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Hugh Likes Fiction: The Calculating Stars

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The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel
Written by Mary Robinette Kowal
Audiobook read by the author
Audiobook published by Audible, Inc.

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The Skinny: A calculator fights to become an astronaut in an alternate 1950’s where a meteor has hit Earth.

The Calculating Stars is a rare and remarkable apocalyptic novel that focuses more on solutions than on breakdown. In an alternate 1952, Calculator Elma York and her husband (and lead engineer of the nascent space program) barely escape the devastation when a meteor strike wipes out the east coast of the United States. While she and her husband get back on their feet thanks to the kindness of strangers, she quickly begins to believe there is a bigger problem: The earth will soon be uninhabitable for humans. They get to work ramping up a space program to get humanity into space before it’s too late, but Elma soon reaches a problem: How can all of humanity go into space if only men are allowed to be astronauts?
An incisive, extremely hard SF novel, Kowal does a lot of neat tricks with this novel, a prequel to her award-winning novelette, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars.” The author does an outstanding job of balancing the technical and social aspects of a novel. Dr. York can do orbital mechanics in her head and is a steady hand on a flight stick, but speaking in public terrifies her.
Kowal masterfully echoes the historical space race and civil rights movements as she lays out her story of Elma’s realizations of humanity’s fate, as well as what she comes to realize about herself and her society, and does what she can to change them. The story is essentially hopeful, but it never overlooks the inequality of American society.
The Calculating Stars is a brilliant Science Fiction novel about an alternate space program filled with unforgettable characters. I listened to the audiobook, read by Mary Robinette Kowal, and she brings her equal talent as a narrator to the text. You can find it in print, ebook and audiobook at Your Local Bookshop, Audible, and The Usual Suspects.

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Hugh Likes Fiction: Witchmark

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Witchmark
Written by C. L. Polk
Published by Tor

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The Skinny: Polk’s debut novel is a perfectly crafted queer fantasy masterpiece.

Witchmark is a remarkable queer fantasy novel that I picked up almost on accident. It follows the story of Dr. Miles Singer, a psychiatrist (and secretly, a magician) in the country of Aeland. Aeland recently won a war with neighboring Laneer, but thousands of veterans are returning with unusual psycological trauma. When a dying man is brought in to the hospital by handsome stranger Tristan Hunter, Miles will join him to unravel these mysteries. But finding the truth will mean returning to his past, and risking a fate worse than death.
Polk’s story is an excellent puzzle box of a story, with an incredible Edwardian-inspired setting that is richly conceived but also elegantly told. There is a lot of world-building that is vitally important to the story, and Polk is deft at delivering it without bogging down the reader in fictional history. Her other really great triumph is the way she depicts the motivations of her characters. As a gay man myself, I can strongly relate to Miles and his sister Grace’s situation, and being at odds with your family but still loving them. This dynamic is really well represented, and it isn’t one I often see in queer fiction.
And yes, this book is very queer. It’s so queer that the magic system has top and bottom roles. But it is also very sweet. I loved Mile’s and Tristan’s relationship and the way it unfolded. The romantic elements are definitely safe for work, in my view. All of the naughty bits occur off of the page.
Witchmark is a stunning debut novel from C. L. Polk and I can’t wait to read the follow up due out in February. You can find it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your local independent bookshop.

Hugh Likes Fiction: Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

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Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach
Written by Kelly Robson
Published by Tor

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The Skinny: Post-apochalyptic time travelers go back to Bablylon to take notes on ecology.

In Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, Kelly Robson adds a lot of new twists to a formula that goes back to H. G. Wells. Her time travelers are scientists from a post-collapse future, but they don’t go back to change history, they’re ecologists taking notes and samples to save the future. And that is just the start of her resurrection of a sometimes tired genre.
The main story follows Minh, an aging scientist who restores lost habitats on the surface of a decimated Earth 200 years in the future. Minh seeks control over her work, her life, even her own biological processes, which she tweaks for maximum efficiency. But when she travels back in time with a small team to gather data and samples a Tigris and Euphrates, she’ll have to learn to manage with the help of others. Her story is contrasted with short, myth-like passages from the story of the king of Ur, and the reader quickly discovers that this is one story from two points of view. It’s something difficult to pull off, that Robson handles with style.
The characters are well-developed for a novel of this length, and I especially liked Minh’s micromanagement of her biological processes as a way for her to cope with the huge problems in her environment that she can’t. There is a lot of far future science, with little explanation, that might feel like technobable to a lay person, but if you’re looking for a short novel overflowing with cool science and unexpected perspective, this one’s for you.

Hugh Likes Fiction: A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe

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A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe
Written by Alex White
Published by Orbit

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The Skinny: Spaceship is Magic

Alex White’s new novel, A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe is a seamless Sci-Fi/Fantasy adventure about the misfit crew of a smuggler ship caught in a galactic conspiracy. White is a remarkable stylistic juggler, matching magic and high-tech space opera in a believable, lived in universe filled with despicable anti-heroes you can’t help rooting for.
When well-to-do racing star Nilah Brio witnesses a bizarre murder on the track, her only hope may rest on the dubious shoulders of fighter pilot turned con-artist Elizabeth “Boots” Ellsworth. But after selling fraudulent treasure maps for years, have they stumbled on the real thing? And more importantly, can they avoid the powerful forces on their trail long enough to get it?
White’s novel is an action-packed thrill ride of an adventure novel. But what really impressed me is the well thought out universe White creates for his characters to bust their way through. The magic system is intricately crafted, and feels like a real part of the world rather than set dressing. The technology of the setting uses magic in a number of surprising and delightful ways. Each character has their own magic, of varying types, and they can use it like a signature, or to interact with technology, or even fire weapons. Everyone except Boots, that is, who is one of the rare people born without magic. It’s a nice bit of the story that builds the world and characters in interesting ways.
With this first novel, White offers us a character-focused look into a compelling fantasy future. Fans of Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet will find a lot to like in this scrappy crew of adventurers, with plenty of space-faring action and interplanetary politics to satisfy the most hard-core old school Space Opera fan. You can find A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe at your local independent bookstore, or from the usual digital suspects. I heartily recommend it.

Hugh Likes Fiction: Space Opera

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Space Opera
Written by Catherynne M. Valente
Published by Saga Press

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The Skinny: In this farcical and inventive Sci-fi novel, aliens arrive on Earth to welcome Humanity to the galaxy. There’s only one catch: They’ll have to prove themselves in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, the universe’s greatest song contest.

I was a big fan of Star Trek growing up, but there was one thing that always bothered me about the show. Everyone was obsessed with historical Earth culture. From reading Shakespeare to playing baseball to Bach recitals to so much Sherlock Holmes, it’s all Earth, all the time. And everything was nice and public domain, of course.
This did make sense, from a certain perspective. It connects the viewer to the characters through shared culture, and makes the unfamiliar setting of an interstellar spaceship that much more human. But I always wanted to know a bit more than than the show let on about the alien cultures. What would an alien world’s culture really be like? Further more, what would their POP culture be like? Catherynne M. Valente’s newest novel, Space Opera, makes that question its central premise.
Once, Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros were once the biggest band in the world. They’ve broken up, and their a bit washed up these days, but none of that matter when aliens invade Earth, looking for the greatest musicians on the planet to represent Earth in the galaxy’s greatest song contest, The Metagalactic Grand Prix. Decibel and remaining band mate Oort St. Ultraviolet get the nod, by virtue of being the only band on short list that’s still alive. Invitation to the Grand Prix is a great honor, and will give humanity the stars. But if they come in last, the Earth will be destroyed. So, no pressure.
Equal parts Douglas Adams and FM radio count down, Space Opera hilarious, tragic, and breathtakingly intelligent. Valente’s novel examines the utopian science fiction trope of the society that is not merely scientifically advanced but culturally advanced, and twists it to great effect. Continuing her style from previous work like Radiance and The Refrigerator Monologs, She once again has invented entire pop cultures out of whole cloth to both satirize and celebrate parts of our own. In this case, it is the Eurovision song contest, a post-War signing competition that functions much like the Olympics but run by record labels. As someone who likes the idea of Eurovision more than the actual glitzy performances, I expected to be lost in a sea of references, but that was not the case. Outside of a few section quotes and an explanation in the acknowledgements, there is little actual mention, and you don’t need previous experience going in.
Valente structures her novel in her own instantly recognizable style, shifting between the history of the contest and the competing alien cultures and the story of the Absolutes Zeros from their first show to the intergalactic stage. She does more telling than showing, and the non-linear style can be disorienting if that isn’t your thing, but she pays it all off beautifully in the end.
Space Opera is a glittering cavalcade of brilliantly conceived big-idea science fiction, winking satire, and bold, unflinching cultural criticism. It is very well executed, and you should probably be reading it right now. It’s available from the usual suspects.

Hugh Likes Fiction: It Devours!

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It Devours!: A Welcome to Night Vale novel
Written by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Crainor
Audiobook read by Cecil Baldwin
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The Skinny-The creators of “Welcome to Night Vale” return with another delightfully creepy and silly novel set in their quiet desert town.

Following up their best-selling eponymous Welcome to Night Vale novel, It Devours! continues the formula of giving a spotlight to some of the supporting characters from the podcast. The story falls a bit outside the purview of the half-hour pseudo-radio show, but is still great fun for fans.
The story follows Nilanjana, a scientist investigating a series of mysterious and unofficial earthquakes, and Darryl, a member of the friendly cult The Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God, which may be involved in a series of disappearances. The pair will have to contend contend with pushy spokespeople, lonely surveillance helicopter pilots, and most importantly, their very different world-views to solve these mysteries.
While readers don’t need to have read the previous novel or be up to date on the podcast, the story is full of references to both. The most important thing to know going in is that Night Vale is weird. And that weirdness comes with neither explanation nor apology. Bits like the town’s monstrous City Council, the fad for invisible food, and the barista district all swing by fast enough to upset a new reader’s train of thought if unprepared. But the story is well-told and engaging. If you are new to Night Vale and find the vast backlog of podcast episodes intimidating, It Devours! might be a great place to give it a try.
The audio book is read by Cecil Baldwin, the host of the podcast. He does an excellent job bringing the huge cast to life. Fans of weird fiction will find a lot to like in this heartwarming end-of-the-world adventure.
It Devours is available from Amazon in print and Audible in audio book. You can also find it at your Local Independent Bookstore!

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Hugh Likes Fiction: Gluttony Bay

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Sin Du Jour: Gluttony Bay
Written by Matt Wallace
Published by Tor

The Skinny: Matt Wallace returns for the sixth installment of his Sin Du Jour series, and the penultimate volume is just as nasty, brutal, and short as you’d expect. And that’s why it’s great.

After building tension over the course of five novellas, Matt Wallace’s “Sin Du Jour” Series is reaching the end of its rope, and it’s been one hell of a climb. Focusing on the misadventures of a supernatural catering service, the series has had a solid thematic line of making deals with the devil. The first novel involved a celebratory dinner for a whole tribe of demons, in fact. And the consequences of those decisions are finally coming home to roost for Wallace’s huge cast of characters.
As the crew of Sin Du Jour’s relationship with government contact and string-puller Allensworth continues to sour, he reveals to them his most closely guarded secret: Gluttony Bay, a combination black site prison/five star dinning experience for his most discerning supernatural contacts. I’ll leave you to guess what’s on the menu, but Bronko, Lena and the rest will have to make a difficult choice, and hopefully live with the consequences.
We’re nearly at the end of Wallace’s masterfully crafted rollercoaster ride, and the tension is so thick you can cut it with the finest of chef’s knives. Wallace doesn’t pull any punches with this one, and he leaves us with more of a statement than a question. The supernatural catering company has always danced around the question of how do you serve monsters without becoming one. And the answer is, simply, that you don’t. He makes his characters face an impossible choice, and the writing is as juicy and delicious as a perfectly prepared steak.
SIn Du Jour book six, “Gluttony Bay” is available from amazon.com, or your preferred ebook retailer. If my previous six reviews haven’t swayed you, don’t sleep on this one.

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