Category Archives: Recommendation

Book Recommendation: Too Like The Lightning, by Ada Palmer

LighteningTor Books is proud to launch the first novel in a new political science fiction series, Too Like The Lightning by debut novelist Ada Palmer. Palmer’s unique vision mixes Enlightenment-era philosophy with traditional science fiction speculation to bring to life the year 2454, not a perfect future, but a utopian one, described by a narrator writing in an antiquated form to catalog the birth of a revolution. The result is The Iliad meets I, Claudius mixed with the enthusiasm of The Stars My Destination and Gene Wolfe style world building.

Mycroft Canner is a convict. For his crimes he is required, as is the custom of the 25th century, to wander the world being as useful as he can to all he meets. Carlyle Foster is a sensayer–a spiritual counselor in a world that has outlawed the public practice of religion, but which also knows that the inner lives of humans cannot be wished away.

The world into which Mycroft and Carlyle have been born is as strange to our 21st-century eyes as ours would be to a native of the 1500s. It is a hard-won utopia built on technologically-generated abundance, and also on complex and mandatory systems of labeling all public writing and speech. What seem to us normal gender distinctions are now distinctly taboo in most social situations. And most of the world’s population is affiliated with globe-girdling clans of the like-minded, whose endless economic and cultural competition is carefully managed by central planners of inestimable subtlety. To us it seems like a mad combination of heaven and hell. To them, it seems like normal life.

And in this world, Mycroft and Carlyle have stumbled on the wild card that may destabilize the system: the boy Bridger, who can effortlessly make his wishes come true. Who can, it would seem, bring inanimate objects to life…

Perfect for fans of Jo Walton, Robert Charles Wilson and Kim Stanley Robinson, Too Like The Lightning is a refreshing change of pace from the current trend of gritty, dystopian novels. Much like Homer telling of heroic deeds and wine dark seas, Mycroft Canner’s narration will draw you into the world of Terra Ignota—a world simmering with gender politics and religious fervor just beneath the surface, on the brink of revolutionary change.

This is unequivocally one of the most audacious and skillful books I have ever read. Enlightenment-era philosophy taken to its Utopia ideals in a future five centuries from now, with the Nation-state being a thing of the past and the entire world in commuting distance. A sprawling cast of people at the highest and lowest reaches of power, dark secrets, miracles, adultery, technological marvels, the sins of the fathers carried by their children, honour, torture. This book has everything.

There are a lot of bad things contained within “everything”.

I was agog with delight while reading the first half of this book. I was enjoying it so much that there was no urgency to finish. It would be there waiting, and I could savour it a chapter or two at a time. Because I was reading an e-arc (thank you, Tor books!) I know exactly when that delight faltered. That was at the 56% percent mark, when I found out who our narrator was. I had known he was a convict, but due to some discussion around the Canner Device, I thought his crime had been privacy related. It was not privacy related.

Spoiler! Highlight to read. Our narrator is a rapist, torturer and mass murderer. He killed 17 people. He “made a list of the worst ways for a human to die and went through it systematically”. /spoiler. So that put a dent in my leisurely perusal. I read straight to the end once that bombshell hit, and from then on it was just one dark reveal after another. The utopian system is on the brink of war, there are no happy marriages, eccentric brothers are trying to commit suicide several times a year, sexual assault is a regular factor of life for the powerless, a priest gives advice on torture, and everyone is a murderer. Basically, when the cover copy said “inspired by enlightenment-era philosophy,” I should have thought harder about actual enlightenment-era philosophy.

The whole thing is masterfully done. A significant part of the joy I took in the first half of the book was how it uses a phrase I thought I understood (European, Humanist, Cousin) and then explains it a chapter later in such a way that makes me re-evaluate everything. Phrases, plots, and characters were introduced in one way and then BOMBSHELL everything you assumed is wrong. The technique continued (oh my word did it continue) in the later part of the book, I just didn’t like the bombs any more. The whole thing is plotted like a chain mail vest.

So yes. I can’t give this less than five stars, because it’s audacious and actually pulls it off. I want to throw it at all my philosopher friends. I just don’t know if I like it.

P.S. As I look at the cover copy again, I make a note to never read anything Tor describes as “dark and gritty”.

Book Recommendation: Julia Vanishes, by Catherine Egan

JuliaJulia has the unusual ability to be…unseen. Not invisible, exactly. Just beyond most people’s senses.

It’s a dangerous trait in a city that has banned all forms of magic and drowns witches in public Cleansings. But it’s a useful trait for a thief and a spy. And Julia has learned—crime pays.

Her latest job is paying very well indeed. Julia is posing as a housemaid in the grand house of Mrs. Och, where an odd assortment of characters live and work: A disgraced professor who keeps forbidden books and sends her to fetch parcels containing bullets, spiders, and poison. An aristocratic houseguest who is locked in the basement each night. And a mysterious young woman with an infant son who is clearly hiding—though from what or whom?

Worse, Julia has a creeping suspicion that there’s a connection between these people and the killer leaving a trail of bodies across the frozen city.

The more she learns, the more she wants to be done with this unnatural job. To go back to the safety of her friends and fellow thieves. But Julia is entangled in a struggle between forces more powerful than she’d ever imagined. Escape will come at a terrible price.

And even a girl who can vanish can’t walk away from her own worst deeds.

I picked this one up cause I got to read a first two chapter sampler. It sounded fun! And it was fun. It was also really, REALLY good. It’s good enough that even though I’m having a really hard time making words happen this month, I had to tell you to read it.

It’s the book about what happens after the revolution, after you do what you need to survive, after you get caught in a no-win situation, and it delves way deeper than I expected into a lot of issues. I kept seeing tropes start to happen, and think “oh I know how this goes down” and then it actually ENGAGED with the issues it brought up.

Everything from romance to religion, from what it means to be a good person to unpretty trauma coping methods, they’re all bashing right through the tropes.

The main character opens the book in a relationship with a dude who she loves absolutely, but then breaks up with him when he cheats on her. But then he’s not allowed to be totally horrible. He still loves her, and he gets injured trying to help her, and she still loves him; the situation is just complex. When the book starts, there’s a passing mention of superstition being stamped out, and I went “oh, this is a book with a background radiation about how religion is a crock of lies. Okay, I know how this goes down.” But then a few chapters further through the book, I realized that the superstion is being stamped out by an autocratic government, and characters are advocating for freedom of religion. But it isn’t a book about how faith and magic are good, either, because we see people do appalling and terrifying things with magic, both on our side and the enemy (of the moment). The situation is just complex. The main character has seen her

More than anything else, I think this is a book about how things are complicated. Everyone in the book is unpleasant, and also likeable. We left a murderer at the bottom of a pit and I felt sorry for her. The main character is a sneak thief and a kidnapper, and while the book is about her drawing the line in the sand and saying “okay I won’t do ANYTHING for money”, that line is still drawn a bit further out than I’m comfortable with. But I also like her and I see where she’s coming from. It’s REALLY good.

(Read it!)

Book Recommendation: Scorpion Rules, by Erin Bow

Scorpion Rules

“The world is at peace,” said the Utterances. “And really, if the odd princess has a hard day, is that too much to ask?”

Greta is a duchess and crown princess—and a hostage to peace. This is how the game is played: if you want to rule, you must give one of your children as a hostage. Go to war and your hostage dies.

Greta will be free if she can survive until her eighteenth birthday. Until then she lives in the Precepture school with the daughters and sons of the world’s leaders. Like them, she is taught to obey the machines that control their lives. Like them, she is prepared to die with dignity, if she must. But everything changes when a new hostage arrives. Elián is a boy who refuses to play by the rules, a boy who defies everything Greta has ever been taught. And he opens Greta’s eyes to the brutality of the system they live under—and to her own power.

As Greta and Elián watch their nations tip closer to war, Greta becomes a target in a new kind of game. A game that will end up killing them both—unless she can find a way to break all the rules.

WHOOOOOOO GOOD GRIEF THIS BOOK. THIS BOOK IS A FREIGHT TRAIN AND YOU ARE SO UNPREPARED. AHHHHHHHHHHH.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way.

*takes a moment to breathe into a paper bag*

Okay. Right. Make the review make sense. I can do that. I can take a stab at that.

*deep breath*

This is a book about a lot of things. It’s about mutually assured destruction, and about no-win situations, and about friendship, and about the things we do to survive, and the things that we do so that other people can survive. It’s about how love will not save you, and about how in the end love will be the only things that saves you. But for me, the thing that stands out the most is just how strongly, how vividly this book serves as an argument against suicide.

Cause everyone within this book is trapped, you see. Everyone is trapped between scarce resources and orbital weapons; between warring states; between their vows and their morals; between the need to keep control and the need to be kind; between scarce resources and growing population; and in some places very literally trapped between a rock and a hard place. There is only one person in this entire book who is not trapped in some way, and they are utterly reprehensible.

One of the things that is hard to express about living with a mental illness is how much it traps you. Your mind presents you a series of terrible options, and this continues on and on, and you end up feeling more and more powerless. You are caught in a vice.

So you have these characters, trapped. Trapped to the point of death, many of them. And then the book explores what that does to you. How you come through it, or don’t. It doesn’t shame its subjects for what they do to survive, but it shows their survival mechanisms for what they are— survival, not living. And it looks steadily at death, and then it embraces life.

This is not an easy book. It took a good five days after reading it before I could think of it without a physical stress response. But oh my word it is a really good book.

Book Recommendation: Vault of Dreamers, by Caragh M. O’Brien

Vault of Dreamers

The Forge School is the most prestigious arts school in the country. The secret to its success: every moment of the students’ lives is televised as part of the insanely popular Forge Show, and the students’ schedule includes twelve hours of induced sleep meant to enhance creativity. But when first year student Rosie Sinclair skips her sleeping pill, she discovers there is something off about Forge. In fact, she suspects that there are sinister things going on deep below the reaches of the cameras in the school. What’s worse is, she starts to notice that the edges of her consciousness do not feel quite right. And soon, she unearths the ghastly secret that the Forge School is hiding—and what it truly means to dream there.

Okay, first off, this book has some crimes to answer for. I missed my bus stop because of it, and then I read the rest of it standing on the side of a rural highway waiting the next bus. In the snow. By the time the bus arrived, my toes and my heels had gone numb. I fell up the bus stairs and accidentally threw my phone at the driver. And I didn’t even take any time to pore over my shame, because I was busy poring over my ANGST AT THAT CLIFFHANGER ENDING.

Ahem.

This book has excellent, complex characters and an engaging plot, and you should read it, but I want to talk about two very interesting things it does. The first of these is the consciousness/mental health aspect. As it says in the book description, it doesn’t take long before Rosie begins to suspect that the school is messing with its students’ minds. She sees evidence of this with strange things happening to the sleeping students, and she also starts to see things. Hear things. She beings to suspect that her mind is not her own. Not entirely in her conscious control.

If is fairly common for books to bring up the spectre of mental illness and then do one of two things (and sometimes both at once). They either say that the character is not REALLY losing their mind, there is something paranormal going on and they’re perfectly sane, or madness is presented as this completely devastating worse-than-death thing. This book does neither of these things. While it pretty accurately shows the terror of not being in control of your mind, it doesn’t hold it up as The Worst Thing. Rosie doubts herself and her actions, but she doesn’t decide immediately that she is completely helpless or that she would rather die. As I have to spend a lot of my days sorting my reactions and perceptions of the world (“this is accurate, that’s the depression talking, dial it back jasmine”) I really appreciated that. I really appreciate my fun books not telling me that my life is a horror movie. And as to the paranormal, this is SF, not fantasy. That is made very clear.

The other thing this book does is spend the first half setting up the most plausible dystopia I have ever read. It’s very low-key, we don’t see a lot of the changes that have happened in this future, but those we do read like a current economic plan bureaucrats and businessmen are acting on as we speak. So when we get to the 60% mark, when the big conceit of the book is revealed, and it’s a bit far fetched, I believe it absolutely. I am afraid to google it because I’ll find out it’s real and then be terrified forever.

Book Recommendation: An Inheritance Of Ashes

AshesSix months ago, the men of the lakelands marched south to fight a dark god.

Weeks after the final battle was won, sixteen-year-old Hallie and her sister, Marthe, are still struggling to maintain their family farm—and are waiting for Marthe’s missing husband to return. After a summer of bitter arguments, Hallie is determined to get Roadstead Farm through the winter—and keep what’s left of her family together, despite an inheritance destined to drive them apart.

But when Hallie hires a wandering veteran in a bid to save the farm, every phantom the men marched south to fight arrives at her front gate. Spider-eyed birds circle the fields, ghostly messages writes themselves on the riverbank, and soon Hallie finds herself keeping her new hired hand’s despite desperate secrets—and taking dangerous risks. But as she fights to keep both the farm and her new friend safe, ugly truths about her own family are emerging—truths that, amid gods, monsters, and armies, might tear Roadstead Farm apart.

Leah Bobet’s stark, beautiful fantasy explores the aftermath of the battles we fight and the slow, careful ways love can mend broken hearts—and a broken world.

I have always been an angry girl. I’ve had to work on controlling my temper since the age of eight, and I’ve worked to not to let it drive me since, oh, age twenty. Nineteen years of control, eight years of never acting on my first impulse. And I’ve had a fair bit of shame about that. I’ve heard from guys with a fast temper that they’ve also had their emotions demonized, but being a girl, I had the double whammy of “that’s not appropriate” and “that’s not for you”. Anger is seen as an inherently masculine thing. Not a good thing for men, but absolutely not the territory of women. When men get mad, it’s either terrifying or a righteous fury. When women get mad, it’s either “catty” or a “temper tantrum” or just cute. That’s the message I’d internalized about my own temper.

So when I realized how angry the main character was in this, it was with a shock of relief. It can be astounding to see your self reflected in fiction, even if it’s your bad habits. And Hallie’s anger wasn’t cute (because it never feels cute, from the inside), it was burning her up. Hallie is a very angry girl, and this is causing issues. The book doesn’t gloss over the negative effects of anger, which are tearing her family apart. But it doesn’t patronize her emotions either.

I really enjoyed the “this fantasy or wait no we’re in post apocalyptic WAIT MAD SCIENCE WHAT GENRE IS THIS” setting. I really appreciated the diversity of the character (background, secondary and main) which felt like the kind of setting I live in. I was delighted by the stark canadian-ness of the ethos, which included such evenhanded gems as “I hate my neighbours but a storm’s coming so I’ll go help you,” “Don’t ask personal questions” and “It’s Tuesday and the end of the world, better get the goats in”. I really liked how the main characters were not all of one gender! (Guys AND girls help save the world TOGETHER, imagine that.)

But it was Hallie’s fury that made me go Oh. Oh I need a copy of this book. This one hits close to home. 

(Also, there is a spider-bird.)

Book Recommendation: The Palace Job, by Patrick Weekes

PalaceThe most powerful man in the republic framed her, threw her in prison, and stole a priceless elven manuscript from her family.

With the help of a crack team that includes an illusionist, a unicorn, a death priestess, a talking warhammer, and a lad with a prophetic birthmark, Loch must find a way into the floating fortress of Heaven’s Spire–and get past the magic-hunting golems and infernal sorcerers standing between her and the vault that holds her family’s treasure.

It’d be tricky enough without the military coup and unfolding of an ancient evil prophecy–but now the determined and honourable Justicar Pyvic has been assigned to take her in.

But hey, every plan has a few hitches.

I really enjoy heist stories, but I’ve read enough bad ones to know that they are very tricky to get right. There are a lot of moving parts.

I’ve got to believe that this team is gifted enough to pull off something impossible without it resorting to deus ex machina. I’ve got to believe that the challenge would be impossible for anyone else without it being boring and info dumpy. Enough things have to go wrong that it remains interesting, but I’ve got to remain sure that they’ll make it through somehow. You’ve got to balance everything while ratcheting the plot tighter with each scene.

Plus I’ve got the moral qualms of wanting to believe this fantastic heist is being pulled off for a justifiable reason. (Sticky business there, sometimes.)

And the more people you add to the team, the more complex it becomes, as you’ve got to balance all of this for each subplot. AND THEN to make it a genre heist, you’ve got to add believable fantastic elements WHILE staying away from info dumps, deus ex machinas or being a barely disguised version of computers/the internet.

The Palace Job pulls all of it off, in a fantasy setting, with nine main characters.

If you like Leverage, I feel pretty confident that you’ll like this one. It takes a little while to get rolling but once it does, it’s a thrill ride. A very solid thrill ride you have faith will get you to the exit in one piece, but good grief your throat is gonna be sore throat from screaming.