Arbitrium by Anjali Sachdeva


Arbitrium by Anjali Sachdeva
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Vashti is a pathogenic diplomat—an ambassador to the world of viruses, whom she communicates with through a machine that can translate their chemical signals into images, tastes, smells, sounds, and memories. She begins a negotiation between the US Government and a diplomatic contingent from Arenavirus, a virus which has just begun spreading a deadly mutation in Florida. If Vashti is successful, she and Arena will reach a diplomatic agreement; if not, the Arenavirus infection will continue to spread, and humans will have to race to try to find a vaccine or treatment. As she navigates the diplomatic discussions, Vashti is also trying to connect with her daughter Alma, who lives on the other side of the country in a technology-averse commune. By the time the negotiation ends, Vashti discovers that Arenavirus have learned some impressive and deadly tricks from their interactions with humans.

This tale takes the idea of having a bad day at work to an entirely new level. Humanity may go extinct if Vashti fails.

It’s rare for me to find science fiction about viruses that can communicate with humans, so I was thrilled when I discovered this short story. Intelligence in other species doesn’t have to look anything like human intelligence in order to be valid or, in some cases, dangerous. I was intrigued by the thought of how the world would look through the eyes of a creature so different from us, and Ms. Sachdeva certainly gave me a lot to think about there. Her decision to frame everything through the perspective of a person trying to communicate with the enemy was a smart one, too. There was plenty of room for character and plot development in the interactions between two such wildly different species alone, much less everything else that was happening in the storyline simultaneously.

I found myself wishing the ending had been given as much time to develop as the beginning and middle had to work with. The plot twist near the last scene was such a game changer that I was surprised to see how quickly the ending appeared from there. I’m not the sort of reader who expects everything to be wrapped up neatly, especially in a genre like science fiction that often thrives on unanswered questions, but I did find myself wondering if I’d missed something after I finished this piece. It would have been truly helpful to have a bit more information about what was happening there.

Vashti was a well-developed protagonist who had a sympathetic backstory and a likeable personality. Of course, it’s not strictly necessary for me to like a character in order to empathize with them or to be curious about what will happen to them next by any means, but it’s always delightful to get to know someone in fiction who I think I’d get along with quite well if she were a real person. She was a logical, calm individual who thought through everything carefully and had a contingency plan for all sorts of possible outcomes. I wanted to sit down with her and ask her at least a dozen questions about her work. That is a sign of memorable writing in my opinion.

Arbitrium was full of surprises.

The Chronologist by Ian R. MacLeod


The Chronologist by Ian R. MacLeod
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

A boy, desperate to escape the drudgery of life in his small town, gets caught up in the machinations of a traveling time keeper, and slowly watches his town and his life unravel by the seams.

When time is slippery, every moment counts.

It was fascinating to imagine a world where time itself is unreliable. Imagine opening a soft-boiled egg to find a living chick inside or seeing a wheel of cheese turn back into milk because of fluctuations in how time flows in your community! These were just two of the unusual side effects the characters experienced, and they filled my mind with theories about how people learned to survive in such an unstable environment.

I would have liked to see more time spent on world building, especially when it was related to exactly what magical powers a chronologist does and doesn’t have. There were moments in this tale when I was confused by how the townspeople reacted to the arrival of a chronologist and why they seemed to be able to do things in certain towns that didn’t happen in other ones. Having clarity on these issues would have encouraged me to go for a much higher rating.

As soon as I met the unnamed main character, I liked him. He was a curious, mischievous, and intelligent boy who was determined to solve the mystery of where the chronologist went when he left town and what it would be like to visit other communities like the one he was growing up in. There were so many practical and magical obstacles in his path that I couldn’t imagine how he’d reach his goal, but I sure wanted to see him succeed!

The Chronologist was a wild ride.

Fruiting Bodies by Kemi Ashing-Giwa


Fruiting Bodies by Kemi Ashing-Giwa
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

An alien fungal infection has ravaged a faraway planet, turning all but six of the colonists into ravenous alarinkiri. Inyama, a mycologist, is her species’ last hope. But it’s not expertise her fellow survivors want from her.

It takes courage to keep going when all hope might be lost.
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I was pleasantly surprised by how late in the outbreak I first met these characters. Everyone already had basic knowledge on how the fungus was spread and what they could do to reduce their chances of catching it. This meant that Inyama’s quest had become more important than ever as the time was quickly approaching when everyone might be infected with it. Most science fiction about this topic begins with the first case or two, so it was refreshing to read something that bent those rules for the sake of increasing the stakes and keeping the reader guessing about whether this colony of humans would survive on the planet they had so recently settled.

It would have been helpful to have more descriptions of how Inyama knew the other characters, especially when it came to her connection with Morayo. Figuring this out was important to understanding certain plot developments later on, so I spent most of the storyline trying to puzzle these things out. This dampened my enthusiasm for a tale that was otherwise tightly written and enjoyable.

The horror elements were well written and fit into the science fiction themes nicely. What surprised me the most about them was how the author managed to sneak a little hope into a world that really shouldn’t have had any of it left at all. I can’t say much more about this without sharing spoilers, but I did like the unconventional approach to what a happy ending should look like that the main character presented to the audience. It fit her personality and the dreadful seriousness of the fungal plague beautifully.

Fruiting Bodies was a delicious piece of science fiction horror that I’d happily recommend to anyone who enjoys one or both of those genres.

Masquerade Season by ‘Pemi Aguda


Masquerade Season by ‘Pemi Aguda
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

From Nigerian author Pemi Aguda comes “Masquerade Season,” a Tor.com Original short story

Pauly is a good son. When he brings home three beautiful Masquerades, he’s expecting that his mother will be proud of him. But when his mother begins asking favors of his Masquerades, he realizes that being a good son sometimes means disobeying.
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Pauly was such a compassionate and kind kid. These qualities of his even extended to people in his life who didn’t always have the best intentions. Seeing his consistency not only showed off his strong moral code, it made me like him even more. He was the sort of person anyone who needed help could rely on. What made him even more remarkable was that he’d developed these traits at such a young age!

It would have been helpful to have a deeper understanding of what a Masquerade was. I was thrown off by the early and often vague descriptions of it. While they did eventually become clearer, it sure would have been nice to have someone in this storyline explain what exactly they were and why they chose Pauly as their companion. Was it related to what a good person he was or was it a random choice on their part? I certainly don’t mind some unanswered questions in the speculative fiction I read, but I would have given this a perfect rating if it had been a little more forthcoming with its answers about the most important aspects of this creature.

The ending was well-written and suited the tone of this short story perfectly. It left me yearning for more in a good way. I was pretty satisfied with what I’d learned about Pauly and this magical version of Nigeria, but I also wished for a sequel about him and his Masquerades when he was older and perhaps lived on his own. He struck me as the sort of character who would only grow more fascinating over time.

I’d recommend Masquerade Season to anyone who enjoys modern-day fairy tales.

The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal


The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal
A Lady Astronaut Novel, Book 3
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and sabotage plague the space program. The IAC’s goal of getting as many people as possible off Earth before it becomes uninhabitable is being threatened.

Elma York is on her way to Mars, but the Moon colony is still being established. Her friend and fellow Lady Astronaut Nicole Wargin is thrilled to be one of those pioneer settlers, using her considerable flight and political skills to keep the program on track. But she is less happy that her husband, the Governor of Kansas, is considering a run for President.

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I’ve not read a lot of sci-fi/fantasy books, but I do love a good story about space. When I saw this version of the space race where everyone worked together and women were at the head of the program, I had to know more. This is book three in a series and it probably would’ve helped to get the first two read before reading this one. The format is still readable, but it would’ve made more sense to know what was going on. Still, I had to read it.

I have to say I wasn’t a fan of the heroine, Nicole. She’s a hard nut to crack. First, she’s extremely smart, which is good for a heroine. I liked that she could hold her own with her male counterparts. She’s tough and forthright, which was refreshing. But…she’s neurotic. I mean, she’s got anorexia, which is relatable, but it also made me wonder about her in space. If she’s not wanting to eat because of the disorder while she’s on Earth, wouldn’t it be dangerous for her to not eat while in space? Wouldn’t it make doing her job harder? Seemed like it might. And she’s convinced everyone is out to get her. Maybe they are, but maybe they aren’t.

There is also a nasty habit of using a lot of anachronisms for things and getting into heavy technical descriptions in this book. If I were reading a non-fiction book, then this wouldn’t have been as much of a problem. But being it’s a piece of fiction, it took away from my enjoyment of the story. I got bogged down trying to remember what each set of letters stood for and sometimes got lost in the descriptions. I want a book to pull me into their world. Sometimes, this didn’t feel like the case.

This is also a long book. It’s over five hundred pages. There is a bit of slogging to get through it. Now, to be fair, if I’d read the other books in the series, this might have made this book a bit less cumbersome. I might have known the characters better and felt more like they were people. So I suggest reading the first two first.

Still, this is an interesting telling of the space race with women in charge. The Earth is losing it’s battle, the USA is losing pieces and the human race needs to find somewhere else to live. It’s quite fascinating. If you’re looking for a book that’s going to take a while to read, but will be worth it, especially if you’re a space fan, then this might be the book for you.

Everything’s Fine by Matthew Pridham


Everything’s Fine by Matthew Pridham
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Eric’s day is off to a rough start: his regional managers are in town, he’s running late to work, the moon seems to be falling apart, and he just can’t seem to get his tie right. At least he has his priorities straight: it’s the little things that matter. The world may be plunging into chaos, the neighborhood children might be mutating into abominations, but that doesn’t mean he can let his standards slip. If he and his co-workers can survive their nightmare walk to the office, then Eric has a plan for success…

Bizarre doesn’t even begin to describe what’s happening here, but that’s a good thing!
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Eric didn’t react like most characters do in horror stories. While he acknowledged that there were some very bizarre and terrifying things happening in this neighborhood, he was so concerned about getting a promotion that he consciously chose to ignore them. I was so hung up on his weird reaction that I couldn’t wait to find out why even the sight of children mutating into things that never should have existed wasn’t enough to shake him out of the stupor he seemed to be in from the very first sentence. This is the sort of mind-boggling twist to normal human behavior that makes me yearn to learn more.

I would have liked to see some time spent explaining exactly what was going on with the moon and how it was affecting all of the scary things happening on Earth. As much as I enjoy coming up with my own theories about the science in science fiction, it sure would have been nice to have a little direction from the narrator about how all of these events were connected.

The gore fit the tone of the tale nicely, especially later on as the world continued to disintegrate and Eric realized that his block wasn’t the only place that had erupted into chaos by far. I do tend to be a little squeamish about that corner of this genre, but I thought the gory sections were written well and were completely appropriate for the subject matter.

Anyone who loves horror and dark science fiction should give Everything’s Fine a try.

Benjamin 2073 by Rjurik Davidson


Benjamin 2073 by Rjurik Davidson
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Length: Short Story (27 pages)
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

In the year 2073, humanity is making progress toward restoring the environment and fixing the mistakes of the past.

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When at first you don’t succeed, clone, clone again.

The character development for both of the main characters was handled nicely. My first impression of Ellie was of someone who was intelligent but at times also too stubborn for her own good. Finding out the reasons why she behaved this way only made me like her even more than I already did. She felt like a real person to me. This pattern was repeated with Thien, the other researcher at her lab. He had a well-developed sense of empathy and could be pedantic about the way things were done, but once again his biggest flaw was something that made perfect sense once I got to know him better.

I would have liked to see more foreshadowing included for the twist ending. It seemed to spring up out of nowhere, and that felt out of place when compared to all of the foreshadowing that was included for the other elements of the plot. I would have gone up another full star in my rating if this has happened as the last scene was satisfactory once I adjusted to the fact that there were virtually no hints about what was to come there.

By far my favorite scenes were the ones that talked about how Ellie and Thien were creating new thylacines. The science behind it was fascinating, especially given how many times they’d already tried to bring this species back from extinction without success. They were in danger of having their whole project shut down for good due to a lack of funding when this tale began, so there was a real sense of urgency with every new method they tried. I was mesmerized by their race against time and couldn’t wait to find out if they’d be successful.

Anyone who loves reading about cloning or hopeful visions of what humanity’s future might be like should give Benjamin 2073 a try.

Little Free Library by Naomi Kritzer


Little Free Library by Naomi Kritzer
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (9 pages)
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Upon setting up her Little Free Library, Meigan develops an unexpected friendship with a mysterious book borrower.

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I adored Meigan from the second I met her. She had such a compassionate, sensitive, and kind personality. Even her biggest flaw endeared me to her because of how well it was written and how three-dimensional it made her feel. She was the sort of person who expected everyone to follow the rules, but she also knew how to be graceful when she realized her first impression of those who stepped out of line might not be the most accurate one.

The mysterious book borrower made me smile. At first, Meigan assumed that it was one of her neighbors who was using her Little Free Library so freely, and honestly so did I. Without wandering into spoiler territory, figuring out their true identity was one of the many joys of reading this tale. The little tidbits of information she and the audience uncovered about this character were exciting and made me eager to press forward and keep reading.

Yes, there was a strong resolution in the final scene that wrapped up the most important conflicts. It is also true that after I read it I furiously searched the Internet to see if a sequel was in the works. This is the sort of tale that I’m going to be thinking about for a long time as I wait to see if the author decides to expand this universe. There is certainly plenty of room to for Meigan’s further adventures!

Little Free Library was a brilliant short story that made me yearn for more. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Dislocation Space by Garth Nix


Dislocation Space by Garth Nix
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical
Length: Short Story (43 pages)
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

A Soviet political prisoner is ordered to use her unique talents to explore a strange scientific phenomenon. It could be a trap…or a way out.

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The Soviet political prisoner who was the protagonist of this story was a fascinating person. She was only ever known as KH-112 in the prison camp, and that is how I will refer to her in my review. KH-112 had quietly suffered for years by the time the audience met her, so it came as a surprise to see how she responded to the hard labor, freezing climate, and chronic lack of food that had already killed so many before her. While she’d certainly been harmed by these experiences, I loved seeing the glimmers of resiliency in her beginning with the opening scene. They were beautiful harbingers of what was to come and made me determined to get to know this character better.

There was a plot hole involving how KH-112 was treated by her captors. In the opening scene, the narrator took great care to show all of the precautions that had been taken to keep her from killing any more of the soldiers who were running the prison camp. She was such an intelligent and resourceful person that the smallest slip-up by her enemies could give her the opportunity to fight back against them. It came as a surprise for me, then, to see how she was treated after the Soviet Union found another use for her. Her talents were obviously quite valuable to her captors, but that didn’t quite explain the shift in how they treated her given what they knew about her past.

The ending couldn’t have been written better. I’d grown attached to KH-112 and was incredibly curious to see what her government expected her to do and if her abilities would actually be of use to them. My questions were not only answered in full, they also sparked many more questions about what happened to her after the final scene. I loved finding out what her fate was and thought the author did a wonderful job of tying everything together neatly while still leaving room for the audience to imagine certain things for ourselves.

Dislocation Space was a thrilling tale that should be read by anyone who has ever felt trapped by their current circumstances.

The Time Invariance of Snow by E. Lily Yu


The Time Invariance of Snow by E. Lily Yu
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (25 pages)
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

The Devil made a mirror. A physicist broke and shards fall through reality and changed everything forever.

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This tale did a wonderful job of using metaphors to explain how and why the world had become such a terrible place after the devil’s mirror was accidentally broken. There were footnotes after the final paragraph to explain some of them. I was glad I paused to read each one as it popped up in the text and would suggest that other readers do the same thing. Those footnotes were beautifully written and really helped me to understand some of the more complex metaphors.

Most of the characters revealed their proper names during the course of the plot. Some were identified by the first letter of their name, and others were described by their occupation or some other label. It was amazing to see how well I got to know them regardless of how they were addressed. The author did a wonderful job of showing who they were as individuals, from their interests to their personality traits.

One of the things I enjoyed the most about this story was the ending. The beginning and middle were filled with scenes that didn’t always seem to be related to each other. There were times when I wondered where the author was going and if my theories about it were correct, so it was a joy to see everything coalesce in the end in about the way I hoped it would.

The Time Invariance of Snow was the best piece of hard science fiction I’ve read this year. I can’t recommend it highly enough.