The Days of Tao – Wesley Chu

Days of Tao CoverSeries: Tao, #3.5
First Published: 30th April, 2016
Genre: Science Fiction / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Subterranean

Cameron Tan is studying in Greece when he’s called up for a secret mission. Another agent has important information, and needs help getting out of the country.

The concept of the story was interesting. There are two rival alien groups, who live inside human hosts. The alien brings knowledge to their host, but not amazing superpowers. This gives the whole thing more of a spy action vibe, as no one is a bullet sponge.

I also enjoyed the opening. It starts with Nazar, the agent who has to get out of Greece. He’s competent and has a complex past. But this is the only time he really gets development, as he doesn’t have any other sections from his perspective. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t escape on his own, as he’d have been much safer. Having a damaged arm (from an injury years back) was not a good reason. It made him distinctive, but it’s not like the escape plan was ever to walk through border control. This was a very weak reason for needing help.

I wasn’t particularly interested in Cameron Tan, the actual main character. He’s the classic inept slacker guy, who for some reason keeps getting important tasks to do. I got the impression I was supposed to find that hilarious, especially the repeated joke about low grades in art history. The first half of the story is mostly how funny it is that he’s terrible at stuff, and everything else is happening painfully slowly.

Then there’s a sudden shift when the group gets moving. There are too many characters, and everything’s going too fast, for them to get any development. It’s hard to really get inside the difficult choices Cameron has to make when the people around him are so flat. The tone also goes from laugh-at-the-funny-guy to death-and-angst. Which is the realistic outcome of choosing someone incompetent for a task. This did raise my interest in the book. But people who enjoyed the first part might find that change a downer.

All in all, this story didn’t work for me at novella length. Fewer characters and a tighter opening half would have done a lot. I’m sure readers who’ve been following the series will like it, and it does appear to set up some things for future stories. It’s probably not the best introduction to the world though.

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

Texture Like Sun – Ils Greyhart

Texture Like Sun CoverCollection: Solitary Travelers
First Published: 21st March, 2016
Genre: Fantasy Romance / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | LT3 Store

Liang is a painter who can pull colours from the world around him. Xerxes is an incubus, who visits people’s dreams to feed off their sexual energy. When Xerxes visits Liang’s dreams, he’s confused. All Liang wants to do is give him a comfy sweater.

Liang has been kept a prisoner for several years while he finishes a large commission. The early part introduces that situation, along with his gift of making paints from nature. But the painting plotline fades into the background most of the time. It’s mainly about his discussions with Xerxes, until it’s time for him to escape. I can’t say much about the setting as a result. The person hiring Liang is described as a Sheik. The guards wear veils. Liang comes from a country to the Northeast. There’s not a whole lot more depth to the setting, as it’s mostly glossed over and not described.

The potential unfortunate implications of the setup are mainly avoided. Incubi don’t aim to kill people. They visit dreams, have consensual dream sex for the energy, and the person wakes up tired the next day. So Xerxes isn’t running around mass murdering when he’s not visiting Liang. Xerxes also doesn’t try to force his interest after the initial advances are rejected. Once he decides he’s going to keep visiting, he accepts that it’s not going to be sexual as part of the deal.

Using exact labels won’t always come up in a story, but it would have been a lot less convoluted in this case. They have a discussion where Xerxes says he’s an incubus and explains it. Liang vaguely refers to people like him and explains it. Labelling the incubus and not the asexual person came across oddly.

It was a premise with potential, but I don’t think it hit it. I’d have liked the painting plot to have more development, including a little more action in the escape scene. The relationship was generally as cute as dressing an incubus in a sweater so he doesn’t get cold suggests it will be. But the initial humour of that imagery isn’t enough to carry a whole story.

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

The Cybernetic Tea Shop – Meredith Katz

Cybernetic Tea Shop CoverCollection: Solitary Travelers
First Published: 14th March, 2016
Genre: Science Fiction Romance / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | LT3 Store

Clara moves from place to place, with only Joanie (her Raise hummingbird) for company. Sal is a robot who runs a tea shop in memory of her owner. Then Clara pops into Sal’s place during her lunch break.

There’s some interesting worldbuilding in the story. Humanoid robots were banned from production, due to worries about them being able to learn and become full people. Instead, people have Raises – robotic animal companions who are intelligent and have personalities, but can’t learn and adapt the way a robot could. Robots like Sal are in a difficult place, where society doesn’t know quite what to do in terms of rights. Sal has outlived the company who made her, so spare parts are increasingly an issue, and her memory is failing.

The novella focuses on Clara, Sal and Joanie, giving space for their relationships to develop. I liked that Joanie really doesn’t change, because she’s not able to without being re-programmed, as a contrast to both Clara and Sal. In the case of the latter two, their first meeting isn’t perfect. Clara knows she shouldn’t treat Sal as a novelty, with all the being-an-object that implies, but does it anyway out of surprise. She also realises how hurtful that reaction would be to Sal.

They get over that initial awkwardness, and continue to get closer as Clara regularly visits the tea shop. Sometimes Clara brings Raises she’s repairing for work, and eventually Sal trusts her enough to do the needed repair work. Both have things they’re not ready to face. For Sal, it’s the obvious one of her owner’s death and continuing to run the tea shop because she always has. For Clara, her wandering is something she picked up due to growing up in a migrant worker family. They moved where the jobs were. Even though she doesn’t need to do that anymore, she moves from habit, rather than considering what she really wants.

It touches on issues of power imbalances in relationships. As much as Sal loved her owner, it doesn’t change that she was owned. Her owner’s name is coded into her, and that registration of an owner prevents her from being able to move on. Clara realises this isn’t something she should change without permission, but also that ownership is a problem. No one’s name should be in that field. As much as people may talk about belonging to each other in romances, it’s meant metaphorically, not as a literal thing that someone has no choice over.

This is an asexual romance. There’s some intimacy though cuddling, generally being close and Sal trusting Clara to work on her systems. There isn’t any sex, and the couple discuss that they’re not interested in that. It’s nice to see a focus on finding out what a partner is comfortable doing, rather than a focus on pressuring a partner to do things anyway.

What I didn’t find so believable was the social worldbuilding. Sal was several centuries old. Things might have advanced in robotics, but there weren’t really other signs that this society had gone through a few centuries. Things like gender roles and fashion were stuck much as they are today. I’d also have expected more impact from people having Raises, as social spaces would need a redesign to accommodate many people having a robotic pet.

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

Dust on the Wing – Parker Foye

Dust on the Wing CoverCollection: Solitary Travelers
First Published: 14th March, 2016
Genre: Science Fiction Romance / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | LT3 Store

This book is part of a collection of novellas called “Solitary Travelers”. I was interested because they’re asexual romances and/or aromantic relationships. This particular title does have some sexual content.

I found this book difficult to read. Tam is asexual and is being pressured by his partner to do more than he’s comfortable doing. It paints an unhealthy relationship, as Tam feels pressured, and his partner feels like he’s being denied something. It also doesn’t feel like there’s much emotional connection between the characters. It’s about power, with Tam having to constantly be on his guard to avoid being forced into situations he doesn’t want. This wasn’t just my feeling about it, as the book later confirms that the partner is basically interested in Tam being physically attractive, and Tam has to move quickly to “escape the promises his body made”.

It was a relief that the opening is the last time they see each other. Most of it is about transporting a young woman to another planet. There wasn’t a whole lot of character interaction, as Tam doesn’t want to speak to anyone. I’d hoped for a bit more of a friendship between them, but they never really break through Tam’s dislike of being around people.

My expectation for the book was a feel-good story with a happy ending. If the book had only been the transportation part, it would have succeeded at that. Not in a perfect way, as it was a little prone to infodumps at the start, and could do with more development of the character relationships. But it would have passed the time. Unfortunately, the romance was not a happily-ever-after situation. It reinforced some of the negative things asexuals face in relationships with sexual people (you’re tempting people if you’re pretty and you’re denying things to people that are rightfully theirs). I wanted them to break up, and it left me feeling uncomfortable with the book as a whole.

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

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories – Ken Liu

Paper Menagerie CoverFirst Published: 8th March, 2016
Genre: Speculative Fiction / Short Story Collection
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | IndieBound

Ken Liu has been nominated for, and won, many genre awards for his short fiction. He’s also a translator, which is discussed briefly in the preface.

The collection starts with short stories, with the novelettes and novellas towards the end. This was a good choice, as it gives the reader a chance to read through several stories to get a feel for the range. The opening story, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species”, was particularly imaginative. It’s written like an article and covers a range of alien species and their books. I liked how they all tied together at the end, with the books of the final species.

“Good Hunting” was one I didn’t expect to enjoy at first, as it looked like a classic science versus magic story. The construction of a new railroad starts to cause magic to disappear, leaving a trainee demon hunter out of a job, and a hulijing unable to transform. But as the technology veers off into steampunk territory, the story takes another turn. It ended up being one of my favourites.

I enjoyed most of the stories, though a few didn’t really work for me. “The Perfect Match”, where an automated assistant called Tilly controls people’s lives, was rather predictable and about as exciting as Tilly’s personality. The funny side is Microsoft chose that moment to suggest I downloaded Windows 10 and they’d give me a new personal assistant. It’s one of those things where the idea is certainly based on reality, but the execution didn’t take it anywhere new.

It’s generally a strong collection, with reoccurring themes of Chinese history, the experience of being an immigrant in America, and control/surveillance. However, there is a tendency for the work to be rather heteronormative. Not in the kind of way that is openly anti anyone who doesn’t fit that, but in the kind of way where anyone else is unlikely to appear in the stories. Men and women date, men and women marry and have one or two children, people broadly follow binary gender roles, and so on. It’s the sort of thing that wouldn’t be so obvious reading any one of the stories in isolation, but does stand out when they’re collected together.

Readers should note some stories have detailed torture descriptions and violence against women is a common theme. There’s a lot of text in italics in some stories, which can be difficult to read.

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