reading, Reviews

DNF: Children of Time

Children_of_TimeI tried, I tried, I tried.

It’s always disappointing to have a book recommended, and gifted, by a good friend and just not one to get on with, but Children of Time is certainly a book that fits into that esoteric category. But, importantly, it’s a book that I recognised the good of but was unable to finish because that good couldn’t compensate for some other foibles that, ultimately, lost my interest.

I managed just about half of Children of Time before I felt the narrative had run out of steam, and assumed a stall from which it could not recover.

There are two parallel narratives that Children of Time alternates between: that of the results of Dr Kern’s experiment to “uplift” monkeys in an auspicious terraforming project (which naturally goes awry at the last moment) and that of the last of humanity’s journey aboard the ark ship Gilgamesh. Ultimately, these two narratives didn’t seem to mesh together particularly well and that was the main cause of chagrin for me with Children of Time.

Out of the two parallel narratives, the spider chapters – a mild spoiler, but the nanovirus intended to uplift the monkeys to sentience and intelligence inadvertently takes hold in the planet’s spider population – were more interesting to me as it explored how the spiders came to terms with their sentience, and explored interesting themes around genetic memories; the spiders passing Understandings down to their descendants. These are two very cool themes to go for – the uplift of another species to human-like intelligence and the notion of inheritable genetic memory – and I felt the spider chapters did progress these themes fairly efficiently.

That’s not to say the spider chapters of Children of Time were by any means perfect; indeed, the high-concept ideas behind the spider civilization, and particular some choices made by Tchaikovsky, made them less comprehensible than they could’ve been.

But the “human” chapters were just insufferable, near the point where I stopped reading.

If all the last vestiges of humanity can think to do on their ark ship is bicker then does our species not deserve to continue existing?

I did find myself losing patience with the humans in Children of Time; they simply bickered and bickered, seemingly endlessly, at the expense of any action. And quite frankly, the characterisation was pretty flat, too – I didn’t feel for any of the human characters, and they all felt quite interchangeable. That’s not to say the humans were truly flawed; indeed, just before I decided to shelve the book there was a nugget of interesting plot coming into focus – the self-appointed and mentally-unstable (though that’s just because the other characters kept saying what a terrible character he was) decides to attempt to meld with the Gilgamesh’s AI system to become some kind of immortal computer lifeform – interesting but the point at which this was coming was far too late; I’d already mentally checked out and, quite honestly, didn’t care what happened to the humans either way.

The main issue with Children of Time, though, for me, was two-fold:

  • There’s a disconcerting disconnect between the timelines of the “human” chapters (where the colonists drop in and out of hibernation as many of us would go to the shop to buy milk and bread, sometimes for centuries which pass in the blink of an eye; whereas generations of uplifted spiders can pass in months. This two-speed timeline to the alternating narratives just felt confusing and ultimately disconcerting.
  • The pacing of the narratives was way, way off; I gave up on Children of Time about halfway in, where I feel the human and spider storylines should be about to meet and set the dynamic for the rest of the book. This wasn’t happening; indeed, Children of Time was trying its best to stop that from happening. A small group of humans landed on Kern’s World, that of the uplifted spiders and the narrative goes to some effort to get those humans off the world and that was disappointing; I wanted the story to progress forward with these distinct groups interacting and conflicting and it seemed like the narrative just didn’t want that to happen, not until the humans had bickered a bit more.

Ultimately, it wasn’t the concepts of Children of Time that turned me off, but rather the narrative execution was lacking. Easily, 200 pages could’ve been cut from the middle of the book to no real loss of the overarching narrative arc. The prose itself, chapter-by-chapter, was approachable and not pretentious which is a deft skill; however, the fatal flaw for Children of Time was one that serves well as a cautionary tale to writers – let the middle sag at your peril.

I awarded Children of Time a rating of 2 stars on Goodreads; books I am unable to finish will not score higher than that. Thusly, because Children of Time was my first experience of work by Adrian Tchaikovsky and scored less than 3 stars I will not be looking to read any more of this author’s work.

Reviews

Review: Nemesis Games (Paperback)

nemesis_gamesI’ve been taking my reading seriously lately in an attempt to make good my Goodreads Reading Challenge; after a bit of a break, I’ve returned to the Expanse series which I have been enjoying all year with the fifth instalment, Nemesis Games.

I’d previously found the fourth book, Cibola Burn somewhat underwhelming. A bit too “low-fi” and insular, considering the Expanse universe is so huge. Nemesis Games was a welcome true to form – a thrilling and out-of-this-world story that upped the ante even more than previous books have done, but without breaking the sense of feasibility and just-out-of-reachness that the richly-made Expanse has made its hallmark.

Nemesis Games almost, for me, felt a bit like Cibola Burn – a little slow, insular and unaware of the universe around it. It begins with the crew of the Rocinante splitting for the first time ever while the ship is undergoing a major overhaul (which, to be fair, going by the hijinks, it was really overdue). While this, perhaps, breaks up the group dynamic that the crew had it also gave a chance to pause and give each crewmember – Holden, Naomi, Amos and Alex a chance to show their backstories a little more.

Of course, I was extremely silly to fall into the trap of thinking: they’ll be back on the Roci in no time to start the proper adventure as the proverbial quickly hits the fan and, about a third in, the book motors into gear. The simple “chores” that each crewmember embark upon end up taking decidedly unexpected and ominous twists.

I feel it was a welcome change of pace to break up the characters from a homogenous group and expand their personalities, backstories and pasts they’d left behind to gallivant across the Solar System. It was an interesting but not laboured way to explore the backstories of these characters. They’re not all angels and it underpins to a degree how they came to be on the Canterbury in the initial book. I thought it a lot more gripping and narratively-deft to finally see what these characters had told us about in previous books to differing degees of detail. And, naturally, these “loyalty missions”, as players of Mass Effect 2 might recognise, do quickly go awry and the plot proper begins to motor ahead.

There’s a real sense of pace and urgency in the latter half of Nemesis Games as events take hold and begin to reach their conclusion and, for the first time I think seriously, the main cast come into jeopardy. Each crewmember seemed more fragile when isolated and unable to communicate. There’s tension, too, which kept me up as it’s a real pageturner. Obviously, the events taking place across the universe are taking a profound and unexpected turn and, for the first time, too, shaking up the established status quo (which, ominously, had seemed stable as the book began).

Nemesis Games is deftly put together, and presents an interesting fusion for the series. I’d almost say this book is two-thirds grand space opera to one-third post-apocalyptic nightmare which is an interesting contrast to say the least; both of these aspects are well-realised but it’s the nacent post-apoc scenes that grabbed me. They’re surprisingly well done and the authors should definitely look at continuing the thread that the events of Nemesis Games present. It’s hard to be less vague without major spoilers which I am biting my fingers to avoid typing!

Nemesis Games was, then, a thoroughly enjoyable, intelligent return to form for The Expanse following the somewhat-disappointing Cibola Burn. It also feels like we’re over the hump for the series (nine novels are planned, of which Nemesis Games is the fifth); there’s a seismic shift in the status quo we’ve come to expect from the first four books that’s looking toward how things are changing. Things aren’t going to be the same again.

I’ve seen Nemesis Games described as The Expanse’s Empire Strikes Back. I’m not a massive Star Wars fan but Empire is my favourite. The stakes here are up in the stratosphere and I can’t wait to see how high they really go. Again, a stellar and surprising return to form for The Expanse

Buy Nemesis Games on Amazon UK

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Review: Earth Alone (Kindle Edition)

Earth_AloneI recently picked this book up on the Amazon Kindle Lender’s Library and I was pleasantly surprised by it.

Earth Alone builds the picture of a war-torn Earth shattered some years prior to to the start of the book by a surprise attack by alien “scum” from another planet and, I felt quite convincingly, builds a backstory around a war of attrition fought by the scum menace after a successful nuclear attack by humanity on the scum home planet. Earth Alone follows the story of Marco Emery, a young recruit in the Human Defence Force, the global military that aims to defend the planet from the scum attacks.

Firstly, I liked the rationale behind the change of alien tack – realising that wholesale levelling of cities results in nuclear Armageddon on their own turf, the aliens turn to the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ method of wearing humanity down. The alien threat is certainly portrayed as menacing and, while Marco and his cadet friends begin training, it’s always hanging like a black cloud above them. The effects of the scum attacks keep the characters focused – there’s reflections, too, on the personal impact of the alien attacks on Marco, the main character that he reflects on frequently.

So far, so Ender’s Game, which is by no means a bad comparison to make. Earth Alone does well, I feel, to make the cadets in this book significantly older than the small children who are drummed into battle in Ender’s Game. Taking adolescents into the military also brings its own (mostly hormone-fuelled) unique considerations, too, that the characters must contend with.

Marco, the protagonist, is portrayed as a bookish, quiet and mature-for-his age young man who clearly has a heart of gold, but too has limits and his own weaknesses. The rest of the platoon we’re introduced to each have their own characters – some appear trigger-happy and some thoughtful, while other boastful but underneath we see glimpses that they all share one characteristic – they’re all scared kids about to fight in a war that predates them, and their fear is rightfully placed. I feel Marco’s bookishness is a bit meta-aware (a character who wants to be a writer and works in a library, in a book can sound a few alarm bells) but it’s not too much that it impedes on the story; rather it does build up his character. However, maybe more graceful means of imbuing Marco with a sense of learnedness and culture could’ve been explored.

Daniel Arenson does a good job in writing a book that is a breezy and unchallenging read while bringing across the aspects of the character and action that’s needed. It’s certainly a competent effort, even if this book certainly resides in the shadow of Ender’s Game. The real hardship faced by the recruits and the journey of them – and of their commanding officers – is portrayed well enough, and the world the alien scum left behind is well-imaged. There’s a certain sense of humanity on the ropes, and on the defensive.

It’s quite clear early on that Earth Alone is designed as an introduction to a series, and I’m fine with that. The action is kept throughout, without too much introspection and it’s not a bad read, so I’d happily read on!

Buy Earth Alone on Amazon Kindle UK!