Think Sherlock Holmes, but more obnoxious.

(Image: littletimetoread.today)

What I really enjoyed about this book, and the one that followed, is how Mr Horowitz mixes his real life in with the fictional one. He’s working on Foyle’s War and the screenplay he was writing at the time for the sequel to Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin, and Hawthorne’s interference plays havoc with the writer’s means of living. One funny sequence in TWIM has Hawthorne gatecrash a meeting “Tony” is having with both Spielberg and Peter Jackson.

The case itself is an ingenious whodunnit. Diana Cowper walks into a local undertaker’s office and plans her own funeral. She is found dead that night, strangled in her own home. The questions are how? and why? Similar to Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple novels, the suspects are plentiful, and the solution is extreme but logical. Not a clue is missed by Hawthorne, and when “Tony” thinks he has the answer, Hawthorne takes great pleasure in proving him wrong. The relationship is more Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce than Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke. Still, Tony and Hawthorne see the case out to its end, and the author publishes their joint efforts.

The Sentence is Death continues their collaboration with yet another murder case, with their personal relationship no closer to being BFFs. This time the unfortunate victim in a high-profile divorce lawyer who’s beaten to death at home: yet another locked-room mystery. Who doesn’t love these? It’s a supremely enjoyable crime caper in which we get to learn more about Hawthorne’s past, and that despite appearances and behaviour, he’s a man of honour and bound to the truth, no matter whose toes he steps on. There is peril for Anthony Horowitz, too. He gets into more than his fair share of scrapes and too-close-for-comfort escapes from certain death. Once again, I enjoyed how his fictional life collided with real-life events. And the repartee between the two characters is ripe with zingers and foreshadowing.

(Image: thepigeonhole.com)

A third book is on the way for 2021, and while I’ve yet to dive into Mr Horowitz’ Alex Rider ouevre, I am very content with his Hawthorne and Horowitz series. He’s an amazing writer, who makes the job of writing for a living look so easy.

P.S.: When I first joined Twitter in 2009, my feed was full of writers and bloggers. Now, due to present political and environmental reasons, it’s full of lawyers, journalists, and human rights activists. Therefore I have set up a Twitter account solely for this blog and I aim to focus on the world of books and the people who write and write about them. You can follow at here, AardvarkianReviews. Thank you. And thank you for reading.

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

Space 1999, a great (and sometimes not-so-great) British TV show from the 1970’s, created an extraordinary concept in which, due to a nuclear explosion on the Moon’s surface, our lunar neighbour was wrenched out of orbit and flung into the outer regions of our solar system and beyond. This was devastating for the Commander Koenig and the crew of Moonbase Alpha. Over the course of two seasons (the first being the most superior), the Moon encounters black holes and space warps (the science is cagey, but let’s run with it), and all manners of aliens and danger. It was fun while it lasted. The full pilot is available on YouTube and is definitely worth watching. But little is made of the effect of the Moon’s disappearance from Earth’s orbit, and the likely geological impact it would have had on our planet. The Broken Earth trilogy, written by N.K. Jemisin, imagines, to much acclaim, the cataclysmic events that would befall our planet where something to happen to the Moon.

N.K. Jemisin (Image: The Verge)

I’m jumping the gun somewhat here. We don’t learn about the Moon until much later in the trilogy, which consists of The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stolen Sky. On what may or may not be our Earth in the very far future, there is the Stillness: a supercontinent that endures eons long events known as Seasons. These can be volcanic eruptions, massive earthquakes, the kind of natural disasters that have caused extended periods of drought and famine. It’s climate change taken to its extreme, and very much a warning to us in the here and now. Citizens of the Stillness hide out in Comms, only to rebuilt that which was destroyed. Orogenes protect the Stillness: these are humans who possess an uncanny ability to control the ground beneath them, and as we learn later the sky above. Orogenes can literally move mountains, but they are feared and hated despite what they do to help save humanity. They are trained at the Fulcrum, a school that both educates and brutalises orogenes-in-waiting. Not all survive the process, as their teachers, Guardians, run a harsh regime.

(Image: arstechnica.com)

The Fifth Season opens with a woman named Essun who discovers that her husband has murdered their baby son and has now disappeared with their daughter. Using different points of view (third person, first person, and even second person), N.K. beautifully creates a web of narrative intricacy. We read about Damaya, an orogene-in-training, arriving at the Fulcrum; and Syenite who, along with her more experienced handler, Alabaster, is embarking on her first mission. As we find ourselves drawn into these separate narratives, N.K. drops a little twist: they are all the same woman at different points in her life. We work out where each story takes place, and we also have a front row seat to the abuse and oppression orogenes endure. It’s not supposed to be comfortable.

The Obelisk Gate looks upwards. All around the world, hanging in the skies of the Stillness, are huge crystals called Obelisks. Following from the climactic events of the first book, when Syenite draws from power from one such obelisk in order to protect herself and her child, the story shares perspective with Nassun, Essun’s daughter, who believes that she and her people have suffered enough injustice and enslavement and humanity is to blame. It and the Stillness deserve to be torn apart for good. She intends to use her considerable power to bring about the end of all things. Her mother means to find and stop her. Both sides of this apocalytic battle are aided and abetted by the Stone Eaters, beings that can travel through rock itself, and can trace their origin far back to a more advanced society: one that in pursuit of power created the obelisks and knocked the Moon from its orbit.

The Stone Sky brings the trilogy to a close, but in a startling and literally earth-shattering way. The past, present, and future collide when we learn of how and why the obelisks were created, and how the race of slaves created to power the crystals both saved and damned the Earth. In its defence, Mother Earth herself had enough of what humanity was doing to her. We had made Gaia our slave and She rebelled against us. It was what we deserved. Nassun and Essen are on a collision course and the Earth is on the side of the younger woman, who wants to bring the Moon back and crash it onto the surface of the planet. The stakes couldn’t be any higher.

(image: theverge.com)

The Broken Earth Trilogy is science fiction and fantasy seated at the top end of both tables. N.K. creates characters and landscapes that are recognisable and fantastical. Rooted in all three books is the notion of power and what we will do to attain and keep it. In order to have our way, we find it necessary to subjugate and dominate individuals and races. But when the planet we live on decides that it’s time for change and wholesale annihilation, we live on borrowed time. It takes bravery and sacrifice to prevail against such insurmountable odds. N.K. Jemisin is the first Black author to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel with The Fifth Season. She then proceeded to follow up that win with a further two awards in the category with the remaining novels in the trilogy. That in itself should tell you something. If you haven’t read them yet, there is really no excuse not to. The best fiction tells us something about ourselves as a person and as a human being. N.K.’s trilogy not only tells us what would happen if we cared any less about how we live, but gives us a way to heal the world around us. We don’t need superpowers; we just need to care. And act now.

N.K. Jemisin has embarked on a new trilogy, The Great Cities, beginning with the publication this year of The City We Became. Instead of Earth being alive, its cities that are sentient. I look forward to reading this. Also I would advise people to check out her short story collection, How Long ’til Black Future Month. It’s superb.

Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

In a year where I did little else but watch Netflix, bake goodies, and read until I my eyes refused to cooperate with me, I have to say that I’ve had it better than some. I enjoy reading, and part of what makes the experience more pleasurable is picking up gems like Lindsay Ellis’ debut novel, Axiom’s End.

(Image: Chicago Review of Books)

Lindsay is a film critic and video essayist. Her YouTube channel is extremely popular, and her recent couple of videos about fan fiction, the Omegaverse, and her back-and-forths with the lawyer of a successful author in the romance literature genre are informative, entertaining, and come with a warning: Be prepared to back up everything you claim in a court. (This is something that’s become quite relevant in recent weeks.) But I have to admit, until I got word of a new science fiction novel doing the rounds and picking up rave reviews, I never heard of her. I have since rememedied this.

The year is 2007, but it’s not from our history. Axiom’s End is set in an alternate United States where First Contact with an alien species has already occured, but because the US government has attempted to cover it up, very few people are aware it happened. All they know is that within a short space of time, there have been two meteor strikes on American soil. Whistleblower Nils Ortega, via his website, posts redacted documents which, he says, exposes the truth and implicates President George W. Bush as having direct knowledge of the cover-up. Nils is in hiding, and his family are unaware of his whereabouts. His daughter, Cora Sabino, in particular, struggles with life. Living with her Mom and siblings, her car is almost beyond repair, and she just about quits the job her Mom got for her when the second meteor strikes.

Almost straightaway Cora’s family are threatened. Government agents turn up on their doorstep and are taken into custody, with Cora going on the run. She encounters an alien she calls Ampersand, and through a series of events, not all of them comfortable, Cora agrees to become Ampersand’s translator. It’s an alliance fraught with peril, because not only does Cora want her family back safe and sound, she’s not altogether trustful nor understanding of her alien companion’s true motives.

Lindsay Ellis (Image: knowyourmemes.com)

That’s the bare bones of Axiom’s End. But there’s a lot more to it than this. The reader has to play catch-up from page one, but Lindsay’s world-building and playful examination of events nearly a decade and a half ago is masterfully handled. And when the characters are allowed to breathe and take stock, the reader does, too. The relationship between Cora and Ampersand is allowed to evolve at its own pace, despite the breakneck chain of events that pepper each chapter of this engrossing, fun, and thought-provoking novel.

Lindsay says in her recent video essay that she drew from her own experience of fan fiction, particularly Transformers, when putting the plot of Axiom’s End together. I can totally see this, but I would be giving too much of the plot away if I commented any further. It was a pleasure to read, and although my review might seem slight, I genuinely fear for giving too much away. One very minor spoiler I will reveal, however: George W. Bush’s letter of resignation is literary wish-fulfillment. Axiom’s End is book one of a series that Lindsay has called “Nuomena”. I don’t know what this means, except to say I very much look forward to book two.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut Series

Consisting of three books so far, Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series imagines a world different to ours, but still retaining a sense of place and history that resonates with anyone who reads them.

Mary Robinette Kowal (Image; syfy.com)

Alternate or alternative history fiction is also known as What If, in that it takes a fixed point in human history and then imagines what might happen if something else occured. You will find plenty of “What if Hitler won WWll” scenarios in print and on screen, the most popular example being Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. The Grandmaster of alternative history, Harry Turtledove, went one better. His two trilogies, Worldwar and Colonization, imagined what would happen if instead of fighting each other, Allied and Axis forces united as one to fight an alien invasion in 1941. It’s a fun concept, one that Turtledove ran with, leaving no stone uncovered.

Mary Robinette’s trilogy is similar in scope but much more focused on themes rather than action-packed set-pieces (though there are many, trust me). It began life as a novelette published in 2012, The Lady Astronaut of Mars, ultimately winning a Hugo Award a couple of years later. It told of Elma York, the lady astronaut of the title and the author’s pivotal character, and her time on Mars, 30 years after a successful expedition to the red planet and humanity’s eventual settlement. Mary Robinette then went back in time to how it all began.

The Calculating Stars (Image: Author’s website)

The Calculating Stars explains how history diverted from the path we’re currently in the midst of. Instead of Harry S.Truman winning the US presidency in 1948, his opponent Thomas Dewey takes the White House and casts his eyes upwards into space. The first satellite is in place by 1952, beating the USSR in this historical setting. Then calamity strikes, literally. A meteorite obliterates the east coast of the United States, setting off a catastrophic change of events that will, in a matter of decades, leave Planet Earth uninhabitable. It’s imperative that humanity finds a new home. And so, to make this happen, the International Aerospace Coalition is created. Think NASA, but with everyone invited.

Elma York is a mathematics genius, capable of working out complex theorems and equations in her head. Well before the creation of supercomputers that can do the same thing, Elma and her colleagues are vital to the IAC. But because she’s a woman, she struggles to make her voice heard in a male-dominated profession. Not only is she a whizz with figures, Elma is an accomplished pilot, and it is this talent as much as anything else that leads her to become a media darling, the Lady Astronaut. The administration trots Elma out because her looks and personality are acceptable to her bosses. That’s sexism with a capital S right there. Elma knows this, her husband Nathaniel knows this, even the president knows this. But over time, despite enduring cippling bouts of anxiety, Elma’s quick-thinking eventually leads to, in the following book The Fated Sky, becoming an integral part of humanity’s first manned mission to Mars.

The Fated Sky (Image: Author’s website)

The third book, The Relentless Moon, runs concurrent to The Fated Sky, and featured Elma’s friend Nicole Wargin, a governor’s wife and not without influence herself despite the deep-rooted sexism pervading US politics. Whereas Elma deals with the problems of living in deep space, Nicole’s focus is divided between the Moon and Earth. Saboteurs are desperate to bring to an end humanity’s planned evacuation, maintaining that Earth’s governments will leave the poorest members of human society behind. They launch a campaign of violence and chaos that ends with the assasination of a high-profile government official.

Racism runs deep in these books, too. The 1950s and 60s is no different in Kowal’s history than it is in ours. Black female pilots endure constant side-lining ahead of their white collagues, despite having the greater skills and experience. Black astronauts are treated with suspicion because one of the groups of saboteurs is linked to a Black civil rights group. It doesn’t help that on both the Moon and on the Mars expedition, apartheid supporting South Africans have powerful positions. This creates a lot of tension in the books, and while individual incidents are handled as well as they can be by people with sense, racism never goes away.

The Relentless Moon (Image; Author’s website)

Ultimately, though, Kowal’s series is one of hope for humanity, and there is the thrill of exploring the unknown however dangerous and unpredictable it will be. Kowal brings her knowledge, personal experience, and extensive research to everyone of the series fast-moving pages. Her characters, female and male, are deeply human, and endure a lot in their roles as saviours of humanity. Not everyone is likeable, but there are very much relatable. You will root for them, because in the end you want us to survive. You want us to be better.

You can follow Mary Robinette Kowal on her lively Twitter feed here. She is also the author of the Glamorist Histories series, and a couple of stand-alone novels and lots of short fiction.