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
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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

Harrow the Ninth is not Gideon the Ninth – but that’s not a bad thing…

Considering the book is called Harrow the Ninth, I shouldn’t have to say this—but Harrow isn’t Gideon. Except… maybe a little bit, there, towards the end, but that’s too big a spoiler, so we won’t talk about that.

Let me first say that this will be my thoughts on Harrow the Ninth as much as it will be on Gideon the Ninth. Not only because the two are part of a series, so it’s only natural, but also because they’re contrasts of each other, two pieces of a whole, which makes it nearly impossible to discuss one without the other.

The biggest hurdle I’ve seen people struggle with when they go from reading Gideon the Ninth to Harrow the Ninth is the loss of Gideon’s pomp-and-circumstance voice. But even if Harrow’s voice isn’t as distinct as Gideon’s was, I was sold on Harrow the second I realized how badly I wanted to understand her. How badly I wanted her to understand herself, more so. I never felt that urge with Gideon. Gideon was easier for me to understand from the get-go, very relatable and entertaining even as she carried her own ghosts, but Harrow was a secret both to me and to herself. This makes sense when you consider that Harrow the Ninth is more of a psychological horror/thriller than the sprawling fantasy/sci-fi adventure that Gideon the Ninth was.

Harrow is so wounded-and-lonely-without-yet-knowing-it that I gobbled up the first 100 pages in no time. Faster than I gobbled up the initial pages of Gideon the Ninth. Ultimately, I cared about Harrow so hard and so fast that you may call it insta-love (and I don’t particularly like insta-love). That, for me, was enough to look beyond the loss of Gideon’s voice – because, yes, I also felt that loss. Bottom line is that I could look past the loss of Gideon’s voice because I sympathized so hard and so fast with Harrow that it nearly gave me whiplash. I realize this is also partly a consequence of having read Gideon the Ninth and knowing what Harrow lost at the end of that book, but that doesn’t diminish its worth for me in the 2nd book. Far from it.

The thing is, Muir could’ve played it safe after the success of Gideon the Ninth – but she didn’t. She took a risk. For me, that risk paid off.

What Muir did with Harrow the Ninth is that she experimented with style – on-page style as depicting the internal state of the main protagonist. Not only is the narration split between 3rd person Harrow and a 2nd person narrator whose identity is only revealed towards the end of the book (and which will punch the damn air from your lungs when it happens), but Muir also plays with timelines and settings. She does all of this in the name of stylizing Harrow’s character arc.

Muir stylizes Harrow’s extreme trauma from Gideon the Ninth – and she does it scarily effectively.

Harrow’s loss of self and loss of memories is what makes this book shine, even if it also demands a lot of thought and attention from the reader, including flipping back several chapters to see whether your inkling of something is true or not. As Harrow doubts herself, you doubt yourself. As she lies to herself, you lie to yourself. Yes, Harrow’s voice is less accessible than Gideon’s was, but once you realize exactly why that is – once you realize it’s inaccessible to you because it’s inaccessible to Harrow herself – then things start to get interesting. Again, think psychological horror/thriller.

Muir weaves a narrative that is best described as this:

This playfully experimental narrative makes Harrow the Ninth a page-turner that’s as frustrating as it’s intriguing. It’s like jumping on a rollercoaster in the dark: you just have to go with it.

As for the cast of characters, there are less than in Gideon the Ninth, which provides for more in-depth character dynamics and development. I personally loved this. Most of the cast is already known from the 1st book. I didn’t have to repeatedly look up all the character/house affiliations and necromantic abilities like I did during the 1st book, which was a nice respite, honestly. I won’t lie about that.

On the other hand, Harrow the Ninth is more politically complex than Gideon was. This is because Harrow herself is more aware of politics. I had to consult the internet several times to make sure who was who and what was what, especially in regards to the lore and the history of the world, but it was all very interesting, even if it made for slower reading.

As with Gideon the Ninth, Muir is also heavy on the description in Harrow the Ninth. I willingly admit that I occasionally had to read her dense passages of description twice, even thrice, to really paint the picture she was forming, but you kinda learn to roll with it. Once you do, it becomes easier. Both Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth are the kinds of books that’ll take you 100 pages to get into. Like densely written classics. But once you’re in, the pages flow faster and easier. It’s a rhythm. More like poetry and less like a blockbuster. Although, to be sure, there are serious blockbuster-y images and visuals in there. Think Akira in space and you’ll be on the right track.

The payoff of Harrow the Ninth is worth the effort of Harrow the Ninth, is what I’m trying to say here, so stick it out even if you struggle.

I struggled.

I stuck it out.

And I’m ultimately so glad that I did.