Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Big winner from Liz again; this was just the absorbing, sci-fi-fantastical otherworld I needed in between heavier reads. Before finishing it I’d sat down and ordered the other two books in the trilogy (from my local online* bookstore, Gaslight), and I wish they were here already.

Aurora Rising is set in 2380, and begins at the Aurora Academy, where students graduate into the Aurora Legion – sort of a United Nations made up of both humans and alien species, to peacekeep throughout space. These teams are made up of teenagers, because the physiological challenges of deep-space Fold travel are only for the very young. (This will add to the drama.) Chapters are told from different points of view, but we begin with Tyler Jones, prettyboy and star student, top of his class in the Alpha track. Alphas will head up their squads; they are strategists and leaders. Tyler was poised to get to cherrypick his ideal squad and likely get the choicest mission assignment, but things went a little sideways, and he found himself saddled with odds and ends instead – happily, including his twin sister Scarlett and their shared best friend since childhood, Cat. (Scarlett is the squad’s Face, or diplomat, multilingual and people-skilled. Cat is their Ace, or pilot, as cocky and short-fused as Aces are stereotyped to be.) They get sent on a terrible mission to start their new careers: boring, distant, low-consequence. Or is it?

Tyler’s accidental misadventure, which cost him his pick-of-the-litter squad, was rescuing “the girl out of time”: Aurora (or Auri) has been in cryo-sleep for two hundred years. She was en route to the colony where her father lived, but the ship never arrived, and she is its sole survivor. Her father’s colony has been erased. And some very dangerous people seem to care very much what happens to Auri. Luckily, she falls in with this ragtag squad of losers: Tyler, Scarlett, Cat, Finian (nonhuman, the group’s differently abled Gearhead), Zila (socially awkward, or possibly sociopathic, Brain – responsible for scientific and medical expertise), and Kal (their Tank, or warrior, of a much-maligned alien species recently considered an enemy of the Terrans, or humans). Together they form “the strangest group of misfits that ever trekked across an abandoned alien planet beset with creeptastic plants and besieged by military forces,” which is a great line. I’m pretty intrigued by the intersection of plant life, beauty, and horror.

Thick greenery blooms from its eyes, its back is covered in a tangle of beautiful flowers, and when it opens its mouth to snarl its defiance at him, I see reddish-green leaves all the way down its throat.

What with sibling antics (Tyler and Scar), bestie vibes and hijinks (Scar and Cat), romantic and sexual tensions (several), awkward geekiness (several), and extreme danger and high stakes, this novel offers a charming blend of pathos, angst, and superlative, laugh-out-loud comedy. I stayed up to unhealthily late hours because I couldn’t put this book down; I was completely absorbed and in love with our dear, silly, impassioned young heroes. Also, check out this Princess Bride reference.

“Anyway, are you sure you’re not making them up? They sound ridiculous. I mean, hairy dirtchildren who fly spaceships and have almost identical DNA to you lot?” I scoff. “I don’t think they exist.”

And that’s when a snarling, furry pitch-black humanoid thing with jagged yellow teeth that would put an ultrasaur to shame comes screaming out of the undergrowth and straight for my face.

(Chimps, if you were wondering.)

There is so much to love here. The worldbuilding is on point (and if I recognize certain elements from The Expanse, what of it?). The characters are darling; who could resist such a motley band of misfits? The action is riveting. I’m hooked; give me more. This first installment ends a little cheesy, but I’m well hooked all the same. Stay tuned for book 2. I don’t think it will take me long. Thanks as ever, Liz!


Rating: 9 costume changes.

*local online? They’re working on a brick-and-mortar, which I badly want, so I buy all my books from them! Cheers, Justin and Ethan!

Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton

I cannot recommend this to you enough: find something that you believe in, right down deep in the depths of your silvery plumage, and then throw your heart at it, blood and valves and veins and all. Because I did this, the world, though brambled and frothing at the mouth, looked more vibrant; blues were bluer, and even the fetid puddles that collected under rusting cars tasted as sweet as summer wine.

I have so much to say about this book, but in trying to avoid spoilers I think much of it should remain unsaid here.

Hollow Kingdom is set in contemporary Seattle, and its protagonist and most-of-the-time narrator is a domesticated crow. (Chapters do alternate perspectives, so we get a handful of other voices – very colorful ones that make enormous contributions, and come from all over the world. But our star keeps the mic for the majority of these pages.) His name is S.T., which is short for Shit Turd (naturally), and he has enjoyed a good life with his human, Big Jim, and a bloodhound named Dennis with a deathly fear of windshield wipers and alpacas. The book begins “after,” however, and S.T. is here to tell us what happened to Big Jim and his neighbors: we meet the beloved human only in past tense. He got sick and started acting strangely (more strangely than usual), and then his eyeball fell out, and then things went from bad to worse. Eventually S.T. is forced to venture out of the home and into the wider world, where he’ll have to interact with wild crows, for whom he feels mostly contempt, as well as many other forms of nature, likewise distasteful. And he takes Dennis with him, although he feels a similar disdain for the (not so bright) dog, at least at first. S.T. mostly knows the outside world from television and the opinionated Big Jim. And now he’s up against the worst of times with his limited knowledge and his distrust of the natural world – which may be all that’s left.

Among many remarkable features of this unusual novel, I enjoyed S.T.’s voice: salty, foul-mouthed, neurotic, loyal, loving, admiring of humans (whom he calls MoFos – Big Jim’s influence again) and their inventions, sarcastic, self-deprecating and hilarious. He hates penguins (“hambeast-bellied egg timers”) and says of Dennis, “Man’s best friend indeed. More like man’s neediest parasite that would trade you for a bull-penis dog chewy at the drop of a hat.” Squirrels are “five-star sexual deviants” (borne out by later events). The other voices that occasionally interweave with S.T.’s chapters are equally singular, apt, and surprising: there is a Scottish cow named Angus, a young camel in Dubai, and an irascible, tyrannical cat right there in Seattle, among others. (Genghis Cat thinks of his humans as Mediocre Servants, or “dildo-nosed potatoes.”) A very large part of S.T.’s ongoing struggle is wrapped up in his confusions about identity: unmistakably crow, he believes himself to be an honorary MoFo, meant to be human but trapped in black feathers; in the new world, though, he’s going to have to make new allegiances with those who look more like himself. His relationship with Dennis likewise evolves: he begins scornful of the bloodhound’s apparently lesser intellect, but their partnership deepens in tough times, and he discovers that even if Dennis does not talk like the crow does (and as most animals in this world do), he may have a lot to offer. The lessons abound, but Hollow Kingdom never loses its joyful, wacky ridiculousness, even as it gains in wisdom and profundity. Sounds like a hell of a thing, right? This is an unusual and startling book from the first pages, and keeps on surprising to the end.

I also marveled at how many notes I made as I read. I generally make a few notes, but this tight-packed bookmark with overflow onto the other side is rare.

Many of those notes I will not be sharing here because I’m avoiding spoilers. But I can point out that S.T. has a vocabulary: I had to look up formicary, synanthropic, fuliginous, voltaic, collacine, pedipalp, myotonic, and chatoyant. I also loved his use of so many collective nouns: clowder of cats, murmuration of starlings, collacine of maggots, quarrel of sparrows, and of course the constant reference to S.T.’s own murder (of crows) – these are just a few. I’m a big fan of collective nouns.

Hollow Kingdom approaches a few commonly-occurring incidents in literature (which I am still not naming here) with truly fresh eyes. The voice of a domesticated crow navigating an identity crisis in the context of a wider-world crisis is new and inventive. This book is filled with tragedy, but is simultaneously hilarious, hopeful, even joyful.

Trust, it turned out, was a very beautiful and fragile thing with a taste like wild raspberries and experienced only by the very brave.

There are Big Thoughts alongside toilet humor, and commentary on the importance of relationships even in the most bizarrely changing world imaginable. Lots to love. Buxton has a rare and fascinating mind and I love the weird voices she’s created here; I’ll definitely look for more from her.


Rating: 8 Cheetos.

“Drive” by James S. A. Corey

Another short from one of my favorites series, “Drive” briefly profiles an inventor and his invention, which we’ve been aware of as a sort of fact-of-life technology in the rest of The Expanse: here is Solomon Epstein, and his Epstein drive. We meet Solomon en media res, mid-experiment, as his improved drive turns out to work but also threaten his life. In this timeline, he struggles to save himself, while interspliced scenes show how he got here: glimpses of who he was, in particular with the woman who became his wife. It’s awfully moving, actually, a very fine, clipped view of a human with no villain to him (rare in this fictional world). I am again impressed with Corey’s skills, and I can’t wait to find more of this world, the expanse that appears in the final line of this lovely, sad, stand-alone story. Definitely recommend.


Rating: 8 bits of colored glass.

“The Butcher of Anderson Station” by James S. A. Corey

Just a quickie here: this short story establishes the history of Fred Johnson, aka the Butcher of Anderson Station, in The Expanse universe. It only makes me want more from this series, of course. The story handles two timelines. In one, Colonel Fred Johnson is ordered to retake the captured Anderson Station, and he does so, making what appears to be the wisest military decision along the way. Then he gets some new information. In a parallel story that takes place later, the OPA’s Anderson Dawes wants to talk about it with Fred. The story cuts back and forth between the two. By the end of this quick installment (36 pages, I’m told, in print – I’ve got an ebook version), we see the Fred Johnson that we’ll meet in the bulk of The Expanse. Dawes is also a recurring character; the rest (those central to the novels) are absent here, but it’s absolutely the story of Johnson himself, so supporting characters are mostly extraneous.

This story has it all: space jargon, tough decisions and moral quandaries, interesting characters and rich world-building. It whets the appetite nicely and I’ll be looking for more Expanse, as ever.


Rating: 8 seams.

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells

This is book six, the final to date, in the Murderbot Diaries series. I am very relieved to learn that there are three more books to come, because I am not done with this fascinating character.

Fugitive Telemetry takes place between Exit Strategy and Network Effect, and I was not prepared for this and really missed getting the next installment in the story as developed in the latter, but there’s still a lot to love here. Murderbot is living uneasily on Preservation Station, and there has been (gasp) a murder, which never happens here, and therefore the regular security forces aren’t really equipped for an investigation. Our favorite bot construct gets drafted (that is, asked nicely by Dr. Mensah) to help out, but (predictably) it doesn’t love working with the security forces, and the feeling is mutual. Murderbot has also been asked to not hack any systems, a promise I’m a little surprised it keeps; this hamstrings its investigative efforts somewhat, and takes us into the realm of more classic detective work. That’s the premise of an excellent review by NPR of this book, and indeed they’ve done so well with it that I’m linking you there in lieu of my own longer review. Check it out: “Murderbot meets Miss Marple in Fugitive Telementry.”

I love everything that happens here, but I remain anxious for a sequel to Network Effect. I want more Amena and more ART and more Murderbot in general. I’m just glad it’s happening.


Rating: 7 limbs.

Network Effect by Martha Wells

I love the promo copy from Tor’s publishing page enough to let it kick off this review:

You know that feeling when you’re at work, and you’ve had enough of people, and then the boss walks in with yet another job that needs to be done right this second or the world will end, but all you want to do is go home and binge your favorite shows? And you’re a sentient murder machine programmed for destruction? Congratulations, you’re Murderbot.

Come for the pew-pew space battles, stay for the most relatable A.I. you’ll read this century.

I’m usually alone in my head, and that’s where 90 plus percent of my problems are.

When Murderbot’s human associates (not friends, never friends) are captured and another not-friend from its past requires urgent assistance, Murderbot must choose between inertia and drastic action.

Drastic action it is, then.

Here it is! This, the fifth in the Murderbot series, is a full-length novel, some 350 pages instead of 150-175. Wells delivers: this is everything that’s good about books one through four, but bigger and more of it. No, that’s not to be taken for granted. Sometimes the novelist can’t wrangle the short story or vice versa. But Murderbot is every bit as compelling for a novel as it was in novella form, and this scale offers more room for the plot (in both senses!) to grow in some excellent ways.

Murderbot is back on Preservation Station with its new …family? of humans. (It would never use that word, but I will.) It’s still working out its feelings about humans, and its own humans in particular, and trying to figure out where it fits into the world and the human society it’s presently allied with. It still doesn’t know what it wants out of life, which is one of the drawbacks of self-determination. And the human society, and the (real) human family, are still working out how Murderbot (or SecUnit, as they call it) fits in, too. Dr. Mensah, from book one, is Murderbot’s closest human friend, and also its patron (legally, in fact, its owner), and the two of them have a pretty good understanding, but not all of Dr. Mensah’s family has accepted the bot construct’s role. There are some tensions. Dr. Mensah has a teenaged daughter, Amena, who offers another set of challenges: Murderbot’s own eye-rolling attitude up against that of a teenaged human makes for some pleasing gentle conflict; and they share as well an earnest sweetness that they like to hide behind rough edges.

Murderbot and some of Dr. Mensah’s family and friends find themselves on a ship that gets kidnapped, basically, and taken through a wormhole… the space-science stuff can get a little away from me, but it’s okay. There’s a mystery; there are unknowns. There are bad guys – the corporates, as usual, but again unknowns as well, including possibly alien remnants. Murderbot is as usual (in its exasperated tone) having to try to save the day and keep everyone safe, even those who are dismissive of its abilities or foolhardy or otherwise frustrating. What’s gradually changing, though, is Murderbot’s relationships with these humans. It really cares; they care about it. Some of them even trust it.

Spoiler-free: the stakes rise when we begin to suspect that another character from a past novella is behind the kidnapping. Also! Near the end, a new character enters the scene who I am very excited about.

The character Murderbot remains the best part of these books, which is a fine strength to have, since these are the Murderbot Diaries and its first-person POV is the voice of the series. Our hero is sarcastic, bitter, both immature and ultra-competent; soft-hearted but outwardly prickly; it is simultaneously scornful of humans and (in the entertainment media series it so loves) sort of adores them. Its voice is often hilarious, self-deprecating and petty. “I wanted to pick it up and have an emotion over it like a stupid human.” “Target Two whispered something, which FacilitySys rendered as ‘What are you?’ I said, ‘I’m a Shut Up or Get Your Head Smashed.'” It’s interesting what it does and doesn’t know; it finds some words baffling, like foolproof (why isn’t it smartproof?), and gets anagram and acronym confused. When it has emotions, it sometimes has to go face a wall for a little while.

Murderbot still has trust issues, and who can blame it? Many of its humans are just now learning how bad things can be for a SecUnit. “(If there’d been a SecUnit in the colony, there probably would have been a compelling reason why it had to stay behind on the dying planet.) (I don’t actually believe that.) (Sometimes I believe that.)” It learns that “the organic parts of my brain were doing a lot more heavy lifting than I gave them credit for.” And it’s learning some significant lessons about trust and friendship (which will give it emotions).

Some reviewers see Murderbot as being possibly edging toward a romantic entanglement. I do not read it that way. But book six will take us where it will.

This was a really good installment in the series; I was very pleased to spend more time with our grumbly construct, and equally pleased to see Wells’s competence with the longer form. Psyched for book six; just sorry that that one is, to date, the last of the series.


Rating: 8 lines of code.

Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

Book four of the Murderbot Diaries is proceeding pretty much as I’d hoped. We’ve got some returning serial characters, and further development of the idea that bots are people, too. Check out that blurb from the front cover: “One of the most humane portraits of a nonhuman I’ve ever read” (from Annalee Newitz). I wholly agree, and think that that’s one of the great victories of this series. Murderbot is drily funny, self-deprecating, sarcastic, deeply feeling and resistant to the truths of its own emotional self, and who among us hasn’t wished we were a little more stoic, a time or two?

[Side note: something new has just occurred to me. I think Murderbot and Reacher have a few things in common. Both try to mind their own business, but both are helpless to resist helping dumb humans in need, even as they feel exasperation about it. Both have superhuman abilities, not only in physical fighting but in quick calculations on the fly and strategic thinking. (Only Murderbot has a good explanation for these qualities.) Both have a tendency to be delightfully deadpan. Both try to slip out into the night when things get wrapped up. They’re both sort of knights-errant, preferring not to hurt innocent bystanders but reasonably quick to upgrade (downgrade?) a person’s status to hostile as situations develop. These are qualities I appreciate, and I think there’s a definite parallel here that helps explain my love for both rogue elements.]

“Ship’s drones gathered to watch me, confused as to why I was going out the wrong door and beeping sadly about it.” Even the drones are given emotions: confused, sad. The idea of humanizing the nonhuman feels like a helpful step in rehumanizing each other, too. These books star a murderbot who is not human though it has ‘organic parts,’ and who is not legally recognized as a person in most of the worlds it travels in, but it has human friends from a world where bots and human/bot constructs are legally recognized. Can it even see itself living in this new way? In the midst of a fight to the death, our protagonist offers a deadly CombatBot the option to be free from outside control. “…dodging projectiles, it was hard to come up with a decent argument for free will. I’m not sure it would have worked on me, before my mass murder incident. I didn’t know what I wanted (I still didn’t know what I wanted) and when you’re told what to do every second of your existence, change is terrifying.” These are weighty questions, and Murderbot is an excellent guide to them: snarky, hard-shelled, but soft and melty on the inside.

I continue to love the thread in which Murderbot is an entertainment media addict, too. Aside from being unexpected and hilarious, as it was from the outset, it also offers opportunities to think about its future career options (recall I just recently noted its wisdom in critiquing narratives), as well as how stories and characters speak to us, and what they can stand in for. Here, a human friend asks Murderbot what the media does for it, why it loves its favorite show so much (that’s The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon, which I sincerely hope will appear as a spinoff someday). This allows it to think about its own possible personhood, and empathy. There is a lot going on in this series of slim scifi novellas, a lot of reach. I am increasingly excited about the progress to come. (I am also feeling pleased with some of my own predictions.)

I hope Martha Wells is off somewhere writing more Murderbot right now. I expect to get through the last two books soon.


Rating: 8 hard currency cards.

Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

Book three of the Murderbot Diaries keeps us right on track, and they’re so slim and easy to read, it takes willpower not to binge them. Our murderbot takes on a new name for this adventure, and a new self-designed mission; both of these are outside the normal range for murderbots (or SecUnits, for security units). But our SecUnit is special. In some ways, this episode resembles the last, in Artificial Condition: the murderbot hitches a ride, hoping to quietly take in some shows and maybe a little light reading and be left alone until arrival at the next place where it hopes to do a little research, solve a mystery. But it gets 1. recognized by a bot it didn’t anticipate and 2. tangled up in the plans and lives of a group of humans it regrets feeling something for, and therefore 3. roped into protecting them – like in its old life, but on its own terms.

The pattern here continues to develop an important point: bots and SecUnits are rather closer to being “people” than we are originally led to believe, meaning they have loyalties, feelings, and personalities. This allows for some ideas about liberties, responsibilities, and “human” rights (which in this world may need to apply to some beings that are not strictly human). It also makes me look forward to what is to come. Our murderbot (of the several names, now) will carry on, growing into its own. It will continue to meet more characters that will test its understanding of bots (etc.), and eventually I imagine it will have to redefine that understanding, as I am doing as reader. I can’t wait for more adventures. And I love the murderbot’s sense of humor and irony as much as ever.

Another fun twist in this novella was the murderbot – an avid consumer of serial entertainment shows, remember – forming some opinions about what would and wouldn’t make good entertainment feed narrative. I’d love to see it get into the writers’ room!

This was book three and there are only six; I’m already sad. One of these is a full-length novel, though? That will be fun!


Rating: 7 core samples.

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

These Murderbot Diaries are going down way too easily; Martha Wells is not writing quickly enough! Wonderful fun. After book one, All Systems Red, it felt great to see our murderbot again, still addicted to entertainment media and wishing it could just be left alone to take in its favorite shows and not have to communicate with humans. (“I liked humans, I liked watching them on the entertainment feed, where they couldn’t interact with me. Where it was safe. For me and for them.”) There was never such a loveable, socially awkward creature. It’s the genius of this series that this protagonist is not human, but has all the personality and foibles we want in our favorite human characters. “When constructs were first developed, they were originally supposed to have a pre-sentient level of intelligence, like the dumber variety of bot. But you can’t put something as dumb as a hauler bot in charge of security for anything without spending even more money for expensive company-employed human supervisors. So they made us smarter. The anxiety and depression were side effects.” “I wish being a construct made me less irrational than the average human but you may have noticed this is not the case.”

In this installment, the murderbot has its own agenda for the first time ever, arranging for its own travel (only a little bit under false pretenses) and going looking for answers to a mystery it wants solved for its own sake. It runs into trouble when the research transport ship it hitches a ride with turns out to be a bit smarter and more sentient than our hero had bargained on. This is either going to be the murderbot’s first friend or next enemy. Also, to get onto the moon it’s headed for, it needs an employment pass, and so it needs employment, which (again) it’s never arranged for itself. This is how it ends up with another group of humans to care for, which raises some of the same concerns that it did in book one.

Where it took me a little while to get into All Systems Red, this one had me in its grasp from minute one (maybe because I understood the world I was stepping into). I’m smitten. These stories are short, funny, and moving. I want them all.


Rating: 8 facial expressions.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Thanks Liz for this fun recommendation, a bit off my usual path, but right in line with The Expanse (remember that series?!). The Murderbot Diaries is a series of sci-fi novellas; book one, All Systems Red, was an easy single-sitting read. I found it took me a little while to engage. The story begins in media res, which has its advantages, but in this case left me a little murky on some of the situational details and I think delayed my reader-brain clicking into gear. Partly this feels like a sci-fi issue (in media res maybe works less well here, where the reader needs to learn the rules of your world?) and partly, as usual, I’m sure it’s a me issue, because I’m not a very experienced sci-fi reader and it’s been a while since I’ve read any.

But once I clicked in I was decidedly engaged. The story is told in first-person (something of the ‘diary’ effect) by a creature who calls itself Murderbot. It’s a SecUnit (security unit) for ‘the company,’ which has been rented out to a survey team doing scientific work on an unsettled planet. (Some features of this world are very similar to that of The Expanse.) It opens quite intriguingly:

I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites.

What is special about Murderbot is this fact, that it has hacked its governor module and therefore has personal agency, which is unusual among its kind. The humans and augmented humans that it works for don’t know this. It has to remember to appear to be following the rules. But the first odd surprise is contained in that first sentence, too: rather than undertake some evil genius scheme, our Murderbot is most interested in vegging out and binging some telenovelas. (It is forever waiting for the humans to take a break so it can watch tv, basically.) This is unexpected, endearing, a little absurd, and very human, despite the Murderbot being not human. It is a ‘construct,’ containing both organic and inorganic parts; perhaps roughly half human and half bot, although it resists that framing. “It makes it sound like the halves are discrete, like the bot half should want to obey orders and do its job and the human half should want to protect itself and get the hell out of here. As opposed to the reality, which was that I was one whole confused entity, with no idea what I wanted to do.” Again, sounds awfully human. “I know I said SecUnits aren’t sentimental about each other, but I wished it wasn’t one of the DeltFall units. It was in there somewhere, trapped in its own head, maybe aware, maybe not. Not that it matters. None of us had a choice.”

In fact, Murderbot’s kind of lazy and a little negligent. “I don’t know… because it’s one of those things I’m not contractually obligated to care about.” When its assigned team of humans gets into trouble, it has to admit that it didn’t even read the info packet that came with this contract, and has no idea who its team is. (It deleted that file to free up storage space for entertainment files. I am tickled by our tv-addicted SecUnit.)

There is an adventure with the humans; there is danger and action and intrigue. But this is all backdrop for the human drama, by which I mean the humans on the assigned team and, primarily, Murderbot navigating its relationship to the humans. We get to know the protagonist a little bit, begin to see it reveal personality (very begrudgingly) and loyalties, even perhaps desires. This world has more than a few elements in common with that of The Expanse, but also, that human drama at the heart of things is what appeals to me in both cases. At the end of this very quick read, Murderbot has an opportunity open up; and then cliffhanger. I’m absolutely in for the next one.


Rating: 7 little hoppers.
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