Book Review: Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden (2019)

Tuesday, November 5th, 2019

Daidi’s bells! What a weird, wickedly funny, and ultimately empathetic ride.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for slavery, mass murder, rape, and animal abuse. This review contains some general spoilers about the world building – so please skip it if you want to read the book with fresh eyes.)

“She?” I ask, eyes wide. Never in all my dizzy dreams had I thought that our beast was something other than a thing, an animate object, a sustainer of life. The idea intrigues me. Scares me some, too.

We are careful, taking only what the other offers, knowing that a connection like this is deeper than either of us can fully comprehend. He reads poetry to my spleen. I tell fairy tales to his bile ducts. The inside of his navel is a vast, unexplored desert. He lounges upon the cushion of my lips. His desires rise, and I pretend not to notice, diving right into the pool of tears caught in the corner of his eye. I don’t make a single splash. And while I swim laps, he hikes across the boundless expanse of my molars, and then I’m climbing up his chest hairs.

We’re curious, playful. Adventuresome. The landscapes of our bodies like the foreign world we orbit. Is this how the beasts communicate with one another? A life without secrets? Becoming intimately familiar with everyone you touch?

“All throughout our history, we sing of two kinds of women … those born into power and those who disrupt power. I intend on being the latter.”

Excavation, extinction, exodus: these are the phases that define humanity’s existence hundreds (thousands?) of years in the future.

Forced to flee a dying earth, humans took to the skies, eking out a rugged existence; searching, in vain, for a habitable planet. Instead, they found the Zenzee: enormous, tentacled animals whose rough hides and bodily secretions allow them to soar through space, as if it was water. Social creatures through and through, they travel in great herds, communicating through touch and flashing lights. Humans being, well, human, we did what we do best: attacked, dominated, conquered, oppressed. Captured, consumed, culled. In short, we made the Zenzee our ships; our homes.

When a new beast is taken, a contingent of workers is sent ahead to make its barely-living zombie carcass habitable (excavation). Its hide is harvested for leather; its flora reshaped into fields; its parasites, harvested for food. Bones are reshaped to provide infrastructure. Every part of the beast is twisted, bent and broken to serve out needs. And what of humanity? We reshape ourselves into parasites.

And we are greedy ones, at that: beasts with a natural lifespan of thousands of years, we deplete within a decade (extinction). Then we simply repeat the cycle again, killing and abandoning one animal after the next (exodus).

So it has been for roughly six hundred and fifty years. But the newest ruler – a young woman named Seske (or Matriling Kaleig; Seske Ashad Nedeema Orshidi Midikoen Ugodon Niosoke Kaleigh if you’re feeling especially stuffy) – is poised to change things. She’s not the only renegade on the ship, though: also working to effect change is Adalla, Seske’s childhood bestie (and soul mate), a lowly beastworker who Seske was forced to shun once she reached marriageable age; Sekse’s betrothed, a man named Doka; and Wheytt, one of the few male Accountacy Guards.

I almost passed on Escaping Exodus. As an ethical vegan (read: vegan for animal rights reasons), the thought of plunging into a make believe world where animals are routinely and brutally oppressed in such a way … let’s just say, it’s not my idea of relaxing escapism. But I also love interrogating pop culture from an animal rights perspective, so there you go. And, y’all, I am so glad I made the leap. Escaping Exodus is a wildly inventive, wickedly funny, twisty turny science fiction story that, at its core, has a giant bleeding heart (both literally and metaphorically). This book is brimming with compassion and examples of humanity at its best.

Escaping Exodus is told from the alternating perspectives of Seske and Adalla, as each girl hovers on the precipice of adulthood. For Seske, this means taking a wife or husband – the first of eight. You see, in order to keep the ship’s population in check, family units are strictly regulated:

“Matris Tendasha made the Rule of Tens that helped to counteract the population explosion after the Great Mending. Ten fingers.” Pai opens his hands and wriggles his long, slender fingers, patinaed with the deepest shade of orange. “Ten persons in the family unit. Three men, six women, and a child shared between them all. Ten for Tendasha.”

Seske’s is a matriarchal monarchy, and she’s next in line to rule after Matris, one of her six mothers, passes away. As such, her choice of mate is especially important (read: political, calculating, stifling). Yet Seske’s position – her very existence – is but a fluke of nature. Seske was the second child conceived in her family unit, but arrived four months early, thus beating Sisterkin by a hair. By all rights, Seske’s younger sister (“sister” being a slur in this culture), deemed so unimportant that she’s not even granted a name, should be the next ruler. Paradoxically, and by a mere technicality, she should have been killed upon birth, and fed back to the ship. But Matris’s weakness may prove to be Seske’s downfall, as Sisterkin plots against her in the background (I said this was a twisty turner thriller, did I not?).

Meanwhile, a natural talent for sensing the rhythms of the beast’s heart scores Adalla a coveted promotion to caring for the creature’s heart. But life comes at you fast, as Adalla wryly observes, and her grief at losing Seske quickly spirals out of control, eventually landing her in the slums of the boneworkers. Vapors aren’t the only thing whispering through the working class; before she can say “Daidi’s bells!,” Adalla is fomenting her own kind of revolution.

What’s interesting is how each woman arrives at the realization that their society is corrupt, built on the broken backs and brutalized bodies of others, rotting from within. Early in the story, when she’s off getting into mischief as plucky heroines are wont to do, Seske accidentally stumbles upon the womb of “their beast” – and it is not empty. The beast that Matris has chosen for them is pregnant, and the fetus is draining precious resources, further taxing the Zenzee’s already injured body … and hastening another exodus. The workers are trying in vain to kill the fetus. And this is when the young Zenzee reaches out to Seske for help.

Through her interactions with the fetus – and, later, an adult Zenzee – Seske comes to accept that which she already knows, if only subconsciously: the Zenzee are sentient animals. They are capable of feeling pain and suffering; of experiencing joy and happiness. They form bonds and love their children, their mates, their friends. And they are forced to sit back and watch as we capture and colonize their loved ones. Because of the intimate way in which they communicate, they feel their loved ones’ pain as acutely as if it was their own. Their lives predate human existence; yet, as we continue to deplete their herd, they likely will not survive humanity. What gives us the right to put our survival above their own?

Adalla, for her part, comes to epiphany along two parallel roads. Caring for her heart, cutting away murmurs, learning to anticipate an arrhythmic beat: Adalla forms an intimate connection with the beast, which eventually results in her humanizing their would-be vessel. The beast transitions from an “it” to a “her”; a something to a someone. From there, it’s just a short hop to accepting that the animal has her own thoughts, feelings, and desires – not the least of which is the will to live.

The second road reveals yet another crack in the foundation of Adalla’s society. The grisette – colloquially known as a “bucket waif,” for the mindless, repetitive job she performs – assigned to Adalla looks achingly familiar. After some digging, Adalla discovers an especially nasty open secret: in order to excavate a beast as quickly as possible, slave laborers are grown in vats – and then destroyed when their services are no longer needed. (Dissolved into fertilizer for the ship, in an especially grisly scene.) Skilled beastworkers and their husbands are paid a handsome sum to “donate” their eggs and sperm. In a society where siblings are unheard of, Adalla’s “brood sister” is destined to become plant food.

So while the world Drayden imagines here is rife with suffering and oppression, there is hope: in Seske, in Adalla, and in the world they want to rebuild on the ashes of the old one. But complications about, as they always do, and Escaping Exodus has some pretty jarring twists late in the game. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the ending; we certainly didn’t land where I expected. But it’s an ending that’s replete with hope, trust, and empathy, and that’s good enough for me.

I also thought it a bold choice to make Seske’s society a matriarchy. It’s not unusual to think (hope?) that a society ruled by women would be a kinder, more peaceful and equitable one. Yet interrogate this idea further and you’ll see that it rests on some gender essentialist bullshit. As a whole, women are not naturally more compassionate or nurturing than men; rather, these are the traits that society fosters in women. Women can be just as brutal, selfish, and hateful as men. Why wouldn’t Seske’s culture be marked by stark class differences, poverty, inequality, slavery, sexism, and other forms of oppression, when women are in charge … yet still place a premium on stereotypically masculine traits?

Even more interesting, imho, is how Seske’s ship came to adopt a matriarchy. As we discover at the end of the book, hers is but one of seven surviving ships from Earth, each having evolved along separate lines, developing its own unique culture, rule of governance, etc. How did women seize control of her ship? And why are the citizens predominantly (or exclusively) Black? How did b influence a, if at all? I am dying for a prequel!

Social justice and animal friendly plot lines aside, Escaping Exodus is a just a damn good book. The world building is simply breathtaking; crafting a sky-faring creature into a ship is hella inspired (if heartbreaking), and the descriptions of the ship’s interior are fascinating. Seske’s encounters with the Zenzee – arguably more humane than us – are marvelous. These are some of the most beautiful and bizarre passages I’ve ever encountered. Really mind-bending stuff. Think: Octavia E. Butler.

And Drayden’s sense of humor? Truly gross-out wicked. I mean, talk about your body horror! Between Seske tricking her new groom Doka into deflowering a gel puppet, and Seske expelling a Zenzee fetus from her vag, there are plenty of WTF moments that will either make you hysterical-laugh, or else chuck the book across the room in disgust. It’s not for everyone, okay.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Light from Other Stars by Erika Swyler (2019)

Friday, May 10th, 2019

“Behind every brilliant woman is her doubly brilliant mother.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for child abuse.)

She knew them by their light, the gentle differences—Amit’s warm, yellowish brown, Evgeni who glowed like a pearl, Louisa who was brighter than all of them. Nedda would know them anywhere; if she lost their shapes, she’d recognize their light.

They would likely die. It was why they were childless, unwed. Freedom of sacrifice. It was a shame that only three people would ever again be in the same room as Evgeni when he sang. Only three people would know that Singh ate with his pinkie out. That Marcanta pulled hairs from her eyebrows when frustrated. Children would know their names, and drive on roads named Sokolov or Papas. Children would know their ship, Chawla, and who she’d hauled. A little girl somewhere would rattle off everything she’d read about them, and with it everything she knew about space and time, about light.

“I got a boat too. It’s not real big, just enough to take a few people out, that’s all.”

“What’d you name it?”

Flux Capacitor.”

Doc Brown’s a better name.”

“Yeah, but boats are women.”

“Everything’s a woman. Cars, boats, houses. Anywhere that’s safe or takes you somewhere better is a woman,” she said.

“So, Chawla is a woman?”

“Obviously.” She opened her eye to find him staring.

Her father’s machine was as much hope and wish as it was metal and glass.

In the present day – her present, our future – Nedda Papas has achieved everything she’s dreamed of. As one quarter of the crew of Chawla, Nedda is humanity’s last best chance. Climate change has wrought havoc on earth: rising sea levels have disappeared entire islands and shrunk continents, hunger fueled by drought is the new normal, and wildfires plague what little land is left. The planet is beyond saving; now flight is the only long-term option.

Sent to colonize another planet in a galaxy far, far away, Nedda will never again set foot on earth. And she’s okay with that – it’s for the greater good, after all, and doesn’t she owe her species at least that much, anyway? But when cost-cutting and politicking threatens Chawla’s success, Nedda must revisit her past in order to salvage our future.

It was 1986 when Nedda’s world imploded: first, with the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster; and again with Theo Pappas’s magnum opus, the Crucible.

Light from Other Stars unfolds in two parallel narratives: aboard the Chawla, and in January/February 1986, when Nedda is eleven years old.

Middle-schooler Nedda lives Easter, Florida, in the shadow of Kennedy Space Center. She and her professor father Theo – newly laid off from NASA after the latest round of budget cuts – are inseparable, whether devising and executing experiments or trying to spot Halley’s Comet shoot across the night sky. Her relationship with mother Betheen is a little frostier, but not necessarily for lack of mutual interests: Beth is a chemist. But her (women’s) work is undervalued, because of course it is. It also doesn’t help that Betheen has been drowning in grief for most of young Nedda’s life. But spoilers!

Theo has suffered from psoriatic arthritis since childhood, and the joint pain and inflammation makes his work difficult (as does the markedly inferior resources at Haverstone College). Ostensibly, this is the impetus behind his crowning achievement, the Crucible, a machine that can slow down, stop, or even reverse time (and thus heal all manner of physical injuries) by manipulating entropy. (Swyler includes a fair amount of background on the science, only a fraction of which I can claim to understand, and I have no idea how sound it is. But I didn’t find these bits boring or excessive, fwiw.)

Theo’s machine is a success, in a manner of speaking, but things go sideways, because of course they do. When Crucible threatens to devour all of Easter (including Nedda’s best friend Denny), it’s up to Nedda and Betheen to save the day.

Judy Resnik, Sally Ride, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, Ed White – Nedda’s heroes have always been astronauts. WWJD – What would Judy do?

As much as I loved Swyler’s previous novel, The Book of Speculation, I think she managed to outdo herself with Light from Other Stars. It is beautiful and magical and excruciating in the best way. I am writing this review weeks after turning the last page, tears coursing down my face anew. (Okay, that makes my ugly crying sound a lot prettier than it is. A spectacle, I am making one.)

A big part of this are the passages on death and dying and the afterlife. I’m an atheist, and don’t generally envy people their religious beliefs … that is, unless it’s the comfort that the grieving can find in stories about heaven (or reincarnation, or what have you). Some days I’d give anything to believe that I’ll be reunited with my deceased love ones, eventually. But I can’t make myself believe in something I don’t, even when it’s convenient, and so I go scavenging for secular comfort wherever I can find it, like a sad, lonely little heathen magpie.

I find it in all sorts of places (but mostly books, to no one’s surprise): Aaron Freeman’s essay, “You want a physicist to speak at your funeral.” The passages in The Subtle Knife where Lyra and Will lead the ghosts out of the world of the dead. The entire science-based religion created by Lauren Olamina in Octavia Butler’s Parables duology. Add to that Theo Pappas’s ideas about thoughts, memories, and electrical impulses; heat and light; gas and carbon and star parts. (Carl Sagan’s quote about starstuff! I knew I was forgetting something!) There’s some truly breathtaking stuff in here. This is a wonderfully godless book; a wonderful book for the godless. I’ll hold it close to my heart and cherish it, always.

(I want desperately to include some excerpts here, but spoilers!)

Light from Other Stars is also fiercely feminist, even if the ferocity sometimes comes in a whisper instead of a shout. It’s a story about fathers and daughters and fathers and sons … but also, especially, about mothers and daughters and mothers and sons. Nedda’s relationship with Theo is as magnificent as it is tenuous, but her bond with Betheen is all the more wonderful for its complexity, for the way it grows and strengthens and changes – and holds fast even across the vast chasm of space. Nedda’s evolving perception of her mother as she discovers what Betheen is capable of is a revelation. I wonder if they ever perfected that champagne cake together?

Last but not least, it’s a joy to watch as these two narratives come together, often in unexpected ways (Amadeus, I’m looking at you).

Swyler’s writing is exquisite and will pummel you right in the feels. I really hope Netflix picks this one up for a screenplay or miniseries. I need to see what time made liquid looks like, stat.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Vagrant Queen, Volume 1 by Magdalene Visaggio & Jason Smith (2019)

Friday, April 5th, 2019

A Fun Enough Shoot ‘Em Up Space Opera

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Elida Al-feyr’s ancestors were … not very nice people. At the edge of a galaxy (not ours), they developed a mind-control device called the Bezoar of Kings. With it, they brainwashed the people of Arriopa into believing that they were gods, accepting their will without question. By the time Elida was crowned Queen of the Divine Monarchy – at the tender age of ten – the Bel-iors had not relied upon the amulet’s power for generations. Yet this doesn’t quell a popular, violent uprising, in which the monarchy is overthrown and replaced by a republic. Elida and her mother escape certain death, but barely – and the last two remaining members of the royal family are separated within the year.

Fast-forward fifteen years. Elida is in hiding, making a living by scavenging wrecks and reselling her finds. A not-so-chance encounter with an old frenemy named Isaac sends her in search of her mother, said to be imprisoned in the Monastery of Wix. But is Isaac double-crossing her, or triple-crossing someone else? Is the long-lost Bezoar of Kings merely myth, or is it out there, somewhere, just waiting to be found? And if it is, what responsibility does Elida bear for its misuse?

Vagrant Queen is a fun, shoot ’em up space opera. There’s not a whole lot that’s noteworthy or especially memorable about the plot, but it’s a fun enough ride while it lasts. Some elements work better than others; Elida is a badass anti-hero, but Isaac’s bad boy schtick feels played out. That said, his facial hair is a thing of wonder. Ditto: Elida’s ‘do, which almost feels like a throwback to Aeon Flux. Ten-year-old Elida is a compelling character, and I’d love to see more of her in future issues. (And her fro? Even more glorious than her future self’s locks.) For those who like gory, over-the-top violence, Vagrant Queen has it in spades; to wit:

While I love the diversity in this story, it feels a little weird to see a Black family enslave a bunch of white people. Like, is this progress? Just dessert? Post-racial, race-blind storytelling? Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it? Idk what to think.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Good Morning, Midnight, Lily Brooks-Dalton (2016)

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

A character-driven story driven by two very boring characters.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

“But you are a scientist. You understand how this works. We study the universe in order to know, yet in the end the only thing we truly know is that all things end—all but death and time. It’s difficult to be reminded of that”—he patted her hand where it lay on the table—“but it’s harder to forget.”

The basic premise of Good Morning, Midnight immediately reminded me of the opening scenes of The Walking Dead: protagonist Rick Grimes awakens from a coma, only to be greeted by a world he barely recognizes. Entire buildings, blocks, cities, all in shambles. Radio, internet, and satellite communication (mostly) down. His wife and son missing. The dead come back to life; zombies (sorry, walkers!) as far as the eye can see.

Ever since the show’s premier (not a huge fan of the comics, sorry!), this idea has fascinated me: what must it be like to return to the world after a prolonged absence – whether voluntary (a cruise) or not (a coma), mundane (a hiking trip) or the truly spectacular (terraforming Mars!) – only to find it radically transformed? To the stuff of nightmares? And you’re the last woman standing?

Good Morning, Midnight plays with this idea in the form of two survivors, both of whom exist – by chance or by choice, for a time or permanently – in the margins of humanity.

(More below the fold…)