Reviews: Planetfall, the Ancillary series, and the Traitor Baru Cormorant

Planetfall, by Emma Newman

I follow the lovely Emma Newman on Twitter and had read with growing interest snippets about her novel Planetfall. I’ll be honest; the publicity for her Split Worlds series hadn’t inspired me to read them (I’m not a fan of romantic urban fantasy), but Planetfall intrigued me.

Written in the first person present tense, it’s an intensely personal book. Ren, the protagonist, has a flawed view of the other characters and events, and especially herself. That leads to the terrifically tense parts of the mystery that runs through the novel. Emma has spoken and written about her own  anxiety, which is not the same illness that Ren suffers from.

It’s beautifully written, thought-provoking, and like all the great SF stories combines the great questions (does God exist, and is belief compatible with science?) with the ordinary everyday questions (how to live with an anxiety disorder?), with a curious mystery and a dash of adventure. I highly recommend it.

I am delighted to learn that Emma has been commissioned to write more of the Split Worlds series, and once I get through the rather large pile of books / collection on my Kindle I shall be adding these to my list to read. (Turns out marketing labels aren’t the best guide…)

For news about Emma Newman, her blog, audio work, and writing, check out Emma Newman.

Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie

I probably don’t need to introduce the first book of the trilogy – it’s the first and to date only book to win the Hugo, Nebula and Clarke awards in the same year. Ancillary Justice is the one with the weird genders, meaning just about everyone is referred to by the narrator as ‘she’. It also starts with chapters alternating between the past and present, and in the past the narrator is fractured. Confusingly so, until you realise what’s going on and it all clicks into place. I really enjoyed it, once I got into the swing of it. The empire building is sublime, as is the science being quite firmly in the science fiction.

The second book, Ancillary Sword, has a straightforward narrative. While the fresh ground was broken in Justice, I found Sword to be a more rewarding read. The third book, and technically the conclusion of the trilogy (other stories, including apparently another novel, are set in the same universe), also follows the straightforward narrative. However, I found it less satisfying than the first two. Almost like the story couldn’t quite live up to expectation. Having said that, and especially given the break I had between reading the first two and the last, I was pleasantly surprised by characters and situations from the first two books having extra depth added in the the third. I also appreciated what Ann was doing by stating that real life is not a story with neat endings, but still felt slightly cheated.

A fascinating universe, and I love Breq (the narrator), and the explorations of power and corruption.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

Nearly all the books I’ve read recently have been either autobiographies or fiction written in the first person. Kameron Hurley’s God’s War trilogy wasn’t, but I often surfaced from reading them feeling as though they were the writing was so intensely caught up in the lives of the protagonists.

The Traitor is written in a distancing style, and while I wanted to get in the head of the protagonist I found I couldn’t. Note I said head and not heart – it’s a fabulously cerebral book, which I adore, but it did mean that the power it should have had was diminished.

I don’t read fantasy because of the odd style its writers tend to use. It’s not the genre – I love the dramatic adaptations of these books that despite their bold and magnificent stories leave me cold – but something about the very writing. It’s a taste thing and nothing about quality.

I have found myself thinking about this book a lot since I finished it. Mostly my thoughts revolve around how I should have felt winded at the end, but I didn’t. Since I’ve stopped myself getting lost in that odd little cul-de-sac I have found myself thinking about the broader themes – about empire, and power, and the meaning of resistance. In so many ways this book and the Ancillary series by Ann Leckie occupy the same space. Both authors are, I believe, American, and I think both are prodding and poking at the ideas inherent in a great power declining slowly and painfully.