Okay July is over here slaying. This is such an awesome bunch of books, it was hard to pick a favorite! In fact, I added THREE to my “Shannon Suggests” List, which is frankly bananas.
The Freedom Race by Lucinda Roy
We Have Always Been Here by Lena Nguyen
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers
The Past Is Red by Catherynne M. Valente
The Freedom Race, Lucinda Roy’s explosive first foray into speculative fiction, is a poignant blend of subjugation, resistance, and hope.
In the aftermath of a cataclysmic civil war known as the Sequel, ideological divisions among the states have hardened. In the Homestead Territories, an alliance of plantation-inspired holdings, Black labor is imported from the Cradle, and Biracial “Muleseeds” are bred.
Raised in captivity on Planting 437, kitchen-seed Jellybean “Ji-ji” Lottermule knows there is only one way fto escape. She must enter the annual Freedom Race as a runner.
Ji-ji and her friends must exhume a survival story rooted in the collective memory of a kidnapped people and conjure the voices of the dead to light their way home.
**TW: I wish there was an official CW/TW because I know I am not going to cover it all, but this is a book dealing with slavery, and it’s brutal, as slavery is. Rape, violence, murder, it runs the gamut.
Whew, so, with that said, this one is not an easy read, as you can imagine. But I also left the book feeling a level of hope I hadn’t expected, so if you can handle the subject matter, I highly recommend. The story follows Ji-ji, a young woman who is living in slavery with her mother, and trying to prevent yet another sibling from being taken from them. Her story to this point is beyond devastating, and I had a really hard time, especially with the deaths (and assumed deaths) of young children. And it isn’t only Ji-ji who’s lost people, of course. Every last person at her “Planting” has lost, has suffered, continues to lose and suffer. Especially in the first part of the book, you will see some of the darkest behavior of mankind. My heart broke for Ji-ji and the others over, and over, and over.
But Ji-ji is a powerhouse. She possesses a strength that, frankly, she should not have to possess, but the world she lives in insisted on it. She wants her freedom, but she also wants freedom for as many loved ones as she can possibly free. She knows her best way to do this is the titular Freedom Race, so she pretty much garners strength from this hope, this one chance.
I won’t spoil anything (because I really think you should read this book, have I mentioned that? Just kidding I know I have), but obviously there are hurdles to overcome. Many, frankly. And I enjoyed so many of the characters that Ji-ji meets as we journey with her. That even in the darkest, bleakest hours, there are still glimpses of the beauty of humanity.
I also really found the world building to be spectacular- mostly in its realism. I mean, we all can certainly see the south and midwest thinking this is a fabulous idea, that isn’t much of a stretch. But what struck me is how realistic the “free” places are too- sure, Ji-ji might be able to live in the North, maybe even live free… but they’re sure not going to go out of their way to help. The whole aspect of this being a second civil war is, frankly, all to plausible. The evilness, hate, hypocrisy, and selfishness of the wealthy white man is on full display here, and again, it isn’t exactly a stretch. And isn’t that the most appalling part? That this could, terrifyingly easily, become reality? That there are those who would make this a reality instead of being as horrified as we, the reader are? This is to say, there is a certain thought provoking quality to this book that haunted me throughout.
And I think it’s important to keep those feelings in your mind as you read this story, read Ji-ji’s story. As you fall in love with her, her friends (both old and new), and cheer for them to find their way to freedom. The story also incorporates some incredible magical realism (and I say this as someone who can be quite picky about that) that works so well with the story.
I’ll end with this: I have seen some reviews that find the idea of the Freedom Race itself to be unbelievable, in a whole “but why would these terrible slave owners let anyone attempt to leave?”, which is a valid question. But, the truth is, dangled miniscule hope is probably one of the best, if not the best motivator for them. Sure, maybe you lose someone every once in awhile, but to have an added power to dangle over everyone’s heads? Probably worth it to these monsters, the whole “hope is the only thing stronger than fear” adage. (Thanks for the quote, President Snow, speaking of atrocious old white guys who were fine with killing kids.)
Bottom Line: Is The Freedom Race going to make your heart ache? It certainly is. But is it also going to make you feel hopeful and uplifted? You bet it will.
This psychological sci-fi thriller from a debut author follows one doctor who must discover the source of her crew's madness... or risk succumbing to it herself.
Misanthropic psychologist Dr. Grace Park is placed on the Deucalion, a survey ship headed to an icy planet in an unexplored galaxy. Her purpose is to observe the thirteen human crew members aboard the ship—all specialists in their own fields—as they assess the colonization potential of the planet, Eos. But frictions develop as Park befriends the androids of the ship, preferring their company over the baffling complexity of humans, while the rest of the crew treats them with suspicion and even outright hostility.
Shortly after landing, the crew finds themselves trapped on the ship by a radiation storm, with no means of communication or escape until it passes—and that's when things begin to fall apart. Park's patients are falling prey to waking nightmares of helpless, tongueless insanity. The androids are behaving strangely. There are no windows aboard the ship. Paranoia is closing in, and soon Park is forced to confront the fact that nothing—neither her crew, nor their mission, nor the mysterious Eos itself—is as it seems.
We Have Always Been Here is a pretty cool story. The premise itself is awesome, because can you imagine being stuck in space with all kinds of weirdness going on around you? Eerie! So I am going to break down what I enjoyed, and then what didn’t quite work for me!
What I Liked:
- Park! I honestly didn’t understand why everyone was so anti about her, she was great! I mean, just because someone wants to hang out with AIs doesn’t make them bad. Especially when humans won’t give her the time of day. But alas. I also like that she was relatable, too. She had no intentions of being a hero, she was just there to be a psychologist, who happened to end up in some pretty unthinkable situations.
- The mystery! I love a mystery, and a space mystery is great! I had wondered from the start what exactly was up with this place- it seemed so “off” from the beginning, and obviously, we know based on the synopsis that it is indeed not copacetic.
- And not only are we unsure about what is happening to the ship and/or the planet, but we have no idea who Park can trust. Park finds herself having to second guess every person on board- and sometimes, she wasn’t sure if she could trust her own instincts. So that adds a second, even more precarious mystery on top of an already thrilling situation.
- The atmosphere was very on point. Like I said, you just could feel that things were janky on this ship (and the planet it was hovering above). Everyone started acting squirrely, and even the AIs were not quite acting “themselves”. I think extra especially on such a large ship with such a small crew, the eerie vibe was quite well done.
- I enjoyed the world building at large. Not only the world on the ship and Eos, but the world(s) they left behind. Seeing what had become of Earth via flashbacks, and hearing stories of other entities from Park’s crewmates was quite satisfying!
What I Didn’t:
- So, it got a little draggy at points, and I think that was because Park’s inner dialogue was a little excessive at times. Don’t misunderstand, I definitely was glad for her point of view and explanations of world stuff, feelings, etc.! But, I think that at times it became a little monotonous, hence the feeling of dragging a bit. And again, this is not to negate the awesome parts of the story, but in the spirit of honesty, I think a bit could have been cut out for the story to flow smoother.
Bottom Line: Great premise and a very interesting world, I was quite invested in finding out the secrets behind the ship, the planet, and even the crew themselves.
In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…
In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.
When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother's identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.
After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu uses the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother's abandoned greatness.
Mulan meets The Song of Achilles; an accomplished, poetic debut of war and destiny, sweeping across an epic alternate China.
Okay this whole story is wildly fascinating, because a lot of the characters truly existed in history. I could pretend I didn’t find myself down a very deep Wikipedia rabbit hole, but I’d be lying. I will say this, She Who Became the Sun is not an easy read. It is quite intricate, and I struggled at times to keep track of the various political factions. That said, it was a great story, and one I’ll definitely be continuing.
Look, things were brutal back in the day, and this story is no different. As such, the characters have to do cutthroat things to survive. Zhu Chongba’s whole life has been about survival- from the point where her whole family died, she overtook her brother’s identity, which had been prophesized and promised greatness, and ran with it. Smart, that.
I adored how multifaceted the characters were. Frankly, there were no “good guys”, just a bunch of people trying to ensure that they made it to the other side alive. They hungered for power, and control, and glory, and most would stop at nothing to achieve it. That said, they were still human deep down, or at least, most were. Their humanity made them relatable, despite the awfulness. Perhaps not quite likable, but at least more understandable.
The powerfulness that was evoked by Zhu Chongba being both a woman who was able to take down so many men, and a queer woman who fell in love with Ma Xiuying, cannot be overstated. Women were considered fairly worthless in this time, and both Zhu Chongba and Ma Xiuying elevated themselves to be so much more than just pawns in this war. The two were, by far, the most developed and well fleshed out characters in the story, and I daresay Ma Xiuying was quite likable, even when no one else was. While Ma Xiuying strived to maintain her humanity and compassion, Zhu Chongba spent her time figuring out what her identity really was, outside of the shadow of her dead brother’s prophetic greatness.
Bottom Line: Overall, it is an emotional and powerful story about a pretty brutal historical period, but the glimmers of hope and love make this story so much more satisfying than the truth it borrows from.
In A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Hugo Award-winner Becky Chambers's delightful new Monk & Robot series gives us hope for the future.
It's been centuries since the robots of Panga gained self-awareness and laid down their tools; centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again; centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend.
One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honor the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of what do people need? is answered.
But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how.
They're going to need to ask it a lot.
Becky Chambers's new series asks: in a world where people have what they want, does having more matter?
I think the best way I can describe this story is both heartwarming and refreshing. We meet Sibling Dex, a monk who is quite unsure of what they want to do next. Honestly, I felt Dex. They’re not miserable, they just need a change. They start to move around with their tea wagon (it’s a thing that is supposed to relieve stress and kind of comfort folks, which I found incredibly sweet, and frankly something the world could use), but they still haven’t figured out what they need.
Along the way, as they venture into unknown territory, they come upon Mosscap, a robot, and together they travel, all the while undergoing a lot of self-exploration. I loved watching them get to know each other, and figure out the nuances and differences (and similarities!) of the other. Obviously, there is a lot of reflection about life, the world they live in, and questions of morality. Frankly, it’s very thought provoking for the reader, just as much as it is thought provoking for Dex and Mosscap.
It’s certainly a character driven story, but it moves along nicely, and I was always completely invested. I cannot wait for the next installment to meet back up with the characters, and also to learn more about their world.
Bottom Line: It’s a quieter story, yes, but so very heartfelt and kind, and there simply is not enough of that in the world. I’ll take adventures with Dex and Mosscap any day of the week.
Catherynne M. Valente, the bestselling and award-winning creator of Space Opera and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland returns with The Past is Red, the enchanting, dark, funny, angry story of a girl who made two terrible mistakes: she told the truth and she dared to love the world.
The future is blue. Endless blue...except for a few small places that float across the hot, drowned world left behind by long-gone fossil fuel-guzzlers. One of those patches is a magical place called Garbagetown.
Tetley Abednego is the most beloved girl in Garbagetown, but she's the only one who knows it. She's the only one who knows a lot of things: that Garbagetown is the most wonderful place in the world, that it's full of hope, that you can love someone and 66% hate them all at the same time.
But Earth is a terrible mess, hope is a fragile thing, and a lot of people are very angry with her. Then Tetley discovers a new friend, a terrible secret, and more to her world than she ever expected.
Wow so I fell in love hard with this one. And I won’t pretend that I am not a little surprised by just how much. Sure, I thought it would be entertaining and fun. But I had no idea how much heart it would have. So when you look at the synopsis and think “um girl living on garbage?” and are skeptical… well look, it’s only 160 pages, what have you got to lose?
I loved Tetley from the first page. She is hilarious, but also very sharp. This creates problems for Tetley, since, as we should all know by now, people are often quite keen to revel in their ignorance. But Tetley isn’t just smart, she has such a lovely insight, and a really positive outlook on life despite how easy it would be for her to hate it all.
The world itself is, as you can imagine, not great, when the best you have to offer is piles of trash. Basically, Earth has flooded, and the only way humanity has been able to survive at all is via random outposts of our own past (well, Tetley’s past, our current) besmirchment. And as always, people can be cruel and selfish. The world itself, and the turns the story takes in general, definitely surprised me, in the best possible way.
Bottom Line: I could not put this book down, nor did I ever want it to end. Tetley had my whole heart from the start, and I fell wholly in love with her story.