I feel like 2017 is going to be the year that international politics depresses me into a small, muddy pit in the ground, in which the mud is occasionally dried-out by the failure of domestic politics to screw things up as badly as they could have done. (Are we ever going to take our Paris Accord obligations seriously, Ireland? No? No? Please?)
This is making the presence of really good books in my life all the more important to the preservation of my mental health. And also the presence of not-so-really-good-but-lots-of-fun books. I want to share a few of them with you today.
There are a couple of books in my lots of fun but maybe not so good pile. Jean Johnson’s First Salik War: The Terrans is the opening novel in a trilogy about first contact—although in this case, it’s really two first contacts, the contact between Earth humans and their hitherto-unknown interstellar cousins, the V’Dan, and the contact between humans and the Salik, who like to eat sentient beings alive. First Salik War: The Terrans is a messy book, and one that makes great use of the grandfather rule—psionic powers are still science fiction as long as they take place in spaceships because we say so — but it is essentially a fish-out-of-water novel of intercultural diplomacy, and I have a serious weakness for that sort of thing. The characters are entertaining, and the circumstances in which they find themselves are occasionally hilarious.
LJ Cohen’s Derelict is another first novel in a series. And another space opera, although in this case, there’s no telepathy. An engineer-in-training wants to get away from her abusive father, and sees an opportunity to prove herself by rebuilding the AI in a derelict spaceship. Unfortunately, politics, gunrunning, and malfunctioning AIs intervene to put Ro and a small collection of other misfit young adults in the midst of peril. Adrift in space, with criminals coming for the derelict ship’s cargo, they have to work harder and smarter than they ever have before in order to survive.
Ro’s an interesting character, and I’m not just saying that because she ends up in a queer relationship. She has a certain self-sufficient arrogance, and lack of willingness to believe in other people’s competence—she has serious trust issues, and that makes her rather compelling. I want to see how she works through them.
Derelict has a Young Adult feel. It’s also a bit messy—a little scattered, in terms of how it ties everything together—and somewhat slow to start. But once it gets going, it’s a lot of fun.
I first heard of Judith Tarr’s Forgotten Suns via Renay, of the excellent Lady Business group blog. Space archaeology! she said. Then another friend on Twitter said lesbians who don’t die! and someone else said Bronze Age type warlord with telepathy in SPAAAAAACE.
Reader, I was sold.
Those three things are a pretty comprehensive summary of the novel’s highlights. Tarr is perhaps best known for her sweeping historical epics with an intensely intimate character focus, like Lord of the Two Lands, which centres on people around Alexander the Great. In Forgotten Suns, that intense character focus meets spaceships and space archaeology. I confess my affection for Forgotten Suns is rooted in its two principle viewpoint characters: Aisha, a precocious young teenager raised mostly on an archaeological dig on a planet that’s otherwise inhabited by indigenous peoples with a relatively low level of technology; and her aunt, Khalida, a Military Intelligence officer whose last mission left her with serious PTSD. When Aisha accidentally blows the top off a sealed chamber on her parents’ archaeological digsite, the results make Aisha and Khalida’s lives infinitely more complicated. Because that chamber contained an incredibly powerful man, held in stasis for several thousand years, whose psionic powers (yes, this is another mind-magic SF novel!) dwarf anything the modern universe has seen.
Forgotten Suns is, like all the books I’m talking about today, a bit messy: the middle section is on the sprawling and confused side. (Possibly I don’t care enough about psychic plots, either.) But the beginning and the end are so good that it mostly makes up for it. It’s incredibly fun.
Also, I really like that Khalida is (a) queer and (b) a non-practicing, alcohol-drinking Muslim, who is also (c) an overprotective aunt who is (d) pretty bad at being protective. Aisha, meanwhile, is a little too convinced of her own intelligence and righteousness, and it gets her into so much trouble.
What fun books are you guys reading right now?
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.