ARC Review: “Under Fortunate Stars” by Ren Hutchings

(thanks to Rebellion Publishing for granting me an ARC of this book!)

Read if you like: space, ticking clocks, STEM, multiple POV, time travel, tension, survival, overcoming/learning to live with trauma, interplaying timelines, boss bitches, grumpy heroes, locked-room mysteries, Harrow the Ninth, Star Trek character dynamics, pseudo-unreliable narrators, flawed characters, moral grayness, existentialism

Triggers: death, mild sexual content, assault, murder, profanity, anxiety, blood, war, emotional trauma

Under Fortunate Stars

Goodreads Summary:

Fleeing the final days of the generations-long war with the alien Felen, smuggler Jereth Keeven’s freighter the Jonah breaks down in a strange rift in deep space, with little chance of rescue—until they encounter the research vessel Gallion, which claims to be from 152 years in the future.

The Gallion’s chief engineer Uma Ozakka has always been fascinated with the past, especially the tale of the Fortunate Five, who ended the war with the Felen. When the Gallion rescues a run-down junk freighter, Ozakka is shocked to recognize the Five’s legendary ship—and the Five’s famed leader, Eldric Leesongronski, among the crew.

But nothing else about Leesongronski and his crewmates seems to match up with the historical record. With their ships running out of power in the rift, more than the lives of both crews may be at stake.

(Goodreads book profile here)


I read this book in one sitting—and I knew this was gonna be the case after reading the first couple of chapters. Why? Because the tension in this book is off the charts. It’s in every single chapter, on every single page, even across several POVs. Hutchings is a master of microtension as well as macrotension, and you feel it from the second you lay eyes on their words. The stakes are palpable and high as all hell, but presented to you through a narrow, character-oriented scope. Add in that Hutchings is a master of subtext and narrative omission, and you have the perfect locked-room mystery on hand.

But it’s not a locked-room mystery in the traditional sense. A lot of the elements are there, however, to give the illusion of it. It reminds me a lot of Harrow the Ninth in that there’s that same feeling of being trapped in a place with the risk of death imminent until a mystery is figured out. In this case, the mystery isn’t a traditional mystery. It’s more a matter of figuring out how to survive, but the characters are shrouded in so much in mystery themselves that it feels less like they’re trying to survive, and more like they’re trying to hide from each other and themselves. Hutchings unveils the flawed and complicated history of the characters throughout the entire book, adding a locked-room feeling not just to the external plot, but also to the internal character arcs. It feels a little like a puzzle being pieced together backwards, if such a thing was physically possible.

At this point, I should probably include that a lot of this mystery (both external and internal) is derived from Hutchings’s expert play with time as a concept. The motley cast of the book is on a mission to restore the past in order to secure the future—but not in the traditional sense here, either. Hutchings plays with the time travel trope that “altering history will alter the future”, but they put a spin on it. The spin is that no one travels back in time. Rather, people from different timelines end up accidentally in a timeless existence relative to each other. In a sort of limbo-space (spoiler: an anomalous energy field) that’s neither the present, the past, nor the future—but timeless. Like connective tissue between all times, at once. And here people from different timelines in the same universe collide. The people from the future want to mold the people from the past into fitting history as they know it, whereas the people from the past reject the history that the people from the future present to them. It’s a truly fascinating play of character motivations and stakes—especially once you realize that righting the timelines to their natural states is necessary to prevent annihilation of humanity and put an end to a past/present/future war between humanity and an alien species.  

Loyalty, loss, and legend make up the thematic core of this book. It’s about the choices you didn’t make, those you did, and those you yet have to make. It’s about living up to being a legend, learning to live with loss, and understanding the sacrifices that loyalty demands. It also raises questions about chance, luck, and destiny. Perhaps most interestingly, the book highlights the power of communication as a theme, slotting the alien species into the position of sympathizer rather than the humans by making the alien species regretful over the lives lost once they realize humans are sentient via—you guessed it—communication. In this sense, the book also reminds me a lot of Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life (and Arrival, the film version). Especially when you add the concept of non-linear time and mixes it with this focus on communication.

Then there’s the twist at the end of the book. It blew my mind. While Hutchings doesn’t use a 100% unreliable narrator (like, we’re not talking Gatsby and Shutter Island level), the feeling is there towards the end. This is mostly because pivotal information is omitted from the reader until the very end where it serves as a wild twist of a perfect answer to everything. And because the omission is driven by a character’s denial and repressed trauma, it feels less like an unreliable narrator than if the character had deliberately lied to the reader.

Last, but not least, we have realistic LGBTQ+ and diversity rep, running as a solid undercurrent that’s thankfully never presented as something spectacular or sensational, but rather something entirely inherent to human nature.

If you like mysteries in space and time, with a heavy dose of existentialist dread and deeply flawed, but admirable characters, then this book is for you.


PRE-ORDER LINKS

AMAZON
B&N
BOOKDEPOSITORY
INDIEBOUND
BOOKS-A-MILLION

ARC Review: “The Circus Infinite” by Khan Wong

(thanks to NetGalley and Angry Robot for providing me with this arc)

Read if you like: space opera, found family, an appreciation of culture, ace rep, circus tricks, gravity tricks, the reluctant chosen one, easily readable prose with grand thematic depth, worldbuilding that slap you across the face and then gently lays you down on a bed, moral grayness, thieving, espionage, betrayal, split loyalties, inclusivity across sexual orientation/gender/race, snark, hurt/comfort

Content warnings: bodily harm, governmental abuse, racial discrimination/speciesism, unethical scientific experiments on unwilling subjects, mild torture, parental neglect

The Circus Infinite by Khan Wong

Goodreads Summary:

Hunted by those who want to study his gravity powers, Jes makes his way to the best place for a mixed-species fugitive to blend in: the pleasure moon. Here, everyone just wants to be lost in the party. It doesn’t take long for him to catch the attention of the crime boss who owns the resort-casino where he lands a circus job. When the boss gets wind of the bounty on Jes’ head, he makes an offer: do anything and everything asked of him, or face vivisection.

With no other options, Jes fulfills the requests: espionage, torture, demolition. But when the boss sets the circus up to take the fall for his about-to-get-busted narcotics operation, Jes and his friends decide to bring the mobster down together. And if Jes can also avoid going back to being the prize subject of a scientist who can’t wait to dissect him? Even better.

(Goodreads book profile here)


Review:

This character-driven, space-fest of a book feels deceptively light upon first glance, but has a thematic potency that lingers long after you’ve closed the last page. Like space itself, almost. If you feel hesitant for the first 10-20% of the story, I promise you that the payoff is worth it. Part of the reason for this, I believe, is that the story runs on two timelines: past and present. The present takes up roughly 80% of the book, while the past offers intermittent context for the present plot and character development in a continual feedback loop that keeps you hooked until the end where the past catches up to the present with a (literal) BOOM.

That’s the pay-off. 

And it’s a fantastic one.

The book is ripe with themes that cut so close to the heart it leaves you shocked in the aftermath. Existentialism is all over this book, but it’s never so overt that you notice it in the moment. It’s a very genuine story that comes from a vulnerable place, wrapped up in a multi-faceted space setting with found family, empathy, independence, prejudice, and human nature as central themes. It’s a story about power. About coming into your own and not running from it—not hiding behind circus tricks, as it were. Even more so, it’s a beautifully wrought exploration of how your choices define you, not your roots, and how important it is for every sentient being to belong somewhere. If we don’t, we flounder. We hurt. And this book depicts this beautifully.

If we take a step back from the thematic potency (read: if I can stop raving about it), Wong is a master of worldbuilding and character dynamics. The characters grab you by the throat and don’t let go, with every single one of them feeling so very relatable despite their alien appearance—but I promised no more raving about themes, so let’s move on to worldbuilding. Here, Wong takes a smorgasbord and delivers it bite for bite, making it accessible, letting me savor it, playing ping-ping with the two timelines as a context-building narrative tool. You can’t taste everything at once, no matter how much you want to, and Wong knows this. In that sense, the worldbuilding reminds me of Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series, where she uses this same smorgasbord approach to worldbuilding.

As for the specific story elements that I thoroughly enjoyed, I was so intrigued by the concept of supernatural talents being born within a species from connecting with a planetary consciousness. And don’t get me started on the addition of secondary supernatural talents more unique to each person (so-called “paratalents”). Overall, the whole concept of “the chosen one” feels incredibly fresh here, to the point that I even hesitate calling it “the chosen one”, although I won’t refrain from saying it entirely, because by the end of the book, the vibes did come through strongly for me. Although, perhaps it’s more of a “reluctant chosen one” than an outright “chosen one”.

I also absolutely adored the clever use of cultural terms, and how culture was highlighted as building bridges between species. Especially through the performing arts (music and circus), but also through the more shadowy arts that require nobody to be on stage and where the artist isn’t the product to be sold (art exhibits).

Last, but never least, I loved the ace rep. It was such a delight to read a sci-fi/space opera book that highlights the asexual experience. And the way that Wong mixes this representation with the protagonist being an empath made for a particularly eye-opening and riveting read in that the protagonist realizes his asexuality by recognizing that lust is an emotion he’s only every felt from others, not himself. It adds a fascinating layer of depth to the experience that makes it very approachable to someone who might not share that same inclination. I also want to mention the overall inclusivity of the book that includes trans rep, bi rep, and every sort of rep you could ever wish for.

If you’re in want of an enlightened book that reads easily, but has a heavy thematic core mixed with character dynamics that wrap you up tight as a buffer against these darker themes, then this book is for you.


PREORDER LINKS:

PENGIUN RANDOM HOUSE
AMAZON
B&N
INDIEBOUND
BOOKDEPOSITORY
BOOKS-A-MILLION

My Preorder List of ’22 SFF (and more) Releases

Each December, every year, I make a preorder list of books for the upcoming year. I make sure to include debuts, on principle, and I try to focus on releases within that same year as opposed to books released years ago. My list ranges from MG to Adult, but is primarily focused on SFF since that’s the market I hope to one day be a part of. And, before you ask, the list will no doubt change throughout ’22, but I’ll never delete any books. I’ll only add. There’s that principle again, I guess.

So, without further ado, behold my ‘22 preorder list, complete with blurbs and my reasons for wanting to read these fantastic books.

Settle in, this is gonna be a long one—31 books long, to be precise.


JANUARY

In this Indian-inspired debut fantasy, royal siblings must work together against their will, planning to stab each other in the back during their combined quest for a mysterious object of legend that’ll unlock a new magic in the world in order to prevent an invasion—and I’m sold. That’s it. I need no more.

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Daughter of the Moon Goddess (The Celestial Kingdom Duology, #1)

In this debut adult fantasy, inspired by the legend of Chang’e, the Chinese moon goddess, a young woman grows up on the moon, exiled alongside her mother for stealing an elixir of immortality, after which she must disguise her identity in her quest to free her mother from the most powerful immortal in the realm—yes, please, I’ll take this. No questions asked.

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FEBRUARY

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea

It’s a YA fantasy about a girl who sacrifices herself for her brother (and his beloved) by jumping into the watery depths of the Spirit Realm where she must find a way to appease the malevolent Sea God who demands a bride every year—except she discovers him caught in an enchanted sleep, and the longer that she stays in the spirit realm, attempting to wake him and appease him, the closer she herself comes to death.

I mean, what’s not to like here? And the stakes? Someone hold my hand, please.

A River Enchanted (Elements of Cadence, #1)

Not gonna lie, I was sold on this book without even reading the pitch, and purely because one of the comp titles is The Witch’s Heart (2021) by Genevieve Gornichec. A River Enchanted is an adult fantasy about a bard who returns home to assist in finding girls who’ve gone lost, taken by the spirits of his homeland, and he must use his music to do so, with an heiress convincing him to do so, yet the spirits turn more sinister by the day, and there’s just a lot to love here, okay, okay, okay?

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Second Star to the Left

It’s an adult romantic fantasy with a Tinker Bell who’s banished from her homeland for selling the hottest drug in Neverland—pixie dust—after which she wants absolution, which takes the shape of seducing a pirate and stealing precious gems from under his hook—and I’m sold. End of story. Don’t need to know more.

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Rise of the Mages

In this adult fantasy debut, we’ve got a protagonist who wants nothing more than becoming a weapons master—and I’m sold. Come on. Aren’t you sold, too? Maybe it helps if I also mention that the protagonist’s final exam to become a weapons master includes a bloody insurrection, staged by corrupt nobles and priests, that enslaves his brother? And to rescue his brother, the protagonist must embrace not only his abilities as a warrior, but also his place as last of the ancient Mage Kings?

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Fire Becomes Her

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In this YA Jazz Age fantasy where magic buys votes, a politically savvy teen must weigh her desire to climb the social ladder against her heart—do you need to know more? I don’t.

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MARCH

Billede

I’m not gonna say a whole lot here, since I don’t yet know a whole lot, except that this anthology is based off SJ Whitby’s Cute Mutants Series, and if you haven’t read that yet, you’ve failed yourself.

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A Far Wilder Magic

In this YA fantasy, the protagonist is a sharpshooter who needs the help of an alchemist (enter certified soft boi, Wes) in chasing down the last living mythical creature that has spurred the Halfmoon Hunt where the winner will earn fame, riches, and an ancient magical secret. Like, come on? Gimme?

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So This Is Ever After

A subversive, LGBTQ+ YA take on the Arthurian legend where the chosen one wins the kingdom and has to get married to keep it—and to stay alive—after clumsily beheading the evil king with a dull sword and is now at a loss for what to do. I’m sold. I want this down my gullet, right now.

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The Circus Infinite

A LGBTQ+ adult sci-fi in which the protagonist is on the run from people wanting to study his gravity powers, which takes him to a pleasure moon full of mixed-species fugitives, and here he must survive when the crime boss of a resort-casino notices him working a circus job and realizes there’s a bounty on his head, and—good god, do I want to hold this book in my grubby little hands.

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Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter

As one of the reviews for this book so aptly says: “A feminist adventure story set against the backdrop of the dangerous pearl-diving industry in 19th-century Western Australia, about a young English woman who sets off to uncover the truth about the disappearance of her eccentric father.” 


I mean, come on? Who doesn’t need this? Nobody!

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APRIL

Kaikeyi

In this feminist adult fantasy debut, the protagonist is desperate for independence, so she turns to texts she once read with her mother in which she discovers a magic that is hers alone and which transforms her into a warrior, diplomat, and most favored (if also vilified) queen—except there are consequences. There are always consequences, indeed, and I am desperate to know what they are, please?

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Fevered Star (Between Earth and Sky, #2)

This is the sequel to Roanhorse’s Black Sun (2020)—and that’s all I need to know for me to preorder this one. If you haven’t read Black Sun, you’re missing out on one of the more recent masterpieces in adult fantasy. And I genuinely mean that. Sadly, it seems lesser known than some more popular releases, and I’d love to change that.

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MAY

The Stardust Thief

In this adult fantasy debut…

A merchant, a jinn, a prince, and a thief walk into the desert.
“For treasure,” says the merchant.
“For redemption,” says the jinn
“For adventure!” says the prince.
“For revenge,” says the thief.
For better or worse, they get exactly what they wish for.

That’s it. That’s the pitch, courtesy of the author itself, and what more can I say?

Under Fortunate Stars

In this adult sci-fi, we follow a smuggler whose freighter breaks down in a strange rift in deep space where it encounters a supposed research vessel from the future. I don’t need to know more than that mystery and setting alone; do you?

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Book of Night

Holly Black’s first venture into adult fantasy? Yes, please. I don’t even care what this book is about. I just want it. That said, if you like con artists, shadow magic with lethal consequences, and sharp prose, then this book is for you.

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Wind Daughter (Echo North, #2)

This YA fantasy novel (companion to Echo North, 2019) is about a storyteller and his daughter. The twist? The storyteller was once the formidable North Wind, but he lost his power by trading it away in exchange for mortality because he loved his daughter’s mother too much to live without her. This book is the story of the daughter, Satu, as she embarks on a perilous journey to reclaim her father’s magic—but she isn’t the only one searching for it.  

Can you scream stakes and worldbuilding? If not, then I can scream it for you.

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JUNE

A Mirror Mended (Fractured Fables, #2)

In this sequel to the YA fantasy novella A Spindle Splintered (2020), the protagonist is a professional fairytale fixer who’s done fixing damsels in distress. Until, of course, the last person shows up who simply must be fixed, and it turns out the person isn’t a princess, but an evil queen—and I won’t go quietly into the night waiting for this book, I’m telling you…

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The Final Strife

In this African and Arabian-inspired adult fantasy, three women band together against a cruel Empire that divides people by blood—red, blue, and clear—and as the Empire begins a set of trials of combat and skill designed to find its new leaders, the stage is set for blood to flow, power to shift, cities to burn, and for me to scream bloody murder until I get to hold this book in my hands.

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The Sleepless

In this adult contemporary sci-fi, the setting is a New York City where a minority of the population has lost the need for sleep, and a journalist fights to uncover the truth behind his boss’s murder while his own Sleeplessness spirals out of control.

I mean, the setting and the stakes alone had me gasping for this book immediately; what about you?

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JULY

  1. THE BOOK OF GOTHEL by Mary McMyne
The Book of Gothel

In this debut adult fantasy, we get the story of the witch who put Rapunzel in the tower, Haelewise, starting from when she was the strange, shunned child of an overprotective mother who dies and leaves her unmoored—until she finds the tower of Gothel and those who live there.

I mean, if you don’t wanna hear more about this story, I’m not sure what you wanna hear more about, you know?

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Silk Fire

As taken directly from the source, because wow, did this pitch have me hooked immediately: “Set in a planet-sized matriarchal city where magic and technology freely bleed together, a male courtesan’s quest for vengeance against his aristocrat father draws him into an ancient struggle between dragons, necromancers, and his home district’s violent history.”

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Flames Of Mira (The Rift Walker, #1)

This epic adult fantasy has everything you could want, basically: elementals forged in boiling volcanoes and subterranean passages, a protagonist forced to work in secret as an enforcer for a corrupt magnate when he’s cursed with a flesh binding that’ll have magic killing him at the first sign of disobedience—and do you need to know more? Maybe you want to know that the magnate dies, leaving the protagonist to rediscover the person he once was and escape his flesh binding before the land falls apart around him?

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AUGUST

The Book Eaters

Things you can find in this contemporary fantasy debut, as best said by the author herself:

“Literal book eating; violent road trip thru Northern Britain; a kickass mother-son duo; cults, conspiracies, & hidden societies; bone-deep platonic friendships (and ace rep); modern gothic vibes; 90s video game nostalgia”

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The Bruising of Qilwa

This adult fantasy novella has a refugee practitioner of blood magic discovering a strange disease that causes political rifts in their new homeland, leading to lethal accusations of ineptly-performed blood magic —and I’m done, that’s it, I want to inhale this book right now.

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SEPTEMBER

The Witch and the Tsar

This debut adult fantasy deals with the maligned and immortal witch of legend known as Baba Yaga as she risks all to save Russia and her people from Tsar Ivan the Terrible. When her old friend Anastasia—now the wife of the Tsar, and suffering from a mysterious illness—arrives in her forest desperate for her protection, Yaga realizes the fate of all of Russia is tied to Anastasia’s, and so Yaga must step out of the shadows to protect the land she loves. But what Yaga can’t know is that Ivan is being manipulated by powers far older and more fearsome than anyone can imagine.

I mean, the sheer stakes in this, both small-scale and large-scale, and the deep-seeded motivation of friendship against the backdrop of 16th century Russia; what more can you ask for?

Nona the Ninth (The Locked Tomb, #3)

I don’t need to say much here, do I? Except that I am overjoyed we’ll be getting four books, rather than three, and who’s with me?

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OCTOBER

N/A


NOVEMBER

In this xianxia-inspired contemporary debut fantasy, we meet a magical temporary agency calligrapher who becomes involved with a client and must embrace her powers in order to battle a deadly feud. Check, please? I’m ready to buy, right now?

This fantasy duology is pitched as King Arthur meets Peaky Blinders with vampires—and let’s just stop there, because that’s enough for me to buy it. What about you?

Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston (Sir Callie #1)

In this LGBTQ+ MG debut, 12-year-old nonbinary Callie’s ex-hero dad is summoned to the royal capitol of Helston to train a hopeless prince as an epic war looms, while Callie lunges for the opportunity to become an official knight in training. Helston is full of powerful people who believe knighthood is for boys and magic is for girls, and Callie and Co. will have to fight both the dangers beyond the kingdom and the bigotry from within. 

Like come on? If this doesn’t scream MG Tamora Pierce, then what does? I’m in!

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And that’s it. That’s my preorder list for 2022 as of today’s date. Liable to change, of course, as we actually enter 2022, but so far this is it. 31 books. Since I managed to read 50 books during 2021, I imagine this is doable. With the caveat that I’ll no doubt add more. Speaking of…

Did I miss any books?

Then do tell me in the comments below!