THE HOUSE OF STYX by Derek Künsken

The House of Styx
(Venus Ascendant #1)
By Derek Künsken
Solaris (Rebellion Publishing) — August 2020
ISBN: 9781781088050
— Hardcover — 500 pp.


It’s approximately two hundred years in our future and the atmosphere of Venus has been settled by descendants of Québécois settlers. They subsist as a self-governed mining cooperative, but their political structure and livelihood are ultimately controlled by the bank that holds the economic strings. Families live in floating complexes, bio-engineered trawlers derived from native Venusian life that has evolved in the sulfuric acid-laden atmosphere. Active mining habitats circulate between atmospheric rangs to harvest elements and compounds that can be sold. It’s a dangerous life in environments inhospitable to human life, demanding bravery and advanced engineering skills.

The D’Aquillon family owns a habitat/vessel named Causapscal-des-Profondeurs, where patriarch George-Étienne leads their mining efforts in the lowest of Venusian rangs, isolated from the main colony, both its control and its support/aid. In part, the D’Aquillons are self-exiled to this most dangerous area of Venus, to an existence that has already claimed the lives of George-Étienne’s wife and one daughter. Jean-Eudes, the first-born son of the family was born with Trisomy 21, Down’s Syndrome, a condition the colonial authorities would not allow to exist, diverting precious resources to an individual who could not ‘contribute’. George-Étienne and his wife refused to give up their son, trading a life with the gentle and loving Jean-Eudes for medical services and colonial support, moving the Causapscal-des-Profondeurs to where no one else was willing to go.

With George-Étienne and eldest son Jean-Eudes are youngest son Pascal, a brilliant engineer of only sixteen years, and young grandson Alexis, the son of the daughter who was lost in a Venusian storm. While exploring the high pressure surfaces of Venus, George-Étienne and Pascal discover a cave where atmospheric currents oddly seem to be entering. Using a submersible probe and camera and they explore, bringing back rare metals and materials that should not be present on Venus, and machinery that appears to be alien. Pascal has the radical idea that they have just discovered something unfathomably priceless: a possible worm-hole to another part of the universe there within the Venusian cave. An opportunity for mining goods that no one else within the colony can get at, a possible way to get out from under the influence and power of Venus’ colonial system and the banks that enforce it.

The only person they are willing to trust with their discovery is Marthe, sister to Jean-Eudes and Pascal, who lives in a habitat with the main colony as a delegate to the ruling assembly, a leading minority voice against those in power. Marthe realizes that any move the D’Aquillon’s make to take advantage of Pascal’s discovery will need some support from other families, so she uses her diplomatic skills to pursue these. However, she is less certain whether to also bring her other brother in on the plan, Émile, the black sheep of the family, who left the Causapscal-des-Profondeurs after a bitter argument with his father, who now lives mostly in weak pursuit of women, Venusian religion, and an aspiration to writing poetry. This he fuels with self-destructive resentment and anger, mixed with alcohol and other drugs.

Can the D’Aquillon’s come together again, putting family first for their future, and the colony’s? Will the bank and the leaders of the colonial governing council discover what they are up to and put a stop to things? Might their efforts and diplomatic outreach to other families be the start of something much larger?

The House of Styx originally appeared in serialized form as three parts published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact Magazine back in 2020. Solaris (Rebellion Publishing) subsequently put out the complete version, and I recommend readers check it out. If you happen to have read other novels by Künsken, The House of Styx does exist in the same ‘universe’ as his “Quantum Evolution” series. My understanding as the “Venus Ascendant” series serves as a prequel detailing the establishment of things in the other. The House of Styx is similarly built on ‘hard’ science fiction and a focus on things physical and technological. I do wish Künsken had devoted as much to his exploration of the Venusian biology. The hard science of the House of Styx gave it a home in Analog, but really its all built on core themes of the novel dealing with familial interaction and identity politics. It is a space opera amalgam of hard SF and soap opera. And, as I detail below, that’s not a bad thing at all.

Given its original serialized format, the has an organization into thirds. The first establishes the setting and the personality/relationship between the D’Aquillon family members up to Pascal’s discovery. The second details the family’s process of making a decision of what to do regarding their discovery, and reaching out to potential allies. And the concluding third unveils the fruition of those plans and how that impacts the various family members.

A lot happens, therefore, in The House of Styx. Yet, it also reads as relatively incomplete. As the first part of a series, it is largely setting things up for the future, and the novel ends with a lot being unresolved. Sure, some things wrap up, and there are certainly character arcs/growth going on. I’m just not convinced that there’s enough for the novel to satisfyingly work as a stand-alone. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the novel, and I’m looking forward to reading more. But, I don’t think I’d recommend it to someone who was only willing to commit to reading just this first book. If you read this, you’re setting yourself up to need to read the future books of the series to fully appreciate things.

Here’s why The House of Styx and beyond is worth investment: the setting and its characters work phenomenally well to explore both concepts of science and of humanity. The Québécois culture and argot that peppers the novel give it a unique and personalized tone from Künsken that provides an interesting and new perspective to what might be expected of future colonists of a world like Venus. The pride, daring, and loyalty of the D’Aquillon’s shines to overcome their sins, failings, or ‘imperfections’ for their environment.

Of all the characters, Pascal is most frequently central, with events going through his point of view, with Marthe and Émile being close seconds. For each of these siblings (and to some extent other characters who don’t really have POVs), the plot of the novel is really a vehicle for them to fully work out who they each are as individuals. Are they just a D’Aquillon, or are they also Venusian? Can they be different from their father, yet still be loyal to the family? What are they meant to do with their life? Who are they really meant to be, at their core?

These dilemmas become most perceptible in Pascal, who from early in the novel voices feelings of discomfort with his body and self image. Gradually, he begins to wonder whether the alienation he feels within himself between mind and the physical may come down to discord between biological sex and gender. Through conversations with his sister and his brother Jean-Eudes, coupled with self-reflection, Pascal decides that he is perhaps really a girl. In a very moving and well-rendered passage, an instant of a few words, Pascal become Pascale. She is more confident, but still confused on how to tell all her family, or the man she has fallen in love with (and he with her.)

Just as the novel centers of the themes of personal discovery of identity, so too does it work on the larger scale of political identity: self-sufficiency versus shared governance, a part of the colony or separate, beholden to a repressive economic condition or economically fully independent of such powers?

The House of Styx ends in a somewhat heartbreaking and cliff-hanger fashion, yet I suspect the follow up novel will have resolutions that make the ending happier, or offer return of characters long-thought lost. Regardless, I’m invested in seeing where things go for this planet, for this new partnership of families, for these people. Just, please, some more hard biology to go with the engineering stuff?


MIDNIGHT HORIZON by Daniel José Older

Midnight Horizon
(Star Wars — The High Republic)
By Daniel José Older
Disney-Lucasfilm Press — February 2022
ISBN: 9781368057288
— Hardcover — 496 pp.


Set two centuries before the events of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, The High Republic media series has depicted the Republic and the Jedi try to deal with fighting off a mysterious new enemy called the Nihil amid their attempted expansion of Republican ideals toward the Outer Rim.

Within the different types of media, I only care about the novels, and I expected the series to simply consist of a trilogy of adult novels and a trilogy of young adult novels, but apparently this is only the start of an ongoing thing. This third young adult novel Midnight Horizon takes place roughly concurrently with the events of the third adult novel The Fallen Star (which I’m reading now.)

[As an aside, I don’t understand the whole young adult marketing at all, particularly for media tie-ins like this. They don’t seem very distinguishable from an adult novel to me – having more teen Padawans appearing as the protagonists does not inherently make something ‘young adult’. And I wonder how much the readership really divides along age lines between the two types of novel – if at all?]

If you haven’t read the previous novels yet, you should start there. While the specifics of Midnight Horizon are a self-contained story, the broader strokes of galactic conflict and history between many characters can only be appreciated or followed with the context of previous stories.

Two Jedi Masters, Cohmac Vitus and Kantam Sy travel to Corellia to investigate mysterious attacks on the planet’s upper class that may be linked to the Nihil, as part of the new active efforts of the Jedi to try and stamp out the terrorist raider threat. With them in Coronet City are Padawans Reath Silas and Ram Jomaram, and local help in the form of a young woman named Crash who leads a gang of bodyguards for the Corellian elite.

The High Republic has been a series of ups and downs for me, sometimes being riveting thrills and other times a stew pot of mediocrity. Midnight Horizon felt similar, compressed into one story. The start of the novel begins with an attack and mystery that feels promising, but soon the story languishes in slow build up that focuses more on interactions between the Jedis. The end finally picks up, considerably bolstered by the appearance (finally) of Yoda, whose name has been merely teased throughout earlier novels. Flashback scenes with Yoda earlier in the novel are also bright spots.

This overall arch of Midnight Horizon is actually not any different from all the other Star Wars novels, the middle portions are built on slower moments of character interactions, their emotions and their growth. So why was I bored so much by it here, while I enjoyed it elsewhere? I think the answer simply comes down to my appreciation of the writing style of the author. Older’s style is just not for me.

I previously read Older’s Star Wars novel that coincided with that terrible Solo: A Star Wars Adventure film. I chalked up my disinterest in that novel to the fact that I really couldn’t stand Solo or its characters. I now see it’s not just that. Older returns in Midnight Horizon to that world of Solo by setting this novel on Corellia, and I won’t deny his strengths at working in that world – or in serving as an overall story architect for The High Republic. But, both novels also have a distinctive voice that feels extremely off for the setting, too emulative of modern English, particularly with phrasing or adding slang that make it more like teenagers are speaking. There are moments where it feels cutesy, and cutesy is not something that for me fits with Star Wars.

This negative becomes augmented by the molding of Midnight Horizon to a “young adult” market (so I guess that wasn’t totally an aside above.) Older’s style that grated at me felt worst with scenes and points of view of the Padawans or Crash. The parts more focused on the Jedi Masters simply felt better, not drawing me out of the story and universe.

If you’re reading The High Republic series, this is certainly enjoyable enough to warrant reading, even if Older’s style doesn’t match your tastes. If you have no qualms with his style, you’ll probably love this novel. If you haven’t read The High Republic, but are a Star Wars fan, it’s a series worth looking into, better than most of the novels that were released alongside the latest film trilogy, with a large cast of new, interesting characters. Just start with the first books that set it up so well.


ENGINES OF OBLIVION by Karen Osborne

Engines of Oblivion
(The Memory War Book II)
By Karen Osborne
Tor Books — February 2021
ISBN: 9781250215505
— Paperback — 416 pp.


Trilogies and beyond are certainly the norm for genre fiction. Many stand-alones exist. But, seem to be pretty rare. If writing two distinct chapters, how easy it much be to stretch things for more. If they aren’t so distinct, couldn’t they simply fit together into just one longer volume? Karen Osborne does something unique and remarkable with her “The Memory War” duology. Engines of Oblivion, the second book of the series feels even more successful than the first.

The two novels are flip-sides of the same coin, or the same vinyl record, bearing different surface characteristics but forged from the same core elemental materials. Both of them enrich one another: the first is necessary to grasp the sequel, but the sequel makes the reader appreciate its predecessor more deeply. The duology actually becomes a whole. Though Engines of Oblivion may feel better, it’s mostly because the reader can now fully connect with what came before, realizing this is a story of two distinct protagonists faced with the same economical and political exploitation/control.

The first novel of “The Memory War”, Architects of Memory, follows corporately indentured salvage pilot Ash Jackson, who (with the crew she works with) discovers a weapon of mass destruction that might be useful in a war between humanity and the alien Vai. I wrote more on that novel in an earlier review, and I also had the opportunity to interview author Karen Osborne on the series.

Engines of Oblivion continues following the events that close Architects of Memory, but now following protagonist Natalie Chan, a war veteran who served with Ash on the crew of the Twenty-Five. Chan has barely survived the battle of Tribulation at the climax of the first book, but has gained her corporate citizenship as a result. However, it still comes with additional price. The Board of the Aurora Corporation doesn’t believe Ash and her partner Kate (the former captain of the Twenty-Five) are dead, and they suspect Chan may have even had a hand in letting them escape with the secrets of the alien technology that could be used to defeat the Vai. Chan is sent along with other former crew member Dr. Reva Sharma to find Ash and Kate. There is a significant complication, however. Natalie Chan has lost pockets of her memory, and she is beginning to doubt many things she took for granted.

Like its predecessor, Engines of Oblivion has rapid pacing, but familiarity with the characters makes it far easier to jump into. The first book showed how a tight-knit group of people who professionally relied on each other for their lives turned to mistrust, betrayal, and some signs of hopeful empathy/solidarity. The sequel explores these character connections more deeply, in satisfying ways that enrich the characterization from the first novel.

Some readers may find it jarring for the story to turn towards the point-of-view of Natalie Chan. Readers become very accustomed to Ash in the first novel, and invested in rooting for her success. We see Chan in that novel only through Ash’s interpretative mind, and not as a particularly relatable person to empathize with. However, Osborne does fabulously well from the start putting readers into Chan’s confused mind to get another perspective on things and generate reader sympathy for someone who may have been more disliked prior.

Chan has bought into the power structure and narratives of the Corporatocracy that runs things in “The Memory War”. But she slowly begins to see things that Ash had long known and appreciated. Through Natalie Chan’s initial complicity, and gradual awakening, Engines of Oblivion is able to dramatically expand the themes of corporate power and personal freedom that the first novel touched upon.

As with the first novel, Engines of Oblivion provides some twists and surprising turns to end up in a satisfying conclusion that draws both the heart of this novel, and the overall series plot, into effective close. I would have enjoyed more background detail and exploration of the Vai over other elemental foci of the novel, but that is the biologist in me, I understand that not everything can fit.

If you are a fan of space opera and still haven’t checked this pair of books out, go get Architects of Memory now, it ranks among the best in the current sub-genre and would give any of the ‘classics’ a run for their money.


LOVE. AN ARCHAEOLOGY by Fábio Fernandes

Love. An Archaeology
By Fábio Fernandes
Luna Press Publishing — 26th March 2021
ISBN: 9781913387426
— Paperback — 164 pp.
Cover: Francesca T Barbini


What exactly is a translation? For a multilingual writer, does every piece become a sort of translation within the creator’s mind, or is each story pre-filtered though one linguistic route of the brain?

These question came to mind as I read Love. An Archaeology, the first collection of short fiction from Brazilian writer Fábio Fernandes, just released from Luna Press as part of their “Harvester Series.” The books in this series intentionally gather a collection of old and new works from a writer, along with authorial reflections as an appendix. For Fernandes’ stories, language becomes another layer to that harvest of past and new works.

Two of the stories in Love. An Archaeology were originally written in Portuguese and translated into English by Fernandes for the collection. One of those two was translated into Spanish for its original publication. One, Fernandes wrote in English for submission to an anthology. When it didn’t make the cut, he then translated into Portuguese and published that. Though the majority of the stories in the collection were written and published originally in English, they still exude an aura of being cultural hybrids. While the characters and plot do contribute, Fernandes’ English also adds to that flavor. Though technically correct, he often turns his phrasing in a way that feels slightly off from that of a native speaker. And that is absolutely wonderful, fitting perfectly with the unexpected turns of his stories, and those moments of surreal wonder particularly found in his forays into New Weird.

But as Paul Jessup notes in his introduction to the collection, the stories here are more than a literature of atmosphere. They are “an exploration of idea with depth. Each story is poetic, at times spiritual and transcendent.” That depth permeates into realms both emotional and intellectual. Love. An Archaeology will make you think. Though pointing out the uniqueness of Fernandes, Jessup also compares his writing to that of Gene Wolfe, Jorge Luis Borges, Eugène Ionesco, Jeffery Ford, and Ted Chiang.

The name that pops to my mind first, however, is Samuel R. Delany. In part that’s because I first encountered Fernandes with “Eleven Stations” in Stories for Chip, edited by Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell. Reading Love. An Archaeology I increasingly noticed the shared fundamental elements between Delany and Fernandes: the intensity, the intellect, the curiosity, the subtle complexity exploring a basic idea. Both can leave readers disoriented one moment, only to lead them to startling revelation the next. Throughout that all, a love for – and power over – language.

I didn’t appreciate all this when reading “Eleven Stations” in Stories for Chip. I ended up relatively ambivalent to the story then, certainly not disliking it, but not enjoying either. Starting Love. An Archaeology I at first felt similarly. The opening story “Seven Horrors” revolves around a fascinating premise taking the idea of time travel in truly unique and mind-bending directions. A man simply called the Time Traveller and a woman known as the Assassin hop across the eons of time, locked together in an immortal struggle for/against death and love for one another. In this tale Fernandes takes the contradictions inherent to time travel stories and simply runs with the trope’s bewildering anti-logic. The framework becomes an opportunity to meditate on themes of spirituality, love, and persistence.

On the one hand, I loved the concepts of the story and its gentle luscious prose, which contras with the apocalyptic settings and chaos through time. On the other hand, I found it dense to get into with a formality to its tone that almost clashes with the personal nature of the character interactions at its heart. A lot of the references were lost on me. (The first section of the collection contains four stories ‘to the memory of Harlan Ellison’ and this must be Ellisonesque in some way I wouldn’t be able to grasp.) It’s a hard story to start things off with, yet appropriate and easier to appreciate as one digs deeper into the collection and becomes familiar with what Fernandes is doing.

Aside from showing how he approaches classic speculative fiction themes, “Seven Horrors” introduces readers to the themes of metaphysics/spirituality that Fernandes draws upon, especially Buddhism. Both “Eleven Stations” in Stories for Chip and “Seven Horrors” that opens Love. An Archaeology represent titles that invite speculation for numerical symbolism. Fernandes uses this type of title in additional stories in this collection, and dates. These numbers are yet another example of the cultural depths that he digs for details in his stories. Numbers mean something equally as much as words, and they are in some ways the purest form of science fiction, even more so than physics as they underlie the language of the universe and the sciences.

By the second story of Love. An Archaeology, I became hooked. Its plot is more conventional, yet still contains the elements that Fernandes plays with so effectively. It’s also a fantasy/horror as opposed to a science fiction, and I feel they are so much easier for me to get into. “The Emptiness in the Heart of All Things” may be my favorite story of the collection. It draws from the Matinta Pereira folklore of the Brazilian ‘northern wilderness’, but Fernandes works with political and feminist themes inspired by the legend of this witch-like creature, and he casts it into a crime plot. Though it contains elements of Weird, the linear narrative gives the early reader a bit more stability in navigating Fernandes’ references and themes. I wish he wrote more in this genre, because this is exceptional.

Though still in the section dedicated to Ellison, “The Remaker” is a meta-tribute to Borges, a near-future remake of Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” The original apparently being a story about a fellow (Menard) who recreates (not copies) Cervantes’ classic. So this is a remake of a remake concept, and we are several recursive layers deep here. Again the concept is intriguing, and now a few stories in, I had begun warming to Ferndandes’ style. As the backdrop to that, Fernandes gives his “Pierre Menard” lovers, allowing rich character development while also tapping into diversity of sex and gender. Originally published in a collection titled Outlaw Bodies, the rawness of biology, love, and sex in the story again recalls Delany. Such a wonderful ending for this story as well, and though the title has no numbers, the numerical fascination continues within chapter headings and the remade books of the plot.

A cyber-punk story that mashes up 3D printing technology with dreamscape exploration follows in “WiFi Dreams” to conclude the first section of the collection. It’s another trippy one, where I had a hard time seeing how the 3D printing idea actually integrates in.

The next two sections of stories in the collection consist of relatively shorter works. The first, dedicated to Cordwainer Smith, includes “Tales of the Obliterati”, a series of connected stories Fernandes writes about ‘lost discoveries’ and future eras where humanity faces annihilation. “Nothing Happened in 1999” is a piece of solid, if not remarkable, flash fiction. My interest really picked up for “Mycelium”, a story set in a hidden enclave of surviving humanity where a fungal symbiosis might be the key to save the human remnant. “Nine Paths to Destruction” approaches spiritual, existential matters of an individual and a species facing extinction. Beautifully and emotionally resonant.

The second of short fiction sections bears dedication to Fredric Brown and presents “Three Snapshots”, further flash fiction. Fernandes comments in the appendix that he feels very short fiction is one of his strengths, and with these I’d largely conclude. “Other Metamorphoses” is great and “Who Mourns for Washington?” is a profound take on the persistence and loss of memory.

“Archaeologies” the fourth and final section of Love. An Archaeology contains additional stories on love and includes the short story that gives the collection its title. “A Lover’s Discourse: Five Fragments and a Memory of War” returns to surreal New Weird tones, with a plot that’s hard to peg into any particular sub-genre. “The Unexpected Geographies” is notable in that it is another fantasy, darker than the prior one and more firmly in the realm of horror. Though I liked the story overall, I felt this was the most uneven and in need of further editing to make it cut more effectively.

The concluding story “Love. An Archaeology” ends things with another high point. Sisters use a new device that allows experience of alternate history timelines to discover what may have happened between their father and mother. But alternate, after all, is a relative term. The story reinforces what Fernandes excels at: taking well-worn SF ideas for a ride in new and fascinating directions. Some of those may verge into confusing dream-like realms, and others – like this one may be more standard. But they all use that platform to delve into base human relationships/emotions, like family, partner, love to see both the ecstasy and the cracks.

Fernandes is both a graduate of the prestigious Clarion West course, and a former slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine. His appreciation for classics of the SF genre and of literature, mythology, and philosophy in general should be obvious. This is a debut collection that literary speculative fiction fans should not pass up, and I believe they will look forward to seeing more from him in the future as much as I do.


INTO THE DARK (Star Wars — The High Republic) by Claudia Gray

Into the Dark
(Star Wars — The High Republic)
By Claudia Gray
Del Rey Books — February 2021
ISBN: 9781368057288
— Hardcover — 425 pp.


Set concurrently to events in the High Republic novel Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule, Claudia Gray’s new YA novel Into the Dark expands readers’ introduction to details of this Star Wars period, but works equally well as a stand alone adventure. Those who’ve already read some of Gray’s canon Star Wars novels know her reputation for penning some great ones, whether marketed for the general adult (e.g. Master & Apprentice) or young adult (e.g. Leia: Princess of Alderaan). For any new Star Wars readers, you could start out with anything by her, including this exciting new release.

With the opening of the Republic’s Starlight Beacon station in the ‘wilds’ of the Outer Rim, Jedi long-based in the Temple on the Republic capital of Coruscant feel the Force guiding them to new opportunities and needs at that galactic edge. When Jedi Padawan Reath Silas learns that his master, Jora Malli, is one of those who will be leaving the comfort and calm of the Temple for the chaos and unknown of the Outer Rim for a posting at the station, he meets the development with worry and disappointment. A historian and bookworm, Reath has gravitated toward more academic Jedi pursuits, spending time in the library where others maximize lightsaber training and seek more extroverted action. But, Master Jora reminds her apprentice that Jedi must seek balance in all things, and push themselves through the difficulties of doing things they feel naturally disinclined toward or fear. That is, of course, except the Dark Side of the Force.

Reluctantly, Reath agrees, and promises to push himself toward being a better Jedi; be better attuned to the Force like those Masters he looks up to. Three of these Jedi join Reath on an Outer Rim based transport hired to take them to the Starlight Beacon dedication, where Jora already has arrived. Dez Rydan was Jora’s first Padawan, and the Knight is now already a legend to Reath, representing the dashing skills at adventure that elude him. Orla Jareni has just declared herself a Wayseeker, given official leave to operate outside of the Jedi Council’s purview to discover her place in the Force. Third is Cohmac Vitus, a respected Jedi with scholarly specializations into folklore that match Reath’s interests.

The transport taking the Jedi is a cargo ship blandly named the Vessel, run by the Byne Guild, an organization based in the outer reaches where Starlight Beacon is located. The motley crew consists of an eccentric trio: captain Leox Gyasi, an affable low-key guy who is protective of his crew; co-pilot Affie Hollow, a teenager whose parents died while in Guild employ, and who was then taken in by the leader of the Byne Guild; navigator Geode, who is a Vinitian appearing to be nothing more than a featureless, immobile, mute, rock.

Soon after departing Coruscant via hyperspace, the “Great Disaster” that features in Light of the Jedi occurs. The occupants of the Vessel suddenly find themselves surrounded in hyperspace by dangerous debris that looks frighteningly similar to the Byne Guild flagship the Legacy Run. This supposedly impossible hyperspace encounter is worsened by the fact that hyperspace itself seems tumultuous and wrong. Expert maneuvers by Affie and Geode allow the Vessel to leave hyperspace. The crew and their Jedi passengers find themselves in the middle of empty space, at a location that was in the Vessel’s computer for inexplicable reasons given its lack of planets or features. All they find is an abandoned station, whose architecture reminds Cohmac and Reath of a long-vanished people. Left stranded and unable to reenter hyperspace until the mysterious disaster can be dealt with and travel is again ‘assured’ safe, the Legacy occupants join the crews of other ships stranded in this location to board the station and investigate.

There they find a jungle of plants, cared for and protected by an army of droids. Stopping other crews from plundering the station and infighting, the Jedi try to keep the peace and manage the unexpected situation. However, they also sense something off, something of the Dark Side. Dark visions of violence seem to warn them of a danger there, and this seems tied to a group of small idols they discover, items they speculate may somehow have been imbued with power of the Sith, or worse.

It took me awhile to get into Into the Dark, and for awhile I wondered if this would be the first Star Wars novel by Claudia Gray that I would find middling. Mostly this is because it takes time to get elements of the plot going, and even once stranded upon the strange garden station, the true trajectory of things makes it somewhat hard to find footing and become invested. Within that first third of the novel, everything involves Gray’s establishment of the characters, and building the themes of the novel. I guess I didn’t quite take to the characters at first, particularly Reath. Earnest and well-intentioned, his fresh naïveté make him so unlike other Jedi I’ve encountered/read, even if a Padawan. As he grew, and I kept reading, I began to appreciate this much more.

By the middle of the book I was firmly hooked, and the revelations of its close tie together the themes of the novel so well, while also tying the plot into the grander picture of The High Republic and its Nihil adversaries introduced in Light of the Jedi. The characters all grew on me, particularly the crew of the Vessel. We got a rock with Geode, but the absurdity of the character and the symbolic physical nature of Geode’s steadfastness and resilience just puts a smile of joy and chuckles on the reader’s face. Affie bears similarity to Reath in her ethics, but unlike him has the experiences of a hard life, and far less trust. They are able to learn from one another. Leox serves as a guardian for Affie, but really more of a mentor, guiding her to independence, but also realizing that he in turn can learn a lot from her and begin to follow her inherent leadership. He also seems like a Star Wars version of “The Dude” from the Coen Brothers The Big Lebowski. Complete with “medicinal” Spice.

The relationship between Leox and Affie is very much one of Master and Apprentice, a ‘secular’ parallel to the Jedi relationship that Jora and Reath have. And the health of those mentorships contrasts with the more exploitative one that Affie has with the leader of the Byne Guild. (Or another I shouldn’t say more on.) Gray has already written a novel titled Master and Apprentice about Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. But this novel could equally be titled the same, for it continues and expands those themes in fascinating ways then both within the Jedi Order and outside perspectives of the Vessel crew and also (as we eventually learn) the Nihil.

Reath may be Padawan to Jora, but he equally looks to the examples and strengths of the other Jedi he travels with. And he begins to also see their weaknesses and where they themselves struggle with dedicating themselves to the Force or the Jedi ways just as much as Reath does. As a Wayseeker, Orla very obviously exists as a questioning, uncertain soul, despite being an adult. But she also has shared a past traumatic mission with Cohmac, and these events continue to weigh on them – particularly Cohmac. (Aside: The reader learns more about this backstory through a series of passages spread through the novel that are given in flashback. They connect to the present plot, but overall I found this organization of this backstory to be intrusive, and the only part of Into the Dark that I never ended up appreciating.) Dez also expresses doubts and challenges that he still faces. Through them all Reath learns beyond his idealistic foundation that he began upon, and the uncertainty of reality both eases his feelings of guilt over his own struggles and gives him a sense of shared experience to fight for helping not just non-Jedi others, but also his fellow adherents.

Several times the various Jedi wonder how good it is that the Order completely eschews the Dark Side while striving to keep balance in all other things. Does this make the dangers of the Dark Side even worse? Does it leave them more vulnerable? Yet, the dangers of it now also seem all too clear and real as they discover more on the station, and are met with catastrophe and painful loss.

Into the Dark really delves into Good/Bad and Master/Apprentice dichotomies so well, and on so many levels. On the one hand the novel is an entertaining Star Wars adventure with a teen character coming-of-age that sets it in that YA fold. But underneath that is so much more complexity, not just of plot, but of these basic themes that make the Star Wars universe so effective and endearing.


ARCHITECTS OF MEMORY by Karen Osborne

Architects of Memory
(The Memory War Book I)
By Karen Osborne
Tor Books — September 2020
ISBN: 9781250215475
— Paperback — 336 pp.


Indentured salvage pilot Ashlan Jackson has a new work family, and hopes of gaining citizenship now seem attainable. Saved from a mining colony owned by the Wellspring Celestium Holdings corporation where she had little chance of ever getting free from debt, Ash has been rescued by the captain of the Auroran Coporation salvage ship Twenty-Five. Taken on as pilot, Ash has a new chance at life, and the possibility of earning credits to rise from indenture. Despite being physically freed from the colony mines, Ash secretly lives with a terminal illness, one born from contact with the Celestium fuel that powers humanity’s space-flight engines. Citizenship will not only provide Ash freedom, but will give her access to the cure. But, her past on the Wellspring mining colony still haunt her, especially the memories of her dead fiancé Christopher, who perished before he and Ash could both escape.

Though her life remains full of hard indentured work, Ash sees the small steps forward, and has become relatively comfortable around her shipmates, who all trust one another with their lives amid the harshness of empty space and alien threats. Surprising herself, the closest relationship Ash has built is with the captain of the Twenty-Five, Kate Keller. Their mutual attraction and budding romance is something they each try to control and keep secret from the others, to ensure the corporate functioning of the ship remains professional, and their futures’ safe.

The great wrench in their possible futures (but also the tremendous opportunity before the crew of the Twenty-Five) comes from war with the Vai, the first and only aliens met by star-faring humanity. Conflict with the Vai has existed since first contact, and thus far humanity has lost again and again: a devastating destruction of ships, colonies, and millions of lives. Until, everything changes above the colony Tribulation, where the Vai engaged several human corporate ships in battle. Something has happened to cause the Vai to retreat beyond the interstellar boundary known as the White Line. A terrible weapon has been left behind that corporations are now after, ostensibly to help save humanity, but also to get that competitive edge. The crew of the Twenty-Five is first on the scene to scavenge Vai technology and try to find this awesome weapon that can lead to salvation or annihilation. There, at Tribulation, they try and unravel the mystery of what occurred to pause the alien threat. Ash finds answers with both personal repercussions and larger meaning for memory and the nature of life.

Osborne begins Architects of Memory like a blast of lively brass at the start of a Romantic symphony, dropping readers right into the action of this salvage scene and slowly introducing the world, plot background, and characters through Ash’s point-of-view. Along with Captain Keller, we soon meet fiery and loyal war veteran Natalie Chan and Leonard Downey, the engineer who has a thing for Natalie and uses his and irreverent humor as “Chief Executive of Snark” to help calm the others. Also on the Twenty-Five are: Dr. Reva Sharma, an Auroran citizen and physician whose high birthright status and accomplishments sharply contrast with her assignment to the grunt-work of the lowly Twenty-Five‘s crew; the ambitious Executive Officer Alison Ramsay, whose taciturn efficiency compliments Captain Keller’s gentler leadership.

Just as one is getting to know these characters and their histories, Osborne presents more revelations, deepening mysteries, and new quagmires for her protagonist Ash or supporting cast. The pages of Architects of Memory flow with a well-paced intensity balancing action with twisty plots, character betrayals, and moments of quiet resilience when all seems lost or over. The novel embodies space opera as if part of some epic saga, yet manages to do this within a constrained setting of time (days) and location. The reader witnesses struggles, heroism, and failures among this salvage crew, but it feels like a personal story of something much grander in scope. In other words, this is a novel about a handful of specific people, but Osborne makes that individual scale also symbolic for human-wide conflicts of corporate class structure and alien contact.

These humanity-scale themes are nothing new to SF, of course, but Osborne makes them fresh and entertaining at the personal level of character interaction. And, on the front of alien first contact, she writes some fascinating concepts regarding the nature of the Vai. I would write and say more, but I definitely want to avoid spoilers on this. With governments failing to maintain the high cost of space travel/colonization due to fewer immediate benefits (the pandemic has again shown how awful we are at preparing for longterm betterment), private companies have taken on the risks of space exploration to invest in the far-future rewards that will come. Two hundred years from now in the time of Architects of Memory, this practice has led to the indenture and cut-throat (literally perhaps) corporate competition that forms the fabric of human society and injustice. While Osborne doesn’t necessarily take this theme significantly astray from what other space opera SF has done, it seems as if it plays an even larger part in the sequel novel.

I adored the characters of Ash and Natalie, whose interactions and friendship/conflict form the bulk of the novel’s momentum. Osborne puts these two women not just through traumatic pasts, but continued challenges that eat away at the core of their identities and dreams. Yet, they each stay as honestly true to themselves and their ideals as one could ever expect, and fight against tremendous odds for the slim chance of continued survival or eventual victory. The so-called Golden Age of SF soap opera is notorious for having pretty awful representation of females. The men are shown in a better light, but still read as far less than believable humans. They do great things, but they also seem so poorly challenged. As others have also recently done, Osborne corrects things in two ways thus: the genders are treated more equally, and in many regards the gender does not even need to matter (such as clothes or occupation or relationships); all are written with strengths and weakness, and their victories are earned. As much as I loved the character of Ash, I loved Natalie even more. This may be because she and her past still remain dark and mysterious to the readers in many ways (compared to so much of Ash’s point of view). I’m excited to see that the next novel actually is with Natalie as protagonist.

There is only one criticism I would make of Architects of Memory; it comes from its compressed setting, but I was very willing to look past and forgive it amid the abundant things the novel excels at. So many important events occur offscreen (in the past) to have made the present that the novel explores. OK, I admit that’s kind of a dumb statement. Of course the background to a story’s plot has huge monumental events that shape the plot. But here there are some whose absence lessens that impact that plot threads, character relationships, could otherwise have. One instance is the broad close-knit relationship between the Twenty-Five‘s crew, often described by Ash as a family. Cracks and tensions that form in this family, betrayals that occur, happen before readers have gotten to fully see the degree of trust and friendship there. Ash at least relate how things were different, however. The more unfortunate example is the relationship between Keller and Ash. Ash’s love for Christopher, Kate, and herself form the emotional heart of the novel, and it would have been great to see more of her together with the Captain. To Osborne’s credit, she does try to solve this with hallucinations that are a side-effect of the Celestium sickness. I can’t honestly think how Osborne could have solved this without creating other problems, so maybe my criticism here is totally unwarranted. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that my one regret from reading Architects of Memory is that with other constraints it couldn’t explore that relationship between these two great characters more.

With its excellent pacing, compelling characters, and riveting plot, Architects of Memory is a novel that makes the reader want to enjoy the ride in one sitting, or as few as possible. Although it has a sequel, Engines of Oblivion is the intended end to the duology, to my knowledge. And, if you were inclined to just stop with the close of this one, Osborne does a fantastic job at wrapping the events of this episode up in a satisfying way, which makes further adventures possible and welcome, but not obligatory.

For any interested, excerpts from Architects of Memory are available to read on Tor.com and the Tor/Forge blog. I’ll be starting my copy of Engines of Oblivion in the next days and will have a review of that up here shortly after completing, and I also hope to have up an interview with author Karen Osborne on the two novels and her machinations for the future. Look for those then, and if you haven’t yet started with this one, what are you waiting for?


A CONTEST OF PRINCIPLES (STAR TREK) by Greg Cox

A Contest of Principles
(Star Trek: The Original Series)
By Greg Cox
Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster) — November 2020
ISBN: 9781982134709
— Paperback — 387 pp.


Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise are ordered to the planet Vok, where the government there is holding its first democratic elections after a long period of authoritarian military rule. The Federation has been invited to watch over the elections as non-aligned observers, and ensure that the computer-based voting system proceeds without controversy or tampering. The outcome of the election will have broad repercussions for nearby systems as well. Vok has territorial eyes set on the planet Braco, viewed as their ancestral home. But the nearby planet of Ozalor also contests Braco as their own, and generations of animosity has now built up between the worlds. Adding to the eggshells that the crew of the Enterprise must step among, Ozalor maintains a fiercely isolationist policy, maintaining no diplomatic ties to the Federation, and keeping memory of last encounters turned hostile and deadly.

While Kirk visits Vok with Federation representatives to oversee the election, news of contagious disease outbreak on Braco draws Dr. McCoy, Nurse Chapel and a security guard to that nearby world via shuttle. It’s a trap! (Oh, sorry, that’s Star Wars) Ambushed upon arrival, Dr. McCoy is secreted off Braco by a majordomo to the royal family of Ozalor. The Princess of that planet is afflicted by a mysterious disease and McCoy has been kidnapped to help treat her. Spock meets up with Nurse Chapel and the security officer on Braco to investigate the doctor’s disappearance, but faces resistance from the controlling government there, who is eager to blame a political dissident group on their planet for the kidnapping. On Ozalor, McCoy tries to help his VIP patient,, despite the circumstances of his enlistment, but discovers himself then plunged into the machinations of the royal court.

The older mass-market paperback Star Trek novels stuck to the episodic format of the television series, with one major plot line and setting, plus a lighter, B side-plot somehow worked in. The newer novels have felt more expansive in scope, and A Contest of Principles continues that trend, with Enterprise crew members dealing with situations on not just one alien world, or two, but three. Each setting with its own cast of supporting characters and cultures.

Vok feels akin to present-day Earth, the US more specifically given our own recent election turmoils and polarizing partisanship. Braco bears resemblance to many other alien worlds of Star Trek where political differences have created a break-off group labelled terrorist, and the ruling factions thus increased the militarism of their police and security in response. Braco seems headed down that path of authoritarianism from which Vok is just now trying to move on from. However, whereas Vok directed the militarism externally to their enemies on Ozalor, Braco is now directing its militarism internally upon a population caught in the middle of the Vok-Ozalor feud, and thereby divided. With politics of a feudal monarchy, Ozalor feels the most different, almost like a culture from a fantasy novel. The healer/advisor to the court who is able to treat the Princess’ agony through seeming magic augments this fantasy vibe.

These three settings and the interconnected plot threads of each do work perfectly when writing Star Trek: The Original Series, because of the trio of characters that lead it: Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. This has become the standard to the detriment of what stories could be done with a larger batch of the crew, or a different subset other than that expected trio. For the TV show, the actors playing those characters were the top-billed, indeed the only ones mentioned in the opening credits. But too often the media-tie in creations of Star Trek have then chosen to also just focus on those three.

I do get it, the charisma between the three are a large part of what made The Original Series work, made it beloved. They make a perfect trio, balanced and complimentary to buffer against the harshness or weakness that any of those individuals have on their own. Writers keep returning to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, because it’s a classic team and it works. But for these newer Star Trek books, I still hope for broadening beyond that easy, familiar setup of the primary three.

A Contest of Principles does put a bit of a spin on the trio in the sense that it is not putting them together to work off one another, but rather separating them and forcing them to manage as their pure, unadulterated selves, each unguided and untempered by their two friends. So while I may wish to see one of the secondary characters featured more than those three, again, at least we can see them manage on their own. On the other hand, Cox did the same recently with The Antares Maelstrom, and it could get old fast.

Cox does a great job writing each of the three leads, effectively capturing their voice and mannerisms. They act exactly as one would expect them to during the period in which the novel is set, the final year of the Enterprise’s original five-year mission under Kirk. They each are given a challenge and setting that most ideally plays off in opposition to their character traits as well. Kirk is a man of action, but is now placed in a role where he is to observe, severely limited in how much action he can take. Spock, of course a Vulcan of logic, is left to deal with a corrupt and illogical security force, and forced to turn to the arts of diplomacy that (at this point in his life at least) lie with his father Sarek, not he the scientist. McCoy is put up against a magician whose powers he can’t quite explain, to cure a disease that is not responding as his medical knowledge suggests it should.

Though this all may not then be particularly original, Cox writes it engagingly well. McCoy and Spock’s chapters I particularly found entertaining. Spock makes acquaintance with an animal/pet that is humorous and endearing. And, who doesn’t enjoy curmudgeon, but gold-hearted, McCoy chew some scenery? I’m less of a Kirk fan, but those who are will surely find familiar joy with his third of the story.

Thankfully this does work for the novel, as other parts of it succeed less well. The new characters are as one-dimensional as primary characters are able to be in media-tie in novels. The stakes can’t really be high for a crew we all know are going to be fine. But, those created just for this could contain greater depth. There isn’t much nuance to those on Braco or Ozalor, and they behave rather stereotypically. The characters on Vok do have far more nuance, to create intrigues of scandal and conspiracies, and something beyond clear-cut heroes/villains in the election. However, that gain becomes hampered by dialogue that can come across as corny. That issue of dialogue also represents the one negative that crept into the otherwise well-written Enterprise characters, with Kirk. I know Kirk has used the term ‘mister’ in his lines on the show (e.g. “you better think twice about that, mister!”) but when written it looks extra silly; Cox employs it often. The start of the novel went slower for me due to the dialogue writing of those secondary characters, but once more of the action started up I was able to get into the story and enjoy this as a decent Trek novel after all.

Recent Star Trek novels have also upped, or expanded, things in the theme department. A Contest of Principles, which takes its title from a quote regarding politics, of course is all about the themes of politics, comparing them across three unique situations/worlds. When I first read the summary of this regarding the elections and a pandemic disease outbreak I wondered how Cox managed to get things so right! The pandemic outbreak angle of course ends up being a lure for McCoy only, but the similarities between the recent US elections that were going on as this book was published in November are likely not coincidence. Many of course saw the capital riots coming – given they were announced and long-stirred-up, of course. I feel as though the situation on Vok wrapped up a bit too easily and neatly for realism, but nonetheless the look into politics there vis-a-vis our reality is a useful endeavor, as are those ‘contests of principles’ explored on the other two planets.

A Contest of Principles is going to work well for any fans of Star Trek, but it’s probably not one I’d strongly recommend for general readers who don’t care about the series. But for the fans of these stories and this crew, let’s just get some more of the other characters, please?


CREATIVE SURGERY by Clelia Farris (Translated by Rachel Cordasco and Jennifer Delare)

Creative Surgery
By Clelia Farris
(Translated from the Italian by Rachel Cordasco and Jennifer Delare)
Rosarium Publishing — September 2020
ISBN: 9781732638839
— Paperback — 172 pp.


Last night I started reading a new ~250 page novel. Even with Food Network on in the background, I plowed through and enjoyed half of it with no challenge. It’s conventional literature with a contemporary setting, straight-forward plot, and an unadorned, conversational voice. What a drastic shift from what I just read prior. Creative Surgery by Clelia Farris may be a slim volume, but the collection of seven short stories packs a density and intensity that demands vigilant attention and careful reading. But, that requirement for focus will be greatly rewarded: with profound and provocative insights into her characters, wonderment at the speculatively imaginative worlds she paints, and dazzlement at the literary finesse she employs to accomplish it all.

The title Creative Surgery comes from the final tale printed in this collection (reflected in the cover art), but it can also be taken to apply to what Farris does with genre literature through her writing. She does not settle for one speculative item to focus on, but creates multiple layers of details to combine into one adhesive whole. The opening story of the collection “A Day to Remember” illustrates this in ways better than any generalized attempt could: The story is set in climate change dystopia, where floods have inundated a city and created a patchwork of humanity separated on small makeshift islands of detritus or remnants of buildings still high enough for now to clear the water’s reach. Grafted to this setting is the protagonist Olì, a woman who is an artist with the technology to work on the personal canvas of memory. But she also uses other media for more public display of her art. Already enough in theory to feature in a short story. But not for Farris. Albeit a short story on the longer novelette size, she is able to put a ton more into this one tale: water-bound marauders geared up like sharks, family strifes, class divisions, experimental cooking recipes (cakes with candied clams in the middle – yum!), food-based bartering systems, deadly shifts in temperatures from the climate crisis, orphaned children… Where one might expect these disparate bits to clash like a cat’s head on a tortoise, Farris somehow makes it – the weird absurdities of it all – seem completely natural, surgically placed together into a brief work of literature delving into the theme of human commitments to one another, and the memories we choose to keep or lose of those connections.

Each story within the collection needs to be approached completely anew, readers need to get their bearings on what kind of world they now find themselves thrust into. At times, the answer to this is not fully clear, perhaps, until the end has been reached, meaning that several of the stories benefit from rereading and thought based on the first impressions. There are some small flourishes that Farris returns to within each story to give the reader some soupçon of familiarity, often humorous eccentricities of character’s personalities. One of these is mention of food that the character’s mentioning enjoying (or using as currency), particularly fish and shellfish; not a surprise given Farris’ native Sardinia. Another is misanthropic secondary characters that complain about their no good, bastard, cheat relatives, business partners, or neighbors. The de Sade company shows up mentioned in at least two stories. Though really small details, they nonetheless serve to help anchor the reading experience as something unified between the seven very unique stories.

“Gabola” features a man of that name, who specializes in recreating objects from the ruins of the hills where he lives on the edge of the city. The antiquity thieves that end up unwittingly taking his relatively worthless recreations don’t care for that much. But, what is most concerning for Gabola is that plunder is the only attention that the ruins, and the priceless history contained within them are getting from the community at large. Now, plans to raze the ruins to make room for new buildings are proposed, with only Gabola seeming to care to prevent it. The name Gabola is also a slang term, that from context one gathers means something worthless – junk. Both what Gabola produces, and what he himself represents in the eyes of others that look to progress and not the past. Like the protagonist of the previous story, and many others in this collection, Gabola exists as an outsider, doing his own thing.

Of all the stories, “Gabola”, is perhaps the most difficult to first get one’s bearings. It begins with a third-person passage from the point of view of a thief, and then introduces Gabola in the third person before abruptly switching to first-person. Thereafter first- and third-person portions appear, with occasional second-person declarations from Gabola. It makes for jarring transitions, but I can imagine how this is symbolically consistent with the theme of the story that contrasts Gabola’s point of view of the ruins and history with that of his contemporaries. As much as I found the story interesting, I did feel this one could have been abbreviated while achieving the same impact.

“Secret Enemy” and “Rebecca” both feature characters who are kept prisoner in one way or another. The first of these is the one story I want to go back and read again, as I’m still trying to make sense of it all. In it, a man is kept behind a bathroom mirror (in another room?) to serve as a sort of physician/nutritionist for his captor. Through first person narration he details the interactions with his captor, observations of guests to the house, and the Japanese flower art arrangements he does to pass time. Despite being a prisoner, he comes to realize (and act upon) the power he has over his captor’s health. Whether this man is actually a separate entity or a part of the captor I am still uncertain of, and there are worlds of analysis that still could be done with the brief story.

“Rebecca” is one of my favorite selections from the collection – probably along with the first one “A Day to Remember”. I love the Du Maurier novel, and the Hitchcock adaptation. that form the inspiration for this tale. But I adore Farris’ story not just for drawing from those classics, but making a fabulous story from the characters and themes of Rebecca that works in its own speculative right. This is one where the progression of it – and its ending – really reveal the clever idea behind it all, so I don’t want to spoil that. But it again involves that ‘creative literary’ surgery of Farris’: physics and feminism stitched onto the gothic framework.

Each of the proceeding stories mentioned, along with “Holes” and “The Substance of Ideas”, are translated for this collection from the Italian by Rachel Cordasco. I don’t know Italian to be able to technically comment on the translation details, but the English presented here flows beautifully, even with those jarring moments of shifting voice or perspective in some of Farris’ more complex writing. I should also mention that Rachel is a dear colleague and friend whose Speculative Fiction in Translation site I contribute to. So I probably am biased. Nonetheless, I’ll be honest and say that my one critique with this is that I’d wish for footnotes explaining more about certain passages or translations. “Gabola” is one example that could have benefited. On the other hand, I imagine some readers might find footnotes obtrusively annoying.

I already reviewed both “Holes” and “The Substance of Ideas” on Speculative Fiction in Translation when they were published in short fiction outlets last year. If interested, you could click to read those reviews there and find links to the stories. A new read through them actually led to new insights and appreciations of the stories, again verifying just how well these stories hold up to multiple reads.

Jennifer Delare translated the final story of the collection, the eponymous “Creative Surgery” features a pair of outsider artist-type characters: in this case a creator of animal hybrids or chimeras who can cut, and her assistant, who can join. The story stands apart as going from the speculative edge toward horror, like the Mary Shelley story it uses at least in part as inspiration. It is used though to examine the central themes that pervade several of Farris’ other stories: human interactions and creations of beauty even amid exploitation.

The blurb quote on the cover of Creative Surgery by Cat Rambo is very apt. Firstly in the adjectives she uses to describe the writing. But also apt in that it’s Rambo providing it. The complex, detailed speculative creativity and style of Farris and the voice of her characters actually does remind me of what I’ve read from Rambo. Worlds seeming so bizarre, yet wholly believable. Creative Surgery has already gotten great reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Strange Horizons, and Locus Magazine as well. My voice may not ring as far as those get, but if you happen to hear it, do give this a look. It deserves attention from the SF genre world, as well as any who appreciate literary short fiction in general.


THE ECHO WIFE by Sarah Gailey

The Echo Wife
By Sarah Gailey
Tor Books — February 2021
ISBN: 9781250174666
— Hardcover — 256 pp.


If you haven’t read anything yet about the plot to Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife, you might consider starting it without indulging in any summaries, not even what’s on the cover jacket. And long story short, I strongly recommend The Echo Wife. I received the novel and placed it on the ARC shelf with all the others, entering into my notes for potential review. As time passed I saw more word-of-mouth posts praising the novel; mentions included it being featured on several Best… or Most Anticipated… of 2021 lists, both within the SF genre and pop-culture wide. I still didn’t read what the book was actually about, and as for Sarah Gailey, I couldn’t recall ever reading their work before to know if I would like it. Despite the broad hype (which always makes me leery), I decided to start reading The Echo Wife – probably because specific authors and reviewers I’m fond of also hyped it. I cracked the ARC open and began reading, still without even reading the back cover synopsis, only expecting something SF that somehow involved genetics.

Not until approximately page 50 of the novel does the The Echo Wife fully reveal one of its major themes and plot elements. It takes a few more chapters still for an event to occur that sets the rest of the novel into motion. For certain there are hints to these things earlier in the novel, but Gailey gradually reveals details about their protagonist and the speculative world, details that the synopsis just flat-out states, lessening the reveal.

Now this is understandable, potential readers have to be told something about what this book is about, and even knowing these details, there are still a lot of surprises and discoveries for the rest of the novel until its ending. But, if a reader can be convinced to give this book a try without knowing any details, well, it makes it even all the more a satisfying read. Prior to any plot ‘reveals’, here is what Gailey establishes in the earliest pages of the novel:

The novel begins with genetics researcher Dr. Evelyn Caldwell attending an awards reception/banquet in her honor. Brilliant, but feeling out-of-place in this social setting, Evelyn cooperates in the engagement only because of its necessity for securing continued support for her ground-breaking research in growing human tissues in the lab. While tolerating the spectacle of the present by keeping her eyes on her future plans, Evelyn also reflects upon her past struggles to get here. Throughout professional and personal hurdles, including recent separation from her husband Nathan, Evelyn has persevered, sacrificed, and found success.

Following the reception and rest to recover, Evelyn returns to her life: the laboratory. Fired up to keep things moving forward and squashing all uncertainties or self-doubt that still rear their heads in her psyche, Evelyn gives orders to her lab assistant, the only other person that Evelyn trusts as competent and reliable. About to start on the research, Evelyn’s assistant informs her that she has received a phone message from a woman named Martine. This stops Evelyn with a shock: Martine, the new fiancée of Evelyn’s former husband Nathan, a woman whose existence she has even kept secret from her trusted assistant. Hesitant, Evelyn decides to go meet Martine, where she – and the reader – find their first surprise.

If you happen to still know nothing more of this novel, do consider leaving it at that. The Echo Wife is a speculative fiction thriller that predominantly focuses on themes of women in research and the personal life that a woman is expected to have versus that which they may choose to have. The speculative aspect involves genetics, though do not expect it to be fully fleshed out science. Dr. Caldwell’s award-winning research and techniques are vaguely described in terms of epigenetics and development, but not in believable detail that a biologist could imagine this speculative technology as actually existing. The reader is just asked to accept the science (fiction) as a set up for the social issues and character relationships that lie at the heart of the novel. That seems intentional by Gaiely, and that’s perfectly fine to a reader like me. In fact, a lot of the details in the science are things that Evelyn herself doesn’t at first understand completely, things she’ll have to look into further. The unexpected, seemingly ‘impossible’ aspects of the speculative elements in the novel are thus kind of the point, part of the mystery.

And mystery/crime/thriller is a category that The Echo Wife fits into just as comfortably as science fiction. However, it is not about solving a mystery, nor is it filled with taut action. It’s about how characters deal with secrets, mysteries, and uncertainties; how crimes can be covered up, and with resilience, moved past to still find some sort of success. It’s a psychologically driven thriller around the characters of Evelyn and Martine, women with a shared history, yet very unique. The Echo Wife speaks a lot to the experience of women in science – or professional lives in general. It raises a lot of moral questions, but doesn’t seek to provide trite answers. Again and again Evelyn writes: I am not a monster. The reader is left to conclude the truth to that statement. Gailey writes their characters in ways that blur the lines between hero and victim and villain, and they capture them with prose that never becomes oppressively dark, yet always has a foreboding shadow of secretes and deception lying behind it.

If you have already read other reviews or synopses of The Echo Wife to know more specific details, I’ll go into a few of those things, particularly biology aspects I find interesting as a biologist, here after this Gram negative:

SPOILER OUTER MEMBRANE

SPOILER PEPTIDOGLYCAN (PERIPLASM)

SPOILER CELL MEMBRANE

So, Martine is a clone of Evelyn; after voicing resistance to Nathan’s desires for her, and then being attacked by Nathan, Martine kills Nathan. Evelyn is willing to help, both in physically hiding Nathan’s body in the garden, and supporting Martine, who Nathan has biologically programmed with limitations and kept in ignorance. Bodies in the garden will return in multiple ways before novel’s end.

Gailey handles all of these twists fantastically well, plus others like Evelyn’s betrayal in the lab and Evelyn’s relationship with her parents. All disparate elements filter in for the same theme, the formation of a woman. Who is Evelyn/Martine, and why? How much is her and how much is conditioning and the will of others? Gailey takes this beyond the whole nature/nurture kind of debate when it comes to speculative genetics in a more modern way.

What I mean is: Clones are not a new theme to science fiction. The term ‘clone’ in this context means an organism that is genetically identical. Science fiction has used clones – even furthered to include the copying of memories and experiences. What Gailey does a bit differently here is playing with that term ‘identical’, in ways that more closely match actual biological reality. In that classic SF sense of ‘clone’ Martine isn’t really a clone of Evelyn at all. She is a genetically modified creation built upon an Evelyn template. And really, that is what all human cloning would result in.

After all, all of our cells are clones of each other. They all contain the same DNA (or lose it). Yet one cell can form part of heart tissue, another lung, another a neuron, another a leukocyte, another osteoclast. Very, very different, yet with the same blueprints. And that’s just in one organism through developmental variations in gene expression. Between two that share 100% of the same genetic material there is a complicating factor of epigenetics – changes that occur through DNA modifications, inherited protein structures, inherited microbes, etc.

Somehow, Dr. Evelyn Caldwell has found a way to not just let those processes proceed, that create variability even in a 100% DNA identical genetic clone, but to exert directed changes in them. Moreover, she has somehow found a way to map memories and selectively impart those. Nathan has taken her techniques and purposefully made changes she explicitly set out to not allow in the clones. This creates a lot to ponder regarding bioethics, even if Gailey doesn’t really go that classical direction in their novel.

Instead Gailey takes it to that level of the ethics of Nathan purposefully making an Evelyn replacement adhering to his desires and plans that the actual Evelyn did not make a priority. These physical actions mirror what men (or really spouses or even relationships in general) do to one another in s symbolic sense all the time. Within a relationship, what are the balances between sacrificing versus selfishness? Are professional concerns different from others? And what are the differences between the genders for these decisions/expectations?

With the foundation of speculation around ‘cloning’ Gailey forms all of these questions (and more) through their fascinatingly flawed characters and engaging plot. Whether all, or just some of it, represents a surprise to readers shouldn’t affect one’s overall appreciation of the novel. If you go into this expecting an action-driven SF murder thriller, you might be disappointed, because that’s not what it is. If one lets The Echo Wife speak on its own terms, I believe readers will find it has a lot to say and provide one to consider, and it will entertain. And that is what good speculative fiction and a thriller does.

I’ve now had the chance to also read a short story by Sarah Gailey in the Escape Pod anthology, which I’m reviewing for Skiffy & Fanty. I’ll definitely keep my eyes open for more of their future work, and hopefully have a chance to also read some of that prior.


DEPARTMENT ZERO by Paul Crilley

Department Zero
By Paul Crilley
Pyr Books — January 2017
ISBN: 9781633882010
— Paperback — 320 pp.


For some reason my reading over the last days has featured a good amount of cosmic horror, a sub-genre I don’t dislike, but also don’t gravitate toward. Given this, I thought it might be a good time to feature Paul Crilley’s 2017 novel Department Zero for a review from the backlist. Supernatural horror equal parts cosmic and comic, Department Zero has accurately been compared to the Men in Black series concept, with monsters in place of aliens. But, it also features characterization and motivation in its protagonist that goes beyond what those films attempted, and a multiversed panorama of settings and Lovecraftian creatures.

If you read any of my short fiction reviews, or the one I’ll soon write on Hailey Piper’s The Worm and His Kings, you’ll already know that I haven’t read Lovecraft. And even with the number of cosmic horror stories inspired by his style and creations, I don’t pay attention to, or care, who’s who or what’s what. Department Zero can be enjoyed without knowing anything about Lovecraft’s stories. I imagine it would be even more enriching for fans of the sub-genre who might get references. But, the heart of the story, its humor, and its non-stop moving action persist even if stripped from the cosmic horror particulars.

The protagonist of the novel is Harry Priest, a good-hearted – but generally failing-at-life – guy, whose job is to clean up deaths at crime/accident scenes. Stability at least accompanies this unpleasant occupation, stability that keeps him up with financial responsibilities to his ex-wife and continued visitations with his beloved daughter. No matter what crappy kind of day he has, Harry’s sole priority in life is getting to say goodnight to his daughter with a bedtime story.

On what he expects to be a routine biohazard removal job, Harry discovers something inexplicably bizarre amid the gory scene, and soon finds himself targeted by unfathomable creatures of nightmare. Harry’s actions at the crime scene draw the attention of one Havelock Graves, a self-absorbed agent for the Interstitial Crime Department (ICD), whose team has been demoted to “Department Zero” in punishment for the botched crime scene that Harry has accidentally disturbed. Harry has now been targeted by an evil cult that thinks he is involved in their multidimensional schemes, forcing Harry to join up as part of Graves’ team to reinstate them to ICD’s good gracious, and to thwart a criminal plan that spans the dimensions. The cult seeks the Spear of Destiny, a tool that can be used to free the cosmic entity/god Cthulhu from his dreamlike stasis.

Department Zero thus represents one huge mashup novel: science fiction, fantasy, gory horror, with a bit of mystery/thriller mixed in, all written with a lighthearted tongue-in-cheek humor from Harry’s point of view. No single one of these elements really works to overtake the rest, and Crilley keeps the engaging plot moving swiftly so that on a whole these disparate genre elements just all add up to a simply entertaining read.

The rapid pace of the novel has some downside to it, in that the reader doesn’t get too much of a chance to breathe or appreciate the multiverse as much as might be possible with more extensive scene-setting. On the other hand, like a good action movie, it keeps readers from worrying too much about the sense or silliness of it all, and simply instead just enjoying the ride. The main moments of ‘down-time’ from the novel’s plot propelling forward in action come from the grounded characterization of Harry Priest’s love for his daughter. Amid all the craziness and fantasy, there is something purely human and ‘realistic’ in his motivations and desires.

I suspect that the most prominent factor to Department Zero that will determine whether a reader likes the novel or decides to put it down unfinished will come down to appreciation of the humor. Some may find it too much, but others will find the quirkiness to hit the spot. It’s hard to predict where potential readers may lie, but if this summary and genre mash-up peaks your interest, it’s a wacky entertainment worth trying out. The blog Books, Bones & Buffy: Adventures in Speculative Fiction has an excerpt available for download, which might help potential readers decide if the novel’s tone is the right fit.

While Department Zero was not a book I was particularly looking for, it was one of those random ARC finds that left me pleased and glad that it found me.