The Scorpion rules, by Erin Bow

The Scorpion rules Book Cover The Scorpion rules
Prisoners of peace #1
Erin Bow
YA, Science fiction
Margaret K. McElderry Books
Sep 22 2015

In the future, the UN has brought back an ancient way to keep the peace. The children of world leaders are held hostage—if a war begins, they pay with their lives.

Greta is the Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy, a superpower formed of modern-day Canada. She is also a Child of Peace, a hostage held by the de facto ruler of the world, the great Artificial Intelligence, Talis. The hostages are Talis’s strategy to keep the peace: if her country enters a war, Greta dies.

The system has worked for centuries. Parents don’t want to see their children murdered.

Greta will be free if she can make it to her eighteenth birthday. Until then she is prepared to die with dignity, if necessary. But everything changes when Elian arrives at the Precepture. He’s a hostage from a new American alliance, and he defies the machines that control every part of their lives—and is severely punished for it. Greta is furious that Elian has disrupted their quiet, structured world. But slowly, his rebellion opens her eyes to the brutality of the rules they live under, and to the subtle resistance of her companions. And Greta discovers her own quiet power.

Then Elian’s country declares war on Greta’s and invades the prefecture, taking the hostages hostage. Now the great Talis is furious, and coming himself to mete out punishment. Which surely means that Greta and Elian will be killed...unless Greta can think of a way to save them.

The above blurb describes one side of The Scorpion rules.  It fails to describe at least half of the novel I read.   Who's surprised by a YA dystopia anymore? Turns out, I am!

See, there are a lot of belligerent goats.  I like belligerent goats.  Tending them are the children of the world's nation leaders. They are held hostage by the AI who decided this would be part of a system to discourage warfare - now, you have to have a child in order to be allowed ruling power, and that child will be held hostage, so he or she can be the first to die if the parent goes to war.  These are children who know death can come knocking any day.

Humans are, evidently, slow to learn, and warfare still comes out looking necessary in order to gain scarce resources like land and drinking water.  Some of these goat-tenders will die.

You might be wondering, "what about the nearly-genre-required love triangle?!"

...I'll tell you, the ingredients are there, but the cook didn't put them together quite the way one might expect.  I'm an old grump, and I thought this was delightful, so there you go.  Oh, you can slap a "queer"-tag on it too, if that's relevant to you.

Oh, AIs.  Neural uploads, even.  These are some of my favourite things, which probably contributes to my high opinion of this book.

While reading, I was unaware this was a series starter, which warrants two comments:   1) The story wraps up and doesn't leave lots of threads hanging for what will be the next volume, and that is a great service to readers (who may be old grumps fed up with things called "Series starter" when in fact they're more like "One book, part one").    2) I honestly thought this would have to be a stand-alone, given the ending - I thought oh, it'd be amazing to get the story that comes after this,  and then I went to goodreads and found out that I am going to get to read the story that comes after this.  Awesome!


Cities and thrones, by Carrie Patel

Cities and thrones Book Cover Cities and thrones
Recoletta #2
Carrie Patel
Mystery, dystopian, speculative
Angry robot
July 7 2015

In the fantastical, gaslit underground city of Recoletta, oligarchs from foreign states and revolutionaries from the farming communes vie for power in the wake of the city’s coup. The dark, forbidden knowledge of how the city came to be founded has been released into the world for all to read, and now someone must pay.

Inspector Liesl Malone is on her toes, trying to keep the peace, and Arnault’s spy ring is more active than ever. Has the city’s increased access to knowledge put the citizens in even more danger? Allegiances change, long-held beliefs are adjusted, and things are about to get messy.

I'm very happy to return to the tunnels of Recoletta, after getting to know the city in the previous book, The buried life.  In Cities and thrones, the story picks up where it left off, and will not be an optimal read if you didn't read the first book. (And, really, it's a fast and fun read, so why wouldn't you?)

Not only do we return to Recoletta - we get to see some of the rest of the world, too.  Some have fled from Sato's revolution to seek refuge in other cities, like the somewhat Arab-decorated city of Medina.   Between these, there are whole communities of odd people who choose to dwell above-ground.  Here, the victorian-esque class society becomes quite caricatured, and tensions are high.

I've seen a lot of people describe Recoletta as steampunk, but I'm not so sure. I don't think a sense of old-timey aristocracy is enough to wedge a story onto that shelf.  That said, it remains difficult to sort this book onto either the science fiction or the fantasy shelf - it reads mostly like an urban fantasy police procedural kind of thing (though Cities and thrones is much heavier on the political scheming),  but the story keeps hinting at Recoletta being a city found in the future, post-whateveritwas.

I'm obviously going to hurry to read the next book when it arrives, because I direly want to know what happened in this world's history.  Almost as much as the characters themselves want to obtain that information, probably.

Jane Lin remains an interesting character - at least as long as she's held up next to inspector Malone's stark moral alignment.  Jane appears kind, compassionate - but doesn't hesitate to move into moral shades of gray as her situation changes.   She's refreshingly complex, but stable - which is a treat in an action-adventure like this.

Immerse your way into Recoletta for a mini summer vacation. It's underground, at least it won't be very rainy, right?


The here and now, by Ann Brashares

The here and now Book Cover The here and now
Ann Brashares
YA, Science fiction
Hodder Children's Books
Jan 1st 2015 (For this edition - may have been otherwise been published earlier?)

Ann Brashares' The here and now is a book that came to me a bit sneakily;  first, it was suggested for me by means of a "what to read next?"-quiz on BookRiot.  So I read about it, and thought "Huh, that's nice", and would have forgotten, if it hadn't reappeared where I could ask for a review copy.  I did, and now I've read it, which didn't take long, but was definitely pleasant.

I tend to avoid YA with heavy romance plots, possibly because I'm an old grinch;  Mostly because I just can't suspend disbelief enough to go along with some of the more unbearable Soulmates-at-first-sight stuff. This could have been a problem in reading this book - but it wasn't.   The author handles the emotional parts of the plot elegantly, keeping it somewhat subdued, though it is certainly there.

Subdued is an appropriate description of the whole novel; The story unfolds quietly, subtly, in a way that deceptively makes it feel slow and languid - even though the pages turn rapidly.  I enjoy this narration style,  it allows for dramatic events but without waving all its sharp edges and fists directly at the reader.   Some will inevitably find it boring, of course.

Prenna James is an immigrant, living in a sheltered community of fellow immigrants, in New York.  Her interaction with the outside world is shy and tentative - she's been warned against it. Never let anyone get close, never let an outsider know you. Don't get involved.   There are rules, several strict rules, and Prenna knows how important they are - and yet, she's going to break just about all of them.

Because she never wants to go back to where she and the others came from. When they came from.  The future they travelled from was a broken one, all horror and blood plagues, and this place - this time - it is a paradise, by comparison. You'd think 2010 had no idea what was coming.  But it does, Prenna realises; They do know what they're doing to the planet, and yet it continues.  The rules are strict about staying away, but she has to change things. Doesn't she?

Ethan agrees.  He's been watching Prenna literally since the day she arrived in his time;  She can't remember it, but he was there right at the start.  He was there when she walked into his classroom, later on. He knows,  all the things he's not supposed to know according to the rules, and the rules say he should hate and vilify her and the other time travellers, but he doesn't.  He really doesn't.

I'd call this dystopia-adjacent - the nightmare future is there, lurking in the background, but there is hope. There is a chance it can be changed.  If only they change the right things...

Who would I recommend this to?  People looking for YA science fiction exploring other tropes than just dystopia, perhaps - here's time travel and a bit of medicine mixed in.  And if you just want a quiet book that won't shout itself at you - which is a completely valid thing to want from a book - this is a decent choice, and it won't occupy much more than an afternoon.

However, if you know yourself to be quickly bored by the kind of quiet atmosphere and downplayed action I've described,  then, of course, read something else.  This doesn't have people jumping onto trains in motion or whatever.  The fate of the world is at stake, but without explosions.

(And, of course do not read it if you're obsessive-crazy about time travel in a way that makes it hard for you to enjoy a narrative that doesn't go all hard  science about it. Go watch Primer.  But for what it's worth, this novel annoyed me a lot less than The time traveller's wife.)

Red Rising, by Pierce Brown

Red Rising Book Cover Red Rising
Red rising trilogy
Pierce Brown
Science fiction, YA, Dystopia
Del Rey (Random House)
Jan 1st 2014

"Uh", I told my cohabitant, "I'm reading this thing that is sort of a cross of Hunger Games and the battle school bits of Ender's game and it's on Mars."

"That sounds awesome", he said.

"Well, it is, but..."


This shouldn't really be compared to the Hunger Games, or anything else really, but it's pretty inevitable given the main ingredients:  Future totalitarian dystopia, rigid class society, a televised war between teenagers representing different school houses,  and a sprinkle of rebellion.  Oh, and some handy future tech to shape the plot.

I picked this up because I have a huge soft spot for Mars.  Not the chocolate. Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars,  Dan Simmons' Mars,  Andy Weir's Mars, Philip K. Dick's Mars, James S. E. Corey's Mars,  et cetera.   Babylon 5 Mars. You understand.  (And there are plenty of other dorks like me.)  Well played, Red Rising.  I just wish you let the planet play an even greater part in the story,  though I'm willing to admit that's an unreasonable point of criticism as long as the genre is not infact Mars Fiction.

This is of course a trilogy starter, with the second volume, Golden son, to be published in January 2015.   It's a well shaped first-of-a-trilogy sort of story; it has its own contained arc that gets a satisfying kind of closure, while leaving a bigger arc to play out, of course, over the next two books.   I'm taking the time to appreciate this because of recent experiences with series-starters that read more like simply chopped-off books with no questions answered at all.  You get a cookie for that, Red Rising.

The class system is colors. There are pinks and greens and browns and blues, and plenty of others.  Darrow, the protagonist, is red.  He and his fellow reds are pioneers; toiling underground to extract valuable resources so that Mars may eventually be colonized.  They have been isolated in their hard work for generations; they have culture, traditions, habits, expectations.  Low expectations.  They are not unaware of the other colors.  There are grays and bronzes and even golden supervisors making appearances every now and then.

Darrow's story takes off when, through a harsh series of events, he finds out he's been deceived. They've all been deceived.

I thought the book started out unconvincing and fairly slow,  but once things got rolling,  it turned out to be a quickly devoured pageturner.   Action and a bit of pathos is what the novel has going for it.

The characters are less solid,  including our hero, Darrow.  While they're not exactly cardboard,  we don't get very far under their skin.  The story is told in first person from Darrow's point of view, so we get to look around a little bit in his head, but not quite enough to make the emotional impact of his losses and victories as great as it could have been.   He does however develop, learn, and change through his experiences;  good for him.

So I was telling my cohabitant about the book and I said, "Well, it's like one of those movies we totally would watch, but maybe not stand in line for at the premiere."

A good action adventure has its time and place, though.  It is possible I'll read the next book if I come across it at, well, the right time and in the right place.

Dystance: Winter’s rising, by M.R. Tufo

Dystance: Winter's rising Book Cover Dystance: Winter's rising
Series starter
M. R. Tufo
YA, Dystopia
Sold by Amazon Digital Services, Inc
June 12th 2014

Dystance is Winter's home - the only place she knows. From the time Dystancians exit the Bio Buildings when they're eight years old, all they can do is struggle to feed themselves enough to survive until ten years later, when they either go to the War - or, optionally, if they're female, to the Bio Buildings to make more future Dystancians.  Pretty firmly dystopian, I'd say.

What Winter discovers by chance, though, is context.  Stumbling across a remnant of a past world - a library! - it dawns on her, and her friends, that the world has been different. Humans have lived lives very unlike theirs. Once they even had an abundance of paper - enough that stories could be written that weren't even real.  She starts asking questions...

I'm going to do this in a pro/con sort of list:

What's good about this novel?

After a bit of a slow start, it becomes a decent pageturner.  There's a lot of action, and through the action parts, the writing flows excellently.  (I haven't read any previous books by this author, but I imagine his incredibly long Zombie Fallout series might be pretty good if this is what it brings to the table.)    The characters are, for the most part, well defined - I was completely charmed by Winter's friend Cedar, whose introduction to the library's romance section was perhaps the most memorable part of the whole book.   The question of what kind of world this really is, outside of the absolute war the Dystancians and a few other communities are locked in,  grows increasingly interesting.  What's the framework, here? Who made things to be this way, why are these people kept in these meaningless warrior/babyfarms?    If you're curious enough, you'll very likely keep reading the series.

What do I dislike about this novel?

First of all, the romance. It doesn't work for me. Being sixteen years old gives a character a lot of room for feelings-without-reasons, but here, I'm just being told the main character has romantic feelings for a person, and a flash of childhood memory to explain their close connection, but I don't really get it.  It's unfortunate, because part of the (quite decent) characterization later on has this romantic interest making himself less than charming,. For good enough reasons - but it just keeps reminding me I don't know why I should care.   I also find the character interaction to be written a bit stilted and awkwardly - contrasting the fluid ease of the more action-filled paragraphs.

My main problem is - I know this is a series starter, but is it not supposed to function as a novel of its own?  For that, it just leaves too many questions unanswered or unresolved.  I close the book without having satisfied my interest in the questions that kept me reading,  which is more than mildly frustrating.  If I've misunderstood the construction of the story - if this is more like a first episode than a first book - that's all right, but it doesn't really make me any happier.

...I believe this is going to find an enthusiastic audience, though.  All things considered, I'm an old grump, and not quite as devoted to teenagers-in-dystopia as a lot of other people are. Really, a lot.

Parable of the sower and Parable of the talents, by Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the sower, Parable of the talents Book Cover Parable of the sower, Parable of the talents
Octavia E. Butler
Science fiction, dystopia
1993 / 1998
329 + 434

I am going to talk about both books at once, because that's what makes sense. In recommending these to anyone, I will treat them as one book, one story.

According to Wikipedia, Butler had intended to write a third volume called Parable of the trickster. It would have been great if she did; I enjoy Butler's books very much.  (Having read these two, though, I can't imagine the state of my emotional health after a third Earthseed book.)

About Parable of the sower:  We enter a civilization - well, American civilization - breaking down; the apocalypse is now. (The "oops, the world broke"-thing has been a clear favourite of mine since Womack's Random acts of senseless violence, which was, therefore, one of the first associations I made in reading this.) You know, when life as you know it just crumbles to bits, it very likely doesn't happen in the blink of an eye. Disaster strikes fast, but some tragedy takes time, years, and probably doesn't exactly catch you by surprise - denial, maybe, but not really surprise.

Lauren Olamina, the young protagonist, is very much aware of where things are headed. Her intelligent observations are refreshing, and I instantly root for her. If a character is charismatic enough, she can carry a whole book on her own. (At times she's unreal; it's hard to match her words to her supposed age, but in unusual circumstances, a lot of unusuals are easier to accept.) She's a preacher's daughter, but she does not share her father's faith. To the contrary, she is devoted to uncovering a different set of truths. The story is told through Lauren's diary, which allows her voice to stay focused and calm, while keeping the sense of urgency, through gaps between dates and other details. Parable of the sower is merciless, but the ending doesn't prepare me for the next book at all.

The parable of the talents took me a lot more time to get through - because parts of it are simply very unpleasant, in the intentional and story-relevant way. Butler has made me care enough about these characters to make it quite painful to go through this bleak, bleak piece of the near-future with them. It's good - actually that's very good, but also impossible for me to read several hundred pages of in a single sitting. Butler tells the story of a world that has already gone to pieces; then she has the broken remains of the people trying to go back in time, panicky; A religious leader becomes president. The slaves vote for him, too. More and more women's tongues are cut out. Olamina keeps hers, but her losses are many.

I wouldn't read this if I was feeling especially thin-skinned. If the measurement of an author's skill was solely how much her stories and characters could affect me, I believe Octavia E. Butler's profile would be embedded on the gold medal.

The girl with all the gifts, by M. R. Carey

The girl with all the gifts Book Cover The girl with all the gifts
M. R. Carey
Horror, science fiction
Hachette Audio
First published June 6th 2014

First: I chose the audiobook copy of this, which is narrated beautifully by Finty Williams.  I'm pretty sure this voice made me find more hours in the day to listen than I would have with a less optimal narrator, so that's a huge thumbs up with admiring glances and happy noises.

And - people will tell you,  try to read as little as you can about The girl with all the gifts before you start reading.  The reason for this, of course, is that a big part of the book is to discover the terms of the world alongside our main protagonist, the titular gifted girl.  Most is revealed quite early on in the book, and you'll likely see it coming once you're reading,  but I don't want to steal it from you.

Melanie is a little girl in a school for what appears to be special children.  She loves her teacher, Miss Justineau, and likes to learn just about everything, even though not all of the teachers are as nice as Miss Justineau.  People act a little strange around these kids. In this future, apparently ten year-olds need armed military guards.

And there's so few of them.

That's all I want to say about the plot, really.  It features good characters it's easy to care for, though they might not be surprising , maybe even somewhat typical of the genre.  (A well used formula can still be used well!)   The title's reference to Pandora,  she who opened that box,  is of course meaningful.  The prose flows along without a snag; there is little or no redundant dwelling on events,  but a steady forward motion, towards a looming, inevitable end.

The ending is a relieve, because I was for a while afraid the novel was going to chicken out on itself.  It doesn't.  It goes as far as it has to go, and while it contributes to strapping the novel into the horror genre,  it's also very peaceful.  I end the book feeling oddly harmonious, given what I've just been reading.

I recommend the book in any format,  but the narrator makes the audio a very good choice for either picky listeners, or people looking for a good gateway audiobook experience.

The lathe of heaven, by Ursula Le Guin

The lathe of heaven Book Cover The lathe of heaven
Ursula le Guin
Science fiction, dystopia
Harper (Perennial Modern Classics)

Almost every review of The lathe of heaven makes sure to mention how this feels more like a PKD book than a Le Guin one.  I will repeat that, because it's true, and because I really like PKD, I was inclined to like this book a lot, too.    (Le Guin, well, I need to sample more. I just wasn't very into The Dispossessed.  I did like the Earthsea books, though - all of them, the last one too.)

So here's a slightly dystopian future - or alternate present, by now, but this was published in 1971, so future applies.  Overpopulation and hunger all around.  Here's George Orr, coming to the attention of authorities because he's exceeded his own alottment of pharmacy goods, and borrowed other people's drug stamps. Well, pharm cards.   He hasn't been re-selling, so it's not considered terribly criminal, but he does have to agree to undergo, ah, voluntary psychological therapy for the cause of the excessive drug use.   He's sent to a dream specialist, because George Orr's problem is his dreams. He really doesn't want to have them.

And, click!,  the PKDian setting evolves, like a pokemon, into a PKDian story,  of the Ubik or Man in the high castle variety.  Or in other words,  what is reality anyway, huh?

No, it would read a little diffently if it was PKD-authored. Le Guin's focus is different, and her narration and treatment of the material is noticeably different.  There's no need to go on with the comparison; it is Le Guin's book, and no one elses.  Her characters are clear-cut,  and though I would expect it to be mostly contrived in this kind of book, I even like the hints of romance. (And that's 100% Le Guin, it works because her characters work, including the female ones. I never take this for granted when reading SF dating back to the pre-1980s.)

The book made me feel positive about reading more Le Guin. Consulting the reviews would have absolutely convinced me to look into Ubik too, if I hadn't already read and loved it.

In all, this is a nice go-to recommendation for genre-interested readers who might need evidence of science fiction's ability to accomodate strong female voices, politics, philosophy, high concept, and high quality prose.  (Le Guin is on the terse end of things, which is not everyone's cup of tea, but it is mine.* )

* I can't help but imagine what terse tea is. Pretty sure it's a grassy green, possibly with lemon.