Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit CoverSeries: Machineries of Empire, #1
First Published: 14th June, 2016
Genre: Military Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Cheris is a soldier who falls out of favour with the hexarchate, but she has a chance to redeem herself by winning back a fortress taken over by heretics. The catch is she has to work with Jedao, a general who slaughtered his own people for no apparent reason.

This is initially a difficult book. There are a lot of concepts introduced with no explanation. It’s worth persevering through the first chapters, as the terminology will fall into place. Until then, it can be a little confusing.

The worldbuilding centres on the idea of using calendars to control people. By making everyone follow the same calendar, with the same festivals and events, it manipulates reality. One result of this is battle formations can change how things work around the soldiers, rather than just providing the more traditional tactical advantages. This reality change also allows faster travel between planets, and helps maintain order across those distances.

Cheris gets in trouble because she calculates new formations based on the calendar of a group of heretics. This wins the battle, but it’s a little too close to heresy. Jedao also isn’t a stranger when it comes to unconventional tactics, given that he’s known for not losing battles, along with the one where he killed everyone on his own side. They make an interesting pair. Their different approaches sometimes clash, but they slowly come to appreciate each other’s strengths.

The siege of the fortress is a relatively slow affair. Cheris is constantly having to decide on acceptable losses, as no plan of action avoids all death. The focus is on tactics and managing resources, including gauging the reactions of the people under her command. As well as showing it from her perspective, there are parts from the viewpoints of other characters, including the troops sent to die. War is shown unflinchingly. There’s nothing glorious about victory. All it means is more bodies.

It’s a very political story. Outside of the task at hand, there’s more going on in the hexarchate as a whole. Issues from the past are impacting the present. The servitors, sentient robots used as servants, also have their own society and agenda. Everything feels very close to unravelling, with the situation at the fortress only being the start.

I have mixed feelings on how insanity is presented. I did like that it’s clearly a social construct. Insanity in the hexarchate means going against the brainwashing and the rigid social control. Jedao is considered mad simply because they don’t know why he acted as he did. However, it didn’t get away from associating violence with insanity.

Jedao is dyscalculic. This is revealed rather late on, so it’s handled very simplistically as dyscalculia meaning being bad at maths. It’s not actually possible to tell that someone is dyscalculic purely by looking at how well they do in exams, which is how it’s presented. It would have been good to mention it earlier, so it could be handled with a little more depth.

I liked the characters and the idea of mathematical manipulation of calendars. It’s a complex political story with some unique worldbuilding. But the ending got too dark for me. There’s a rape scene near the end, which I didn’t know about when I picked up the book. It’s also clear this is a setting where it’s a bad idea to get attached to characters and enjoy seeing their relationships develop, because ultimately, the chances of anyone surviving are slim. Which might be realistic, but I like to have that character connection in a series. Setting and story are not enough for me. For readers who like that darker edge, this may not be a problem.

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

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]

Rebel Galaxy

Rebel Galaxy CoverDeveloper: Double Damage Games
First Release: 20th October, 2015
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Length: Long
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Xbox One | Steam

Your aunt Juno sends you a message to meet her at an out-of-the-way space station. Turns out she’s gone missing, but she’s left you a strange artefact.

The story is an adventure with a space Western feel to it. There’s nothing deep about the plot. It’s intended as a lighter tale, and that’s what it is. I would have liked something a little more concrete about the artefact’s origin, but the story basically does its job of guiding the player through the game.

A lot of the game is in the side activities, as the player needs to do these to get better gear between story missions. The basic setup reminded me of Elite. Money can be made through missions, trading, attacking other ships, mining asteroids, and similar things. It’s possible to be a pirate or fight them for the bounties. Where it differs is the game has a much easier learning curve, making it accessible for anyone looking for a little space action without having to perfectly line up a ship to dock it at a station (it’s a simple button press in this game). The scope is also smaller, as it spans a limited number of systems.

Combat was a little unusual, as the ship can only travel on a flat plane, rather than being able to go in any direction. Some of the enemy ships in the game can fly all over, but the big ones stay on that flat plane. It’s more like an ocean ship game, where ships fire weapons from their broadsides. Plus there’s a little help from the turrets, which are controlled by the game by default. This does make combat a lot easier, as there’s no spinning around aimlessly trying to find attackers. There’s a good mix of weapon types to choose from, as well as a range of ships, so I found the fighting fun.

The art direction of the game is pretty. Space is not an empty void. Colourful gas clouds fill each system, with a few nebula storms adding to the feel of space as an ocean. There are more asteroids than is realistic, but the aim is clearly not for realism. It’s creating a certain feel, of space as something a little more cosy, where there’s always something going on. I liked the range of asteroids to mine, as I’ve always been down for a bit of space mining.

Image Caption: A spaceship firing a mining laser at a shiny metallic asteroid. In the distance, there’s a gas giant with two rings. Game interface icons show on the screen, with the message “Distress Beacon Detected”. Even space miners don’t get any peace.

Where the art is weakest is the character models, which are seen on contacting ships and in the space station bars. There are basically two models for humans, which have been tweaked a little for the different roles. These models are coupled with a limited range of dialogue options. This is an area where the budget of the game really shows. However, it’s notable that the models are a man and a woman, meaning that every role can be a woman, from pirates to miners. A lot of high budget games fail on this, not because of money, but because they’ve actively chosen not to have women in the NPC groups (even if the story says they are there). This equality is treated as usual in the setting, with no sexist comments aimed at any of the women. The player is not gendered and is never shown or described.

Race is not as well handled, as the human models are all white. Even with a limited budget, there could have been some skin tone variation.

Overall, it’s a fun space adventure that isn’t too difficult in terms of gameplay. The different solar systems and side activities aren’t variable enough to really keep a player going beyond the story, but this isn’t much of a criticism. There’s a solid 20-30 hours of gameplay. A little more for people aiming for all the trophies (some of which are a bit of a grind, but nothing too difficult). I’d recommend it for anyone looking for something to hit that space exploration itch.

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]