Tag: Space Opera

Starfire: A Red Peace – Spencer Ellsworth

A confession, reader, before starting this book review: when browsing Audible’s list of books for review, I saw a familiar name in the Narrator column, and chose this book before looking at the title or genre. Starfire: A Red Peace is jointly narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal and John Keating; long-time readers of this blog will recognize Mary as an author whose work I admire and someone who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and learning from, on that cruise as well as subsequent online classes. I knew that she was an audiobook narrator, but hadn’t heard her work, so I jumped at the opportunity to listen to the first novel in Spencer Ellworth’s Starfire trilogy. Before I dig into the book and narration, I want to thank Audible for providing this book for review, and flag for you, listener, that they’re running a promotion until May 4th, 2018 that gets you a free kindle when you sign up for a one-year membership—12 audiobooks and a kindle for around $130 is a pretty good deal, especially if you consider how they discount audiobooks if you already own the kindle version. I’ll stop that spiel now, lest my words meander into the realm of sponsored content.

Kowal and Keating’s performances for Starfire: A Red Peace are excellent, their choices of accents lending color to a space opera that could otherwise have seemed like yet-another-brits-in-space affair which, continuing my confession, I had been expecting. Instead, there was twang and grit, a bit of a different soul inside the characters. I found it particularly interesting that a change in accent could do so much for certain aspects of characterization—which, on reflection, could have been a result of my own ingrained biases. Something to ponder later, for sure.

What I found in A Red Peace surprised me. It has the pieces of a great space opera—a military populated with genetically engineered soldiers, aliens of various sizes and degrees of ferocity, a plucky young heroine with a knack for getting herself into trouble, and writing that echoes its forbears.

But Spencer Ellsworth’s novel took me by surprise, too. I half-expected to be nonplussed by A Red Peace; not enthralled but not bored. Instead, I found myself fascinated with the ways Ellsworth infused his take on space opera with a breath of fresh air, from the arthropodal spacecraft to the exquisite sequences of intoxication that painted the universe in haunting melodies and strange colors, scenes that lingered on my ears and tongue long after I’d finished listening to the book.

Because I’ve been somewhat derelict in my duties as a reviewer, the space between my having finished A Red Peace and publishing this review is, regrettably, nearly half a year. Many of the details of the story are hazy now, but there are things that do stand out: the excellent performances of the narrators, the spectacular execution of an addiction cycle powered by PTSD…these things stuck with me.

There’s a silver lining, however. Taking so long to publish this review leaves me with the opportunity to pick up the next two books in the series: Shadow Sun Seven and Memory’s Blade, which I intend to add to my to-read list forthwith.

Starfire: A Red Peace is a quick read that will sate your hunger for classic space opera while giving a taste of something new. You can support The Warbler by using these links to pick up the book on Amazon, or to find some of Spencer Ellworth’s short fiction in various magazines at Weightless Books.

Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie

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There are occasions when a book grips you by the skull and demands that you ingest it whole, unhinging your mind’s jaw, if need be, and shoving the whole thing in there without pausing for breath.

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is kind of like that.

Let’s go over its reception. It won the Hugo and Nebula for best novel, the Arthur C. Clarke award, the BSFA Award for Best Novel, the Locus Award for Best First Novel, and the Kitschies Golden Tentacle for Best Debut Novel. The more I heard about it, the more intriguing I found it, but never got around to reading it, even when a friend came over and left it on my dinner table about eight months ago.

I finally picked it up for my e-reader in July, long after giving the paper copy back and relocating to California, and that’s when it sank its hooks in me and demanded my full attention.

It is spectacularly well written, and Leckie manages to insert the reader behind the eyes of a being utterly foreign to human experience, while managing to express a sympathetic, relatable, and complex character. The universe of the Radch is one of tremendous depth, sometimes reminiscent of other space operas (in terms of Colonial Space Empire Colonizing Tropes, Space Empires Viewing Themselves as Civilized While Other Planets Are Savage Tropes, and certain Space Military Tropes. Truth be told, I think they’re tropes because, left to our own devices, it’s pretty much how we’d act in a far-future spacefaring situation), but we are never walked down the pages of an encyclopedia as the characters have to acclimatize the reader to the universe. We’re simply thrust into the middle of multiple timelines with disparate circumstances for our protagonist, and we thirstily wonder how one situation became the other, and how the character finds itself in dire straits.

You’ve noticed that I am not using gender pronouns to describe the protagonist. There are two reasons for this. The first is because they (and no, that’s not improper grammar) are a sentient spaceship, named The Justice of Toren, who is simultaneously a spaceship and the many thousand Ancillary soldiers that it can control simultaneously. This leads to some great passages that jump location and perspective sentence-to-sentence, which were initially jarring, but eventually felt completely natural. The Ancillaries are human bodies (read: corpses) linked to the consciousness of Toren, and the way they’re viewed by the rest of society leads to some interesting conundrums, both for Toren and the people who interact with them/it.

The second reason is that the language of the Radchaai empire does not use gender-specific pronouns, and defaults to the female. Everyone is described as “she” and “her” until the reader can infer gender by context. It made for a unique reading experience, and I realized that it’s very easy to slip into heteronormative expectations for characters, even in fantastical settings. This book brought a refreshing perspective to the fore, and while I may not employ similar methods in my own writing, I think there’s much that can be learned from Leckie’s approach.

The mystery of the event gap between timelines sustains the novel for about two-thirds of its length, and once the answer is provided, the present timeline continues and the action and pacing pick up, leading to a spectacular and explosive ending. Some of the twists and turns were expected and satisfying, and some came out of left field and had me grinning when they were revealed.

Ancillary Justice was a fantastic read. I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Ancillary Sword, as soon as I can.