Sword and Star – Sunny Moraine

Series: Root Code, #3
First Published: 21st May, 2016
Genre: Space Opera / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Riptide / Anglerfish

The rebel fleet is recovering after a major battle, but more losses are to come. This puts a strain on Adam’s relationship with his husband Lochlan. Meanwhile, Sinder has a plan to get rid of the rebels and save the Protectorate.

The book is told from the perspectives of several characters, though Adam is presented as the main protagonist. Adam is a former member of the Protectorate. Lochlan is from the Bideshi, a group of space nomads. The rebels are made up of a mixture of both. Previously, Adam had been accepted by the Bideshi and trained by their Aalim (people with powers) to use his own powers.

The core of the story focuses on character relationships. A lot of time is spent recovering from attacks, with the tensions that arise when the initial rush of action is over. I liked the general idea of that, but I wish it hadn’t mainly been romantic relationships. Friendships and other family relationships were pushed to the side, such as someone’s children being conveniently absent and only mentioned in passing. It was that odd feeling of a community made up of a series of couples, rather than having a range of relationships.

I did like the political elements, as both sides have to make alliances and plan strategies. Sinder’s sections were particularly good for this, as it explores the ways he convinces himself the end justifies the means. He enlists the help of Julius, an exiled Bideshi, and tries to ignore that there might be very good reasons for the exile.

The worldbuilding had some elements with potential. Bideshi ships have a forest inside and an alien race appears briefly. Those things didn’t appear as more than background detail though.

The characters are various races, such as Lochlan and others of the Bideshi being black, though culturally things are pretty Western. The story of Abraham is told in detail and Western history is remembered. But other cultures are down to a few names and a forgotten statue. The main relationship is two men, though the other relationships are men and women. So there’s some diversity, but not perhaps as much as I’d hoped.

Some areas aren’t handled well at all. The Aalim are blind, which is connected to their abilities. It uses the common trope of them having magical sight. Their blindness was also constantly reinforced, in a way that felt very othering. The characters couldn’t appear without some reference to them being blind. Their eyes were blind eyes. When they looked at things, it was emphasised that they weren’t really looking, because they were blind.

Julius is albinistic. He’s described as having unnaturally pale skin, and that it’s disturbing when he’s dressed in white as that matches his skin. It could be argued this is from Sinder’s perspective, but the narrative also reinforces it as being true. Julius has supernatural abilities gained through violent means (some of which is shown graphically). He’s portrayed as an irredeemable monster. This falls into the stereotype of the evil albino, with a side helping of blaming his evil on insanity.

There were other things that didn’t work for me, like describing Adam using his abilities as though it was rape, Lochlan almost hitting Adam, and the general white saviour feel of Adam’s story.

It’s not a bad science fiction story. I liked the political parts and the interactions between the antagonists. It could appeal to someone who likes a strong focus on romantic relationships during difficult times. But the parts that didn’t work for me really didn’t, to the point of putting the book down for long periods.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Cyborg Vol. 1: Unplugged – David F. Walker

Cyborg CoverFirst Published: 29th March, 2016
Genre: Superhero / Graphic Novel
Contributors: David F. Walker (writer); Ivan Reis (penciller); Joe Prado (artist); Adriano Lucas (colourist); Rob Leigh (letterer)
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Attackers from another dimension kill Cyborg and steal his arms. But Cyborg doesn’t stay dead and his arms regenerate. He heads to S.T.A.R. Labs to find out what’s going on with his technology. Meanwhile, in another dimension, a war against alien cyborgs rages.

This graphic novel includes the first six issues of Cyborg’s comic. It tells a complete story, though does leave some plot threads open for future stories. The opening introduces what’s been happening in Detroit while Cyborg was off being a superhero, as well as providing space for Cyborg to reflect on his life and relationships. This part interested me the most, as it means finding out about the man behind the snarky superhero.

Inevitably, the two storylines come together, and there’s some alien cyborg action. The highlight of that part was the art. The aliens are detailed, and there’s a certain organic messiness to the cybernetics. The battle scenes are a place where this really gets to shine. My only complaint with the artwork was the cat who Cyborg talks to before and after. The cat didn’t seem as detailed or expressive as the other characters. Though he wasn’t in a lot of frames, it stuck with me.

Cyborg’s backstory is having most of his body destroyed and replaced by machines, including a replacement eye and arms. Disability issues often aren’t addressed in stories like this. When prosthetics give someone superhuman abilities, it’s usually handled as though there aren’t any issues at all. That isn’t the case here, though the way it was handled wasn’t perfect. I liked that the cybernetic technology is treated as the untested equipment that it is, with the concerns that raises for Cyborg about what’s happening to his body. He also faces being treated like a science experiment by the scientists, including his own father. The struggle against feeling dehumanised is linked back to how he felt just after the accident, when he was hesitant to go outside due to reactions from other people. Even after becoming a superhero, he faces people asking him invasive personal questions, from how he goes to the toilet to his sex life. Superhuman prosthetics don’t make these social consequences go away.

Other social concerns are touched on in the early part of the story, such as differing access to medical care. A man with a missing eye and crude prosthetic arm is one of the protesters outside the labs. Detroit is suffering financially, and access to the best medical care is not something everyone has. This leads to body shops, where people can have untested cybernetics attached. It’s an option that can be within reach for people failed by the medical system, but it means surgery in shady back alley establishments and uncertainty about what the cybernetics will do.

It was a great setup… but it gets lost once the action starts, and is wrapped up neatly in a simplistic cure narrative. This highlights an issue with the aftermath in general. I’d expect a lot more devastation left behind, rather than things going back to normal so quickly. The way everything wraps up feels rushed.

I also would have liked to see more of Sarah. She’s shown as a supportive friend, and possible love interest, but doesn’t get to do a whole lot. I couldn’t say much about her. I want to see them as friends before I can really buy them as a possible romance.

I don’t think this is a bad introduction to Cyborg’s solo adventures. It has some time to develop him as a character, as well as some action. There’s more to explore when it comes to how his cybernetics are changing. The ending was the weakest part, though there is the potential to address those themes in more detail in future stories.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Dear Baobab – Cheryl Foggo (author), Qin Leng (illustrator)

Dear Baobab CoverFirst Published: 1st September, 2011
Genre: Children’s Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Maiko moves from Africa to North America to live with his aunt and uncle. He has trouble fitting in, and befriends a spruce tree which is seven years old (like him). It’s not as old as the giant baobab back home, but it still helps remind him of home. Then he finds out the tree might be cut down.

Maiko is going through a lot. His parents died, he has to move country, and he’s being bullied at school. Everything is different, from the kind of house he lives in, to the climate. It’s unusual to see all these themes in the same picture book, as such books are more likely to focus on one issue. But in real life, it’s not that uncommon to have everything go wrong at once. I liked that focus, as it shows children in similar situations that it can happen, and you can get through it. And for those who are luckier, the story makes it easy to empathise with the things Maiko is going through.

With everything going on, Maiko’s friendship with the tree gives him a point of security. He can tell the tree about his troubles, at a time when he’s not ready to tell his aunt and uncle. It’s no wonder that he’s upset at the idea of the tree being cut down. It’s good that once it does come out, his feelings are taken seriously by the adults around him.

The pictures are paintings with loose line work, capturing scenes from Maiko’s everyday life. There’s quite a bit of text on the pages. This would suit older picture book readers the best, as they’re moving on to books with short paragraphs, but will still appreciate pictures to help explain the story.

Some of the associated material says Maiko is from Tanzania and moves to Canada. The text hints at this (the landscape and eating ugali), but is not that specific. I’d have liked to see this somewhere in the book, even if it was a map showing where he’s moved from/to at the end. Given how many people think Africa is a country, I think it’s particularly important to be specific.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Gone to Drift – Diana McCaulay

Gone to Drift CoverFirst Published: 28th February, 2016
Genre: Contemporary Young Adult
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Lloyd’s grandfather, Conrad, doesn’t come back from a fishing trip. Lloyd is certain that Conrad wouldn’t have got caught out at sea, so something else must have happened. He’s going to find out what, no matter the danger.

The story is told from two points-of-view. Lloyd in third person, as he searches for his grandfather. Conrad in first person, as he thinks about his past and his current situation. It’s an interesting mystery, as Conrad’s disappearance is not as simple as an accident at sea. Lloyd has to ask questions and search for clues, all the while being careful that he might be heading into some dangerous territory. The reader knows Conrad is still alive, but he won’t survive forever. Lloyd has limited time to solve the mystery, even if he doesn’t quite realise it at first.

Conrad’s perspective gives a broader view of how Jamaica has changed during his lifetime. Technology has brought benefits, like cell phones for staying in contact, and boat engines able to take fishers out further. It’s also meant greater pollution and dwindling fish stocks.

I appreciated the family fishing versus environmentalism plotline. This is something that impacts my local community too, as environmental laws often end up harming the local fishing fleet (of small beach-launched vessels) much more than the big factory ships. It’s important to have fishing quotas and laws to protect the environment, but they need to be made with the community, rather than against them. For Lloyd’s community, it means fishers turning to less legal sources of income, including capturing dolphins.

This book is an example of how things like binary gender roles can exist in a narrative in a way that doesn’t endorse them. Men and women have rigidly defined roles in the community. Lloyd takes this as simply being how things are. Conrad is starting to question it, such as regretting not being part of his mother’s world, and whether she felt lonely as the only woman in the family. This is also challenged from the outside by Jules, a local black woman who has trained as a scientist and is clearly at home on the ocean (a man’s place).

Some other issues are touched on briefly. Slowly, a homeless man who everyone says is mad, is clearly suffering from trauma after having been lost at sea. He’s not portrayed as a threat. Simply as someone who couldn’t cope and didn’t have access to any help. There are a lot of people like Slowly who end up homeless.

I was uncomfortable with Conrad’s fantasy about being descended from an Arawak prince. He might be right in having Arawak/Taíno ancestry, but the prince angle was much more fictional trope than reality. It also sets up Native Americans as past tense, without making it clear this is talking about the local situation, rather than as a whole. Unlike something like the strict idea of men and women’s roles, there’s no counter to this in the narrative. It relies on the reader coming in with prior knowledge.

I also wish they’d marked Conrad’s sections in something other than italics. This is difficult for me as a dyslexic reader.

Outside of those things, I enjoyed the book. Lloyd and Conrad’s relationship shines through, which is difficult to achieve when two characters spend the story apart. The social issues of fishing and dolphins caught for entertainment are also very topical. It’s a beautifully written book with an engaging mystery.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Pumpkin – Ines Johnson

Pumpkin CoverSeries: Cindermama, #1
First Published: 10th March, 2015
Genre: Romance
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Pumpkin is a single mother, who has given up on fairytale happy endings. Manny is from a rich family and running for mayor. When they meet, Manny knows Pumpkin isn’t the one, because all his family have a gift where they see a golden aura around their true love. But whatever the magic may be saying about it, both of them have other ideas.

This is a contemporary romance retelling of Cinderella, with light magical elements. Basically the ability to see auras taken to a more magical level. I liked the idea of subverting destined magical soulmates, and that is the general direction of the book. Love is something that takes work and there are no guarantees because the golden aura said (or didn’t say) so.

The writing was generally conversational and easy to breeze through. There are some things that worked well, like Pumpkin having to realise she couldn’t force people to be like a movie script. Some of her people predictions are very wrong, because she’s more caught up in stories than reality. The mayoral campaign worked well enough as a plot to tie things together.

My main issue is it wasn’t quite the book I expected it to be. As it starred a single mother, I wasn’t expecting so much hate to be piled on single mothers. Pumpkin is only okay because she’s the idealised single mother, who has a day job, and hasn’t dated since her husband walked out. Her cousins (the ugly step-sisters of the tale) are horrible welfare queens who take food stamps when they don’t need them, and purposefully try to have children by lots of men to get child support. It’s frequently laid on how terrible they are. Empathy is for Pumpkin, not single mothers as a whole.

In Pumpkin’s own words about welfare: “I think the flaw with social programs is that the poor start to believe they can’t do for themselves without it and the rich believe the poor can’t act without their help.” This doesn’t match my experiences at all, where it’s more that poor people wish they didn’t have to rely on it, and rich people wish they could stop paying out because they’d have more money if they let people starve. But the narrative proves Pumpkin right. After all, people collecting food stamps are like her horrible cousins.

It turns out the golden aura is because Manny and his family are gypsies. There are certainly times when Roma people might reclaim that word, but a book where it’s the source of fairytale magic, because Roma are like magical fairytale people, is not one of those times. There wasn’t any other cultural connection, outside of golden auras and fortune telling.

I can see this romance might appeal to some readers, given its fairytale themes. For me, I couldn’t really get past the policing of what makes someone a respectable poor person.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]