Tuesday 27 November 2018

Worldbuilders Annual Fundraiser 2018

If you are a fan of fantasy and science fiction books, chances are that you have come across the novels of Patrick Rothfuss. They're wonderful.

However, this isn't a post about his fiction. This is a post about his other wonderful work: the Worldbuilders charity fundraising efforts. Worldbuilders exists to raise money for charities that make the world a better place - primarily Heifer International, which helps families in poor communities by providing them with training and resources like bee hives, goats, chickens, cows, so that they can build up a regular income and a small business.

But Worldbuilders doesn't just ask for money. Worldbuilders offers fantastic goodies, which you can buy, bid on in auctions, or win through a massive raffle. There are literally thousands of books, games, paraphernalia, services for writers and other geeky bits of joy. So if you want something in return for doing good, you can either enter the lottery to win things, or buy stuff outright.

Have a look at Pat's blog posts about Worldbuilders. He's a nice guy who is running himself ragged trying to bring goodness to the world, and his achievements are phenomenal (even if he is wracked by anxiety about his efforts). Or read the summary on the Worldbuilders blog - it's the tenth anniversary of Worldbuilders this year.

This year, Worldbuilders runs from November 27, 2018 through December 11, 2018, and I decided to promote it here on my blog. 

Monday 26 November 2018

Review: The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

The Bedlam Stacks is a historical fantasy novel set in Victorian Britain and Peru. The narrator, Merrick Tremayne, starts the story as a crippled man, physically and mentally, living in a dilapidated former mansion with his vicious, even more crippled brother Charles.

Charles was crippled by polio: he may be snobbish, bitter and mean, but he rules the home with confidence and an iron hand. Merrick, on the other hand, was badly injured during a skirmish in China. A tall, strong man before the injury, this experience has left him a shadow of his former self, wandering around in a dream-like fugue and letting himself be bullied by Charles.

When Charles tries to ship him off to a parsonage and threatens him with sending him to an asylum, Merrick despairs. Fortunately, an old friend, Clem, pops by to drag Merrick away to go exploring and adventuring. Their mission is to smuggle some cuttings for cinchona trees out of Peru, as those trees are the world's only source of quinine, which is the only medication with any effect on malaria. Merrick's erstwhile bosses at the East India Company (recently nationalised and turned into The India Office) are desperate to break Peru's monopoly so they can get quinine cheaper by growing cinchona trees themselves. For the same reason, Peru is very keen not to let any cinchona trees, seeds or cuttings leave the country: Peru relies on this income. Merrick, it turns out, was a highly accomplished smuggler of plants prior to his injury.

Once Merrick and Clem reach Peru, the expedition soon finds itself in the hands of a native guide, Rafael, who is forced onto them by an overly polite, but unsettling and sinister landowner. The landowner calls everyone 'dear' and 'darling' while ruthlessly bullying Rafael and carefully threatening the others - I felt reminded of Leonardo di Caprio's character in Django Unchained.

As they trek through jungle and mountains, Clem and Rafael don't get along. Merrick, however, is fascinated by their unreadable companion. Then, the landscape starts to get strange...

The Bedlam Stacks does not read like a fantasy novel. It moves at the sedate pace of a historical novel and it is full of historical entities and characters. (Clem is the explorer and anthropologist Sir Clements Markham, one of whose books, a translation of Apu Ollantay, I reviewed a while ago).  Elements of the fantastic are introduced fairly gradually and deadpan, so the reader encounters most of them with the expedition, in a mysterious faraway place (darkest Peru). It might take some readers a while to figure out that they are reading fantasy, not history. Personally, I found it a bit weird and old-fashioned, this gradual revelation of the fantastic in our world. It felt like the author was somewhat interested in the real world and real history, but got bored and had to resort to adding more and more magical elements to create wonder.

Perhaps I would not have spent so much time taken aback by the interweaving of fantastical and historical if I'd liked the characters better. Merrick is not a very nice guy, when he regains his faculties. He's okay on his own, but bizarrely meek around Clem, and his past is hardly that of a decent man. Clem is a toff and a plank and a tosser in this novel. (I wonder if the real Clements Markham was anything like the obnoxious idiot in the book. I hope not.) The most interesting character is Rafael, but he doesn't feel real. He's a Catholic priest, but also somehow connected with native beliefs. At Martel's place, people respond to him as if he's terribly dangerous, but there is no reason why he should be seen that way. He occasionally makes bitter, hate-filled remarks about Indians that, from a white character, would be racist, but he is Indian himself, so it's ok. He's mysterious, unpredictable and interesting and, in the end, unconvincing.

The story progresses at a stop-and-go pace that is quite odd. Long periods of people stuck in one place happen, followed by some chapters where movement and tension occur. Then, as the tension goes up, the novel puts in some very long flashbacks to slow things down again. 

The Bedlam Stacks is an unevenly paced, confused novel, with characters who are intriguing but not quite likeable, and an unreality to the people that is tougher to swallow than the interwoven fantasy elements. It's not a bad novel, but it doesn't live up to the potential of its setting and ideas.

Rating: 3/5

Friday 23 November 2018

10 Brilliant Books You've Never Heard Of: Perfect Gifts For Bookaholics

A couple of years ago, I wrote a list of Brilliant Books You've Never Heard Of. As Christmas is coming up, I thought it's time to update and expand the list!

Below are a few awesome books which even your bibliophile friends probably haven't read yet. These are books which probably never made it to a Waterstones 3 for 2 table, books which don't appear on the Goodreads shelves of avid readers I follow. Some are older books, which were moderately successful in their time, but which are largely unfamiliar to millennials. So, you know, perfect gifts.

Mood: Happy, Adventurous

For those who like fun-filled stories filled with thrills and adventure
The \ Occasional / Diamond Thief is a YA adventure scifi novel.

Kia Ugiagbe, is a 15-year-old girl on a distant planet. On her father's deathbed, he reveals a secret: hidden at the back of a drawer, there is a huge diamond. Her father, she realises, must have stolen it!

Fast paced, fun, and tense, The Occasional Diamond Thief is great fun. Kia is easy to root for: she's hard-working, not brilliant at everything she does, but dedicated. She has a sense of humour and just the right amount of cheek.

There is a sequel, which is just as good. Read my full review, then buy the books as a gift or for yourself!
The Dragons of Heaven is set in a world where superheroes and some kinds of magic are real.

Our hero is Mr Mystic. Able to control shadows and even drift from the 'real' world into a shadow realm, Mr Mystic is a fedora wearing, British-sounding, Chinese-magic-wielding martial arts expert. Oh, and she's also a woman, Missy Masters, who inherited the superpowers from the original Mr Mystic.

If you want a book that is fun, funny, thrilling, a bit romantic and sexy, joyful, whip-smart, and a good romp, this really should be up your street.

Read my full review, then buy the books as a gift or for yourself!

Mood: Literary, coming of age, but exciting

For those who like coming of age novels with complexity, warmth and a plot that moves. 
The Chicken Soup Murder is told from the perspective of Michael, a primary school boy about to move on to "Big School".

However, all is not well in his world. His best friend's father has recently died. His neighbour's dog has died. And now his neighbour Irma is dating a policeman, whose son bullies Michael.

Then, Irma dies, and Michael suspects foul play.

The Chicken Soup Murder is a warm, addictive, gently amusing novel about the everyday tragedy that is death, but also a novel about childhood and growing up.

Read my full review, then buy the books as a gift or for yourself!
Konstantin is a biographical novel about a boy growing up in Russia,and becoming an oddball young man.

Konstantin is a boy with a huge imagination. After losing most of his hearing, he spends the rest of his life a bit removed from his peers. However, this is not at all a misery book. Konstantin is full of infectious enthusiasm, permanently fascinated, and brave, even foolhardy.

Beautiful prose and the energetic protagonist make this a joyful book. Read my full review of Konstantin to find out more.
Jasmine Nights is a coming-of-age novel set in 1963 Thailand. It’s the story of Little Frog / Justin, a 12-year-old boy from a very rich family. Justin is a somewhat eccentric, aloof boy. Then, he is gradually nudged out of his shell by his grandmother, and by the kids who live next door...

Jasmine Nights is a story touching on race and prejudice, finding out about sex, Thailand, the periphery of the Vietnam War, different social classes, but above all else, it is the story of a lonely boy becoming slightly less lonely and growing up a little. Amusing and complex, it reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Read my full review of Jasmine Nights to find out more.

Mood: Literary Science Fiction and Fantasy

For those who like their speculative fiction thoughtful and ambitious.
The Falling Woman is a classic that few millennials will have read. It won a Nebula Award in 1987.

Elizabeth is an divorced archaeologist on a dig in Central America. She can glimpse ghosts of the past, especially at dusk and dawn. One day, one of the spectres looks at her and starts to talk...

Diane is her daughter, joining her on her dig after a bereavement. Diane hasn't seen Elizabeth since childhood, and isn't sure what she has gone out to find.

The story builds up its world and characters one step at a time. Gradually, it gains tension, a sense of the uncanny, a foreboding feel... Read my full review, then buy the books as a gift or for yourself!

Sequela is the debut novel of a Scottish poet. It tells the story of a scientist whose job is to create sexually transmitted viruses (STVs). In this future, STVs have become fashionable: they indicate whom one has slept with. Each symptom pattern is linked to different powerbrokers, and every 'player' is trying to have the most rarefied rash pattern.

It's high concept, but really, this is a character-based thriller. The tension comes from social interactions, from office politics, from personal relationships and how they develop...  It's a unique and frighteningly convincing novel.

Read my full review of Sequela to find out more.
The Beauty starts years after all the women have died. Men and boys have survived, seemingly unaffected by the bizarre fungus plague that wiped out womankind. It's a very short novel. It's postapocalyptic, it's horror, it's science fiction and it's unlike anything I've read: it's full of ideas, atmosphere and the uncanny, and it sticks with you long after you'd finished reading.

Read my full review of The Beauty to find out more.
In Great Waters is set in an alternative history where merpeople are real. They are not like humans: fiercer, more direct, more single-minded. They can interbreed with humans, which results in physical and mental differences. Thus we meet Henry / Whistle, a crossbreed who is born in the sea but grows into adulthood among humans.

In Great Waters is outstanding because of its immersive, gradual worldbuilding. Tension builds up slowly: by the time your fascination is satisfied, the story has sneakily turned into a thriller that can't be put down.

Read my full review of In Great Waters to find out more.

Mood: Childlike awe and terror

For those who remember how big and wonder-filled and scary the world was when we were kids... or for kids.
Oy Yew is a tiny boy who grows up sustaining himself on crumbs and the smells of food. One day, he is forced into servitude, first in a factory, then in a country mansion. His comrades in slavery are other waifs, children who arrived as boat people on tiny rafts.

But things are about to go from bad to worse: How come there have been so many accidents lately? What secrets lurk in the sinister Bone Room? And why is Master Jep suddenly so interested in Oy's thumbs?

This is a fantastically atmospheric novel. It's uncanny and tender and beautiful.  Even as an adult reader, I was on the edge of my seat. Read my full review, then buy the books as a gift or for yourself!

What books would you add to the list?

Have you read any excellent, but underrated / not very widely known books lately? Add a comment, give some recommendations!

Sunday 18 November 2018

Review: Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch

Lies Sleeping is the seventh novel in Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series. Chances are, if you like urban / contemporary fantasy, you will have given this series a try by now. If not: go out and buy Rivers of London right now. It's the first novel, and the beginning of the best urban fantasy series ever written.

Peter Grant is a Detective Inspector by now, having worked his way up from rookie (and apprentice wizard) to trusted professional (and ok wizard, though it seems his magical abilities have plateaued and aren't growing much between volumes). At this point in the series, the support cast includes dozens of people, including lots of policeman officers, extended families of Peter and the Rivers, several scientists / medics, and even a few others who are learning wizarding through officially sanctioned channels. So even though I've read every book, I struggled a bit to keep track of who's who. I may have to re-read the series in one go at some point.

One of the reasons the cast is so enormous is that this is the book of a major police operation, nicknamed "Operation Jennifer", with the aim of sorting out the Faceless Man problem once and for all. Meanwhile, Martin Chorley, the Faceless Man (an evil wizard) is busy, busy, busy, scheming to achieve some big objective that might change the world (or London) forevermore...

So far, the series has largely been alternating between "Faceless Man" novels (the even numbered ones) and "archetypal myth" novels (the odd numbered ones). I have consistently enjoyed the ones featuring some archetypal, atmospheric, folkloric style myths more. The Faceless Man could have been interesting, I guess, but after a big intro, his mystique fizzled out quickly. Now he's just plain Martin Chorley, bereft of charisma or mystique, and not really the creepy supervillain that he started out as. More powerful than Peter, but easily matched by Nightingale. So an odd-numbered novel about him felt a bit like it's cheating me out of one of the good ones. (They're all good, but the ones with little or no Faceless Man are simply better).

So, big police operation, Faceless Man, cast list of dozens... Lies Sleeping is not the most accessible novel. Anyone unfamiliar with the series won't find much to enjoy, and those familiar with it need a really good memory. On the bright side, Lesley is in this a lot, and her former place has been taken by Guleed, so Peter has a kick-ass female sidekick again, this time with a hijab, but otherwise very old-Lesley-like. Even better, we meet someone similar to Molly, and the sub plot around her is the best thing about the book (aside from a cameo by talking foxes). Despite those highlights, the book has the usual faceless-man-novel problem of being complicated, messy, and feeling a bit by-the-numbers, so it's not one of the highlights of the series. But this is the sort of series where even the weak entries are not bad.

Bring on the next one!

Rating: 3.5/5

Monday 12 November 2018

Review: The Singing Mountaineers: Songs and Tales of the Quechua People by José María Arguedas & Ruth Stephan

The Singing Mountaineers is a book about the songs and folk tales told by Quechua speakers in South America. Quechua being the language that the Inca empire required all its subjects to learn, this means people living in the Andean region, from Ecuador to Bolivia, but primarily in Peru.

Published in 1957, the book is sadly of its time. Sentences like "Since the Andean people have always been a singing, a poetically disposed, race, the songs have their own proud past." or "Their race is noted for its ancient skill in catching and taming animals instead of killing them, and birds and animals exist as possible friends, as integral living relations in the Indian world." caused me to cringe. There is useful information in the introduction, in between all the patronising, vaguely racist, noble-savage bullshit, but you may find your teeth grating as you read it: mine certainly did.

Fortunately, once the lengthy introduction is over, the songs and tales themselves are more interesting. Unfortunately, about half the length of the book is the introduction, which is a wasted opportunity. The most interesting thing of all, the folk tales, is frustratingly short. Of the 60 or so tales that had been recorded by the author in Spanish, only 17 (if I remember correctly) were included in the English book, much to my chagrin.

The tales were collected in the 20th century. Therefore, they are heavily influenced by Catholicism and the legacy of the conquistadors. Nonetheless, there are glimpses of a different culture, and a few tales seem like they could have been told, with relatively few changes, back in Inca times...

As a resource, The Singing Mountaineers is useful: English translations of Quechua folk tales and songs are not that easy to find. As a book, it's lopsided, with an overly long introduction that is filled with outdated thinking and attitudes, and not enough collected tales and songs. Nonetheless, it's worth reading, for any glimpse of authentic Quechua culture in English is too rare to ignore.

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday 11 November 2018

Review: America's First Cuisines by Sophie D. Coe

America's First Cuisines is a unique book: it is an accessible account of what the peoples living in the Americas used to eat, before the conquest of the continent by Europeans.

Food history is not a topic I knew much (ahem, anything) about before I read this book. I had started to get an inkling that huge swathes of the foods I'm used to are not actually traditional European fare, after reading books about South American archaeology. Among other things, they mentioned various plants that had been domesticated in the Americas - and which were unknown in Europe and Asia until the 'discovery' of America by Columbus.

Everyone knows about the potato, right? As a German, it's one of those things that surprise you when you are a small child, that this most German of vegetables didn't exist in Germany until comparatively recently. Maybe Portuguese people feel the same way about maize. Maybe Italians feel the same way about tomatoes. Maybe Balkan people feel the same way about aubergines. Maybe Asian people feel the same way about chile peppers. The variety of fruit, vegetable, roots, tubers, and plant-based domesticated crops that were introduced to Eurasia and Africa after the conquest is mindboggling. There may well be no single world cuisine that was not enhanced significantly as a direct result of the conquest. (Of course, some things travelled the other way: bananas, onions, garlic, milk, cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, etc.)

So America's First Cuisines was bound to be interesting. The book lays its ground work by discussing what had been domesticated and where, mentioning almost in passing that there may have been many more domesticated crops that are lost now, after the disasters that followed America's discovery (the waves of disease that killed up to 90% of all the continent's inhabitants), and because the Europeans were primarily interested in crops that they could easily map onto European equivalents. So maize was an instant hit ("the American grain!"), but potatoes took much longer to gain traction in Europe, and quinoa was of little interest until recently, when it became a fad.

Much of the early part of the book deals with basic foodstuffs / ingredients, because that is what archaeological and genetic evidence can prove. Once the basics are established, the book fastforwards to the conquest, because it is then that written records start being generated by conquistadors, describing the meals and dishes they are served by the different cultures. So, first the ingredients, cultivated and made available over millennia, and then the snapshot of the early 1500s, and a glimpse of what was being made out of those ingredients.

It's not just an interesting and educational book. For me, it was also full of surprises. There are one or two instances when America's First Cuisines debunks other theories that are still quoted by historians today - generally theories that were originally based on pure conjecture, but which became entrenched simply because no one bothered to investigate or look for evidence. (Much like the theory that Komodo dragons have such a vile mouth flora that it is the bacteria killing their prey once bitten. This was common knowledge until just a few years ago, when someone checked and found that actually, Komodo dragons are venomous, and inject venom into the prey through their teeth, like snakes. Similarly, many historians quote a "three sisters" theory about crops in Central America, which claims that a convenient combination of three plants growing together in a field would provide all the nourishment a people need, and that the "three sisters" were almost worshipped for it. Turns out they were not worshipped, and while they can grow together neatly, there is little evidence that any people relied on that combination to the extent historians now claim, and in fact, the diet produced by such a reliance would be insufficient in protein for pregnant women and possibly for men). Basically, Sophie D Coe has done her homework properly even when others haven't and her book shows it.

America's First Cuisines is a great book. It illuminates an aspect of history and knowledge that most people are probably quite ignorant of. It does so accessibly and reliably. The one thing I would have liked to see included is some recipes, but I understand why there are none: it would have been conjecture, and the book is strictly factual. Still, even without any recipes, this is a book worth reading.

Rating: 4.5/5

Review: The Elephant and Macaw Banner by Christopher Kastensmidt

The Elephant and Macaw Banner is a historical fantasy adventure novel, set in 16th century Brasil. There, Dutch adventurer Gerard van Oost and Oludara, a former Yoruban warrior and former slave, have a series of adventures fighting monsters and entangling with local folkloric characters and gods. They join a native tribe of cannibals, they work for colonial governments, and take part in the odd skirmish or two.

It's fairly obvious that the book did not start out as one novel, but is a collection of a series of novelettes and novellas (with, apparently, some additional material). Each chapter is a self-contained adventure / quest, usually bookended by vignettes featuring a wild animal that encounters the heroes of the story. There is some development over time, but very little in terms of overarching plotlines. Perhaps Gerard's problems with his nemesis Antonio (a competing bannerman) or Oludara's desire to return to Africa to continue his family line offer some through-lines, but they're very secondary to whichever quest the adventurers are currently caught up in. The final chapter ties up the narrative, but is also the least enjoyable part of the book. There are other chapters of dubious enjoyment (I got quite cross at one which was rich in prophecy and "Gerard is chosen" to be the chosen one who must choose who shall rule the future empire of Brasil, yada yada yada), but for the most part, the adventures are entertaining, swashbuckling romps.

The novel is quite similar in tone and structure to Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar, which is also a book about two heroes adventuring together. What sets this novel apart is the setting (colonial era Brasil) and the atmosphere (jungles, monsters, cannibals, sorcerers, and forest spirits), which are a refreshing change from vaguely-Nordic & pseudo-European settings. The book doesn't take itself too seriously, so I was never sure whether any particular creature / element was based on actual mythology and history, or made up by the author.

Our heroes are pleasant enough, if not quite as iconic or charismatic as Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Oludara is clearly the brains and the muscles of this outfit, while Gerard is a slightly pompous ass a lot of the time, constantly harping on about his Protestantism and Christianity. In fact, Gerard's main contribution is to free Oludara at the start and make him an equal partner: Gerard supplies their company's autonomy, ability to have agency, and respect in a colonial and racist era, while Oludara supplies everything else. Alas, this is never milked for humorous purposes: the setup might slightly resemble Jeeves and Wooster, but the tone does not. The narration really believes the two are equal partners.

The Elephant and Macaw Banner is a pleasant adventure romp. Not too taxing, with an intriguingly different setting. The episodes are somewhat too self-contained, but they're engaging enough that I was never too tempted to give up on the book entirely. There are a few sequences that let down the book, but on the whole, it's worth a read.

Rating: 3.5/5

Friday 9 November 2018

Review: The Dreaming Stars by Tim Pratt

The Dreaming Stars is the sequel to The Wrong Stars, picking up more or less where the previous novel finished. The crew of the White Raven, along with the people they have rescued from the machines left behind by evil alien gods, are loitering around inside an old mining asteroid they've taken from space pirates by ruthlessly murdering the lot. Everyone's feeling a bit bored, but snarky and bantering away and being cute at each other. They're waiting to find out whether they can resume adventuring as themselves, or whether they have to make up new identities and start new lives somewhere.

For a long time, very little happens but people talking with each other about their relationships, and flirting, and bantering and then talking about their relationships some more.

Eventually, they go out to find the captain's ex, and to get a job, so they can then talk about their relationships en route, followed by some more talks about relationships. (Not that there is anything particularly interesting going on in the relationships. It's just people flailing "I <3 U! Let's have sex! We had sex! I <3 U!  U R HOT! I AM CUTE!" at each other ad infinitum.)

As you might guess from the plot summary so far, The Dreaming Stars is very different from its predecessor. Sure, everyone is still chattering away like a somewhat more murdery Joss Whedon ensemble cast, but there is very little plot movement in the first half of the book. And in the second half? The plot gets very very silly, in an unintentional and unfunny sort of way.

As hammy as the first novel was, it kept moving. This one is hammy, clunky and filled with mindbogglingly annoying rehashes of the first book. Exposition done poorly is one thing, but when the book starts to rehash "remember how we once had a metaphor-rich conversation about ants?", it's not just important plot points that are being given the clunky exposition treatment, it's half the previous novel.

It's still readable because it's very simple, much like Twilight or the newspaper The Sun, but The Dreaming Stars has run out of steam before it began. With a plot that barely moves and, once kicked into gear, turns daft, the poor writing becomes the coup de grace that sinks the ship. The first book might have been fun, but it seems the series is not worth persevering with.

Rating: 2.5/5

Wednesday 7 November 2018

Review: The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt

The Wrong Stars is a lightweight, fun space opera novel in the tradition of Firefly and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Our heroes this time around are freelance security operatives / salvagers operating a small ship around Neptune. They stumble upon an ancient "Goldilocks ship" - a ship sent out with a frozen crew five hundred years ago during mankind's desparate attempts to find a future on planets other than the one they'd mismanaged into ruin. One crew member is still inside, and, waking up, yells a warning about aliens and first contact, before fainting again. As mankind has been in contact with aliens for about 300 years by that point, the crew are not unduly alarmed - until they notice strange data in the ship's computer, and a history that cannot be true... or can it?

The Wrong Stars starts out briskly and keeps up a good pace. Unlike Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, there is actually a plot moving the story forward, and not just a sightseeing expedition around the galaxy by a bunch of cheerful space truckers. This makes it a more brisk read. However, just like Long Way, the novel is seemingly written with a wish list of 'representation' topics in mind. So we get gay characters, bi characters, trans characters, asexual characters, people who have pronoun preferences, people into drug filled religious sex orgies, people into casual sex... the only thing that does not exist in the novel is heterosexual characters or people in a monogamous relationship. Amusingly, the novel goes so far out of its way trying to be non-traditional that it tries to define people who are sexually attracted to those they fall in love with as "demisexual". The key idea appears to be that there is no "normal" when it comes to sex and gender, and that there is a spectrum and infinite variety, and that therefore there should be an infinite variety of labels none of which can be allowed to imply that they are just "normal", etc. etc. etc.

The Wrong Stars is not the work of a subtle writer. It wears its thematic heart on its sleeve, as you might guess from the last paragraph. The text also handles romance with all the subtlety of E.L. James or Stephanie Meyer.

As for the cast, the characters are wisecracking smartasses who have some external differences, but are all more or less the same underneath: slightly witty, friendly smartasses. In fact, the group dynamic is so consistent that on one or two occasions, other characters who are met for the first time instantly join in the bantering, with zero transition period or getting-to-know-each-other. However, it's a bit baffling that a novel so fluffy in those matters is also quite happy to treat deadly force and violence as something that has no real consequences. At times, there are deadly conflicts that had all the depth of kids yelling "pow pow" at each other while playing cowboys & injuns.

But a novel needn't be all subtle, abstract, character-analytical, philosophical book-club-discussion-material to be fun. It's shallow, but The Wrong Stars succeeds at being fun. Hammy romance, identikit character and uber-keen representation messaging aside, it's a story of grand space adventures, filled with mystery, evil aliens, likeable aliens, dangerous missions, world-saving drama, and a complete and total lack of boredom. The Stainless Steel Rat for 21st century readers. Worth a look if you like that sort of thing.

Rating: 3.5/5