Books in the Park

suggestions from the Barbara S. Ponce Public Library at Pinellas Park


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Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

Every so often a science fiction author will have such an interesting, refreshing take on world-building that it makes you look at reality in a different way. The Hexarchate of Yoon Ha Lee’s Machinery of Empire series (of which Ninefox Gambit is the first) is such a universe. Organizing an entire space-faring culture around the effects of the calendar on genetics to enhance battle prowess is a unique and fascinating way to world-build a universe.

The book opens with Captain Kel Cheris winning a battle using unorthodox methods which put her at risk of being declared a heretic, a dangerous place for a young officer. She is allowed to redeem herself by the Hexarchate with a near-suicidal task of retaking a fallen space fortress. When asked what weapon systems she wants, she chooses an unusual way to win – she selects the mind of a brilliant, but dead general as her weapon. The one hitch – the general went insane after his last battle.

By adding this second mind to hers (in short, the process results in a constant conversation in her head between the general and herself), Cheris has the difficult task of taking advantage of the general’s prowess in battle without becoming too sympathetic to the general. It proves difficult because the general is, of all things, kind to her and helpful, belying the historical record of the mad general.

Filled with space battles and high stakes mathematical “calendar” calculations, the story unfolds as the general teases out Cheris’ feelings about the Hexarchate and the state of the world since he died. Lee is brilliant at explaining his universe without getting in the way of the story.  Through action, conversations and flashbacks, you find out details of calendrical warfare, the different races of the Hexarchate, as well as historical details about the general’s past and the events leading up to his last battle. The characters are sympathetic and have clear, if conflicting desires. The story of the Hexarchate continues in the next book, the Raven Stratagem.


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Assassin’s Creed (2016)

Assassin’s Creed, for those unfamiliar, takes the player into the past to relive the memories locked within their DNA and passed down from their ancestors. For the first several games you travel into this world with the help of Desmond Miles, a modern day assassin with genetic ties to many important figures within the history of the Assassin’s Brotherhood. He is being forced to relive these memories by Abstergo, a mega conglomerate that is a front for the Knights Templar.

You don’t need to know that to watch Assassin’s Creed. We pick up with a brand new protagonist: Calum “Cal” Lynch, played by Michael Fassbender. Little is shared about Cal’s backstory outside of the events that start off the film. He’s not necessarily a likable character, being on death row when we first meet him, but you quickly begin to wonder about his past and be a bit concerned for him as he is brought in by Abstergo to help them test their Animus project and delve into the history of his own ancestor, Aguilar de Nerha.

It’s at this point that the story really picks up the pace. Cal is placed into the Animus and his ancestor’s memories play before him. He must keep up with Aguilar and not stray from the path that he took. Doing so would risk desynchronization, which could lead to ejection from the Animus, insanity, or even death.

Aguilar lived in 15th Century Spain, during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. We see him and the other members of the Assassin’s Brotherhood fighting against troops led by Torquemada – a member of the Templar Order, of course – to keep an item of great power out of their hands.

While the present day story line is interesting, the historical aspect is what screams Assassin’s Creed about this film. Watching Fassbender (who also plays Aguilar) running through the streets of Seville in 1491 to escape Torquemada’s men is fast paced, heart pounding action that could keep nearly anyone entertained. The series has always been known for their use of Parkour or Free running, which is predominantly displayed through the ancient city.

Overall, as an Assassin’s Creed mega fan with high expectations, I was entertained and enjoyed the film. There were enough differences from the games that it felt like something that was new and it’s own instead of a game sequel. Was it the best movie of 2016? No. Will I re-watch it anyway? Absolutely, and for that reason I will gladly recommend it to anyone looking for a fun movie.


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The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi

The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi

When I think of authors who have a “voice” that I always enjoy, I turn to John Scalzi. I’ve read everything he’s written, and even reviewed a few already on this blog.  His writing is conversational, clever, and snarky. He writes stories that move along at a quick pace, and he excels at writing the “thought experiment” novel.  “Lock In” is a perfect example, positing a disease that “locks in” sufferers to their bodies while their mind is active. He is brilliant at building the world around his experiment – what would society be like if this was true? How would governments, medicine, and daily life change if this happened? His exploration of that new world builds with the story and characters of his novel, and often uncovers unusual twists that surprise at the end.  The Collapsing Empire is like this – a giant What If? space travel depended on a “Flow” between worlds that allows interstellar travel. How would planets be colonized? What would government be like? What would happen if the Flow wasn’t stable?

The book opens with Cardenia, whose father’s death was unfortunately preceded by the deaths of his heirs – except for Cardenia. She inherits the title of Emprox of the Interdependency and a problem unknown to the rest of her empire. Her unexpected rise to power also proves a challenge, as she is now marriage material for the most powerful families in the empire. She navigates this as best she can while trying to uncover the plots and schemes around her.

Meanwhile, on the farthest possible planet from Cardenia’s, events are unfolding in a backwater world that suddenly has immense significance. A fitful civil war escalates into a conflict involving all the players in the center of the Interdependency. We meet all the characters that we know will play large roles in the future of the empire.

Scalzi’s pacing is fluid and the action moves along swiftly. His characters are interesting, funny and sometimes a little bit scary. We know this title is the first in a series, and there is a little bit of framing for the story to follow, but the read is so entertaining that the framing fades into the background. A nice read to start off the series.

Check the PPLC Catalog for The Collapsing Empire.

 


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Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

binti-okoraforWe here at the Barbara S. Ponce Library are big fans of the works of Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor, especially her novel Who Fears Death, which, in 2011, made her the first black person to win the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. Okorafor has proved herself to be a major player in the science fiction world, and no self-respecting scifi fan should miss the chance to pick up her work.

Binti is a novella set in a universe where starships are living technology and multiple races interact on a galactic scale. When the titular Himba woman is offered a scholarship at the most prestigious intergalactic university, family strife about her selection and her decision to accept it cause her to abandon her family without warning. She finds herself on a living starship with many people from many cultures, and is intimidated by their strangeness until she finds commonality with fellow students in her field.

She has barely started feeling at home when a terrifying event changes the course of her life, and she is thrust into a war of intolerance and revenge. Her academic gifts and understanding of the experience of strangeness, linked with her compassion, make her a key player in creating a new future.

Okorafor uses her deep knowledge of African culture and religion to flesh out the interactions between individuals. Her descriptions of the Himba people and their practices reflected through her protagonist are used to show the many differences, and eventually, the many commonalities all peoples share. Binti’s thoughts are laid bare for the reader, and we struggle as she struggles, and fear when she fears. Her talent is a key part of the story, and she steps into her new life while respecting her past.

Binti has won both the Hugo and the Nebula Award for short fiction. While Binti is a short novella, there are two more to be published in the series.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Binti.


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Library Playlist: The Expanse (2015 – )

expanse-season-oneI adore science fiction television, but lately it doesn’t seem as if it loves me back. Far too much of what’s appearing on TV right now is either dreadfully boring or so cheap and unconvincing that it looks like a craft project rather than a major television series. I get that this stuff is tricky, but aren’t we past the era when set design consisted of papier-mâché and Christmas lights? Yeah, there are a bounty of decent superhero shows right now, but fans of hard sci-fi like myself know that they don’t really count. Mix all that mediocrity with a new Star Trek series whose release date is about as fixed as a mirage and it’s easy to become discouraged. Imagine my surprise then that the SyFy Channel had paused from making Sharknado sequels to give us something pretty good. It’s time to rejoice: The Expanse is the space drama that we’ve been owed for some time now.

It’s two hundred years in the future, and humanity has spread throughout the Solar System. Detective Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane) has taken on the task of locating the now missing Julie Mao (Florence Faivre). Meanwhile, the destruction of the ice hauler Canterbury forces Executive Officer James Holden (Steven Strait) to make decisions that will embroil him and his crew in the midst of a potential interplanetary conflict. Back on Earth, the United Nations executive Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) hopes to stop a war before it begins. Soon, all three will discover that their paths converge upon a massive conspiracy, one that could have dire consequences for humanity.

Like complex political intrigue set against the backdrop of space? The Expanse might just be for you, with beautiful ships, celestial bodies, and space vistas augmenting a clever story of interplanetary intrigue. Still not convinced? How about rousing performances from a talented cast? Thomas Jane is awesome fun to watch as the cocky, hard-luck Miller, and Shohreh Aghdashloo is delightfully cunning as U.N. high official Avasarala. No doubt, The Expanse is a quality series, but it’s also an effort that is long overdue for the SyFy channel. In this golden era of TV, SyFy and its frequently lackluster attempts at dramatic television were always a disappointing oddity. Hopefully, The Expanse is not a fluke and we can expect more like it. Highly Recommended.

Check the PPLC Catalog for The Expanse.


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The Girl With All the Gifts, by M. R. Carey

girl-with-all-the-gifts-careyThere’s a small problem with zombie novels: besides the zombies, you just have people with problems. That can get stale quickly, especially when graphic novels like The Walking Dead and books like The Passage have covered just about every problem that people in a zombie-infested world can have. The zombies themselves, as metaphors for our inevitable deaths and barely repressed predatory natures, make great extras in horror stories, but don’t necessarily make a great plot—unless a good writer can breathe some life into them. As paradoxical as it sounds, zombies with life in them is what makes The Girl With All the Gifts worth a read.

Melanie is 10 years old and lives in a prison cell. Every day wary armed guards strap her down a wheelchair and then wheel her into a classroom for lessons with the other students. There they learn geography, history, literature, advanced math, and all about the holdout of Beacon, where the last of humanity lives walled away from the “hungries” that prey on them. School is the one bright spot in Melanie’s bleak existence, especially when Miss Justineau teaches. But now Melanie’s classmates are disappearing one by one, taken away by the guards at the command of callous Dr. Caldwell. As Melanie wonders how long it will be before she’s taken, the guards talk in hushed voices about a perimeter breach.

Zombie fans will find a lot to like here, but so will anyone who wants a more nuanced science fiction story about the nature of humanity and the folly of thinking we’re the pinnacle of evolutionary perfection. Plus, the original, imaginative details concerning the zombie infection were fully absorbing.

There is a movie based on the book starring Glenn Close as Dr. Caldwell. The screenplay was written by the author. Have you seen the movie? What did you think?

Check the PPLC Catalog for The Girl With All the Gifts.


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The Wild Robot, by Peter Brown

wild-robot-brownWhen Roz the robot is shipwrecked on a tiny island, she has only her basic programming to guide her. Roz is not built for the outdoors, but she is designed to be adaptable, thoughtful, and intelligent, and she soon realizes that her best hope for survival is to learn and gain support from the island’s hostile animal inhabitants. Gaining the animal’s trust takes time and it’s only when she tries to care for an orphaned gosling that the other animals finally decide to help her. The island starts to feel like home to Roz until one day, the robot’s mysterious past comes back to haunt her.

The Wild Robot is author and illustrator Peter Brown’s first novel. Brown, known for his children’s picture books, such as Children Make Terrible Pets, has totally succeeded in producing an utterly charming first novel. Though The Wild Robot starts off slow, once Roz learns the language of the animals, the story flourishes. The animals of the island all have big personalities and Roz begins to form friendships with them, like with Chitchat the squirrel and Loudwing the goose. Roz solicits their help to care for the gosling Brightbill who she becomes a mother to. Roz and Brightbill eventually become invaluable members of the island community. Roz even helps the animals survive through a grueling winter by teaching them to make fire.

This book has been compared to Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain. Readers who enjoy these types of survivalist stories will definitely be drawn into Roz’s tale. It could also be compared to Stuart Little. Both are stories about extraordinary protagonists who don’t quite belong and through adventure and perseverance make a life for themselves. Lovers of these types of stories as well as both robot and animal lovers will find something to delight in here. For adult readers, The Wild Robot makes a great parenting story and the philosophical questions that naturally arise between robot Roz and living animal Brightbill can be in turns both fun and thoughtful. With such a wide appeal, Brown’s book can also be enjoyed together as a read aloud for younger children. No one should miss out on this sparkling book!

Check the PPLC Catalog for The Wild Robot.